What a Big Superhero Means to Me

*Avengers: Endgame spoilers to follow*

Representation matters. It’s an idea I don’t believe should be controversial, and yet even in progressive circles, worries about tokenism abound. If we’re just checking diversity boxes, isn’t that MORE offensive than having a homogenous cast of characters?

And the answer is no, it isn’t, but arriving at that answer in a way that satisfies—let’s stop being coy—defensive straight white dudes is sometimes a long and frustrating exercise (for plenty of in-depth and educated discussion on this topic in Star Wars specifically, Google the #SWRepMatters hashtag).

So it’s easier when something in a popular movie—perhaps one of the most popular movies of all time—pings representation in a way that intersects with an audience that might not normally care about representation.

I’m talking, of course, about Fat Thor.

(Note, Dear Reader, that for the rest of this piece I’ll be using “fat” as a reclaimed identifier, and not a slur. See: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/589/tell-me-im-fat)

For those few who have no interest in seeing the movie, I’ll sum up by saying Thor’s major arc in Endgame is PTSD-inspired weight gain. And I absolutely don’t want to claim that Endgame portrays this perfectly, or even particularly well. There are a lot of really bad, mean-spirited anti-fat jokes, and the story’s treatment of mental health issues is abhorrent (I can’t speak much to that, personally, but I do know that the “slap a person in a panic attack to fix them” trope is not good!)

BUT

Can I tell you how fucking cool it is to see a Fat Superhero? Even if he was, at least partially, added as a joke? Even if his weight was achieved using a groan-worthy fat suit? I will tell you now: really fucking cool.

I’ve always gotten amped up by hulking heroes, pun partially intended, but usually these characters—The Hulk, Zangeif, etc—are either massive because of muscle, and end up with bodybuilder shapes I can’t really relate to, or are given powers and names that directly reference their body (“The Blob” comes to mind). Kingpin is a large man, but he’s also a villain, and while villain representation is absolutely not inherently bad, it’s certainly different than portraying a marginalized population in your roster of heroes.

Given all this context, I was on the edge of my seat the entire runtime of Endgame, not because of any in-universe tension, but because I was afraid the writers were going to do what they *always* do with plot developments like this. Make a few fat jokes, give the hero a training montage and put everything back to normal. Because all it takes to lose weight is some willpower, a few days on a treadmill and a cup of raw eggs for breakfast, right???

Even until the very last act of the film, I was *sure* this was coming. I was sure the final battle would give us Thor in his “correct” body.

And then his eyes turned blue. His beard braided. And around his frame, a glorious suit of armor was summoned. No jokes about “bursting at the seams, eh???” No quips about Thor losing his breath. Not a hint from Thor or anyone else that he’ll be anything less than fully capable in the upcoming battle.

Thor is big, bold and brutal. He’s different in the way that all of us become different as we age, morph, droop, sag, gain weight or lose it, build muscle or fail to maintain it. Different, but still the same, still Thor. He fights with every bit of swagger and strength he’s ever possessed. And he’s fat. And he wins.

(And then of course, the film has to undermine its good will one last time by giving us a bizarre lingering shot of Thor’s midsection as he speaks with Valkyrie — a shot that goes without comment or context. Welp.)

I fully expect this to be reversed in Thor’s inevitable Asguardians of the Galaxy appearance. He’ll come out of the shower shirtless, with twelve-pack abs, someone will make a beef jerky/slim jim joke and it’ll never be mentioned again. Such is our fat-phobic culture.

But for one glorious act, a part of me was there, on screen, saving the world. And I got a glimmer, just the slightest soupçon, of what truly marginalized populations—women, people of color, women of color (good lord Disney/Marvel/Lucas, can we put a black woman at the head of one of these things sooner rather than later?)—feel when they see representation in popular media. To be very clear, I am not putting my experiences as an overweight white dude on an equal level with the shit that people of color, immigrants and other explicitly targeted minorities face in our current hellscape. But I do think my emotional, in-the-moment reaction is one that might be shared by other overweight people, and I hope any of those people who also equate “diversity” with “tokenism” reconsider based on newfound empathy.

(And, while we’re here, can we get some representation for large women? I love all the ladies Marvel has included, but we need some love for bigger gals. I’d love to see a 6ft+ tall Jennifer Walters in Phase 4. Thanks)

Game Impressions #1

I play games! I have lots of thoughts about said games. Want to hear them? Of course you do!

This month, I tackled a few indie titles for the Nintendo Switch (available for PC and other consoles as well, I believe). Some were good; some were not good! Overall, I wish they had been better. Someone please make me a modern-day ActRaiser. I will give you all the money.

Without further ado…

Moonlighter

THE PITCH: You’re an ambitious item shop owner by day, daring dungeon spelunker by night. Sell your loot to townspeople to fuel your monster slaying.

PROS: Love the concept. Managing an RPG village has forever been Totally And Completely My Shit, from ActRaiser (one of my top ten favorite games ever) to Dark Cloud to Recettear (a Japanese game that heavily inspired this one). The music is cool, the aesthetics are fun and the dungeon->shop->dungeon loop is pretty addicting.

CONS: The shop section of the game — which you’d think would be the main focus, given that it’s what makes the pitch unique — is woefully underutilized. It’s actually painful how little game there is here. There are hundreds of items available from baddies, but there’s nothing but value differentiating any of them. You put the widget on your shelf for a price and someone buys the widget. The end.

The game tries to introduce mechanics like high and low demand, and customers looking for certain item types, to mix things up. The problem is none of these mechanics are relevant, ever. Demand never factors into anything. Every item has a fixed, non-randomized price, and once you guess it (fairly easy, since your guide sorts items by value) you can just sell it for that price without question. If an item happens to be in high demand, you can try to sell it for slightly more, but it’s not even worth futzing with.

The dungeon section is sadly the part the developers seemed more focused on, but here the game just seems derivative. I’m continuously disappointed that every modern indie game thinks it needs to have a Dark Souls-like combat system, and this one is no different. You have an attack button and a roll button, and bosses and enemies have patterns that you’re expected to learn and exploit. Rinse and repeat.

There have been a few of these town-sim-by-day, dungeon-crawler-by-night games recently (I include Stardew Valley in that), and I often feel like the combat system should either be simpler (i.e., barely a minigame, with the focus on the unique parts of the game), or way more complex. Such is Moonlighter.

RECOMMENDED: Maybe, but probably not. I admit it kept my attention long enough to finish, so that’s a plus. But I wasn’t really satisfied in the end. Even if the item-selling portion was more fun, the game itself just becomes so repetitive after a few cycles. Dive into the first couple floors of a dungeon to gain loot, sell enough to buy that dungeon’s tier of weapon and armor, use that to beat the dungeon boss. The story is strange, but not in a good way, and I have a hard time believing very many people would find the game addictive enough to bother with its New Game+ mode.

Donut County

THE PITCH: Reverse Katamari Damacy. Instead of playing a giant ball collecting debris, you play a giant hole sucking them up.

PROS: Eminently unique and accessible. Charming characters and art style, fun and relaxing gameplay. Super clever dialogue.

CONS: A very short, contained experience. That’s not a bad thing; I think short games are incredibly valuable! But Donut County’s gameplay runs the risk of being somewhat shallow (ha it’s a hole pun). Much of the game doesn’t feel much like a game; it’s only in the last couple levels that the game introduces any sort of time pressure or puzzle element. Depending on the player, though, this might not even be a negative.

RECOMMENDED: Yes, provided you’re okay with a contained game. It’s not life-changing on the level of Katamari, but that’s hardly a fair expectation. If you’re in the mood for something light and silly, you could do a lot worse.

Wizard of Legend

THE PITCH: A hardcore roguelike where you sling spells through a baddie-infested dungeon on your quest to become a master sorcerer.

PROS: Magical soundtrack. Like most roguelikes, it has an engaging try-fail cycle, at least for a short amount of time. The hands-on mechanics of the game feel good to play.

CONS: The game is honestly sort of a mess, and most of it comes down to confusing design. It’s clear the developers intended this to be far closer to a “traditional” roguelike than most similar modern games. Whereas most modern roguelikes, such as Rogue Legacy, include some sort of persistence (slowly growing permanently stronger as you die, die and die again), Wizard of Legend includes none of that. The only thing you keep from dungeon crawling is gems, which you can use to buy new spells with which to start your dungeon run.

The problem is purchasing these spells is essentially just a lateral move. No spell is inherently better than any other. Some might match a particular playstyle better, but as you progress through the game, you start to see through the illusion of choice. There are several different elemental melee moves, but they essentially boil down to close-but-fast or longer-range-but-slow. Your roomwide ice spell does damage and freezes enemies; your roomwide lightning spell does damage and shocks enemies. For so many spells, there isn’t a ton of variety.

Roguelikes’ lack of persistence is meant to value random loot over mindless grinding, as well as create a fresh experience every time you start a new game. Wizard fails at both of these. The dungeons, like the spells, lack variety. Each small floor is guaranteed an item shop, a spell shop and a “random event,” which is one of maybe five different veneers over just handing you a free item or spell. Once you’ve played for about an hour, you’ve seen it all.

Furthermore, the loot itself is laughably lackluster. The spell upgrades found in the dungeon are hardly noticeable, and the items, while technically powerful, lack the sort of gamebreaking WOW factor that really should come with rare loot that you’re only going to be able to play with for ten minutes before dying. I want a damn bazooka; instead, I’m handed things like “increase your critical hit rate by 2%” and “enemies drop healing orbs very slightly more often.” Hooray?

RECOMMENDED: No. Ultimately, Wizard of Legend is too superficial and forgettable to be worth your time. The past few years have seen a million different indie roguelikes hit the market, and this one fails to rise above the pack.

Brief thoughts on the story of Kingdom Hearts III

Spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III follow. Also, this shouldn’t be taken as a “review,” as such. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the game, though maybe not enough to justify 15 years (!) of development time. This is simply a vent(us)ing of frustrations.

At some point in Kingdom Hearts III, it becomes evident that the villain’s plan to bring together “thirteen vessels of darkness and seven guardians of light” isn’t just another excuse to bring in some Disney princesses. Every single one of those slots is going to be filled by a long-forgotten character from a previous game.

This 13+7 construction has been foreshadowed before, as far back as 2005’s Kingdom Hearts II. But it isn’t until the series’s latest entry starts really scraping the barrel for those 13 villains (15, really; there are a few replacements. It’s a whole thing.) that I realized the frustrating narrative problems this formula created. Characters whose deaths represented powerful turning points in previous entries show up out of the aether with not a hint of surprise from the rest of the cast. Minor one-off characters — like Chain of Memories‘ Riku clone introduced quite nakedly as a way to add Riku boss fights — are shoehorned back into the story, and we’re expected to act like we’re fully invested in their sudden character arcs.

And I can’t help wonder how this chicken-and-egg game started. Were these characters brought back, chopped and screwed to fit into the newest game because the director needed to find 20 characters to interact? Or was it the other way around, and the “guardians of darkness and light” was simply a justification for bringing back every single character who had ever muttered a line in any game, ever?

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter which came first. And look, we’re all grown-ups here. Kingdom Hearts is not Moby Dick. It’s not even Grey’s Anatomy. It’s fanservice from it’s very conception, a lighthearted and simultaneously overserious romp through a mishmash of barely connected corporate media blockbusters. It’s a theme park in video game form. So why do I care so much?

The answer is, because even silly stories have power. When sequels ignore that power in favor of mindless pandering, they undercut that power.

Look, hey, I’m a writer currently knee-deep in sequel planning. I know how goddamn difficult it is to write something that raises the stakes, brings the excitement to a peak, fulfills all expectations and feels natural and organic, and I can only imagine how much that is magnified when expectations as high as they were for something as popular as Kingdom Hearts. But rule one — no, hell, Rule Zero, is that you can’t, you ABSOLUTELY CAN NOT destroy the themes and stakes of your previous volumes in order to bolster the current one.

And that leads us to the most most egregious example of bad storytelling in Kingdom Hearts III. In Kingdom Hearts II, the narrative quite clearly (and beautifully) builds to Sora and Roxas (the empty husk Nobody which Sora leaves behind when he temporarily transforms into a Heartless) accepting that they are two sides of the same person, both complete without one another. The gameplay mechanics further highlight this: Sora’s Final Form isn’t available until the two merge.

Birth By Sleep, the prequel to the original Kingdom Hearts, goes on to explain why Roxas has a heart, where most Nobodies remain empty. It’s the result of Ventus, a sleeping keyblade warrior, placing his heart inside Sora for safekeeping while he heals from a life-draining battle. Ventus’s heart fills Roxas’s shell, which is (presumably, though this is never explicit) why Roxas and Ventus look exactly the same. And have the same voice actor. And the same theme music.

Kingdom Hearts likes to play Calvinball with the exact definition of a “heart”: it’s something like a soul, though not quite the same, and it sometimes carries memories, but not always.

But who fucking cares about any of that, huh? The narrative construction of Kingdom Hearts III demands bodies, so bodies we’ll have. Even after Sora returns Ventus’s heart, awakening him from his slumber, we’re informed that Roxas’s heart still resides in Sora, and he of course appears out of the sky at the Plot Demanded Juncture to turn the tide of battle. This is never explained. The sudden differentiation of Sora and Roxas — and the resulting complete invalidation of Kingdom Hearts II — is never justified. The sudden appearance of a discrete heart for Roxas, separate from Ventus’s — undermining Birth By Sleep and making Ventus and Sora’s heart-to-heart connection narratively pointless — is not explained.

It happens because everyone loves Roxas, right? And we’re all supposed to clap and cheer because at the end of the day nothing matters, this is just Dragon Ball Z, we’re just supposed to chomp popcorn while watching some pointy-haired boys and girls (mostly boys, because this is Nomura we’re talking about) bat at each other with giant keys.

To be clear, I’m not asking for every single loose end to be burned. I don’t need a scientific explanation for every magical thing that happens in a fantasy video game. But if you’re going to salt the earth of your previous stories, you’d better at least handwave an explanation. KH3 doesn’t even do the bare minimum, in that regard.

Like a true Dad, I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed. I’m disappointed because I know stories — even silly, paradoxical, manic stories like Kingdom Hearts — are capable of more than this. I know stories like this are capable of being juvenile and absurd in the best ways, and still take their narrative, or more importantly their characters, seriously.

I guess the upshot is that newcomers should no longer feel like they need to try to digest two decades’ worth of backstory to understand the continuing story. Kingdom Hearts III tells us quite plainly that none of it really matters.

Big News and Query Stats

I’ll not bury the lede. After a long, involved process of writing, editing, querying, repeat, I’m over-the-moon excited to announce that I’m being represented by the awesome Susan Velazquez at the esteemed JABberwocky Literary Agency. I don’t want to oversell it; I know this is only the beginning of the publishing journey, and there’s plenty of hard work, heartache and (hopefully) happiness in my future. But for now, I’m going to jump up and down and scream my joy to the heavens.

To commemorate the occasion, I wanted to do the standard New Babby Author query stats post. While splurting out this data is a rite of passage at this point (possibly to make us feel like we haven’t wasted our time gathering it), I do think it continues to be useful for authors who are just starting the querying process.

“You’ll get a lot of rejections” is a common refrain in the publishing industry, yes, but I don’t think people realize how common the inverse is. I’ve attended multiple “how to get published” panels where the stories given were “I queried a few agents, got multiple offers, chose one, got into a bidding war and then they made my book into a movie.” I don’t want to take anything away from those highly successful authors (except maybe a few million dollars, venmo me plz), but I want to make sure as-of-yet unagented authors know that the long hard slog of cold querying can reap rewards. You are not alone.

With that said, let’s jump into the time machine and travel waaaaay back to Matt’s First Query…

Book One – 120k Epic Fantasy, 05/2012-06/2012

Queries Sent: 15
Requests Received: 0
Request Rate: 0%

Ouch! Suffice it to say, this book was not ready for prime-time. There are a few likely reasons: one, though I still love the novel’s characters, the plot itself is bog-standard fantasy, and thus doesn’t pop particularly well in a query. Two, 120k is generally too long for a debut novel, even in fantasy. Longer books occasionally sell, but they’re the exception. Three, I was a young writer, and the writing itself just didn’t shine as much as it needed to.

So was querying this book a mistake? Well, if the goal is solely to land an agent, then sure. But I found learning the query process with a “test project” invaluable. I picked up query-writing and synopsis-writing skills first-hand, became familiar with agents, agencies and publishers, and shed my fear of rejection (indeed, as the stats show, rejection became my base assumption). It became clear after a relatively small number of queries that the manuscript hadn’t gathered the kind of reception I’d hoped for, and the time spent querying didn’t stop me from working on my next project, which I did simultaneously.

Now, the caveat is that you should never query a project you’re not willing to stand behind as publishable. Hands-on learning is great, but the risk of querying a project that’s laughably, cringingly bad (thankfully not the case here) is that your name becomes memorable for bad reasons. If that’s the case, maybe just shelve that manuscript.

Book Two – 100k Fantasy/Adventure, 04/2013-08/2013

Queries Sent: 75
Partial Requests: 4
Full Requests: 3 (includes 1 partial->full)
Total Request Rate: 8%

Better! At least, a little. 8% is still a low request rate (from what I’ve seen and experienced, a 10-20% request rate is what you want to shoot for). The higher number of queries sent here indicated my higher confidence in the book. I’m still really proud of this one, and though I’d tweak several things about it if I were to try to sell it again, I think it’s overall a strong manuscript.

Looking back on the query, I believe it could stand some improvement. The biggest problem is the opening pages, though. The book starts with a professor musing, quite vaguely, about equations, and if there’s one intro more boring than detailed math, it’s ambiguous math. If I could go back in time, I’d definitely make the first few chapters more engaging than they were when I queried.

Book Three – 100k Epic Fantasy, 02/2015 – 05/2017 (!!!)

Queries Sent: 67
Partial Requests: 8
Full Requests: 4
Revise and Resubmit Requests: 1
Total Request Rate: 19.4% (!)

This one stings. That request rate is right in line with something I’d expect to get a representation offer (though it should be self-evident that there are no guarantees). This novel kind of ended up with the opposite problem as the previous MS. The opening pages were solid, if I do say so myself, and I worked a very long time on crafting an engaging query, and that resulted in a lot more requests than I’d received previously (or, to be frank, even subsequently!)

The issue ended up being that the novel was a bit too … let’s say, ambitious. I pitched it as an Epic Fantasy Cloud Atlas (a concept I’m still 100% in love with, so feel free to @ me with recommendations), but Cloud Atlas was not a debut novel, and likely wouldn’t have sold if it had been (also, I just checked, and it turns out I’m not David Mitchell).

I knew while writing the manuscript that it would be a hard sell, so I wasn’t exactly disappointed. And ultimately the structure (five disparate protagonists whose stories only marginally converged by the end) proved too unwieldy, and if I revisit the manuscript, I’ll likely prune a lot.

All that said … see that date range up there? I spent over two years querying this novel, and that is frankly unacceptable. A big reason is because of that sole Revise and Resubmit noted above. For the record, I am not blaming the agent who requested the revision at all; their issues with the novel were 100% on point. But the changes essentially required me to write a second novel (I wrote something like 60-80k worth of new words), tack it onto the original manuscript and edit the whole thing into some semblance of cohesiveness. Needless to say, this did not work.

Am I advising people not to consider R&Rs? Absolutely not. Lots of R&Rs turn into offers of representation, and if those revisions align with how you already feel about the manuscript, it’s totally worth the effort to make changes that will likely improve the manuscript for future querying in any case.

For this particular project, though, the R&R came at the tail end of my query list, which meant unless I wanted to re-query agents, I was revising for this agent alone. In addition, the revisions were so substantial that I spent nearly a year on them, which meant an entire year not working on a new project. My advice for R&Rs would be to take a long, hard look at whether the advised revisions align with your particular vision for the book, and also to make a realistic cost-benefit analysis. It’s hard not to be swayed by the temptation of an offer; BELIEVE me, I know. But in many cases, spending a year crafting something brand new (with the benefit of everything you learned from writing previous works) will turn out better than spending a year futzing with an older manuscript with only vague guidance from an agent or editor.

Book Four – 100k Science Fiction, 03/2018 – 10/2018

Queries Sent: 58
Partial Requests: 5
Full Requests: 3
Offers of Representation: 2
Total Request Rate: 12%

Four books (five, if you want to count the ‘second half’ of the previous manuscript). Six years. Over half a million words. And finally, finally, we see some success.

What’s interesting here is that, especially compared to the stats for the previous novel, this set of queries was not a mind blowing success! My request rate stayed above 10%, but was not particularly impressive on its own. I liked my original query, but it was vastly improved with professional critiques from Dongwon Song and Katherine Locke, to whom I am incredibly grateful. And after a first round of queries, I decided to punch up the voice in my first few chapters, which I believe brought me over the finish line (if you take any advice from this, let it be that your opening pages have to be solid motherfucking platinum. Good enough is not good enough).

You’ll see from the plural in Offers of Representations that I did indeed end up choosing between two stellar agents to represent my novel. I don’t want to pretend that this isn’t an enviable position; I, like so many others, worked my ass off for the better part of a decade trying to get one offer, and it turns out when it rains, it pours. That said, I also don’t want to pretend that it was all sugar and rainbows. Making a decision of that magnitude was more anxiety-inducing than anything else I’ve done in my life, and rejecting people, even in a purely professional capacity, sucks. It really does.

But I am proud as hell of this book, unsurprised that it succeeded more than previous manuscripts, and so excited for the world to read it. I really hope I get to announce its publication before the heat death of the universe!

Conclusions

What to make of all this? As I noted above, the conclusion I drew is that your query+opening pages are by far the most important keys to query success. If I had to choose between the two, I’d much rather have a great opening than a great ending (though, of course, you should have both). An agent might see the potential in a great manuscript with a meh ending; they won’t even bother reading a great manuscript with a meh opening.

But more than that, what I want to highlight here is that PERSISTENCE MATTERS. I’m sure I took this from someone more clever than me (and if so, let me know so I can credit them!) but I like to think the only three aspects to being a successful creative are luck, skill and persistence. I don’t think anyone knows the true relative ranking of those aspects, but persistence is the only one you can really, truly control. You don’t choose your luck, and while you can absolutely focus on your craft, it’s never as simple as an RPG, where x amount of grinding will give you y number of levels. What you can do, though, and what no one can ever stop you from doing, is showing the fuck up. You can keep submitting stories, keep querying novels, keep finishing work until you succeed. And if you never do (hey, who knows — I could totally strike out with publishers!), at least you can say it wasn’t for lack of trying.

And now, y’all, I’ve got some editing to do, and new projects to bang out. I’ll see you on the other side.

A Wrinkle in Time Review: A Lovely, Surreal Space Odyssey

 

Upon exiting the theater after watching A Wrinkle in Time, one resemblance came to mind: 2001: A Space Odyssey. For some, that’s damnable praise; as highly regarded as it is, 2001 is considered by many modern viewers as a plodding, confusing mess.

For me, the comparison is a compliment of the highest order. A Wrinkle in Time is different from most modern films. It strikes a magical realist tone, though some might see that as simply disorganized. The pacing is iffy; the beginning moves far too slowly before racing ahead at a breakneck pace, giving neither the characters nor the audience time to catch their breath.

But you know what? By the end of the film, I found that the issues I had early on in the film no longer bothered me. On the whole, A Wrinkle in Time is gorgeous, sincere, compelling, weird, and quite possibly the best movie I’ve seen this year.

A Wrinkle in Time, based on the seminal novel by Madeleine L’Engle, marks director Ava DuVernay’s first major blockbuster. She brings with her a character-focused sensibility well-suited to the source material. Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and Meg’s friend Calvin set off on a journey across the stars to find Meg’s missing father. The child actors, especially Storm Reid as Meg, carry the film on their shoulders. While big stars like Oprah and Reese Witherspoon — playing the children’s guides — do a passable job, it’s the kids who make the story engaging. Meg and Charles Wallace manage to hit precociousness while missing annoying (a rare feat), and Levi Miller as Calvin captures the sweetness of young romance without becoming cloying.

It’s hard to overstate how refreshing it is to see a kids’ movie where the characters bear some resemblance to actual children. We get the standard dialogue conveying the importance of love and family, and for once I felt like the characters believed it. We see the love Meg and Charles Wallace have for each other, the unbreakable empathy that only two awkward, traumatized siblings can possess. And when the big bad — an entity of pure hatred and evil named IT — drives the two apart, it’s that chemistry which had me cheering for them to find each other, rather than wishing Meg would discard Charles Wallace like the annoying little punk he could have easily been.

The love between siblings is far from the most complex relationship in the film. That title belongs to Meg and her father, Alex, played by Chris Pine. Though we seem him primarily in flashbacks, Alex’s 4-year-long disappearance, naturally caused by IT, drives the film. At the beginning of the film, Meg both misses and resents her father. Most films would take the easy path — rescue Dad, hug and kiss, one big happy family again. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say their relationship remains complicated right through to the end credits.

I’d be remiss not to mention the visuals of the film. There’s been some griping about the “lettuce leaf” creature which appeared in most of the film’s trailers, and … it’s not great. Its presence in the weakest part of the film — the colorful, conflict-free utopia of Uriel — doesn’t help matters. Still, aside from this stumble, I found the effects to be bombastic when needed but otherwise subtle. DuVernay uses color, costumes and perspective, more than overpowering CGI, to draw the audience into L’Engle’s universe. Despite the Disney-sized budget, this feels more like an art film than a blockbuster, more THX-1138 than The Phantom Menace.

So why the comparison to 2001, known for its sometimes laborious focus on visual effects? Because the films are surprisingly similar in how they approach storytelling. I’ve seen A Space Odyssey several times, and yet even now I’d have a hard time pitching a compelling plot summary. Humans find alien thing, guy goes into space, his computer goes wacky, he goes into Weird Space, he finds a space baby. Uh … the end?

While A Wrinkle in Time is not quite that inscrutuble, it is similarly focused on mood and theme over plot. If you’re looking for all the twists and turns of a Game of Thrones episode, or the nitty-gritty worldbuilding of an Asimov novel, you’re out of luck here. Meg’s otherworldly guardians might as well be fairy godmothers for as much of their backstory as we get. Mind-powered lightspeed travel is handwaved, and excised is the novel’s famous explanation about traveling between two points on a plane by wrinkling the space between them. (Curiously, this scene is highlighted in most of the film’s promotional material. I don’t doubt that the first act’s pacing issues are responsible for putting it on the cutting room floor)

Approaching the film from a magical realist lens, however, left me feeling astonished. In one of the movie’s final montages, Meg uses her mind to FTL travel (“tesser”) on her own, a feat she spent most of the film unable to achieve. If the other similarities weren’t enough, the resemblance of this scene to 2001’s infamous “Star Gate” sequence drives the comparison home. If you find the latter as enthralling me, you may end up loving A Wrinkle in Time as much as I did. I hope you do. Ava DuVernay and her crew have crafted as empathetic, as personal and as deliciously strange a movie as I’ve seen in years. She deserves the chance to do it again.

Relearn What You Have Learned

Comparing Criticisms of ‘The Last Jedi’ to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

I don’t relish playing the “Pop Culture Defense Force” role. I really don’t. Star Wars is and probably always will be massively successful, and a bunch of dumb Tweets isn’t going to change that. I should just ignore them.

But.

I have a fanboy conniption when I see people say The Last Jedi is a betrayal of canon. If the movie didn’t work for you, fine. There are valid criticisms to be made about the pacing, the script, the effects. I don’t agree with those criticisms, but they’re valid.

What’s not valid is claiming The Last Jedi isn’t Star Wars, or that it doesn’t understand previous films. It understands. In fact, it understands so much it hurts.

But instead of diving deep into the character motivations and themes (gotta have something for future posts!), I thought I’d compare some of the common criticisms of The Last Jedi to The Empire Strikes Back.  After all, the latter is widely considered the best film in the series. Surely if The Last Jedi is such a black sheep, the best Star Wars film ever made will avoid its pitfalls, right?

Finn and Rose’s mission was a failure. They just made things worse!

This is an increasingly common hot take in the Twittersphere, and man, it’s one of the worst. Let’s start with the fact that ‘learn from your failures’ is one of the essential themes of the film. Yoda quite literally beats Luke over the head with this. Dealing with mistakes is an essential part of every single plotline in the film.

Comparing this to Empire Strikes Back, we see the same themes of failure. Luke’s arrogance makes him quit his training, face Vader unprepared and generally screw things up. Nothing he does in this film is successful, none of it helps the rebellion or hurts the Empire, and everyone would have been better off if he hadn’t done anything at all.

Han and Leia spend the entire movie running from the Empire, and in the end, they’re caught anyway. Han is turned into a popsicle while Leia and Chewie barely escape and end up worse off than they were the beginning of the movie.

Of course, everyone knows the Empire is not only engaging despite our heroes’ failures, but because of them. They inspire essential character growth that is interesting to watch as it happens and integral for the final chapter in the trilogy.

Likewise, Finn’s failure — and DJ’s betrayal — informs his decision to be “rebel scum” (a decision that he doesn’t quite fully understand, and one that Rose thankfully saves him from executing stupidly). He sees the cost of DJ’s ‘success,’ and he rejects it. He would rather fail than throw his conscience under the bus. That seems like a trite lesson, and it can be–except that most stories ultimately give the hero a win in the end, making the ‘lesson’ pointless.

Finn’s failure has consequences. It doesn’t secretly save the Resistance. It gets people killed. It would be easier for Finn to take DJ’s way out. To run. That he chooses not to is far more powerful than it would be if Finn had turned out to be the Big Damn Hero. Regardless of the plot boxes it ticks, the story provides crucial character growth.

Fine, but the story was still empty. Nothing happened!

Here’s what actually happens, plot-wise, in The Empire Strikes Back. If someone skipped from Ep. IV to Ep. VI, these are the essential plot points they would need to know:

  • Luke meets Yoda and learns that Vader might be his dad
  • Han is captured by Jabba.

“But wait!” you cry out. “That skips all of the character development! The romance! The new characters, the themes, the wounds!”

Yep, and ignoring the Canto Bight plot does the exact same thing. As I said in the introduction, I think criticisms about the editing, pacing, etc. are fair game. But the assertion that Rose and Finn’s subplot adds nothing is a fundamental misunderstanding of this film’s goals. To wit, without the Canto Bight plot:

  • Finn doesn’t join the resistance. Yes, some people may have forgotten this, but throughout The Force Awakens, Finn is not actually a rebel. In fact, the film never resolves the fact that he wants to escape the war entirely, and only joins the Resistance mission because he wants to rescue Rey. He begins this film immediately trying to get as far away from the doomed rebel fleet as he can. Without the Canto Bight plot, without meeting DJ, without seeing Rose’s strength and persistence, there is nothing motivating Finn to fight the First Order instead of running from them.
  • The Resistance doesn’t meet Broom Boy. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes. Who cares if they inspire some slave kids? Hundreds of resistance fighters died because of what they did! But Broom Boy is one of the most important characters in the story. The film ends on a shot of him staring into the stars, instead of on our heroes gathered in the Falcon, and this speaks volumes. This is the shot the filmmakers wanted to leave us with. This is the character they wanted us to focus on. Not the present, but the future. The future of the Resistance, and possibly the Jedi as well. Without Canto, we see none of this, and the Resistance plot becomes the same old “white hats vs. black hats” battle that was fun in Star Wars but has since gotten stale. The Canto Bight plot shows us the real source of rebellions: injustice and inequality, not death stars and tie fighters.
  • Speaking of good vs. evil, no Canto also means no DJ and no discussion of the war machine subtly present in all Star Wars films (including the prequels!) Though the film’s military-industrial criticism is understated, it is nevertheless meaningful. “Let me learn you something. It’s all a machine,” might be my favorite line in the movie. And I suspect we haven’t seen the last of DJ, or what he represents.

“Rey is a Mary Sue! She is strong enough to beat Kylo and a horde of Praetorian Guards without any real training!”

Let’s take a look at what training Luke had prior to his duel with Darth Vader (in which he at least held his own):

  • Used his lightsaber to play with a training remote on the Falcon for about five minutes
  • Trained with Yoda for somewhere between two weeks and two months. There is never any indication of any direct combat training in this time.
  • That’s literally all of it

By contrast, Rey at least knows the basics of combat from her time on Jakku, so her maneuvers against the guards are not surprising. But Empire makes clear that tangibly using the Force is not something that necessarily needs years of training. To some — such as Luke Skywalker — it apparently comes naturally.

What does require years of training is learning how to use the Force responsibly, which is where we come to:

Luke doesn’t act like Luke! He’s a different character!

Well, yeah. It’s been thirty years. He’s lived to see his nephew turn to the Dark Side and murder the rest of his students in cold blood. He’s seen the Empire he thought he defeated rise again, stronger than ever. He’s not the same person he was forty years ago. No one would be.

But anyone who thinks Luke’s mistakes in this story are out of character doesn’t understand Luke’s character. His big screw-up — sensing the dark in Ben Solo and igniting his lightsaber — is seen as some as a massive betrayal of the previous films. Luke would never do threaten violence! And to a FAMILY MEMBER no less!

Except … well…

 

Luke being brash, emotional and quick to violence in the face of the Dark Side is Luke Skywalker’s defining character flaw. “He has too much of his father in him,” Aunt Beru says, and while that quote didn’t originally refer to the Dark Side, George Lucas was certainly mindful of it when he wrote the words, “No. I am your father.”

In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke ignores his masters, rushes to face Vader, loses a hand and very nearly his friends (remember what I said in the first section about most ‘characters make mistakes’ stories pulling their punches?)

They could have given us a Master Luke who had mastered his emotions, who no longer had flaws. But that Luke would have been the same as Obi-Wan in The Empire Strikes Back. A ghost of the past who existed solely to spout platitudes and clarify some plot points so the important characters could act. He would have had no arc. Is that seriously what self-proclaimed Luke fans wanted to see?

And look, I get being unhappy with seeing Luke brooding instead of taking action. There’s that part in all of us who want to see our heroes wreck shop. There’s a reason one of the most pervasive images of Jesus, generally known as a peaceful guy, is him vandalizing a temple.

But, here’s the thing: blaming Rian Johnson for turning Luke into an exile makes no sense. It was The Force Awakens that put Luke on a deserted island, living a hermit’s life while those he left behind struggled. Johnson had two choices: turn Luke into Goku (“No, I’ve just been training in 10x gravity this whole time to become a Super Jedi, let’s go kick Kylo’s ass!”), or turn Luke into a broken man with unresolved issues.

If Johnson wanted Luke to be little more than a cameo, he could have gone with the first option. I’m happy he chose to make Luke a character instead.

There are too many people of color!

I’m just kidding. This is not something anyone said about The Empire Strikes Back. I’m happy it’s something a minority of assholes are saying about The Last Jedi. Racist tears are delicious.

Luke from 'The Last Jedi' grumpily drinking milk

 

NoteDarren Gendron beat me to the punch with a satirical article on this topic over at MovieTimeGuru. You should absolutely read it!

Lucasing the Joint – HERBIE (1965)

Like LOOK AT LIFE, Lucas’s next film, HERBIE, was made for a student film class. Compared with LOOK AT LIFE, HERBIE is much less ambitious. The film is short, only three minutes long including the credits. There are no actors (a trait Lucas might not have realized appealed to him, given his future comments about his distaste for the profession), few concrete images and not even any spoken dialogue, save for a line about improvisation, presumably spoken by the titular Herbie Hancock, that introduces the film.

As Hancock’s jazz piano jams in the background (one suspects Lucas likely didn’t have the rights to this music), the film shows the audience a series of blurry and bizarre images reminiscent of UFO sightings. Even well over halfway into the movie, we’re not quite sure what the lights we’re seeing represent. Is this a shiny black piano being tickled under stage lights? Is there anything real here at all, or is it pure cinematic trickery? It isn’t until the end of the film that we start to comprehend what we’re seeing. A door handle. A window. And then, as the images focus, a 1960s intersection, city lights and vehicles. Roll credits.

As a school project, it’s technically competent. The images have a logical progression. The cuts are well-done. The audio blends pleasingly with the visuals. While it’s simple, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It doesn’t invite repeated viewings or philosophical discussions. It gives us a charming synthesis of lights and music, and finishes. As a film, there’s not much to recommend, though it does foreshadow an obsession with cars and visual effects in his future work. The film reminds me of a modern-day Lexus commercial, which seems like a damning statement, but in reality is a compliment. A student capable of producing an interesting and engaging advertisement is a talented one, and even in its brevity, HERBIE marks Lucas as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Next time, we’ll skip over some minor credits to take a look at FREIHEIT, generally considered Lucas’s first narrative film. See you then!

Lucasing the Joint – Look at LIFE (1965)

Background

Unlike his contemporary, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas did not grow up making films. His major at USC–cinematography–was something of a lark, as he needed something artistic but professional-sounding so as not to arouse the suspicions of his conservative father. He dived into the art form with zeal, however, and was disappointed to find that many of his early classes were more about theory than practical, hands-on filmmaking (those were the days when films was a limited resource!).

His first real filmmaking experience came in an animation class. Students were given a 1-minute section of film and told to run through a series of basic exercises with the animation camera. Lucas, ecstatic to finally have the opportunity to make something real, took it to another level. It’s the equivalent of assigning a spelling test and getting a fully-formed short story in return.

The Film

As a student assignment, it goes above and beyond what’s expected. Look at LIFE is a fully-realized film, clearly reflective of the social strife of the 1960s. As Lucas’s first film, it’s awfully ambitious.

Let’s not be too gushing, however. It’s impressive as a student project, but it’s hard to call it required viewing. It feels very much like the output of a young college man–raw, political, imprecise and a little bit nonsensical. Some of the images are powerful: Martin Luther King Jr. along with images of racial violence (at least implied; it seems likely to me on repeated viewings that several images are taken out of context, which is a sign of clever editing). Some are less striking: a random woman in a bra, possibly an advertisement, which doesn’t suggest much of anything.

In one of the film’s best moments, a haunting biblical narration contrasts love and hate. And then we’re helpfully informed of the film’s end by a cutout reading “END,” followed by an ominous “?” The punctuation is so trite that it’s tempting to read it as a sarcastic joke; but if that’s the case, the tone of the rest of the film does a poor job in helping the viewer reach that conclusion.

In the end, ‘Look at LIFE’ is an interesting beginning to the career of an interesting filmmaker. Like his future films, it’s political, but overly simplistic. It’s technically impressive, with moments of genuine emotion, but also moments of “…huh?”

In any case, it’s freely available online. See what you think!

Lucasing the Joint is a monthly dive into the career of George Lucas, from his early student films to his later behind-the-scenes roles.

Lucas-ing the Joint – The Beginning

Inspired by Brian Jay Jones’s excellent biography, “George Lucas: A Life” (which, if you haven’t read, you should), I’ve decided to do a deep dive into the filmography of Mr. Lucas? Why? Simply because he’s one of the most fascinating directors in existence. Note, of course, that ‘fascinating’ does not necessarily mean ‘best’ or ‘worst’ or ‘most genius’ or ‘most selfless’ or anything like that.

We’ll be starting in May with “Look at LIFE,” an animated tone poem, and George Lucas’s first student film. See you then!