Fantasy Cultures from the Inside Out

The Danger of Understanding Cultures from the Outside In

Imagine you’re an Englishman in the middle ages. You’ve never been to France or Sicily or the Holy Roman Empire, but other folks have, and they’ve come back and told you about the French, the Italians, and the Germans. They describe how different French cuisine, mannerisms, routines, fashion, courtship, warfare, and philosophy are, and the same with the Italians and the Germans. They don’t describe–in fact they may not even have noticed–how similar their patterns of life, their religious beliefs and traditions, their family structure, their trades, their form of government, etc., are. In the mind of a medieval Englishman, French, Italian, and German cultures are inherently alien and exotic, because all the stuff that was similar was too boring to report.

(Map of medieval Europe c. 950-1300)

Of course, the French didn’t consider the parts of their culture that were unique and different from English culture to be the critical parts of French culture. The French way of life, as defined by the French, revolved around mostly the same activities as other ways of life in medieval Europe. But when the French looked at the English, the differences stood out while the similarities blended into the background, so they also thought of the English in terms of the former, not the latter.

Cultural stereotypes, myths, and prejudices are quickly established since the number of people who directly interact with the other side are few. Both sides paint with a broad brush and in only the colors that seem strange and foreign to them. “The French wear scarves, berets, drink a lot, and smell bad,” says the Englishman (channeling modern stereotypes to make a point), and the other Englishmen nod approvingly, not knowing any better themselves.

(Depiction of stereotypical Frenchman)

Most of that is not true for most Frenchmen, and even the ones that have a basis in truth–many in France do drink a bit of wine with many meals–is not true for a huge number of the French. If you go to France, you might find a few individuals who embody a preponderance of these traits, but the French are as diverse as any wealthy culture, and the average Frenchmen bears little resemblance to the caricature. This was basically as true in medieval times as it is today.

Now swap out the English for fantasy humans and the French for fantasy dwarves. In fantasy, we accept that most, if not all individuals in a fantasy culture embody the cultural traits outsiders find unique: dwarves are all like Gimli, they all grow beards, wield axes, are smiths or miners, like to drink, and take their ancestral clan very seriously. Sure, there might be an individual or two who buck the trend, but they are the odd ducks, probably ostracized to some extent because of their un-dwarf-like behavior, the exceptions that prove the rule.

Pictured: a weirdo (Drizzt Do’urden)

That’s not really how cultures work, though.

How Cultures Work (according to me)

First, few1 cultures assign internal significance to the physical characteristics that differentiate them from other groups. Chinese culture assigns no significance to their epicanthic folds, other than to distinguish them from other groups. It’s externally significant, but has little to no internal meaning. Dwarves may care a great deal about their beards, but the beards did not become significant internally because it marked them different from their neighbors. Rather, dwarven beard culture happened first, and then became just one of those traits other races found unique and interesting.

1 The exception that proves the rule here, though, is an oppressed culture: an oppressed culture might just assign great significance to the biological or other signifiers that their oppressors use to identify and mistreat them, reclaiming them as badges of honor.

So if you find yourself making a fantasy cultural trait around a physical distinction, like an elven ballet tradition since elves are relatively slender and graceful, remember that elves don’t think of themselves as all slender and graceful. They think of themselves as elves, who may be short, tall, thin, bulky, stout, etc., to their eyes, no matter how other races would describe them. Elven ballet is a perfectly legitimate idea, but it wouldn’t happen because elves are graceful; the most graceful of elves would pick up ballet and it would be very interesting and memorable to other races that are unlikely to match the extremes of elven grace on display, but that wouldn’t automatically make it important to elves as a whole. Russian ballet is a world-famous style, but the vast majority of Russians have never danced ballet and aren’t suited for it just by being Russian.

Pictured: the premier danseur of the 1917 season (Vladimir Lenin)

Which leads to the second point: cultures are not monolithic. Keeping with the Russian theme, most Russians have never given more than a passing thought to Russian ballet. Or to the architecture styles of the buildings around Moscow’s Red Square. Or to the characteristics of Russian vodka compared to other alcohol. Even if a significant minority do think about them, such that they are cultural touchpoints that foreigners will encounter, most Russians do not embody these cultural traits anymore than the French wear scarves, berets, and always have cheese and wine ready. And some Russians reject Russian ballet as insultingly bourgeois, or Russian vodka as cheap and unsophisticated. They might engage in the cultural trappings of Russia, be neutral towards them, or actively reject them.

Similarly, fantasy cultures will have a spectrum and diversity of opinion, even on things that outsiders see as inherent to the culture. Dwarves live underground and their kingdoms’ wealth comes from mining, but only a minority of dwarves really consider themselves born to mine; a lot of them are just there for the paycheck or until something better comes along. Some probably hate mining, and these are disproportionately likely to be adventurers, since they would rather accept great risk on an adventure than take the relatively steady life of a dwarven miner.

The same with drinking, or beards. Dwarves could have an absolutely killer alcohol culture known far and wide, but the average dwarf probably isn’t a connoisseur, he likes his local brews well enough, while the progressives are rallying in the capital for unions and *gasp* prohibition. And how would the clan elders respond to a generation of rebellious youth who started shaving their heads and beards, originally in solidarity with a revolutionary political figure whose beard was shaven for “corrupting the youth,” but which has now just become a style?

“Free the chest hair, lads!” (Male dwarf with only stubble and an open shirt)

Cultures contain multitudes, and the pressures that shape cultural values, practices, and expressions are generally internal or environmental, not comparative. They have to do with the life cycle of the race, the place they live and how they fulfill their physical and emotional/spiritual needs as individuals, families, villages, towns, cities, and nations.

Building Cultures from the Inside Out

When you’re thinking up a fantasy culture, then, avoid starting with “what will outsiders see first?” Instead, start from the inside out: what do wood elves talk about with other wood elves? How are families organized, how is labor divided? What life milestones are celebrated? How are decisions made in the village or town? What functions are essential to an elven settlement’s way of life? What does their spirituality look like? What do wood elves disagree about? How do they resolve conflicts between individuals? Between settlements?

If the culture has cities and trade and specialization, the answers to these questions will probably vary more, as different needs are prioritized for different groups, creating the potential for more conflict and drama. The spectrum of attitudes really starts to extend. Embrace it! Let the dwarven capital actually feel cosmopolitan instead of provincial. Small villages in an area may be a little more homogeneous, though you should still flesh out the conflicts in a village that will be explored, but a city should lean into the fissures in a society dealing with ever-shifting internal and external pressures. It helps you understand the facets of your culture, including what parts outsiders will see first, and it increases potential for great characters and great drama.

The dwarves of Tyr Alona, for instance, were exiled from their mountain halls by a great dragon that took up residence in the ancestral capital of Bhar Moldir and sent his draconic armies to eradicate any dwarves that dared remain underground. Now living on the surface in Kharnumok, the dwarven civilization was under extreme pressure. The more orthodox among them, including many of the clan leaders, believed that they were being punished for straying too far from the traditional faith of the forge god Rapha, and only repentance and religious renewal would restore them to their homes under the earth. In fact, there were some who took this to extremes and terrorized those they deemed insufficiently pious to encourage all dwarves to remember the old rites. While the traditionalists disapproved the extremists’ methods, some sympathized with them. Many dwarves, however, placed the blame squarely on the dragon and didn’t feel their forebears’ religion was particularly insightful on fixing that problem. Some even embraced surface life; fresh produce was a whole new dietary world, and they loved it! They saw a new chapter in dwarven society, opening untold new opportunities that weren’t working in that gods-forsaken mine.

(Dwarf in armor standing in a mountain valley)

The city of Kharnumok was ground zero for dwarven extremists and reformers. Even if the story that brings the characters there isn’t about the dwarves’ plight, it’s a background element that shows a living culture responding to extreme circumstances. That is simply more interesting than a city that emphasizes a one-dimensional set of cultural traits like a tourist attraction.

What do you think? What fantasy cultures have you found or made that are fully fleshed out and three-dimensional? What about their culture seemed most real to you?

Further Reading

We Need to Talk About Hopper

I guess it’s too late for a mustache intervention…

I was a Stranger Things agnostic until earlier this year, when I finally sat down and watched Seasons 1 and 2 in just enough time to watch Season 3 right when it came out. The first season alone earned me as a fan for at least one more season. Joyce Byers’ character was just so compelling: desperately trying to claw her way into a mystery to save her son when everyone else, with the best of intentions, essentially gaslit her (unintentional gaslighting probably doesn’t count as gaslighting, but essentially) into questioning all of her experiences. Even as a viewer of the show, part of me wanted her to believe it was all in her head just so she wouldn’t have to keep struggling against an unsolvable mystery about a parallel dimension that took her child: the horror and impenetrability of it–knowing that Will was out there but so beyond anyone’s help due to the paranormal–almost seemed worse than just losing Will to a fall in the quarry. That drama was magnificently crafted.

We haven’t had anything quite like that in Seasons 2 or 3. At no point has anyone been quite as powerless, isolated, and afraid as in Season 1, which makes sense: the time it took for the various characters in Season 1 to come across one sliver of the situation, find someone they could trust to help find more, and then finally meet all the other groups and put all the pieces together was a central tension until the last couple episodes. Now, however, they have those relationships established, they trust each other, and it just feels contrived when, for often banal reasons, they don’t use the network of other characters in the know when more Upside Down stuff happens. We’ve transitioned from horror/thriller to adventure/thriller.

As the actual plot has become slightly less compelling, the characters have to step up and carry more of the burden of hooking the audience. We’re invested in their relationships, their goals, their defeats, and their triumphs. And that brings us to Hopper and Joyce.

Or “Jopper,” for those who believe in syllabic economy.

It’s not just that this looks a lot darker than it did when it was hinted at in the previous seasons because Hopper is emotionally abusive from the moment she agrees to go on a date with him, it’s that after the first couple episodes these two characters suddenly have very little going on outside the plot and the “will they, won’t they?” that drags on way too long.

In the first act of the season, Joyce is getting ready to move out of Hawkins (though we learn this by being told, not by seeing it, which is lame), and Hopper doesn’t want that for apparently selfish reasons. Hopper also has issues with El growing up and her relationship with Mike. So Hopper has a hard time accepting change, but everything in his life is changing right now.

And then he gets beat up by a Russian Terminator lookalike and we’re off to the races. Hopper spends this season as the cocky, angry, shouty guy who tries to control everyone around him and…that just works? Hopper gets basically everything he wants by being controlling and shouty. Mike backs off of El. Joyce agrees to date him. Alexei starts cooperating. He even straight-up defeats all the young, fit Russian hitmen, including the aforementioned Terminator lookalike, through sheer hand-to-hand prowess despite being one overweight, alcoholic single dad a couple decades past his prime.

It’s probably all the capitalism he eats.

That just encapsulates the problems of Hopper’s character this season: he spends episode after episode ramming fists–metaphorical or literal–into his problems, and is never confronted with any negative consequences of that approach which would force him to grow as a character. This is even weirder because he already had that arc in a different context in Season 2: he was controlling and manipulative of El since the government was still looking for her, but there his angry outbursts, his failure to apologize, his willingness to lie and get physical to maintain control at all times ended up blowing up when El ran away entirely. He was forced to apologize, and when she returned, he was more transparent and less controlling.

Not so in Season 3. Even as the script indicates consequences to Hopper’s actions, he never faces them, so he can’t ever grow. He lies to Mike and then threatens him to stay away from El, which causes all kinds of problems for the kids, but Hopper is just happy as a clam when he comes home from being stood up by Joyce to find it is Maxine, not Mike, in El’s room tonight. The mayor of Hawkins, played by the Dread Pirate Roberts, threatens to reveal all kinds of things about Hopper if Hopper tries to blackmail him for information on the Russians, but then when Hopper goes straight to violence and torture, and despite every indication of Westley’s ability to take some action against him…nothing really happens. Whatever the Robin Hood with the English accent did to help the Russians find Hopper (he said something about having the state police all looking for him or something), none of it worked, or even appears on screen: he had to phone it in himself when Hopper waltzed into the 4th of July bash. And speaking of the Russians, even though Hopper was completely outclassed by the Terminator in their first encounter in the abandoned lab, the second in the farmhouse was maybe a draw, and only defeated him in the fun house due to the hall of mirrors, in their final fight he just out-fights him and throws him into the spinning machine of ridiculous death.

But then (VERY SERIOUS SPOILERS, LIKE, THE NEVERENDING STORY SHOULD HAVE A CLEAR CONNECTION TO PLANCK’S CONSTANT TO YOU BEFORE YOU CONTINUE) Hopper dies,* and so there was some lip service of him reconciling with Mike. It was another one-sided conversation where Mike didn’t even say anything, he just nods. He more or less says goodbye to El, rehashing the second season’s themes because Hopper and El have almost no interaction in this season: he is actively dismissive when Joyce suggests they should even be worried about the kids. And then there was the Captain America-esque date scheduled with Joyce before the mission is finished.

I thought this was super fun and I have been singing it ever since, but it also ended all the stakes that had been built up. It was ten or fifteen minutes before there was any tension again. Not exactly what you want for your finale episode.

That brings me to Joyce. Joyce didn’t even have the setup of a character arc this season, except “will she date Hopper?” And lest my sarcasm be poorly detected in text, that’s not a character arc. A character arc is where a character overcomes a flaw or other internal impediment and grows. A good character arc differentiates between what a character consciously wants and subconsciously needs. The latter often includes a revelation that her worldview or approach is incomplete and needs broadening, thus allowing her to see that what she originally wanted was never the answer to what she needed in the first place. Think of Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy: he wanted to be tough, to never back down from a fight, to not be a chicken like his dad. That led to him being goaded into bad spots time and time again, until he finally let go of his pride, which ended up saving him from a terrible car accident at the end of the films.

So what is set up for Joyce in this season? We see her re-enacting dinner with Bob. Hopper reveals (though it is never really brought up again) that she is also preparing to move away from Hawkins. She wants to figure out the mystery of the failing magnets. At the end of the season, she has figured out the mystery and leaves Hawkins, because the last person that could tie her there, Hopper, is gone. And she adopts El. I’m not sure if there’s really any character growth there at all. She does go from not recognizing her feelings for Hopper to recognizing them, so there’s that. At the same time, it’s not clear that her feelings are anything more than the sexual tension that Maurice identifies: they have little in common except that shared trauma, and outside of physical security, it’s unclear that Hopper has ever really supported or been there for Joyce in any way.

The Duffer brothers have been hinting at Jopper for two seasons, and this is what we get? I understand that they wanted Hopper’s death* to hit hard, but this is all they could think to make that happen? The angry guy who just shouts or punches until he gets his way and the trauma victim who is attracted to him despite the fact they’ve never emotionally connected? Meanwhile he has a daughter that stepped into his lost daughter’s place and they went through a serious test of their boundaries last season but grew a lot through it and now there are new boundary challenges going on, but instead of building that up even more to be the relationship that pulls at our heartstrings when he dies, the Duffer brothers ignored that entire relationship, instead “solving” Hopper’s issues with El and Mike by shouting and threats in one episode to focus on the shallow sexual tension that is Jopper, and filled that with more shouting and threats, until Joyce finally says yes to a date.

Of all the ways to send off Hopper, or to finally deliver on Jopper, this was a pretty clumsy way to go. This doesn’t feel like Season 1 anymore, with all the tight characterizations and straightforward, powerful themes. Now everything is murky, and the electricity just isn’t there. It’s almost like we’re in…

the Upside Down!

(*) Yeah, yeah, I know “the American.” I think that’s more likely to be Brenner, personally.

The Ash Wood (Campaign Diary #1)

In the far north of Tyr Alona, on the banks of the Silverrun River which flows out of the Mountains of Madness, lies the city of Greywatch. A continent-spanning mercenary guild called the Sapphire Legion operates a franchise of adventurers there. Recently, the unfortunate adventurers–known as the Sapphire Hares–met their demise in the depths of an abandoned dungeon outside the city.

Occupational hazard, you see.

Five new recruits from Ebonholde have been hired to fill their shoes. They hired a cart driven by an older gentleman named Berny to take them to Greywatch, where they would meet their Sapphire Legion liaison and manager, someone by the name of Exard Shaley.

These five recruits are:

  • Thia, the Wood Elf Ranger
  • Winnie, the Firbolg Druid
  • Jewel of the Mountain, the Tabaxi Rogue
  • Hyperion, the Aasimar Paladin
  • Cora, the Halfling Rogue

As they entered the last day of their journey, the cart entered the Ash Wood, a cursed wood full of menacing fairies and terrifying monsters, according to rumors. The mist seemed to thicken, obscuring what little the adventurers could see through the dense foliage. The air grew chill, and the din of nature was seemingly silenced.

An hour into the Wood, a scream erupted from around the next bend. Berny knew better than to stop on this road, so the cart rounded the corner to find an ornate carriage surrounded by four guards on horseback focused on the eastern side of the road, crossbows drawn. Arrows streaked out from the foliage, hitting the carriage and one of the horses, which reared up, throwing its rider to the ground with a crash.

Continue reading

Announcing the Critical Insignificance Podcast!

Podcasts seem to complete blogs. Sometimes, there are interactions that you can’t really capture in an essay or article. Sometimes people don’t have the time to sit down and focus on words, and would much rather listen to a discussion while they do something else. As of today, Chamomile and I are proud to announce that Matters of Critical Insignificance will now cater to both sides of the information-consumer coin. It is my privilege to unveil the Critical Insignificance Podcast, a biweekly (that’s once every two weeks) romp between Chamomile and myself discussing, creating, and critiquing movies, games, and any other critically insignificant topic.

Our first episode, below, probably sounds like a first episode. Bear with us, we are fast learners and it will get better. That said, our first episode explores the line between evocation and conjuration and “telling” in both computer and table-top role-playing games. We take the film and fiction adage “show, don’t tell” one step further for interactive media: “evoke, don’t tell.” Whether that’s in creating a character in a video game or in creating an adventure for a Dungeon Master to run, designers/writers need to stop writing where the interactive player can pick it up on their own and run. Or do they? There’s also a side order of Cham channeling his inner Poe in more-than-a-decade-old The Sims. Yeah, we’re that kind of premium.

Without further, ado, then, and for your listening pleasure, I give you: the Critical Insignificance Podcast!

…Or Download Here

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Frozen’s Whole Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

So, this happened.

I realize this is a little outside of my normal genre, but I found this worthy of talking about anyway, and I wanted to do it while both 1) it’s still a hot topic, and 2) I actually have the time to do so (Man of Something Part II should be coming along, as well). So here it goes:

People are calling Disney’s Frozen the best thing to come out of the studio since the Disney Renaissance of the ’90s. That is seriously high praise, because I thought Tangled was pretty awesome, but I’m not here to compare. I’m just here to analyze.

Well, first, let’s summarize. SPOILER WARNING for those of you who intend to see it, stop now, the Internet will not collapse before you get the chance to come back and read this later.

This computer-animated musical is about fun-loving, wide-eyed Princess Rapunzel Anna and her magical sister Elphaba Elsa. When they’re young, Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her magic, and her parents decide absolute repression is the best way for Elsa to learn to control her powers. This naturally sucks for Elsa, and due to this she and Anna drift apart as they grow up, a rift that is not even overcome when their parents die.

A few years down the road, there’s a big party for Elsa’s coronation that royalty from many lands come to attend. Anna loves the idea of a party, Elsa is terrified of it. And it turns out both those feelings are perfectly justified: Anna finds a fun-loving prince and gets engaged, while Elsa gets upset at Anna over it and ends up revealing her ice magic. As the guests freak out, she flees into the mountains, without realizing that she has blanketed the entire kingdom in deep winter.

Anna sets out after her, leaving her fiance Hans in charge of the kingdom. Along the way she enlists the aid of mountain man Kristoff and his dog-like reindeer, Sven. They bump into a magical snowman named Olaf, who dreams about how nice life will be in the summertime. With their help they find the ice palace Elsa has built herself in her freedom and Anna confronts her, but things go poorly and Anna ends up struck by ice magic again, this time in the heart. Elsa creates a snow golem sort of thing to make them leave, but they provoke it and they end up being thrown over a cliff.

Meanwhile, Hans leads a rescue team into the mountains, finds Elsa’s palace, and manages to capture her and bring her back to the kingdom. Kristoff takes Anna to his ‘family’ of rock trolls who mistakenly believe they are an item, but when Anna starts to show signs of the ice magic affecting her, the prognosis isn’t very rosy; ice in the heart is fatal, unless an act of true love can thaw it.

They race back to the kingdom so that Hans can kiss her and thaw the ice. Well, it turns out that Hans has been manipulating Anna so that he could become next in line if Elsa ever “accidentally” died, and couldn’t be happier that Anna is actually freezing to death from the inside out. Elsa, who had been locked in a dungeon, escapes, but she’s terribly distraught and that creates a monstrous blizzard over the fjord. Kristoff sees this from the mountain he’s returning to and, fearing for Anna’s safety, rides back down. Olaf finds Anna freezing to death alone, and they realize that Kristoff is who they need now. Olaf sees him riding down the mountain post haste, and they decide to go meet him, as she has very little time left.

Hans is pursuing Elsa, hoping to kill her in the blizzard and make it look like an accident, so he’ll become king all in, like, three days. Anna sees Kristoff rushing to her, but also sees Hans about to kill Elsa, and decides to dive between Hans’ blade and Elsa just as the ice in her heart takes hold and turns her into an ice sculpture. However, this act of true love for her sister reverses the effects a minute or so later, and Elsa, overjoyed that her sister is alive and that she would sacrifice herself for her, rekindles some love in her heart and that enables her to undo the winter-pocalypse she had set off initially. Anna punches Hans into the fjord, she and Kristoff hook up, and Elsa is able to be queen with her powers.  Everyone’s happy.

Except Kristoff. All he got was a 14-second song and a hyper-active princess.

On the positive side, this movie’s songs are fantastic. I admit it, I like showtunes, and this musical’s tunes are so catchy, so joyously modern, and so packed with pathos. Let It Go is possibly the best song Disney has produced since Part of Your World, and it is the most pro-feminist song in the entire Disney canon. The characters are all endearing, even enjoyable (with the gigantic exception of Olaf), and the visuals are pretty grand, even though most everything is just ice and snow. The reversal of the true love’s kiss cliche is very effective and very refreshing.

Unfortunately, none of these things work particularly well together. The glitzy, Broadway-inspired pop style of the songs is fun, catchy, and great for a soundtrack. But the animators made great efforts to make the visuals feel, in their words, epic. Those two tones really grate against each other as you watch the movie.

Most of the characters were fun, they had great personalities, but they didn’t develop over the course of the movie; we don’t see enough of Anna’s feelings towards Elsa to know if her sacrifice at the end is a reversal or just a matter of course. Elsa spends much of the movie moping, and then instantly remembers that love happens and everything is nice again. The trolls’ song is really, really fun, but contributes nothing to the actual story. The same with Olaf’s song; terribly clever, but useless, because he doesn’t go anywhere, development-wise. He’s faithfully devoted to Anna the moment they meet, and then he just stays that way to the end of the movie.

Even the overt feminist message in Elsa’s story is totally subverted when it is her one expression of independence that first blankets the kingdom in winter and then almost kills her sister. Not to mention that she spends the second half of the movie either being a jerk or moping about, not being proactive about anything. Serious missed opportunity here.

This movie just couldn’t figure out what it was trying to say. They wanted to make Elsa so “understandable” that they removed any actual antagonism between her and Anna, so the ending doesn’t say anything about how they’ve changed (if they’ve changed). They couldn’t decide if they wanted to focus on the sister story or the love story, so neither was very developed. And Olaf. And the trolls. Interesting ideas, but so shallow that they end up just being a waste of screen time when there are more interesting things that ended up only half-baked.

I enjoyed this movie, just not as much as I was hoping to, and it’s because the story seemed really uncommitted to what it was trying to talk about. The fact that the “second act” really dragged is probably a symptom of that problem as much as it is another problem.

I certainly won’t devote the time to re-write it, but if I were going to I’d focus on Elsa’s fall and then rise a lot more, and pretty much make her the main character, although if I could make it so that Elsa and Anna were equally main characters, that would be ideal. Yes, I’d make Elsa realize that she put ice in Anna’s heart and join the party to find a way to undo it. I’m not sure where it would go from there, but it would be about Anna and Elsa slowly reconciling, so that the sacrifice at the end doesn’t feel forced. To focus on that, I’d probably de-emphasize the love stories, which might mean the kiss twist wouldn’t work, but then again I could just trim some of the cruft from the rest of the movie and there would probably be time for that.

Look at that nose. He *must* be related to Jar-Jar.  We’ll all be better off with less Olaf.

Most interestingly, it almost sounds like Disney at one point had a version where there was more angst between Anna and Elsa that actually made the self-sacrifice at the end meaningful. I glean this from the “deleted tracks” featured on the Deluxe Edition Soundtrack, graciously posted to YouTube by Red Rose. The song “Life’s Too Short” sounds both 1) way more like sisters trying to talk through differences, and 2) like a better set up for the ending. What they replaced it with is pretty, but not nearly as solid as this, from a narrative standpoint.

We’ll never know just what kind of movie it would have been if the story had remained in that iteration, but it makes me sad to think that Disney went from a more emotionally gripping and thematically dynamic idea to a kind of hesitant story that crippled all the other elements, which were strong on their own, but didn’t have enough substance tying them together to make a really great show.

Man of Something Part 1

The Man of Steel hit theaters last week, and since I’m actually back in the States again (and not in China), I could actually go see it!  So I did. And there were some cool parts. And boy, did it look good. But by about halfway through the movie I was very aware that this would not be the movie I had been hoping for.

This is your official spoiler warning: I talk about specific scenes and plot points, and re-write them. It’s only for those who have seen the movie or who won’t be seeing the movie. I promise this blog will still be here after you see it.

As always, I’ll start with where the movie excelled. And for that you need look no further than the visuals. Whether it was in space, on Krypton, or in Metropolis, everything here looked beautiful, though dark. The vistas and landscapes of Krypton, the snowscapes of the Arctic, and the cityscapes of ground zero in Metropolis were like paintings, and the design of the ships, costumes, and technology was similarly sumptuous.

In addition, it had some amazingly strong performances: Henry Cavill has been snubbed out of being a household name for a long time, but I can see him earning it with this one; he didn’t have much to work with script-wise, but he still packed an emotional range into the character that saved the movie from being unbearable. Michael Shannon was bristling with aggression and insanity as General Zod. Amy Adams as Lois Lane was impressive, as expected; she didn’t come off as overly pushy, in-your-face reporter girl, which was a relief. Russell Crowe did a fine job, but for much of the movie his character was very flat. I didn’t really like this take on the Kents, but given what they were aiming for, I think Kevin Costner hit it out of the park with that “Maybe.”

Finally, let’s talk action. The fight scenes are fittingly epic, with major smack-down on all sides, lots of explosions and indiscriminate destruction. The fight between Superman and Zod is possibly the best super hero fight since Spider-Man and Green Goblin in 2001. Unfortunately, there’s so much fighting going on, it eventually loses its pizzazz.

OK, that’s the short list of what was good in this movie, and some of those were still qualified. I’ll mention some things that were really lacking, then I’ll dive in to a re-imagining of Man of Steel.

First, where was the humor? Batman Begins was lighter than this movie, for cryin’ out loud. The unrelenting heaviness seemed completely inappropriate for a super hero summer blockbuster movie at all, let alone a Superman movie. What’s worse is that the ever-present mood made their few, awkward attempts at humor feel out of place and fall flat all the more. This shortage of levity made it difficult to watch.

Second, why was everything so washed out? Everyone looked pasty white, except Jor-El for some reason. All the colors were muted to what seemed like an obscene degree. That kind of thing might work in a Batman movie, where, y’know, everything takes place at night anyway, but in a broad daylight movie, you’ve gotta put that color there.

And third, someone needs to organize an intervention for Hans Zimmer. His work has become increasingly similar as of late. Step 1: lots of percussion. Step 2: dramatic chord progression. Step 3: have those strings riff around on top. Step 4: no one notices the lack of melody. Inception. The Dark Knight Rises. Man of Steel. I like Zimmer, I really do, but I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out on some great themes and motifs because this percussion-driven mood poem is not only accepted, but praised as awesome because Zimmer’s name is on it. Maybe he’s a genius who’s purposefully pushing soundtracks in a new, minimalist direction and I’m just not a fan, but I much prefer his earlier stuff (Lion King, Prince of Egypt, Gladiator). (Remind to write a piece about how good Michael Giacchino is someday).

OK, that was the easy stuff. Anyone can point out things like that. What comes next is a little trickier. This movie just didn’t speak to me. I’m not excited to see more Superman after watching it. I don’t feel like I know this film’s Superman very well. He wasn’t a very memorable character. The guys that stands out in this movie is General Zod, followed by Jor-El. What I feel it really came down to was that Superman himself didn’t have much of a story to tell. It felt like there were big action set pieces to get to, and Zod had a clear motivation, but the writers just didn’t know what they were getting at with the main character.

Finally, a Superman movie unafraid to ask the tough questions

In fact, this lack of clear narrative direction resulted in a lot of conflicting themes. Jor-El broke Kryptonian law and had a naturally-born son who would have the choice of becoming the kind of man he wanted. But then Superman’s choices in this movie are almost entirely made for him, or they’re so extreme that its clear he has no choice at all: Save the school bus of kids or let them drown to protect my secret? Sacrifice the Earth or turn myself in to Zod? No hero points for that one. Even the final conflict with Zod, where it’s a choice between sacrificing the family he’s about to kill or killing Zod is specifically designed to be inevitable, to push him to justifiably have to kill Zod. So in the end, as Zod had revealed, he is genetically engineered to pursue the path he is, while Superman…also has no other real path to pursue. He can’t help but save people, even when Pa Kent seriously discourages it. He’s clearly got this hero mindset down, but where on Earth and/or Krypton does it come from??

Superman has no reason to be a good person, besides the fact that its easy for him to save school buses; Pa Kent lives and dies to keep him from doing so, he never knew Jor-El, much less his aspirations for him as a hero or leader, and he apparently struggles with trusting humanity himself. Oh, well, I’m the protagonist, I guess I’ll do the right thing and save the world for no good reason. ? I’m so confused.

It’s super effective

Next on the list of Things That Confuse Stubbazubba, is why does Lois Lane do any of the things she does? What is her motivation? I mean, tracking down Clark’s secret is one thing, after she personally encountered him, and a touch that I rather like, but printing a story about him against her boss’ wishes, and then not, just because she feels sorry for his sob story about his dad? It’s almost as if Lois’ character was so poorly thought out that she was written just to reflect the poorly thought out internal conflict of the main character (which is only ever talked about, never acted upon; he’s a hero from the word ‘go,’ he just…makes a show of debating it sometimes). In which case, why are we wasting Ms. Adams’ valuable time here?

OK, so the first two problems were just the two leads. Maybe the rest of the characters were better? Sadly, not so much. Pa Kent is afraid that people will fear Clark, a reasonable fear and a good twist on the character, but why he’s afraid enough of that to die to prevent the secret getting out is a mystery. Yes, we can just figure that it’s a scary prospect to possibly have your child taken away by black suits or an angry mob, but the movie never shows the Kents feeling that fear, so it lacks explanatory power for Jonathan’s motivation. Instead, he just comes off as paranoid to the point of completely uncaring about the fate of others (Really? He struggles with whether or not to let a school bus of children die? These aren’t strangers, these are Clark’s friends, their neighbors’ kids, people he knows!), yet still likable? Curse you, Kevin Costner and your considerable folksy charm! Faora (Zod’s lieutenant) has the opposite problem: She keeps spouting off all this stuff about evolutionary advantage, hinting at her motivations, which don’t really gel with Zod’s fanaticism that well, but when they’re on-screen together, all that just disappears.  How did those two end up working together?

Their love for fashionable armor, I presume.

I’m sorry, folks, but there is hardly a character that is well done here. There’s not even a central theme they’re working with: Hope is a buzzword they throw around, but that didn’t really come up in any significant way, while the outsider/humanity thing was talked about and we had some awkward scenes where soldiers started trusting him (because…wait, he hadn’t done anything to impress those soldiers…how did that scene even happen?), but it was hardly central to anyone’s motivation, mostly because no one had any motivation…except the villains, and they couldn’t even agree on one. They paid lip service to themes, but didn’t actually put any into the DNA of this tale.

So…that’s a lot to re-write. While many people would probably prefer going back to concept, I’m going to try and keep the major plot points as they are, and stick to what I think the filmmakers wanted to get across. So, Superman will kill Zod in the end, but that makes this a tragic Superman story. Unorthodox for an origin story, but that’s the way it’s got to go.

First things first; Superman has to be way more Big Blue Boy Scout and way less Batman. So he will not be destroying trucks like a petulant teenager. He will be saving people, not in the abstract, but preventing harm to everyone he can get to. This motivation needs to spring from somewhere: He needs to feel a deep connection to the human race, and to specific individuals. His mother is a good candidate, as is Lois, and some more people he’ll have to have scenes with from Smallville, and preferably the crew of the Daily Planet. And his relationship with his dad is going to be re-tooled.

Let’s talk about that. The way I see it, Superman cannot be a hero without Ma and Pa Kent kind of inculcating that in him as he grows up. However, encouraging him not to use his powers in public is all well and good, and they should be afraid of losing him. I want the audience to feel that fear, so we are going to see a bit more into their lives. They will be established as good, honest, loving people who have been unable to have children in a single scene, possibly at the hospital when they find out. Then the ship falls from the sky, revealing the baby Kal-El. They are bewildered, but overjoyed. But the next morning, the sheriff knocks on the door, accompanied by an FBI agent in a jet black suit and tie. The Kents are terrified, and as they ask if they can take a look around the field, they must think of something fast to stall for time so Jonathan can move the ship before they can go look. They are successful, barely, but they resolve to hide him from prying eyes until they can sort things out.

Flash forward to the X-ray vision/hiding in the closet scene, which works as-is. Cut to young Clark at home, listening in on his parents going back and forth about what happened. His dad is certain the teacher will report it, but mom said she was able to put it out of everyone’s mind. Dad is still not totally satisfied, but mom promises to help him learn to hide his gifts. Clark runs off crying (possibly at super-speed).

Flash forward to the school bus scene. Spend extra time establishing that Clark and Lana are good friends, then as the bus fills with water, have them make eye contact just before Clark disappears. Bus is saved, Pete is saved specifically, as-is. This time, in the scene afterwards, first off I want Martha to come out first and just sit next to Clark and hold his head against her. When Pa Kent comes to talk to Clark, Clark apologizes. He says he tried to just shut it out and hide from it all, but he just couldn’t listen to the screams and see how afraid they were when he could help. Pa Kent looks Clark in the eyes and says, “Clark, don’t you ever apologize to me for doing the right thing again.” Ma Kent takes over, “Your…talents, they’re yours to help people with, even if we forget that when we’re afraid.” Clark replies, not quite understanding, “Afraid?  What am I, some kind of monster?” And then we do the spaceship scene as-is.

Flash forward to another scene. It’s a bully scene, but it’s not the one in the movie. Clark is in high school, he’s friends with Lana and Pete, they’re eating lunch, and some bully starts picking on Pete and/or Lana. Clark steps in, tries to defuse things, but the bully taunts and taunts, harassing Clark, Pete, and Lana, which finally gets Clark to snap. He sends the bully flying. This elicits cheers from the students, but Pa Kent kind of freaks out, tells him hospitalizing boys with no hope of fighting back is a sickening abuse of his gifts and an insult to everything they’ve taught him, and showing off like that in front of hundreds of people is asking to be taken away, to destroy his life and his parents’. Segue directly into the tornado scene, which can still play largely as-is (though Pa Kent dying to save a dog is pretty dumb; make it someone’s kid at least, preferably Ma Kent herself).

OK, so Clark has learned his lesson about keeping a low profile the hard way now, and the best part is Pa Kent actually has to sacrifice himself in the tornado because anything else would arouse too much suspicion with Clark’s feat of strength the same day. Now, the next challenge is to get from that Uncle Ben moment to world-traveling silent do-gooder. From the end of the tornado scene, segue into montage of Clark and mom at the funeral, Clark on graduation day bummed that his dad isn’t there, and him taking care of the farm but not really doing anything else. Mom comes to him and pretty much tells him this isn’t the future his father envisioned for him. Clark brings up his other parents, his heritage, and Ma Kent suggests he search for clues. He says he couldn’t leave her, as she’s all he has left. She replies something along the lines of, “No, Clark, you have more than just me. You have a future, a destiny. You will always be my son, but you are a gift to the whole world, and I’m not going to let you waste your gifts doing farm work for me. You, more than anyone, can become whoever you want to be, because I know you’ll always be the same good man. Just remember the good woman who raised you every now and then, OK?”

That wasn’t so bad. They have a scene at the bus stop where he says good-bye, and then we flash forward to the ship/oil rig scene. It plays as-is, followed by the clothes-nabbing, hitch-hiking, and bar-tending scenes, where he will show way more interest in what the military guys are saying about the discovery site. He gets harassed by the redneck, walks away, totally doesn’t destroy his truck like a child (heck, maybe have him save him somehow).

OK, so that’s the first part, kind of the obligatory exposition to his motivation. We feel connected to his upbringing and his motivation now, I think. Moreso, at least. We know he helps because he feels empathy and because the Kents raised him to be that way, while also hitting home the fear of being discovered, and the quest to discover more about himself. I’ll wrap up here for tonight, and continue on the next chance I get with another character that has to be re-directed a bit; Lois Lane.

Like or subscribe if you like the direction this is going, and leave a comment if you have any input or if something seems wrong to you.

Amazing Spider-Man, Part 2

In this Part 2 of a two-part analysis of The Amazing Spider-Man’s struggle to be as good of  a movie as I wanted it to be, I focus on the villain and the overall effect of the underdeveloped themes. It picks up right where Part 1 left off, so here’s a link.

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The Amazing Spider-Man, Part 1

In this extended analysis, I’m going to look at several things that are keeping The Amazing Spider-Man from really blowing us away, and how I would’ve fixed it.

I really wanted to love The Amazing Spider-Man. Many people complained that it was too soon to reboot the franchise as the original came out only ten years ago, etc., etc., but I – being a lover of all super heroes and Spider-Man in particular – was firm in my belief that if a reboot had a new, interesting spin to bring to the character and could deliver a great Spidey story that the Sam Raimi films couldn’t, why did we have to arbitrarily wait longer for a good show? Did TASM deliver on those fronts? Did it justify the rapid reboot? Well, yes and no. At the risk of engendering the ire of Film Crit Hulk*, I feel like this movie had problems with it’s ‘second act.’ Let’s examine what TASM brings to the Spider-Man legend, and also what it needed to change, story-wise, to justify the sudden reboot.

Marc Webb’s reboot of Spider-Man definitely explores some new angles to the character; the mystery about his father’s work, his parents’ death, and what’s going on at OsCorp is instantly intriguing. In addition, you’ve got an understandably broody Peter Parker, who shows the wear-and-tear of having his parents leave and then die as a child, then growing up as an outcast. That, connected to the ‘who am I?’ theme, is a great new interpretation of Spider-Man.

Andrew Garfield really pulled off a lovable Peter Parker, despite – or perhaps because of – spending so much screen-time fumbling for words. As Spider-Man, he does great as a new, uncertain super hero, except when he’s an obnoxious, wise-cracking super hero. Unfortunately, that latter end is kind of unacceptable for Spider-Man; he has to be funny, not obnoxious. When Peter was wracked with emotion, though, Garfield delivered a visceral, satisfying performance. As high school student Parker, Garfield gets lots of hesitant, awkward glory, especially when combined with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy.

Stone’s Gwen was bright, assertive, and beautiful. Their chemistry was positively tangible, thanks both to their talent and Marc Webb’s directing chops, but I still felt like their relationship lacked depth. Yes, she kind of sticks up for/befriends him at the beginning and he likes to show off the super powers for her, but I don’t know what they find interesting about each other, besides Gwen’s eyes and Peter’s smile. I feel like they only got together because the writers knew they were supposed to. Not that real life high school relationships don’t form based purely on physical attraction sometimes, but those are dumb; I mean, sure, every guy in the audience would’ve loved to make out with Emma Stone, but that’s not engaging enough for a real story.

It’s not like there’s a lack of opportunities for them to spend time together and, y’know, actually talk to each other, either; they’re both brilliant high school scientists, and they clearly think the other is cute, they just needed to show a scene or two of them working together/flirting in science class before they jump to dating each other. These are two talented actors and a great director, this should have been the best super hero relationship yet, but for all the charm of the scenes they have, the script needed another scene or two between “awkward classmates” and “boyfriend-girlfriend” to really bring the audience all the way in. You’re not engaging the audience, not making us care about the story, with “They kind of know each other, and then they start going out, and they’re adorably awkward about it until the important stuff happens in the last 20 minutes.” I am paying you, you can do better.

Leaving aside the two leads, the supporting characters are brilliant, as well. Uncle Ben by Martin Sheen had that great blue-collar working man dignity and knew just how to come down on Peter for shirking his responsibilities and bullying at school. Sally Field’s Aunt May was solid, if not quite as extraordinary as Uncle Ben. Though I liked Rosemary Harris’ quaint, wisdom-spouting Aunt May from the Sam Raimi trilogy, Sally Field’s version was far better for this interpretation of the wall-crawler. Finally, Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy was a great foil for Peter; he was the embodiment of power & responsibility which Peter was still struggling to understand.

But again, an opportunity was missed here. Captain Stacy was convinced Spider-Man was a dangerous vigilante and was determined to bring him in. In the comics, George Stacy is a supporter both of Spider-Man and his daughter’s relationship with Peter Parker, whom he guessed was the aforementioned wall-crawler. I think they were kind of trying to have him kind of go there by the end of the movie, it seems kind of muddled. But let’s assume those were the two endpoints.

Right now, the end of this plotline makes no sense; Captain Stacy, a by-the-book cop, has been trying to apprehend the vigilante Spider-Man the entire movie. Mind you, Spider-Man has still done very little to look like anything but a vigilante, at least that the public has seen. However, when it is revealed that Spider-Man is Peter Parker – the disrespectful punk kid his daughter is wasting her time with – then he realizes the city needs Spider-Man…because…well, huh. He’s not even aware of the situation with the Genali device, he had no idea that Peter actually had a plan. In fact, Stacy is the one who saves Spidey from the Lizard a bit later anyway, so I don’t know how he determines that Spider-Man is needed from all that.

Once again, we needed some transition steps here to really build up to that conclusion; Peter and/or Spidey needed to interact with Capt. Stacy a few more times. After Peter realizes he’s just out for revenge after getting chewed out by Capt. Stacy at dinner, Spidey should have gone on a ‘friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’ tour, stopping all manner of petty thieves and crimes, maybe even leaving notes to the police. Stacy can’t make sense of it initially, until the possible connection between Peter and Spider-Man dawns on him.

To test it, have him drop some important police info, like about another sting or something, in front of Peter and mention that the police can’t take the next step for whatever reason, and then have Spider-Man act on it. This would confirm in Stacy’s mind that 1) Peter is Spider-Man, and 2) he can and will be a benefit to the city. Stacy then turns into a subtle advocate for the web-slinger, redirecting police resources away from pursuing him. He also tries to mentor Peter as much as he can, trying to give him tips or hints whenever he runs into him. Spidey should then be seen applying some of these. Now their relationship is established, and the audience gets a real sense that Stacy will be an ally for the foreseeable future.

This way, when Stacy is killed by the Lizard, he’s not just the love interest’s dad, who didn’t like him anyway; he’s a surrogate father figure, a man who is looking out for him both privately and publicly, and who is helping make Spider-Man the hero he is. Judging by the final words scene and how much his death seemed to affect Peter, I’d say the writers wanted that kind of emotional punch, but didn’t know how to make it happen and made the mistake of assuming we would care because we’re supposed to. This is how you make us care; make him an emotional and crime-fighting asset, and then take him away. It worked for Sirius Black, it’ll work here.

Part II, where I talk about the Lizard – and oh is there a lot to talk about there – among other things will be up in the next day or two, so check back soon!

*Film Crit Hulk wrote an eye-opening article on the Myth of the Three Act Structure, in which he…well…just go read the article, it’s that good.