So You’ve Discovered A Secret Magical Society With Wizards And Monsters And Shit

So You’ve Discovered A Secret Magical Society With Wizards And Monsters And Shit


Some questions to ask a few people who seem trustworthy, with followups


  • Do you people believe in a god or gods?
    • Is this theological belief, where we must have faith, or are these provably real creatures who might smite me?
      • If real:
        • Please rate their approximate power on a scale of Small Gods to Paradise Lost
        • How does one stay on their good side, assuming they have one?
        • Are any of them pure evil?
          • How sure are we about that?
  • So magic is real. Can I do magic?
    • Is anything horrible going to happen to me if I do?
    • Are the following subtypes of magic possible?
      • Explosions
      • Flying
      • Telekinesis
      • Telepathy
        • Are there rules about telepathy?
          • If not, why not?
      • Invisibility
        • How do I keep invisible people out?
      • Talking With Animals
        • Ethical implications of talking animals?
      • Teleportation
        • Please describe possible disasters
      • Time Travel
        • Please describe the rules, with diagrams
      • Shapechanging
        • How do I know you’re not the Dark Lord?
      • Mind Control
        • How do I know you’re not under the control of the Dark Lord?
      • Love spells/potions
        • Are those legal in this jurisdiction?
          • Are there less creepy jurisdictions?
    • Is magical power hereditary?
      • Doesn’t that have disturbing implications for society?
  • Are prophecies for real?
    • Please provide detailed examples of prophecies that turned out to be true.
    • Who makes these prophecies?
      • Can we use them to play the stock market or bet on sporting events?
    • Are prophets required to be super-cryptic?
      • Can we crowd-source prophetic interpretation to Reddit?
  • Are the following mythological entities or creatures real?
    • Santa Claus
    • Tooth Fairy
      • What does she do with the teeth?
    • Dragons
      • Can I ride one?
    • Centaurs
      • Ditto
        • Not in a sexy way?
          • Maybe in a sexy way.
            • Clarification on human/monster sex in general.
    • Elves
      • Multiple kinds?
        • How do I tell them apart?
      • Special rules they must obey?
      • Subtypes:
        • Giggling, whimsical faires
        • Stern, wise wood-guardians
        • Immortal, amoral schemers
    • Dwarves
      • Subtypes:
        • Drunken, Scottish hooligans
        • Wise makers of powerful objects
          • Take commissions?
    • Hobbits/Gnomes/Halflings/Kender
      • Safely ignored or dangerous menace?
    • Talking Animals
      • All animals or just special ones?
        • Popularity of vegan diets?
    • Vampires
      • Subtypes:
        • Bestial and evil
        • Urbane but still evil
        • Sexy
          • Not evil?
            • Are we sure?
              • Popular dating services.
            • Should I just become one? It sounds awesome.
      • Weaknesses:
        • Garlic?
        • Holy Water/Symbols?
          • Which religion?
            • Troubling implications.  (See gods.)
        • Stakes through the heart?
          • Works on everyone though
        • Sunlight?
    • Werewolves
      • Subtypes:
        • Murderous beasts
        • Noble and loyal
          • Spread by biting or only hereditary?
            • Just bite me already.
          • Full moon — important or bullshit?
    • Zombies
      • Minor nuisance or apocalyptic threat?
    • Ghosts
      • Actually the spirits of dead people?
        • Does this provably imply there’s an afterlife? (See gods, above.)
  • Muggles
    • Do we call them that?
    • How many people know about magic?
      • How do we keep people from knowing about magic?
        • Why do we keep people from knowing about magic?
          • If magic could cure cancer, etc, aren’t we history’s greatest monsters for hogging it?
    • How effective is magic compared to guns and so forth?
    • Are we:
      • Afraid of them?
      • Vaguely paternalistic toward them?
      • Allowed to have sex with them?
  • Magic Rings (or other magic objects)
    • Possible powers?
      • Important caveats?

The Madness of Queen Daenerys

Ooooookay. So I talk about Game of Thrones on Twitter from time to time, but it’s hard to do without adding to the minefield of spoilers already out there, and as someone who watches on Monday I hate doing that. SO. Blog post time! I’m writing this after S08E05 “Bells”, and it may be obsolete by this Sunday. Who knows! But there are spoilers through that episode below.

Spoiler break/saxophone solo!

? ? ? ?

Okay. So, like most of the internet, I watched this episode and was … not thrilled. Because I am hashtag on brand, the stuff I immediately complained about was various tactical and world-building failures, and these are pretty awful. Why do armies in Westros keep lining up outside their defensive walls, for example? If Cersei is assuming the scorpions will keep Drogon away, sending the Golden Company out to fight a field battle is just kind of dumb. Speaking of scorpions, uh, what happened to them? They were deadly accurate in the previous episode over incredible range with a high rate of fire, and in this episode Dany’s brilliant plan to destroy them is just … not to get hit. If she was going to do that she could have sunk the Iron Fleet last episode and saved Missendei. The most impressive Darwin Award, as usual, goes to Jon Snow and his merry band, who decide to run further in to the city that their dragon-wielding queen has just started torching. Great job guys!

Dany’s plan, even from the beginning, makes no sense, since she doesn’t need to risk her army at all. If we’re assuming that for some reason Drogon can take out the scorpions, all she has to do is fly to the Red Keep, annihilate Cersei and all her closest advisors (which Drogon is apparently easily capable of) and then wait for everyone else to give up. The Golden Company certain isn’t going to fight for an employer buried under a ton of rubble.

Blah blah blah. I could go on. (I did, actually, about the question of what tactics to use against a zombie army. tl;dr doesn’t matter, you’re screwed.) But these things are honestly not why this episode, and this season as a whole, are bad. They don’t help. Logic and consistency are the underpinnings of story, the skeleton holding up the juicy parts. They’re not what it’s about, but and a few failures are easy to forgive, but the worse it gets the more everything starts to look flabby. However, to my mind, there are larger problems, and two of the big ones a the substitution of spectacle for emotional connection and Dany’s broken character arc.

(Note: there are other problems! Race problems! Gender problems! The frankly bizarre decision to finish with the Night King first, as though he were a mini-boss, is hard to assess not having seen the finale, but I’m pretty confident it was a terrible choice. My analogy has been it’s like if Return of the Jedi had Luke defeat the Emperor, then go back and deal with Jabba. I mean, plausible, I suppose, but structurally/dramatically nonsense. Anyway, these are just the subset of problems I’m writing about today.)

I joked to my friends after episode five that I think the problem with this season is that they have too much money. And that’s … not quite a joke. The amount of production work lavished on these episodes is mind-boggling, but I can’t help but feel like — especially in the case of “The Long Night” — it’s an attempt to cover for something missing. Like the showrunners know that their ending, plot- and character-wise, isn’t especially satisfying, but they’re trying to make up for it with sheer awesomeness: more dragons, more zombies, more cities exploding. But it doesn’t work if there’s nothing happening.

I found myself literally bored during these episodes, especially the middle section of “Long Night” and the back half of “Bells”. There are long stretches where the screen is full of movement, people are screaming and burning and getting eaten, but it feels like nothing is happening because the situation isn’t changing from moment to moment, from shot to shot. In “Long Night” it’s these endless montages of people fighting zombies — ok, yeah, still fighting, ok, he’s also still fighting, ok, sure, still fighting, we get it. In “Bells” it’s actually even worse because it’s mostly not even main characters we theoretically care about, there’s just shot after shot of a street of buildings exploding and people running out on fire. Which like, yeah! This is a big event. We understand. But it feels indulgent.

What it comes down to for me is people say they like spectacle, it’s what they remember, but what really draws them is emotion. In Lord of the Rings, we remember Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields, and those definitely were big special-effects extravaganzas, but they also both pack a hell of an emotional punch. Things happen, during the battle, that get us excited — in “Bells”, once Dany starts burning down the city, it’s all over but the shouting. All that’s left to find out is which characters survive.

So that brings us to Dany. And here’s where the show has, to my mind, fallen down most badly. Game of Thrones has always been about understandably awful characters — the kind of people who are fascinating to watch because you can sort of see why they do things, even though it’s terrible. Jaime and Tyrion, Stannis and Melisandre, Varys and Littlefinger. And Dany is very much one of these characters — as various people have noted, it’s not like this is an out-of-nowhere face-heel turn for her, she’s committed her share of war crimes and atrocities.

It feels like the burning of King’s Landing as her tipping point, the final straw for Jon Snow and her other allies, could be a thing that works. The possibility is there. I keep seeing apologia for “Bells” citing all her past problems, trying to say that the show has been building up to this, and … yeah, it’s definitely a thing. To get meta-textual for a minute, I suspect this was one of the infamous “three surprises” that George told D&D, the other two being Hodor’s origin and death and Jon Snow’s parentage. All the Dany-flirts-with-madness stuff was there in the early seasons because it was there in the books, and later because they knew they were headed for this moment.

But they have absolutely fucked it up bigtime.

The problem is, the staging of the big moment — the point where Dany decides to burn the city down — makes it so that the only option for Dany’s character is that she has just gone full-on ax-crazy, underpants-on-head insane. And that’s not a logical progression of her character arc. What we’ve seen from her is obsession and a need for vengeance, neither of which point in the direction of “burn the city down after it surrenders”. Burn it down before it surrenders, on the ground of military expediency — sure. Burn down the Red Keep even after surrender, on the ground of revenge against Cersei, sure. Any number of atrocities against Cersei and her henchmen personally would be totally in character for Dany (and horrifying to Jon Snow et al) and could serve a similar purpose. But the only way to get to her burning down the city, under the circumstances they gave us, is just … she’s crazy now, and her decisions don’t have to make sense. She passes out of the realm of those “awful but understandable” characters and into just being a loon. (Note that in “Bells” we don’t see Dany again after she decides to burn the city — Drogon is just there, like a natural disaster.)

And the tragic thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. Offering rewrites of stuff like this is always a mixed bag, because often so much would have to change, but in this case you can sort of see what they were getting at so a better way feels tantalizingly close. So let’s think about the following scenario:

Imagine that, somehow, Team Dany comes up with a way to negate Cersei’s scorpions. Maybe they do a commando mission to burn them or something. Whatever happens, when the smoke clears it’s now obvious that King’s Landing is at Drogon’s mercy. But! Cersei reveals her last gambit — she’s re-created the Mad King’s wildfire plan, and placed caches of the stuff all over town. If Drogon attacks, it will touch it all off and everyone in the city dies in the conflagration. She demands that her enemies surrender, with the helpless citizens as hostage.

Now Jon and Dany can have an argument about burning the city that makes some kind of sense. Jon could say, there’s a million innocent people in that city, we can’t do this, we have to back off and find another way or cut a deal with Cersei. Dany could say, if we back off our army will melt away, we have to finish this now, the Iron Throne is mine by rights. And then, eventually, Dany goes off on her own and flies to the city herself, confronts Cersei, and burns everything.

The key here is that this kind of madness does follow from what we know of Dany so far. She struggles to be a good queen, to care about the lives of her subjects. But she’s prone to violent flares of temper, and she has an absolute obsession with the right to the throne of Westros, in spite of everything. Burning the city fits with her character, and while Jon and company would still consider it a horrible atrocity, setting up the final Jon/Dany confrontation, Dany would retain that quality of being understandable that has made the show’s best characters work. It’s not the only viable scenario, obviously, but it’s an example of the kind of thing that would work better.

(It also brings to mind the weird lack of focus in these episodes. Like after all this time, all this buildup, after Missendei’s death and the plotting and Euron’s killing Rhaegal and on and on … Dany and Cersei never come face to face? There’s no scene where Cersei is drinking her wine in the tower, and Drogon rises up in front of her, huge and menacing. Instead the climactic moment of the fall of the Red Keep is dedicated to a confrontation between … Sandor and Gregor Clegane, two characters whose animosity hasn’t been mentioned in like four seasons, one of whom is already dead. It’s frankly baffling.)

Anyway, this is why I think you can say both, a) Dany’s potential madness was foreshadowed in the show, but also b) “Bells” was deeply unsatisfying and butchered her character. Because “madness” doesn’t just mean “now this character’s actions stop making any sense at all,” at least with competent writers.

NOTE TO PEOPLE OF THE FUTURE, SPECIFICALLY AFTER NEXT SUNDAY: So, an odd detail is that there are definitely pots of bursting wildfire in the city while it burns, and I’m not sure why. It’s barely possible that they’ll try to pull something like, “Dany knew that Cersei had mined the city and burning it with Drogon … stopped that somehow?” If so, I’m calling bullshit on that in advance, for all kinds of reasons…

Movies, Silly

Avengers Endgame and being Comic Book Guy (Spoilers)

(Spoilers for Endgame start somewhere below.)

I have to fight, sometimes, not to become Comic Book Guy.

Note that this is not intended to run down comic book fans of either gender in general, but rather a reference to the Simpsons character who is never given another name. This guy:

If you’ve never watched the show, he is the archetypal entitled fan who nitpicks minor continuity issues and generally seems to hate all the things he claims to love. I generally don’t go that far, I hope, but I am kind of a nerd for world-building and premise logic, which sometimes leads me down that path.

We talk about “plot holes” in bad movies sometimes, but people often seem to get the causation backward — movie X is full of “plot holes” and therefore it’s bad. This is self-evidently nonsense since plenty of good movies have glaring inconsistencies and logic problems, too. We just notice them more in bad movies, because the badness (which is usually more about character, tone, and other less tangible elements) predisposes us to look for them, and they’re easy to snark about because they’re concrete in a way that an emotionally uninteresting character is not. So The Phantom Menace has tons of logic problems, and I didn’t like it. But The Empire Strikes Back does too (how long was Luke on Dagoba? how does the Falcon get from Hoth to Bespin with no hyperdrive?) and that movie is amazing.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I want to write about some of the little nitpicks in Avengers Endgame, because I am who I am and it amuses me to do so, but that these should be taken as gentle ribbing of a movie that I really, really liked, maybe even loved. It’s really hard to assess Endgame, actually, because there has literally never been anything like it before — the level of ambition and follow-through that made the MCU possible is unprecedented. That the movie exists at all, as the culmination of a ten-year, 22-movie, multi-billion-dollar story arc, is a miracle, and that it’s great on top of all that is almost unbelievable. It’s easy for these things to seem inevitable in hindsight, given the resources available to Disney/Marvel, but look at every other attempt to create a cinematic universe and wonder what might have been.

This is a movie that embraces “fanservice” in the purest sense — not gratuitous T&A or power-fantasy stuff, but doing the wrap-up in a way that lets them put in nods to so many of the plotlines and secondary characters we look back on after a decade. It would have been so easy to make this movie simple; to leave out the time-travel plot and just have the Avengers have to fight some new bad guys or something before finally confronting Thanos. You could even keep the last hour or so just about as-is. But they didn’t do that. For a franchise that’s often described as “safe”, there’s some amazing creative risks in here — this is the capstone of a bid-budget action-adventure superhero franchise that doesn’t start its first action set-piece for almost two hours.

Anyway. There’s some legit criticism of the movie to be made. Black Widow gets the short end of the stick, as always apparently. The all-girl teamup during the battle is a cool moment but feels … dunno, like Marvel taking a victory lap that’s kind of unearned, given the franchise’s somewhat fraught record with female characters? I’m a little weirded out by the prospect of Guardians 3 having Gamora’s memories be reset, although I really really hope it has Lebowski-Thor bumming around. But many people are writing about those, and so having spent a thousand words on throat-clearing and caveats, let me get to what everyone’s really here for — ethical implications of time travel. Right?

After the first movie came out, I wrote a little bit about everyone who dropped the ball and could have thwarted Thanos’ plan. I was curious as to what the deal with Doctor Strange’s plan was — he suddenly offers to give Thanos the Time Stone to save Iron Man, counter to his earlier advice. Presumably, he figured out in his time-mediation that Tony is the key to eventual victory over Thanos, since he a) comes up with the time machine, and b) ultimately does the self-sacrificial snap that destroys Thanos. (Although the Avengers don’t seem to be exactly short on self-sacrifice so b) doesn’t seem that critical?)

However, if Strange doesn’t give the Time Stone to Thanos, then we’re led to believe Thanos never achieves ultimate power. He probably kills Strange and Tony and maybe everyone else but he can’t do the snappy thing. And Strange himself certainly implies that even if he saves Tony getting to the good ending is a pretty unlikely shot. So what this boils down to is that Strange takes an extremely high-risk gamble here with the stakes being the lives of half of everyone in the universe. If he gives Thanos the stone, there’s a small chance that everyone survives (except Tony) but a much larger chance that Thanos just wins. (And, given his speech in Endgame, possibly destroys the universe entirely.) If Strange keeps the stone, then he and Tony definitely die, and maybe some more people on Earth, but the rest of the universe is probably safe. Basically, I feel like Doctor Strange went for the small chance of saving his own skin, risking the safety of untold trillions of sentients. Nice heroing, Cumberbatch!

Apropos of very little, during the final battle, how come none of the heroes thought of … like … using the Infinity Gauntlet? I realize that doing the epic stuff carries the risk of self-immolation (although annihilating Thanos and his army seems kind of on a different scale than half the universe, which is a bit unfair to poor Tony) but that’s not the only thing the stones do, right? Like when Thanos was gathering them they made him nearly invincible, and able to turn things into bubbles and so on. It seems like Emo Hawkeye could have taken advantage of that, or Spider-Man, or anyone really.

While we’re on the subject of annihilating Thanos’ entire army, is this really morally acceptable behavior? Did those guys like … sign up? If you dust Thanos and maybe his four named henchmen, would the rest of them surrender? I know some of them are just horrible monsters, but there’s various armed humanoids in there too. This fits with Marvel’s general moral standard of “human with painted skin = has moral standing, CGI with hidden face = kill without mercy”.

Anyway. TIME TRAVEL! Time travel always causes logic problems so we don’t need to get too into that, the movie actually lampshades it pretty awesomely. They establish very clearly that changing the past has no effect on the future so we’re apparently in some kind of branching-timeline situation. Although they then break that rule since Cap goes back into the past and turns up as an old man, which either implies you can change the future or the future is predestined. But that part was incredibly awesome anyway.

The problem here is that there are many better plans available than the extremely fraught one they end up going with. It’s never clear if there’s a time limit for them staying in the past — they’re very excited that three of the stones are in New York, which implies that there is, since that makes them easy to get, but then it’s never really mentioned. There’s a whole lot of urgency, actually, that’s really sort of bogus, since there’s no ongoing threat at the time they start the time travel. Notably, they could have given Captain Marvel a call, and waited a month or something for her to get back, and then sent her into the past instead of like … Warmachine or Rocket.

Or — and here’s where things really get squirrely — they could have just gone back to get more Pym particles. Send Scott to talk to Hank and his earlier self pre-Thanos, load up with like a truckload of the things, and then you have as many tries as you need. It’d be easy to handwave this with some technical impossibility except that Cap and Tony do exactly that to get home from 1970.

This leads us to the biggest issue, which is really hard to explain away. Black Widow dies, and Tony dies, and everyone’s sad. We have some handwaving about how the Infinity Stones can’t bring them back. (Although — I get that this applies to Nat due to her having sacrificed herself for the Soul Stone, but does it apply to Tony? What about Loki?)

However. You have a time machine. It can bring people from the past to the future, without changing the future — it brings Thanos and his whole starship, including a bunch of people who are dead in the present, including Gamora who was sacrificed for the Soul Stone. It’s hard to see any logical reason why you couldn’t set it to just before you did the first time jump, grab Nat and Tony, and then hey presto they’re alive again! (Arguably you could do this for literally anyone who has ever died tragically.) You could also use the time machine to copy people by repeatedly bringing them from the past, so you could have an army of Hulks or whatever if you wanted. It’s … um, hmm. Let’s hope the knowledge of how to use the thing died with Tony. (Except OH WAIT Cap is using it later…)

Again, apropos of nothing, but is it me or is it kind of unclear how the whole Soul Stone sacrifice thing works? Like, Red Skull tells Thanos that he has to sacrifice what he loves the most, so he kill Gamora. How exactly does Black Widow killing herself count as the same thing for Hawkeye? Or … if Nat is making the sacrifice, does that imply she she herself is what she loves the most? That seems pretty self-evidently false, right?

Whew. Okay. I think I’ve got all that out of my system. Once again, I love this movie, so don’t let my nitpicks count against it. Stories are a hell of a lot more than the sum of their plotholes, and I don’t want to contribute to the idea that movie criticism is playing gotcha with sci-fi logic. If we psychotically over-analyze things, it should be because we love them. =)

Content, Movies, Silly

Everyone Who Dropped the Ball in INFINITY WAR (Spoilers)

I liked this movie a lot. If you haven’t seen it, go do that. SPOILERS HERE.







Right? Okay. So leaving the theater, it occurred to me that the heroes actually had a ton of chances to stop Thanos’ plan, and the fact that they didn’t manage it is sort of astonishing. Just for fun, here’s a list of everyone who, by not being slightly smarter/more ruthless, bears direct responsibility for the death of half the universe:

  • Loki could have left the Tesseract behind on Asgard to be destroyed.  This is maybe half a point, since it’s not 100% clear this actually would have destroyed it.  But later events imply that the stones are actually destructible, so maybe?  (Side note: having the stones be indestructible would make waaaaaaay more sense.)
  • Loki gives up the Tesseract to save Thor.  As will become a theme, it’s not super clear where he had it or what would happen if he actually held out on Thanos, but everyone acts as though he’s actually giving Thanos something.
  • Doctor Strange could have destroyed the Time gem immediately on hearing Thanos was doing stuff.  They handwave that he’s sworn to defend it but you would think not giving Thanos unlimited power would take priority?
  • Doctor Strange decides to bring the Time stone with, instead of leaving it somewhere slightly safer then hanging around his neck.  If the spell really does prevent anyone from taking it, even when he dies, he could also have safeguarded it by dying?
  • Iron Man decides to take the ship (and the Time stone) to Titan.  Not taking it back to Earth is understandable, but you know what other option was available?  Literally anywhere else in the universe.  The one thing Thanos emphatically does not have throughout the movie is perfect knowledge of where the stones are, because he’s constantly asking people.  So just like … go lose yourself somewhere?  Space is big.
  • Gamora goes along with the plan to go to Knowhere and … do something?  It’s really not clear what the actual plan is since if Thor, Hulk, and Loki got curb-stomped by Thanos it’s pretty clear Starlord, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis aren’t going to be able to take him out.  Maybe they thought they could get the stone first and run away, in which case you can add Starlord for not just turning the ship around and running away.
  • Gamora for not killing herself once it was clear Thanos was there, or indeed earlier.  That seems harsh but she did ask Starlord to kill her, so she was obviously aware this was a problem.  She could also kill herself later, when Thanos has her in prison and apparently unsupervised.
  • Gamora for giving up the location of the Soul stone to save Nebula.  This one is particularly bad since she a) knows exactly how bad this is, and b) has no expectation that Thanos won’t be able to take the stone once she tells him.
  • Starlord for ruining what was actually a perfectly functional plan to get the gauntlet away from Thanos that almost worked.  He is just the worst.
  • Scarlet Witch and Captain America in some combination for balking at Vision’s perfectly reasonable request to let him sacrifice himself for the good of the entire universe.  Extra points because Cap never really answers Vision’s comparison of his WWII era sacrifice of himself to save America.
  • Doctor Strange, again, for giving up the Time stone to save Iron Man.  At this point he had some vision of the future to guide him, but it’s not clear what would have happened if he’d held out, similar to Loki above.

I think that’s it?  Thanos was really pretty lucky that all the stones were in the hands of good people who would give them up when friends or loved ones were threatened, rather than like Magneto or Doctor Doom or somebody.

Also, note to Thanos: even with a slowly falling world birthrate, human numbers approximately doubled (from 3.8bn to 7.5bn) between 1972 and 2018.  Assuming other civilized planets are similar, you’re going to be doing this again roughly every fifty years, forever.  Probably more often actually, since the greater availability of resources will lead to faster growth rates.  Read your Malthus, man.

Movies, Reviews


Well, it’s that time again, where I have an apparently boundless appetite for talking about STAR WARS.  Last time I was musing about the failures of Rogue One and talking about why Star Wars is more than the sum of its parts.  This time, obviously, I’ve just seen The Last Jedi, and I figured I would wrap my opinions up in a blog post rather than on Twitter because it’s easier to warn for spoilers.

SO!  Spoiler warning for The Last Jedi.  And another kind of warning, too.  I’ve seen a few arguments play out along the theme of “don’t crap all over people’s joy for liking something”, which is a sentiment I 100% agree with.  Unfortunately, the line between “engaging something critically” and “crapping on it” can be somewhat difficult to walk, and where precisely it is varies from person to person.  So, while I basically liked this move (spoiler alert!) I’m going to also talk about the parts of it I didn’t like.  Please don’t take that to mean you shouldn’t like those parts!  (And/or, just don’t read on.)

Right!  So.  Last Jedi.  Where were we?

I think, basically, I liked the movie, because I like (most of) the characters and their relationships.  That said, there were some issues that really distracted me and probably kept me from loving it.  I have to try really hard to keep myself from going all Comic Book Guy and Worst.  Empire.  Ever. because I’m kind of a worldbuilding nerd first and foremost, and that’s where the failings are.  So I’m going to try real hard to restrict my critique to things that actually matter, and not stupid stuff like “why do they use gravity bombs in space?”

So what were the good bits?  Rey is great in this movie, visibly more confident in the role and with some really good stuff to do.  Her stuff with Luke is great, her stuff with Kylo Ren is wonderful.  The scene with the two of them and Snoke in the throne room was by far my favorite part of the movie; the fight that follows against the Praetorian Guard is probably the best fight scene in all of Star Wars to date, threading the line between the awkward non-choreography of the original trilogy and the hyper-choreographed “endlessly hitting each other with glowsticks” of the prequels.  (While also avoiding the “heroes effortlessly disposing of CGI mooks” from both the prequels and the Marvel universe.)

Finn and Rose both work for me as characters, but I was honestly left a little cold by their role in the plot.  Some of that is logistical (see below) but some of it just that retrieving the codebreaker from one very particular planet felt like a video-game-y arbitrary obstacle.  A fetch quest, essentially.  It doesn’t help that a) BB8 essentially completes every mission for them (seriously they should literally just send BB8 out alone) and b) it turns out to be not only pointless but counterproductive.  (Since they don’t disable the tracker, but do provide the information the First Order uses to blow away dozens of rebels transports full of people.  This could arguably be blamed on Poe.  Pro tip, Poe: compartmentalize information.  If you have a secret plan to get away, maybe don’t talk about it over an open mic to Finn?)  Finn’s arc, the progress from self-sacrifice to needing to look beyond that, mostly works, but it has some logistical problems.  (Again, more later!)

Poe — dunno, I think I’m in the minority on Poe, but I’ve never been fond of him.  His snarkiness has always felt kind of off to me, something that would be more at home in the Marvel universe with Tony Stark.  I like his arc in this movie, though, his natural assumption that he should be the hero and at the center of all events thwarted over and over until he finally gets that not everyone is about his personal story.  Dan Olson mentioned something I thought was a good point — the introduction of Holdo is basically a gag, and I think it does her kind of a disservice.  Like they’re announcing the new commander, and Poe is getting ready to stand up, and then ha it’s Admiral Rando!  Except it turns out she’s not just some rando nothing character, she’s important, but we’re already primed against her.

Kylo Ren — again, I might be in the minority, but I liked him a lot in the first movie and I loved him in this one.  His arrogant insecurity makes him totally believable as both a villain who does awful things in an effort to be a badass and someone who’s genuinely conflicted about it.  He, more than anyone else, is directly tied to the themes of the movie, and it’s great.

There’s more (Luke and Leia are both great, loved the moment with Yoda, etc) but you get the idea.  Good characters, good relationships, strong themes!

So, why do I feel the urge to nitpick?

Well, I’ve thought about it a bit.  There’s two basic issues that stand out to me.  First, the movie sacrifices plot mechanics and logistics in favor of hitting its themes in ways that strain my suspension of disbelief, and second, the First Order completely sucks and fail as villains.  The first one is probably more important, but the second one is more straightforward, so let’s take that first.

Kylo Ren is a fine villain.  Whatever you think of his character, he’s at least initially intimidating — in The Force Awakens, his ability to stop a blaster bolt in mid-air is cool and new, his saber is weird and janky, he gets the information he needs from Poe.  But the rest of the First Order, while they have the same blocky, brutalist design and color scheme as the old Empire, are completely undermined by being utter failures at everything they try to do.  By the end of The Last Jedi they’ve become utterly toothless and comical, and it constantly undermines the tension of what are supposed to be exciting scenes.

So, I’m not saying we need to have the bad guys win in the end, and I’m not begrudging our heroes defeating stormtroopers with ease, not getting killed, etc, etc.  That’s just normal dramatic logic, I’m fine with that.  But what’s missing from these two movies so far is the scene where the bad guys get to do their thing, and establish that they are in fact a force to be reckoned with and not a clown patrol.

Think back to the originals.  The opening scene of A New Hope is flat-out brilliant symbology, with the tiny rebel ship literally swallowed by the huge Star Destroyer.  Then you have the hallway shootout, with the stormtroopers mowing down the rebels, and then in comes Vader, lifting and choking people.  It’s enough to give you the general sense that the Empire basically knows what they’re doing; in turn, this means when our heroes triumph, it feels like a heroic victory against incredible odds instead of showboating against losers.  Empire Strikes Back starts with Hoth, and once again we get the awesome might of Empire in action — Luke goes out, and does some damage with luck and the Force, but the rebels still get trashed and barely escape, the AT-ATs effortlessly brushing aside their defenses in spite of all their efforts.  Same deal — if we want the heroes to be heroic, the bad guys have to be at least basically competent.

These are the scenes that are absent from the new movies.  We start The Force Awakens with the First Order massacring a random village, which feels more like a war crime than a battle.  After that there’s never a scene where they successfully accomplish their goals, aside from the unopposed initial firing of Starkiller base.  They fail to catch the Falcon, fail to catch it again at Maz’s, fail to protect the base, and so on.  (In A New Hope, remember, the Falcon gets captured by the Death Star, then their escape is deliberate!)  

Now, in The Last Jedi, it felt like we were going to see a little bit of that, since we start out with the First Order chasing the rebels away from their base.  But no — the first sequence is a ship bigger than even the Star Destroyers warping in, and Poe destroying it with a handful of fighters and bombers.  By the time Snoke’s even bigger ship appears later on, it’s not intimidating at all, since apparently the damn things are useless.  The best they accomplish is blowing up a few abandoned support ships.

Now, you can (maybe) come up with in-universe justifications for everything.  The First Order is new and relatively incompetent, not the military machine of the old Empire, whatever.  My point is that in the story we’re clearly supposed to think of them as intimidating, and they’re just not.  Their leader is a joke, their ships are useless, and they can’t win even against mooks.  It’s disappointing.

Okay, second nitpick.  The strength of this movie is in characters and theme.  I talked about the former, but the latter is great too, and it’s very clear.  Whereas The Force Awakens was about a new generation trying to deal with having to live up to their legendary predecessors (much as the movie itself had to live up, this is not accidental) The Last Jedi is about the idea of whether being linked to the past is being bound to it.  Rey finds Luke, in an effort to tie herself in to past glories — to become the apprentice of the great Skywalker, heir to the Jedi, etc, in the same way that Kylo thinks of himself as the heir to Vader and is descended from the Skywalker bloodline.  But things don’t work out the way Rey wants — Luke won’t teach her, and the big reveal about her parents is that there is no reveal.  She’s not the heir to anything.  But that means she’s free; whereas the past wraps around Kylo like a chain.  It’s why they can’t join up, in the throne room — they kill Snoke, and Rey is ready to leave the past behind, and Kylo can’t.  It sets up their next confrontation, with Rey being the new, the unencumbered, and Kylo representing the old hatred and Skywalker family drama that has laid waste to the galaxy.

Whew!  It’s great, I love it.  (It’s partially why I think Finn’s arc didn’t work as well for me — it’s only tenuously tied to this theme.)  The movie nails this part so perfectly, but it feels like they sacrificed something in the writing for it, because the rest of the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense.

(You can read the rest of this in Comic Book Guy voice if you want.)

Obviously it’s stupid to quibble about how fictional technology works.  So when they tell us that the rebel cruiser can outrun the Star Destroyers in realspace, fine, I’ll go with it.  But what’s less easy to suspend disbelief is why the First Order doesn’t, you know, try anything else to do something about it.  They have TIE fighters, for example.  Literally hundreds of them!  Kylo Ren and a whopping two seemed to be able to do some serious damage, and Kylo already blew up the rebel hanger, so … maybe send ’em out?  Isn’t that what they’re for?  

Finn and Rose sneaking away from the cruiser with no real difficulty, and knowing that it will be there when they return, once again drains all the tension from the situation.  The First Order has a huge fleet of super-scary ships, but it’s fine, nothing will happen until we run out of fuel.  (Can they not like call in some other ships to get ahead of the rebels?  Something!)

Similarly, the ease with which a single bomber manages to destroy the First Order dreadnaught raises serious questions about why you bother to have capital ships in the first place.  The things are supposed to be tough — the fact that Death Star II was able to take them out in a single shot was a big deal!  Now they explode like firecrackers.  (The First Order vs. rebel casualty ratio is literally tens of thousands to one, not even counting however many people were on Starkiller Base!)

Similarly, Holdo’s lightspeed kamikaze run — a great visual and climactic moment — raises some kind of terrifying worldbuilding questions.  If ships can decimate entire fleets that way, why don’t they do that more often?  Why not ram the Death Star with a frigate?  For that matter, why doesn’t the ruthless First Order use that move to take out the rebels?

Again, while these are nitpicks … they bug me.  I don’t need like detailed technical-manual specifications for things, no one cares.  But basic consistency with the rest of the movies — so that TIE fighters do the same things, and Star Destroyers are always Star Destroyers — make it easier to suspend my disbelief in a fantastical world.

I have less issues with the Force stuff, because the Force should be mysterious and weird.  So Luke uses a new power — he’s had twenty years to figure that out.  Doesn’t bother me.  There is, though, a seriously philosophical question that bears examining, concerning the nature of training people to use the Force.

So, Luke blames himself for screwing up Kylo Ren’s training — he’s super powerful with the Force, and ends up falling to the Dark Side.  Luke says he never should have trained Kylo, and refuses to train Rey.  But … does this make any sense?  The key question is what happens if a Force-sensitive person gets no training?  Do they figure it out on their own?  Or do they just not ever get any powers?  Probably it matters how strong they are, which implies that people like Ben Solo and Rey are going to get something Force-related.

Crucially, this affects the question of what the galaxy looks like without the Jedi, which is what Luke is initially advocating.  Does it mean just no more Force-users?  Or does it mean that no one is training ascetic warrior-monks, but anyone strong enough in the Force and super-angry still falls to the Dark Side, so there’s tons of unstoppable evil guys around and no one to fight them?  We don’t know this but I feel like Luke probably should.

One last point on the down-side.  There has always been this question of whether Snoke “was someone”, was a character coming back in disguise or something like that.  The answer seems to be, no, probably not, since he gets summarily dispatched in this movie.  While I like that answer (it fits the theme) it leaves him kind of underdeveloped.  We really get no answers about what his deal is, how he got to Ren, whether he’s a Sith or just powerful with the Dark Side or what.  Kind of disappointing.  Maybe they’ll get to it later?  Who knows.

Whew.  Okay.  Those are my thoughts, for those who wanted to read them.  Like I said — basically a good movie, basically liked it, with some world-design stuff that rose above the level of nitpicks and actually impacted my enjoyment.  But that’s just me!  As always, these things are personal.

When does the next one come out?  Like, next week?  Right?


What Are You Doing Next Year, Django?

One difficulty in the writing business is I often am aware of new things way before they get announced.  It can be frustrating!  Now, however, next year at least is mostly locked down, so it’s time for an update.

First, the obvious.  The Fall of the Readers, the fourth book in The Forbidden Library series, will be released on December 5th.  The Infernal Battalion, the fifth book in The Shadow Campaigns series, will be released January 9th.  (Both are up for pre-order!)  These are both the final books in their respective series, which I must say is a little weird for me!  Wrapping everything up has been fun, though, and I hope everyone likes the conclusions.

(Also, in case you missed it, the price of The Guns of Empire ebook is down to $7.99, so it’s a great time to pick that up!)

Obviously, that leaves me in need of new things to do, which I’ve been working to set up for the past year.  Now I can tell everyone!  First up is a YA trilogy with Tor Teen, tentatively titled Deepwalker.  (That will almost certainly change.  My titles always seem to change.)  From Publishers Weekly: “The publisher said the series … is an epic fantasy about a teenage girl trained in ‘the art of combat magic’ who is ‘blackmailed into stealing a legendary ghost ship.'”  I am writing this now, and it’s a blast.  I can’t wait to share it with everyone.  The first book should be out early in 2019.

Second, as of today I can talk about my new epic fantasy trilogy with Orbit Books.  No title yet, for similar reasons.  From the Orbit post: “Gyre and his sister Fiera were torn from each other when they were children. Twelve years later, they will meet again as enemies. Trained in the ways of the Order, Fiera believes the only way to keep the world safe is to eliminate all traces of the forbidden blood magic that almost destroyed civilization many centuries ago. But Gyre, a mercenary on the lawless frontier, seeks out the lost arts to break free of the Order’s domination and release mankind from the dead hand of the past.  As the tensions across the country rise, not even the ties of blood will keep these two siblings from splitting the world apart.”  This is next on my plate to write, and I’m super excited to get to it.  It should come out a bit later in 2019.

For now, these are US deals only.  UK stuff, hopefully, is in the works!  

Other projects may also be on the horizon, but that’s all I can talk about for now.  I hope everyone is looking forward to them, I know I am!




GUNS OF EMPIRE Update & Price Drop

This is one of those good news/bad news situations.  To get the bad news out of the way first, my US publisher, Ace/Roc, has decided not to do a MMPB (mass-market paperback) edition of The Guns of Empire.  This means the hardcover will probably be the only physical edition.  

The “why” is pretty simple: with sales overwhelmingly in ebook anyway, there’s just not enough sales potential for a paperback run.  It’s not a decision I have any control over, and for those of you collecting the series in MMPB all I can do is apologize.

However, here’s the good news!  The price of the ebook edition has dropped to $7.99, which is where it would be for a paperback.  So if you’ve been waiting to pick this up, now’s the time.

For those in the UK, I don’t believe anything has changed — both hardcover and trade paperbacks of the UK editions are still available.

And, of course, we’re still on track for the hardcover release of The Infernal Battalion in January!

Movies, Reviews

Why ROGUE ONE Isn’t My Favorite Star Wars

So, it’s the new year, and I think it’s finally been long enough that I can talk about Rogue One. I like to wait a while, first to give spoilers a chance to clear, but also because my thoughts tend to evolve over time, particularly for movies where I have an emotional attachment to the franchise. The short version goes like this: while Rogue One was by no means a bad movie (one of the strengths of the Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm monster is that its movies, while not always good, are usually competent rather than confusing disasters in the vein of Attack of the Clones or Suicide Squad) it’s also not a great one, and definitely not the movie I hoped it would be.

SPOILERS, obviously, from here on out!

So I have to say I was always excited about this movie. I was generally pleased with The Force Awakens, but left slightly cold by the way that it reused so much of the story of A New Hope. There was the chance that a new, non-sequential Star Wars movie could take chances and be different, give us something new and cool! And the trailers looked promising. I’m trying, therefore, to engage with the movie Rogue One actually is, rather than the movie I would like it to be.

So why didn’t I like it? It’s complicated, but I think it boils down to characters. Rogue One‘s characters are … sketches, I guess, is the way I’d describe them? They suggest character development and things that might be cool, but we don’t actually see any of it on screen, largely because there simply isn’t time. And that’s the first, most basic problem: there are too many main characters, and their complicated introduction and action set-pieces eat up so much running time that we get hardly any understanding of any of them.

Aside: As we go through them, I’m going to say things like “this character isn’t necessary”. It’s important to understand this to mean “not necessary to the story” rather than “not necessary to the plot“. Because this movie is basically competent, characters generally are given something to do, but throwing in an invented obstacle for them to overcome doesn’t actually justify their inclusion in the story.

This is important, so let’s take A New Hope as an example. All of our main characters are needed, not just for the mechanics of the plot (Obi-Wan and Luke have to get to Alderaan somehow) but for the story. They tend not to overlap one another — Luke is the naive farmboy-turned-hero, Obi-Wan the wise mentor, Han the scoundrel who learns friendship, and Leia the object of rescue who refreshingly turns out to be pretty competent. Two droids for comic relief, and on the imperial side we have Vader as the vicious, mysterious side of the Empire and Tarkin as the cold, bureaucratic side. We need these people — you could come up with an alternate route to Alderaan, but the story doesn’t work with Han Solo or someone like him. (He’s the foil for Luke, his arc provides the final closure to the Death Star battle, and so on.) The point is just because Bodhi Rook has to plug a thing into another thing to save the day doesn’t mean he’s necessary in a narrative sense.

So let’s talk about —

The Characters

K-2SO: I’m actually fine with him, although I know some people objected. Star Wars has a long tradition of comic-relief droids, and K-2 hits the right balance for me — he’s similar to C3PO in that he’s a pessimist, but he’s morbid and his dark humor is different enough to be interesting. He also doesn’t require a ton of backstory or introduction. No problems here.

Bodhi Rook: As you may have gathered from above, the inclusion of this character in the final crew is kind of baffling to me. He starts off as a MacGuffin (the defecting pilot who brings the message) but then kind of tags along, for no obvious reason. He also has a really strange scene with some kind of mind-invading tentacle monster that serves no purpose. (Things that serve no purpose are kind of a theme.) I was pretty sure they were going to kill him off in the escape from Jedda, which would have made sense, but no. Anyway, he consumes some screentime and has to have a heroic moment at the end, with no character arc or payoff. (We never find out why he was willing to make the borderline-suicidal move of betraying the Empire, other then a general good feeling toward Galen and not being in favor of blowing up planets. Why this guy instead of literally millions of other guys?)

Saw Gerrera: In contrast, I thought for sure Saw would join the team. It would make sense — he’s the old, grizzled veteran, to contrast with young Jyn and Cassian, plus he and Jyn have history together, plus he’s in conflict with the rest of the Rebels. (Jyn’s speech scene makes waaaay more sense if the attack plan is suggested by Saw and then the rest of the rebels balk.) Instead he stands around for a while and then chooses death for no reason. (Seriously, you say “I’m done running” when you’re going to make a heroic last stand, not just get blown to bits by a shockwave.) That’s another slightly baffling choice — if he was going to die, the obvious move would be to have him sacrifice himself for Jyn, shove her out of the way of a falling rock and be trapped himself, “Fly you fools!”, etc.

A cynic might say the problem here is stunt casting: Forest Whitaker is in his fifties, a big-name actor, maybe not too enthused about Star Wars. So he comes in, gets into a fancy suit, shoots all his scenes in one location in a couple of days, with no action or anything particularly difficult. I have no idea if this is true or not, to be clear, but that’s what we ended up with.

Chirrut Îmwe & Baze Malbus: This is a tough one for which I am likely to get some pushback. But here’s the thing — I like these characters, they’re fun and potentially interesting (probably moreso than Cassian) but as written, they don’t really have a place in the story. To go back to the idea of narrative necessity, you could remove both of them completely and the movie would work just fine. Chirrut kinda-sorta acts as the mentor/Obi-Wan type, at least he seems like he should, but the movie doesn’t actually give him any of that to do — Jyn doesn’t have a conflict about whether she believes in the Force and doesn’t go to him for advice. He’s a mentor without a mentee. All they really do is shoot/fight stormtroopers, participate in the heroic ending, and die tragically.

In sum, someone please make the Chirrut & Baze movie, comic book, whatever, the story about them adventuring around and bickering about the Force, and I’d happily read/watch/buy it. But as far as Rogue One goes they don’t really add anything, and they take up a lot of running time between their introduction, their show-off fights, and later dialogue.

The need for all these characters to be introduced in random ways make the plot of the first half of the movie kind of a convoluted mess. We’ve got Jyn breaking out of jail, being dragooned to help the rebels, going to Jedda, picking up more characters, going to meet Saw and picking up more characters, so it’s a good 30-45 minutes before we even have our main crew together. Crucially, very little of this time is spent getting to know them, and a lot more on fights and running away from things. The first character beats really come on Edu, when Cassian has to decide whether or not to kill Galen, but we’ve had nothing to that point to let us know why he would go either way.

That brings us to our heroes, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. Jyn is, theoretically, the protagonist, which means that her actions should drive the plot, and her character arc should define the overall story. But it’s just not there — I don’t even know what her character arc is supposed to be! To … become a rebel? Except she was already a rebel before Saw ditched her. To learn something about her father, or alter their relationship, or something? But they never meet. To struggle with Cassian about idealism vs. realpolitik in the Rebellion? She’s already pretty cynical, and in any event that never actually happens. She doesn’t even have much personal hatred for Krennic, since she doesn’t seem to recognize him and vice versa.

As set up, Cassian is in the real protagonist’s spot in the story. He’s the one who gets the mission to get the Death Star plans, and he gets set up with the moral conflict of rescuing vs. killing Galen. We see him casually murder an informant early on, setting up that he’s grown jaded and cynical in the Rebellion. All the ingredients are there for a character arc, but it never actually happens, and the focus stays relentlessly on Jyn.

Jyn, meanwhile, has nothing about her character that doesn’t relate to her being Galen’s daughter. Does she have any particular skills? Hobbies? Relationships? We get almost literally nothing. It’s kind of a shock when Saw reveals that he raised Jyn and trained her as a rebel until she was sixteen — why isn’t that scene in the movie? It might give their reunion and his death a little weight! Instead, she’s Galen’s daughter so Saw will like her, then she’s got to rescue Dad, then she’s got to do what Dad wanted, then she dies.

This is, ultimately, where the movie falls down. You can debate whether it’s okay to end the movie with everyone dying or not, but for me what it comes down to is that a tragic ending, in order to actually have tragedy, needs well-developed characters. I might have cared more about Jyn and Cassian being blown up if we’d gotten to know them a little better; instead I cared more about Chirrut and Baze, possibly because their actors have more charisma. (It’s also a weird choice to give everyone tragic death scenes and then have the superlaser take out half the planet, since it makes all the earlier tragedy meaningless.)

It’s hard for me not to imagine what might have been. One approach would be to just drop everyone except for Jyn, Cassian, and K-2SO. Figure out an arc for Jyn and for their relationship — an obvious candidate would be idealistic Jyn vs. cynical Cassian, with him secretly ordered to kill Galen, and eventually coming to remember his idealistic roots due to her steadfast heroism. But give it some time to breathe, to have some witty dialogue between the two of them, to find out who they are.

Another approach would be to keep the ensemble cast but cut out all the backstory and introductions, leaving more time for character development. Keep the plot very straightforward — a team of Rebels is assigned to get the Death Star plans. Jyn, Galen’s daughter, is put on the team, who are at first distrustful of her as a novice, but she eventually wins them over. They have to sneak around Imperial bunkers, fight guys, etc, and the team members each have some kind of purpose and unique character. I’m thinking of this modeled on Aliens, for example — most of the marines have personalities and character, but we don’t get complex backstory, we just see their camaraderie and how they react to the newcomer. (It’s really strange when Cassian on Yavin says, “Hey I’m going to help and I brought my friends!” And we get a shot of a bunch of rebels we’ve never seen before, who are clearly cannon fodder. Are we supposed to feel something? But if we’d actually seen a crew of guys earlier in the movie, and then they all show up to help, it works!)

There’s other things you can quibble about here — gender issues, for starters. (Main female character is accessory to her father, near-total lack of women extras. There’s a TV Trope called Men Are The Expendable Gender that’s always been a pet peeve for me, where we can have main characters be women and kick ass, because they only get hurt if its plot-appropriate, but the horde of expendable extras have to be men because they die in droves.) But for me personally, it’s these character issues that are at the center of it left me feeling “meh” when I left the theater. As Star Wars movies go, I have to put this one below the originals and Force Awakens. (It’s sure as hell better than Revenge of the Sith, but that’s a low bar.) And it’s a shame, because I really wanted to like it.

(I really wish Disney/Lucasfilm would get away from having everything be tied super-tightly to the original trilogy. Just give us like … the adventures of an imperial pilot escaping after being shot down in a random battle, and the rebels he befriends. Or anything that’s not literally tied to the original trilogy plot. Sadly, since the next stand-alone is Han Solo, this seems unlikely…)

Content, Movies

Doctor Strange and Origin Stories

A few weeks back on Twitter, I had a small rant about origin stories in superhero movies, specifically how I generally dislike them. The specific target of the rant was the origin stories in movies that have been remade frequently, so that the beats of the origin story become like the Stations of the Cross — nerdy Peter Parker, radioactive spider, Uncle Ben shot, great power = great responsibility, etc. (Someday I want a version where the Waynes make it out alive. I’m sure there’s a comic.) However, today I saw Doctor Strange and thought a little bit more about the origin story thing. Since I have nothing better to so (lies, I am horribly procrastinating) I thought I’d write something down.

SPOILER WARNING for Doctor Strange and some other popular superhero movies everyone has already seen!

So, Doctor Strange is, on the balance, not a very good movie, for a variety of reasons. (As you’ll see, I think a chunk of that can be blamed on the way the origin story is handled, but there are other problems.) The way it unfolds looks like this: we see Kaecilius (I will never learn how to spell that) break into a library and steal a page from a book, and also behead a guy so we know he’s the bad guy. The Ancient One chases him and fails to catch him. Then we cut to Dr. Stephen Strange, establish that he’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and kind of a dick. He has a car accident, in which his hands are badly damaged. He tries to get doctors to fix them, but nobody can. Eventually, he finds a guy who tells him about a magical healer, and he goes to Nepal to find her. It turns out to be the Ancient One, who demonstrates magic for him and eventually agrees to teach him stuff.

Dr. Strange learns a bunch of magic, some karate, and gets some backstory explained and some Chekhov’s Guns set up. Then Kaecilius (I’ve just got it in my copy/paste now) shows up, attacks the Ancient One and her people, and generally wrecks everything. The Ancient One dies, Dr. Strange has to fight the bad guys, and then he resolves the plot with a bizarre trick pulled out of nowhere. (Then there’s a stinger tying it to the Infinity Gauntlet saga because it’s the Marvel universe and of course there is.)

I think two things that seem contradictory at first are in fact both true:
1) The origin story stuff is the best part of the movie.
2) The origin story makes the movie’s structure fail utterly.

The first one is self-evidently true. Origin stories are often the best parts of superhero movies. As was pointed out in the Twitter discussion, they capture the purest part of the superhero fantasy — the time when an ordinary person discovers they have awesome powers and how cool that is. All but the broodingest of superhero movies have a scene where the hero plays a prank, flies around for fun, or generally just revels in the use of his new powers; even Batman typically has a scene or two where he clobbers some muggers and looks like an omnipotent badass, which probably counts as fun if you’re Batman. Doctor Strange is no different — there’s psychedelic journeys, Strange stealing books from the library with portal magic, and playing around with time magic. It’s also the part of the movie where there’s a lot of good humor and character-building moments.

In contrast, the whole second half of the movie, after Kaecilius attacks, is awkward and rushed. Literally hours pass in-world between “oh no here they come!” and the potential apocalypse; the only time Strange stops running is to have his stab wounds stitched. There’s a good moment at the death of the Ancient One, but otherwise it’s straight from one set-piece to the next, with very thin connective tissue. There is, essentially, no plot. Kaecilius wants to summon the Dark God, which means destroying three sanctuaries. So he attacks the sanctuaries, and keeps attacking them until he succeeds, but then Strange undoes his success. Roll credits!

Why is it awkward? Because the plot has no room to breathe. The action set-pieces, which are admittedly pretty spectacular, take up a lot of running time, and there’s only enough left over to tell the very barest bones of the story. The audience has no investment in stopping Kaecilius other than that he’s going to destroy the world — Strange doesn’t know him, and the other characters who have never demonstrate a personal connection. At one point, Kaecilius tells strange that the Dark God isn’t so bad, and he really just makes everyone live forever, and Strange actually has no way to refute this, because he has no idea what’s going on. All he ends up going on is that Kaecilius and his friends murder people, and the Ancient One kinda-sorta tries not to. We as the audience have the same problem!

The squished structure exists, of course, because the origin story takes up half the runtime. Like all the worst origin-story offenders, it’s essentially two movies running back to back. First there’s the story of a guy who become a superhero sorcerer, and then there’s a story about that sorcerer having to fight some unrelated bad guy. A few bits and pieces carry over, but they’re mostly unconnected. (There’s what I can only describe as a half-hearted swipe at a love interest.) This is always going to be a problem for a movie with this structure.

This is more or less where I was at re: origin stories before. But the failings of this movie got me thinking about the examples of origin stories that do work, because the problem, as I said, is that the origin story is often the best part of the movie. So what are your options?

First, you can leave out the origin story. This feels controversial, which is weird. Most movies don’t have long sequences at the beginning explaining the origins of the characters! This is why we have exposition and flashbacks, which (if used deftly) can get the job done without wasting time. The first Blade movie is a good example. The movie starts with Blade already being a badass vampire-murderer. We get a little flashback about how he got there, but that’s it! The Ed Norton Hulk explains everything we need to know about how Hulk came to be in the opening credits with a wordless animation. This is particularly useful for heroes like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc., where everyone in the entire universe already knows the origin story.

Second, you can make the origin story the entire movie. This is actually a surprisingly natural choice, since the origin story typically has an arc all its own — from skepticism to excitement to a sobering realization of danger, from weakness to strength, from fear to courage, etc. All you really need to do is make the completion of the origin story (the point where the hero steps out on his own) basically the end of the movie, so that the objective of the movie is the completion of the origin story. This is so straightforward many non-superhero movies do it as a matter of course; think The Karate Kid and similar. The Matrix arguably follows roughly this trajectory too.

Why don’t the superhero movies do this? The main reason, I think, is lack of patience and fear of audience disappointment. In this format, the first movie doesn’t have the hero saving the universe or generally running around under his own steam; the end of the movie is “graduation”. In Doctor Strange it would mean that the story of Strange learning awesome powers and becoming a wizard would be the whole movie. Perhaps he clashes with the other students, learns to befriend them except for the villainous one who cheats, and ultimately is tripped of the Ancient One’s protection at a critical moment and has to step up. (If this formula sounds familiar, it’s basically Harry Potter.) But … then we wouldn’t have the clash with Kaecilius and Dormamu?

I’m a little baffled in this case, actually, because who cares about Dormamu? Comic book fans, but they’re not going to skip the movie anyway. But in some better-known cases it makes sense — if you’re rebooting Spiderman, you can’t not have the Green Goblin, or Superman without Lex Luthor. I think it’s an adaptational problem — the movies are handicapped, in some ways, by their source material. They have to do the origin story, which comes from one text, but also the most popular villain, which comes from a different text. If you don’t, then you risk not even getting a second movie!

Sometimes, therefore, they attempt the third solution, which is to tie the origin story and the rest of the plot together. You still do them both, but have enough common elements that they feel like a single movie instead of two separate ones. This is the most common thing superhero movies actually attempt, because it means they can have their origin story cake and eat it too, but it’s the hardest to do from a writing perspective. As noted above, the origin and whatever popular villain/threat you’re using generally come from very different parts of the source material, and attempting to just mash them together can go really wrong. At worst, it ends up relying on staggering coincidences. (The guy who hates the hero in his ordinary identity just happens to get superpowers and come back for revenge! Note that in Dr. Strange, Strange arrives at the Ancient One’s school, by chance, just a few weeks before Kaecilius attacks and destroys it, after months of recovery and medical work. Good thing he didn’t wait longer!)

There’s a few successful examples here though. Batman Begins works, probably because it takes a ton of liberties with the source material to hammer the origin story and rest of the plot into a single piece. (Arguably it belongs in the former category!) It’s worth noting that they took a huge risk not including the Joker in Batman’s first outing, since he’s the only villain most of the non-comic-book-fan audience would have heard of. (It paid off, obviously, since they got to essentially give the Joker his own movie.) The first Iron Man movie also more or less makes this work, with the whole movie being a single arc of Tony’s progression from self-centered jerk to hero. But it’s also possible to try this and fail horriblyMan of Steel comes to mind, and some of the Spiderman outings.

So that’s my more nuanced take on origin stories: they’re fun, but you really, really can’t take the “origin story for an hour, then cut to a different story for an hour!” approach and expect the resulting movie to hang together. If you can’t lose the origin story, it’s much better to stretch the origin story to the full movie (and risk the audience not staying around for the next part) or blend the origin story with the rest of the plot (and seriously stray from the canon, plus the risk of doing it badly). Doctor Strange just does neither, which is one of several reasons why it’s pretty bad in spite of being pretty and well-acted.