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New Escapist Column! On Black Widow’s Death Sequence in “Avengers: Endgame”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Given that Avengers: Endgame is one year old and that Black Widow was supposed to open today, it seemed appropriate to discuss Black Widow’s death sequence from Endgame.

It has become a cliché in recent years to talk about “subverting expectations”, a term normally employed by fans frustrated with the direction of franchises like Game of Thrones or Star Wars. In short hand, it seems to imply a bad twist, one that undermines the franchise. However, films like Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and shows like Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who employ subversion for very particular purposes, to catch the audience off-guard and to ask interesting questions about the stories that are being told.

In contrast, the death of Black Widow is the worst sort of subversion or twist. It is a cheap “gotcha!”, designed to catch the audience off-guard by taking a sharp swerve away from the story that has been set up and offering a development simply because it’s unexpected and because surprise has inherent value. The result is something very shallow and superficial, a decision that sacrifices an admittedly predictable and cliché story for something that isn’t even a story at all.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Captain Marvel

The biggest problem with Captain Marvel is one of spoiler culture.

“Spoiler culture” is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, and one that is interesting as a facet of cultural consumption that arose parallel with the internet. It is perhaps a logical extension of the manner in which information flows these days. Information travels instantly and in all directions, quickly consumed and quick disseminated. In the nineties, it was easy (or easier) to avoid spoilers to films like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. After all, there was no Twitter or Facebook to share information. If somebody had already seen the film, they had to be physically talking to somebody else to discuss it, and it was posisble to establish the ground rules for the flows of information before the conversation progressed.

In an era where simply being on the internet exposes a person to torrents of information, the advent of “spoiler culture” seems logical and rational. People want to be surprised. People don’t want to know the finer points of a story before witnessing it first hand. People do not want the easter eggs given out or the finer details dissected. This is an understandable response. Having an experience described is no match for actually having that experience first-hand. So a culture has grown up online about preserving surprise and controlling the flow of information. This is fine. This is healthy. This is good. Mostly “spoiler culture” is just common courtesy and common sense. A reviewer should not reveal anything to a reader that they themselves would not want to know.

As with any philosophy, there is a tendency to take things too far. Sometimes “spoiler culture” descends into self-parody. Reviewers were famously told not to reveal any information about the plot of Blade Runner 2049, which ironically made it very hard to sell the movie to a potential audience. Some more extreme adherents felt betrayed when Sony released a trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home before Avengers: Endgame, as if the fact that Sony was making another Spider-Man movie would give away the resolution to the cliffhanger from Avengers: Infinity War. Naturally, Infinity War came with its own massive spoiler-warning from the studio, with reviewers told that “Thanos demands [their] silence.” This despite the fact the ending was lifted directly from a comic.

Captain Marvel embodies the worst impulses of “spoiler culture” because it confuses a logical and organic narrative development for a big twist. There is a reveal that comes around the half-way mark of the two-hour film which fundamentally changes the nature of the story being told. It plays against the story that had been set up to that point, and is positioned as a game-changer. It is a “twist.” It is a “big” moment. It is the kind of development for which Thanos would demand silence. Except it’s not really. It is not an actual twist. It is a plot point. It is a story beat. It is a part of the story that makes a great deal of sense in the context of the story as it is being told. However, Captain Marvel decides to play this game-changing story beat as a revelation.

There are a couple of big issues here. Most obviously, the actual narrative development is quite literally the only way that Captain Marvel could go without becoming something completely and irredeemably monstrous, so it is entirely predictable. (The twist is only a surprise to audience members who genuinely believe that Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie is likely to play out as extreme white nationalist propaganda.) More than that, though, it creates a larger problem with the flow of the story. The decision to play this story beat as a twist means the film has to conceal its hand for the first hour and fifteen minutes. This means that Captain Marvel is almost half-way over before any member of the cast gets any real character development.

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Daredevil – Guilty as Sin (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Part of what is so infuriating about the second season of Daredevil is that fact that there is a lot of good material here.

The issue is nothing as simple as saying “good ideas, terrible execution”, or anything as trite. There are good ideas that are executed well and bad ideas that are handled with a surprisingly deft touch; there are also good ideas that are needlessly squandered and bad ideas that turn out to be exactly as terrible as they initially appear. It isn’t even that there are clearly discernible unambiguous flaws. Everything is a mix. For all the issues with the writing of the Punisher and Elektra, Jon Bernthal and Elodie Yung do great work with the material afforded to them.

Let us pray...

Let us pray…

The second season of Daredevil is very much a curate’s egg of a television season. There are good bits and bad bits. There is breathtaking ambition and incredible miscalculation in equal measure. The series is not entirely a failure, but it is far from a success. With Guilty as Sin, the show clumsily repositions itself as a morality play about the conflict between good and evil within the soul as Elektra Natchios. However, there is a similar conflict brewing at the heart of the show.

Even in the season’s strongest moments, there are clear weaknesses shining through. Even in the season’s weakest moments, its strongest elements are frequently in play.

Eye see.

Eye see.

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Night Stalker – Malum (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

Malum is a mess of an episode.

It has a number of very strong ideas, and some interesting twists along the way. However, the script has no idea how to fashion any of those ideas into a compelling narrative with tangible stakes. Instead, Malum gets tangled and twisted in its own wealth of story ideas. Anything worth exploring in Malum is suffocated by the sheer volume of material, affording the audience no opportunity to care about what is happening or invest in any of the supporting characters.

He's so proud of it, he put his name on it...

He’s so proud of it, he put his name on it…

It is a shame, because the basic ingredients of Malum are among the most interesting ideas of the show’s first season. Throwing out the script, the underlying story ideas of Malum are strong enough to support an engaging and exciting episode. Malum has a fantastic cast, with veteran supporting actors Tony Todd and Fredric Lehne making guest appearances. It also has stakes that should be very emotionally affecting, a very powerful central issue, and a structure that lends itself to this sort of horror storytelling.

It is just a shame that none of this actually works.

Bloody murder...

Bloody murder…

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The X-Files (Topps) #24 – Silver Lining (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

After the wacky and delightful excess of Donor, John Rozum steers the comic back into much more traditional fare.

There is little in Silver Lining that the comic hasn’t touched on quite recently. Guest writer Kevin J. Anderson already wrote a “vampiric object” story about a killer camera the two-part Family Portrait story only a few months earlier. John Rozum had already drafted a “haunted object drives a man to kill, but the voices are only in his head” story for The Silent Blade, a short story written specifically for The X-Files Magazine. As a result, Silver Lining feels a little overly familiar. There is nothing here that the reader hasn’t seen before; and recently, too.

Fashioning a story...

Fashioning a story…

Silver Lining reinforces the sense that Topps and Ten Thirteen are making a conscious effort to frame The X-Files as a classic horror comic book. Certainly, Silver Lining adopts the same basic storytelling elements associated with those pulpy adventures from the fifties; there is a scientist who unwittingly unleashes a horror upon the world, a physically deformed villain, a moral about how beauty is only skin deep and that vanity is called a “deadly” sin for a reason. There’s even a poetic justice to the story, where the guest villain finds themselves tormented in an ironic fashion.

There’s nothing particularly objectionable about Silver Lining, beyond how repetitive it feels. It feels like The X-Files has taken something of a step backwards since Topps and Ten Thirteen decided to part ways with writer Stefan Petrucha. The first sixteen issues of The X-Files felt like something of a Vertigo comic book, an ambitious horror anthology with no shortage of big ideas. Now the comic feels very much like an old E.C. comic without the nostalgia factor. The decline is quite striking, but no less disheartening for it.

Moral decay...

Moral decay…

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Non-Review Review: Gone Girl

The stories that people tell.

In many respects, Gone Girl is a story about narratives. It is a film about how we construct and manage our own narratives, and the narratives of those around us. Facts are malleable, reality is arbitrary. Everything that happens exists as a detail to be woven into some sort of story. Inevitably, stories differ, narratives conflict. The story that Nick Dunne tells about the disappearance of his wife differs from the version of events presented in her diary; the narrative that the public and the press construct is rather distinct from that constructed by those inside the story.

gonegirl3

Gone Girl itself plays with this idea, playing with the audience. It starts out as a very familiar and almost cliché story. Nick Dunne was trapped in a loveless marriage. His wife disappears. People begin to suspect that perhaps Dunne had something to do in the disappearance. Even the audience isn’t entirely sure what to make of Nick as the details add up against him. The closer we look, the more flaws begin to appear, the more the evidence seems to mount.

And then, the story changes. Gone Girl pulls the rug out for underneath the audience, becoming something radically different and almost surreal. It’s a dazzling, brilliant, crazy, ambitious and ingenious. Gone Girl is a startlingly confident twisty film that plays with the audience with a macabre glee that is contagious.

gonegirl8

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Straight Up, With A Twist…

In the run-up to Inception, I got thinking about Christopher Nolan’s extensive filmography, and how many movies of his involve massive twists in the last third (The Dark Knight is arguably the exception, unless you consider the addition of a second villain to be a ‘twist’). It got me thinking about the nature of plot twists and how they can essentially harm and help a movie.

Yes, this would be the best twist ending ever...

Note: This article is going to discuss twists on the ends of movies and – as such – might be fairly heavy on the old spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

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No Man is an Island: The Ending of Shutter Island…

I’ve probably said too much in my review of Shutter Island already, but the ending of the film merits discussion on its own, away from the chance of spoiling the viewing experience for anyone – much like I did with the ending of Inglourious Basterds.

Maybe Elias Koteas can shed some light on the ending...

Note: As the title and text directly above imply (or explicitly state), this post is about the ending of a movie currently in major release that you may or may not have seen. Reading ahead may ruin your enjoyment of the film if you haven’t already seen it. You have been warned.

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Non-Review Review: Unbreakable

When people hear the name M. Night Shyamalan, a lot of different films pop into their heads. Everyone knows The Sixth Sense – most know Signs. He’s ridiculed for The Village and The Happening. The Lady in the Water slips under the radar, but that might be a good thing. What tends to get forgotten in the midst of all this is Unbreakable, which is probably the best movie that Shyamalan has directed. He’s known as something of a one-trick pony, relying on twist endings that throw his audience for a loop and – though Unbreakable contains its own novel twist in the tale – this is the one film on his filmography that doesn’t depend on that reveal. It’s a movie that stands up to the scrutiny of a second viewing answering questions and actually seeming painstakingly obvious in retrospect. It’s so good that it barely missed my list of the top 50 movies of the decade.

Holding out for a hero...

Note: As alluded above, the ending of this movie is a key part of discussion about it. Rather than splitting this post in half, I’m going to discuss it below. Don’t worry, I’ll give you a head’s up. I would make one recommendation though: don’t spoil the movie for yourself. It works better whent he audience doesn’t know quite what they are expecting. You could make the case about most movies, but I think that this movie in particular deserves to be seen sight unseen with an open mind.

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What Constitutes a Spoiler?

What constitutes a spoiler? I mean, really? Is discussing anything about the ending of a film a spoiler? What about talking about a twist earlier on, or an underlying theme or premise that pays off at the end? Is that a spoiler? How long does a movie have to be out before you can talk about it without worrying that you’ll spoil the ending for some poor unsuspecting individual who deserves to see the movie and take it in without having their perception coloured? Some stuff got me thinking about this and I’m not really sure I know where the line falls.

I see a twist coming...

I see a twist coming...

Spoiler: This article contains spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers. But that was kind of obvious from the header, wasn’t it? I wonder if anyone ever actually heeds these warnings. Tell you what, cycle down to the end of the article and leave a comment if you do. Nah, I’m just kidding, but still… spoilers ahoy!

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