Your Name is the Best Chance Anime has at Becoming Mainstream

Around 16 years ago, Spirited Away became the most successful film in Japanese history. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the only hand drawn animated and Japanese animated film to do that. This year it was named the second “Best Film of the 21st Century So Far” by the New York Times. When Spirited Away hit, little 8-year-old me thought that movies like it, anime, would finally become mainstream. I thought we would see them everywhere. I was wrong.

To be fair, Anime (Japanese cartoons) can have a high barrier of entry. Something like Spirited Away is so deeply entrenched in Japanese folklore that it can be impenetrable to international audiences. The fans don’t help either, almost speaking a separate language with coded language like “Otaku (anime fans), “Waifu” (a fictional girl you’d like to marry), “Best Girl” (your favorite fictional girl which is apparently different), and “Kawaii” (cool). They turn their noses up at anime voiced in English (called a dub) in favor of the original Japanese voices with subtitles. Most importantly, however, they can be very unwelcoming of outsiders into their fandom’s safe space. They call those “filthy casuals”.

Yet most people who grew up in the 80s and onward are already deeply familiar with one anime or another. Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and Sailor Moon are all anime that your mother could potentially name. Since my mom reads this blog I know she’ll at least recognize the first of those. In the United States we treat anime as kids stuff along with all other cartoons, except for comedy cartoons aimed for adults. But animation isn’t a genre. It’s a style.

Anime is special because of it’s ability to depict spectacle. The creators use insane cost saving efforts so they can go all out on specific scenes and blow their audience away. This can be in your typical tale of a superhero clash…

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… a gripping science fiction western…

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… sports stories as good as any movie…

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… and romance as far as the eye can see.

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But none of the spectacle or smooth animation in these anime hold a candle to last year’s breakout film Your Name.

Your Name has become the 4th-highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, won the 2016 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, and has been tapped for a live action adaptation by JJ Abrams. But beyond that the film is so visually stunning that just about any frame could be taken and framed as a work of art.

It’s the story of two teenagers, Mitsuha who lives in a small rural town and Taki who lives in Tokyo. They start switching bodies seemingly by chance, each taking a day in the other’s shoes then coming back to their own body to deal with what the other did. They form an odd bond by leaving each other notes scribbled on their bodies and eventually fall for each other.

If only it were that simple.

The spectacle is beyond anything televised anime can produce, obviously it has a greater budget. This movie impresses with it’s lighting, it’s music is perfectly synced to it’s visuals, and most importantly there is no barrier for entry on Your Name. Everyone I know who loves anime adores this movie, but more impressively people who actively hate anime like this movie. This movie is so appealing, so entrancing, that again my mother (hi mom!) could probably sit down and enjoy watching it. If this movie got a wide release in American theaters it would have killed.

The movie isn’t perfect. The lead characters are archetypal teenagers. It has a running boob joke that somehow becomes a major moment of emotional catharsis by the end. There are serious plot holes when you get down to the specifics of the plot. Yet for Your Name none of that really matters.

There’s some kind of magic in the presentation of Your Name. The way everything is so much prettier here than in real life. It looks like how memories feel. It brings to mind the carefree days of being a teenager. In Japan that involves local festivals, part time jobs, and going to cafes after school, all major aspects of their culture. For someone in the US it may elicit thoughts of summer vacation. Late nights with nowhere to be in the morning. A summer job. Exhaustion from doing everything you possibly could in a day. And of course, your crush from a very long time ago you only half remember.

Unfortunately Your Name only got a small and limited release in the States. It is now out on Blu-Ray and, presumably, On Demand services. I sincerely hope everyone watches it. In the mean time we should all keep an eye on the writer director Makoto Shinkai who seems poised to be the next Miyazaki.

I’ve got that feeling from 16 years ago again.

-JP

PS, the live action adaptation is not inherently a bad thing. No adaptation is (and I could do a whole other piece on that). Worst case scenario, it’s not good but drives more eyes toward the original like what happened with Ghost in the Shell.

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How the Muppets Adapted A Christmas Carol Best

Christmastime was my favorite time of the year growing up. Actually, it still is. Since I was the smallest one in my house, I was tasked with going up into the attic to grab all of the Christmas decorations. We had lights for the windows and the bushes, decorations for the tree, stockings, and garland for the stair railings. But we also pulled out our Holiday themed movies.

Do you remember how easy it was to pick a movie when you only had, like, five options? Well the few Christmas VHS tapes we had included White Christmas (a classic), Prancer (which was always better in my memory than it was when I watched it), and The Muppets Christmas Carol (the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever made).

There are almost twenty screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol. The first one came out in 1917! But none of them do it better than The Muppets. That’s not just because The Muppets allow a very dark story to be accessible for children, though it is a factor. Most of the credit absolutely has to go to Michael Cain as Ebenzer Scrooge.

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When you tune into a Muppet movie, you expect any human alongside them to be pretty game. They’re having a good time and are in on the joke, but Michael Cain made the conscious decision to play Scrooge completely straight and the movie is better for it. In fact, it puts him so at odds with the wonderful and energetic world of The Muppets that you understand why everyone sees him as this dark presence in the world. He’s not just treating people and his employees like trash, he’s kicking a muppet bunny and yelling at Kermit the Frog. What a monster.

But muppets can be dark and scary too, lest you forget Jim Henson made The Dark Crystal (new series coming next year!). Once the Ghost of Christmas Future shows up every moment of levity is drained from the film. The Muppets he sees in his future become grotesque, marked with boils and blemishes. The bright colors from earlier in the movie are gone. And, of course, Tiny Tim dies. Ebeneezer is shown all of this by a puppet who went on to personify death in my subconscious.

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That time is marked by the loss of one of the best elements of the movie, one nobody else has done in the many adaptations. Charles Dickens actually leading us through the movie and narrating for us, in this case played by Gonzo. With Rizzo beside him for extra comedic relief.

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They gave themselves a built in way to convey information without main characters speaking in exposition. Scrooge and everyone from his Christmas pasts speak like they have real history, then Gonzo tells us what that is while dealing with his own side bit. For kids watching the movie, it saves the whole thing and makes it entertaining for them. For anyone older, just appreciate how this allows them to cut parts of the book but still convey their information to the audience.

Also it’s a musical!

The Ghost of Christmas Future may be terrifying but the Ghost of Christmas Present is THE BEST. All the Christmas Ghosts in the movie are new, but the Ghost of Christmas Present is the most on brand of all of them.

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He’s big and jovial and he plays into the distinct muppetness when he finally gets Scrooge to enjoy himself. The other-worldliness of the Ghosts allows them to stand out, but Present’s distinct Muppet-ness allows him be a bridge for Scrooge into that world.

He’s basically a big walking metaphor for the movie itself. Except he dies at the end of his act. So maybe that’s not the best connection.

I may not be in my parents home anymore, and VHS may not be a thing these days, but The Muppets Christmas Carol is currently streaming on HBO GO so you can bet your sweet butt I’ll be watching it again and again this year too.

And at the end they tell you to read the book! Every adaptation should.

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-JP

PS, I do have to admit I don’t like the Ghost of Christmas Past’s design. I have to believe they didn’t intend for her to be as creepy as this.

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Justice Marketing

Justice League comes out this weekend, and if I were to go back in time and tell myself I would be (at best) morbidly curious about it, it would break my heart. The DC Extended Universe has been a series of lows (Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad)) and one very high deserved high (Wonder Woman), but Justice League is means to be the big one. Like the Avengers was in 2012, Justice League will become the thesis statement for the entire franchise by default. So why is the general excitement for this one so low-key? It’s a combination of coming from the same creative voices as Batman v Superman, a real low point for general audiences, and a marketing campaign that has left a lot to be desired.

The Justice League marketing is fascinating to look at because it has been going on for almost three years now. It began before filming did and the focus of the marketing has shifted through changes behind the scenes. Every few months it seems like they are trying to advertise for a completely different movie.

Justice League was formally announced Justice League along with a slate of DC movies in October of 2014, not at an event like Comic-Con where they could have gauged an audience reaction, but over an investor call that news outlets could report on. Here’s the full film slate reported then.

2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Suicide Squad

2017

Wonder Woman

Justice League

2018

The Flash

Aquaman

2019

Shazam

Justice League 2

2020

Cyborg

Green Lantern

So far they’ve been on track for this but by now their route has changed. They’ve added a Batman movie, a Nightwing movie, a Gotham City Sirens movie, another Suicide Squad movie. Have you noticed this is all focusing more and more around Batman? More on that later.

Now, because this announcement was not an event of any kind, it is not part of the marketing push. Things could have died down until Justice League truly got off the ground. Things didn’t.

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In February of 2015 Zack Snyder gifted us with the first image of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman under the tagline “Unite the Seven”. This was before Batman V Superman had even come out yet, but the tagline is clearly talking about the Justice League which has typically been made up of seven heroes. Why would Zack Snyder put this out there so early? Did he want to show off the new character design? Aquaman traditionally looks like this:

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Artist: Ivan Reis

I’ll admit it took me a minute to accept the new look. Could it have been meant as a part of the Dawn of Justice marketing? Potentially, but the man is in under a minute of the movie. The point is, if the seven mentioned here are the seven members of the Justice League than why didn’t they put out other character posters for the other seven members to get us excited?

Oh yeah, because they killed Superman.

In March of 2016, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice came out. It left a bad taste in the mouth of fans everywhere. People agreed Ben Affleck was good, Wonder Woman was great, and the Martha thing was dumb enough to make a good meme. But the movie ended with the death of Superman after showing off the other nascent members of the Justice League in a series of quicktime videos.

If you count them, there are five surviving and potential Justice League members. No Green Lantern in sight. So “Unite the Seven” becomes a moot tagline. They would continue to use at least two more taglines before settling on one.

This led to a marketing push that revolves around the League being formed to pick up the slack Superman has left behind. After the negative backlash to Batman V Superman, WB made it clear that these movies would lighten up and even invited many entertainment news sites to visit their set. A lot of those articles came out in June of 2016, just shortly before San Diego Comic-Con of that year. Except the first thing they did was this picture of the league:

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Yup. There he is. There they are.

Everyone and their mother knew that Superman was coming back to life in this movie. In the third film he would rise again, in fulfillment of the scripture. It was actually kind of refreshing for this image to throw off the pretense that he wasn’t. But what makes this image baffling is that since this they have continued to, in almost all marketing forms, suggest that Superman would remain dead for the entire movie. Why? We all know he’s coming, and wouldn’t that build more interest as to how he comes back, or what he’s like when he does?

But never mind that, within the same weekend they showed the first footage from the movie at the convention:

Using what must be most of what they had filmed by that point, they cobbled together a trailer that really does fight back against the tone of the previous movie. It’s got jokes. It’s got color. It’s got the White Stripes. But this also became the template for future trailers. They position batman at the center, bringing these people together. We get a lot of really cool shots centering on Batman, a fun Flash moment, and barely any Cyborg because what idiot decided to make him fully CG!?

WB! You made Green Lantern! You know a fully CG body doesn’t work! Even Iron Man has a partially practical frame! What machine built for combat has so many moving parts visible from the outside! Why is he just a human head if he’s supposed to be half-man and half-machine! This is money you did not have to spend! Bwaaaaaaaaaaaa!

*sigh*

Shortly after this Suicide Squad came out. In the movie both Batman and the Flash show up. Amanda Waller could get in contact with both of them yet still chose to form a team of murderers and psychopaths instead. Listen nobody likes this movie, but at the end Bruce Wayne tells her he’s putting together a team of heroes.

The issue for WB is they, once again, had to push against their own brand to make Justice League look more inviting. Luckily to commemorate their last day of filming in the UK they had the opportunity. Cue the, admittedly good, behind the scenes video:

It honestly looks like this movie was a blast to film. The first signs that Jason Momoa would walk away with the whole thing are there. But pause at 37 seconds. There’s Superman! He’s right there! We all know he’s in this movie what are we doing!?

Anyway they followed this up with the plot synopsis in February of 2017, doubling down on the death of Superman.

In the wake of Clark Kent/Superman’s (Cavill) death at the hands of Doomsday in BvS, vigilante Bruce Wayne/Batman (Affleck) reevaluates his extreme methods and begins reaching out to extraordinary heroes to assemble a team of crime-fighters to defend earth from all kinds of threats. Together with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot), Batman seeks out cybernetically enhanced former college football star Vic Stone/Cyborg (Fisher), speedster Barry Allen/The Flash (Miller) and Atlantean warrior king Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Momoa). They face off against Steppenwolf (Hinds), the herald and second-in-command to alien warlord Darkseid, who is charged by Darkseid with hunting down three artefacts hidden on earth.

Then in March we got this teaser poster:

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Nobody will ever hang that poster on their wall. But it does feature the first “official” tagline for the film. “Unite”. This would later be replaced.

That same month they dropped a bunch of character posters:

And finally that month gave us the first “official” trailer for the movie:

Again, it’s a lot of Batman finding the team. There’s some rock and roll, along with a fun cover of the Beatles’s Come Together, which feels appropriate. But it also feels like they’re having a hard time putting all these characters together in one shot that feels compelling. To be honest the first trailer for The Avengers (the only precedent here) is similar, but we already knew all of those guys and the joy was just in seeing them share the same frame at all. Justice League doesn’t have that advantage.

Here’s the other struggle with Justice League. This thing looks expensive already, but consider that trailer doesn’t even have finished VFX. We haven’t seen the villain or its minions yet. We haven’t heard his voice. All we really know is that these five (six) will be there fighting something and that isn’t very exciting. We don’t even have fun moments between characters unless they include Batman.

This would change after Wonder Woman came out in June of 2017 and basically won the summer.

If there’s one thing that’s pretty clear, it’s that Zack Snyder LOVES Batman. He loves Batman so much he turned Superman into a sexy lamp* in his own sequel to inspire Batman. Everyone who watched BvS admitted Batman was good so they made him the center of Justice League.

Zack Snyder loves Batman, but EVERYONE loves Wonder Woman. Since her movie came out there has been a very conscious effort on the marketing side to give us far more shows of her now than before.

For example, the best poster for Justice League dropped at Comic-Con of 2017:

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I can’t get enough of this poster. It looks like an Alex Ross drawing, and artist who’s work is so life-like it makes everyone look like they’re wearing cheap halloween costumes. This is when “All In” became the new tagline, which I appreciate because it also tells you how much WB is banking on this movie. Though, guys, you put the Superman logo right there in You Can’t Save the World Alone.

Still, I’ve also been seeing the crappy version of this poster around town:justice2bleague2bmovie2bbillboard

It’s so lame, but it does put Wonder Woman front and center, something I believe was the point of it in the first place. If she is positioned as the lead, more people will be interested.

At that comic-con they also released a four minute long trailer:

Oh look who’s first! It’s Wonder Woman! There’s Themyscira and the Amazons! There’s also a line that gets by Green Lantern loving heart racing. “No protectors. No Lanterns.” This is a pretty solid trailer, finally giving us a good idea of the stakes and the characters. Except, again, Cyrborg who doesn’t really get a moment here. And clearly, once again, Aquaman will 100% be the best part of this movie.

But then there’s that tag at the end. It’s supposed to be a mystery for who it is but considering how Jeremy Irons says “hope” there it’s clearly Superman. We all know! Everyone knows! By trailer two they put Spider-Man in Civil War!

The narrative took a major shift again around late July of this year when Zack Snyder announced he was stepping away from the movie after a family tragedy. Joss Whedon was brought in to finish the movie with $25 million worth of reshoots. There was a lot to swallow with the news. It was a horrible time for the Snyder family, the movie would become cobbled together from two very different directors with very different approaches, but, you guys, Superman’s mustache.

Justice League’s Man of Steel had expected to be able to finish shooting the sixth Mission: Impossible film before needing to don Superman’s spandex again. That has not been the case, however, as the new scenes that are being shot have required him to jump back and forth from each production. Because of this, a mustache he grew for his character in the Mission: Impossible sequel will have to be digitally removed in post-production. Paramount, which is distributing the Mission: Impossible sequel, would not allow Cavill to shave the facial hair while production was taking place.”

This is my favorite news story and makes me want to see Superman in the movie even more! The whole world needs Superman with a mustache. It was even my Halloween costume.

Anyway, we’re really starting to catch up with the present now, which is when all of the product tie in marketing happens. A lot of those feature Superman. This poster from August features Superman.mp24170322_1200_850_81_s

This new trailer from October features Superman, still says he’s dead, but none of them feature Superman with a mustache. I remain unsatisfied.

I will bet you money that opening bit with Supes is from the end of the movie, after they save everything and he goes home. But sure, lets keep pretending he’s not in this one. You get some Whedon-y lines in this one. But I wish there were less effects shots and more fun character moments. Though, again, Aquaman is having a blast.

That trailer was in October. Now every TV channel is showing off 30 second spots for this one. While the marketing for Justice League has been weird it seems to have found itself in the months since Wonder Woman came out, certainly sooner than BvS did, but not as easily as Man of Steel or Wonder Woman knew themselves.

Still, they are clearly holding themselves back from giving us a better sense of the movie, probably because they’re holding back a large amount of Superman footage. Is this the right decision? Who knows. Early social media buzz is mixed but leans toward the movie being good.

For a movie of this scale and importance its hard to say how much marketing really matters. A Star Wars movie doesn’t need to market itself. People would come even if they never saw a single frame of it beforehand. People showed up to the Avengers to see if the experiment would work and I suspect people will come to this for the same reason. However the experiment in this case is, can WB turn this around? I honestly don’t know. But I hope they do.

So I can get the good Green Lantern movie I need in my life.

-JP

*A sexy lamp is a character who only exists to be pretty and inspire others. They do not carry the burden of narrative decisions and could be replaced with a sexy lamp with no change to the movie.

PS – Imagine if Thor: Ragnarok hid that the Hulk would be in the movie. Yes, the twist would have been more surprising but the trailers would have been so bare that people might not have been sold on the movie. That’s how I feel about the Superman thing.

Fear of the Unknown and Teaching Through Action

A couple of weeks ago I found myself watching Insidious for the first time. My roommate, a junkie for horror movies had put it on. He will watch anything that claims to be even remotely scary but I’m pickier than he is, which is why I was so happy to be enjoying the movie so much. Insidious has jump scares galore, but it’s real strength is the overall sense of foreboding and helplessness attributed to the unknowable spiritual threat in the film. That is, until the medium character shows up and the entire plot stops so she can explain the entire mythology of the franchise to the main characters.

It’s not that astral projecting too far from your body and potentially losing it to a demon isn’t scary, it’s just that now we know exactly how to fight it. Which means it isn’t that unknowable threat anymore. In a genre as ubiquitous as horror, telling the audience exactly what the monster is will always break the movie.

It’s a problem I have with most monster-based narratives. There’s always the grizzled older person who’s been there before. The watcher in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the guy who’s passed on the curse in It Follows, and Until Dawn introduces a grizzled old man who fights Wendigos just so he can tell the main characters what they are before he’s brutally killed! It’s easy to write, it gets the info out there so the heroes can learn how to fight back, and it sucks.

It sucks not just because it’s lazy, but because you can gain so much in your storytelling by allowing your characters to discover the monster’s abilities through their interactions. Take Alien for example. The entire second act of the movie has the cast searching the ship for their first xenomorph and attempting to kill it. Injuring it makes it bleed acid, and they go down and check out how many floors it melts through. It grows at high speed, it blends in, it has that jutting inner mouth thing. By the time Ripley is on the escape ship in her underwear (you ever get out of a life or death situation and think, “I really need to get out of these pants”), we know exactly how dangerous the alien is. Yet they still have time to teach us why it isn’t attacking in that exact moment.

This year’s It is the same way! Pennywise seems to be capable of anything. He’s a shapeshifter who appears everywhere to scare our heroes. But all of that changes when one of them sticks a fire poker through his head. Now we know he has physical form. Now we learn he can be hurt. And yes that makes him less terrifying but that is the point. That’s how we arrive at the same revelation as the kids by the end, that his strength comes from their fear, and they aren’t afraid anymore. Besides, there are still those unknowable elements like what the hell was going on with those three lights in his mouth and the levitation. We might find out in Chapter Two but I hope they don’t give me too much.

The simplicity of not knowing the rules makes the story so much more tense than the other way. They have to confront the threat to learn more about it, because defeating it is the only way to live. And everything you gain comes with a heavy cost.

Otherwise I walk in on my roommate watching the Bye Bye Man where the kids all talk about how they can’t say the Bye Bye Man’s name, thus saying it, and then I have to watch them almost but not die for an hour until they do in the final act and oh boy now the uncle said the Bye Bye Man and seriously who approved that name are you kidding me?

So anyway, run on sentences am I right?

If you absolutely have to write the scene that explains it, out of fear the audience might not piece it together, at least push it as far back in the movie as possible. Get Out leaves their threat largely unsaid until the final act and by then we’ve been given enough hints that you could have figured it out on your own. The movie just wants to make sure we’re all on the same page for the fireworks to follow.

So when you’re picking a horror movie to watch for Halloween (or otherwise, I’m not your dad), do yourself a favor and find one where they have to discover what’s killing them for themselves. Or at least one that uses culturally understood shorthand to avoid that altogether. Like Zombieland! Oh man I haven’t seen Zombieland in years.

Well I know what I’m watching tonight.

-JP

PS, jump scares are also overused. They’re not wrong I just know we can do better. Have y’all seen Sinister? Terrifying, almost no traditional Horror movie structure.

Life Knocked Me Down

It has been almost two months since I last updated this blog. There has been A LOT I wanted to write about, but the world kept getting in the way and life knocked me down hard. Right before I went on camping on vacation a tree fell onto my car. Here’s a picture!

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I managed to follow up that incredible moment by spilling water onto my laptop. My keyboard stopped working and I hoped it would eventually fix itself. It didn’t. I tried to fix the computer, the Mac store tried to fix it, after their attempt they told me there was far more wrong than they thought. I bought a new laptop, but it had to be manufactured and shipped straight from China.

All of this to say today, the two year anniversary of this blog’s first post, I am finally back online! Finally. Life knocked me down, but I’m getting back up. So let’s get back to work and catch some wry.

Pretty sure that’s what I meant when I started this.

-JP

PS, the roof of a car is shockingly expensive to get fixed.

Batman: The Telltale Series is the Last Original Batman Story

In Christopher Booker’s book (nice) The Seven Basic Plots he lays out that across all stories we tell as the collective humanity, there are really only seven fundamental plots.

Overcoming the Monster, in which the protagonist sets out to defeat a force of evil threatening their homeland. See; The Dark Knight.

Rags to Riches, in which the poor protagonist acquires wealth, power, and/or a mate, loses it all, then regains it as a more grown person. See; The Dark Knight Rises.

The Quest, in which the protagonist and their companions seek an important object or location, facing obstacles and temptations along the way. See; Batman: Arkham City.

Voyage and Return, in which the protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming its threats, returns a changed person. See: Batman Begins.

Comedy, in which the light and humorous character is faced with more and more confusing conflicts but has a cheerful ending. See; Batman ’66.

Tragedy, in which the protagonist has one major character flaw that proves to be their undoing. A fundamentally “good” hero falls. See; Justice League: Tower of Babel or Justice League: Doom.

Rebirth, in which an important event forces the protagonist to change their ways and become a better person. See; (technically) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, you’ll notice Batman has a story that fits into each of these plots. Hell, considering just how many Batman stories there are he has multitudes for each of those. Batman has had at least four modern animated series, three different film franchises, and has been consistently been in comics for decades. Batman fatigue is a real thing, and for people like myself it has already set in. It’s not that he’s a bad character, it’s just that every Batman story there is to tell has been told already. There are no new stories left,  only variations on what we’ve all seen before.

Enter Telltale Games.

Telltale has been one of the most consistently good video game companies out there for a couple years now. They specialize in episodic licensed brand adventure games that almost always turn out far better than expected. Their The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series is still the best thing called The Walking Dead, their Tales From the Borderlands is a masterpiece, and even their weakest series, Game of Thrones: The Telltale Series, is still an excellent send up of Game of Thrones proper. When they announced a Batman game I was skeptical, especially since Batman fatigue has already long since set in me. Still, I play for the story, and I was willing to try anything Telltale took a crack at so I gave their series a shot.

Plus it’s, like, $5 per episode of the game. That’s a good deal.

The Telltale Series starts in the early days of Batman’s career, still more of a myth than a hero, so that you as a player can craft whatever version of Batman you want the public to see. Heroic or fearsome, the choice is yours. More than that, for once in a video game you get to play as Bruce Wayne, carefully guarding your secret and choosing your actions around familiar characters like Harvey Dent, Carmine Falcone, Ozwald Cobblepot, and Selena Kyle. But it’s at the end of that first episode when Batman: The Telltale Series reveals its hand and cements itself in the Batman canon.

Spoiler alert. Even though spoilers are scientifically proven not to diminish you enjoyment of a story. Spoiler alert.

It turns out that Thomas Wayne was a criminal. He drugged people, drove them insane, and then committed them to Arkham Asylum. He made his fortune working with Carmine Falcone. He was one of the worst Gotham had ever seen. His and Martha’s death was a coordinated hit by a rival crime lord.

I cannot overstate how good of a twist this is and one that, to my knowledge, has never been done before. It fundamentally changes the narrative of Batman. In this, the protagonist learns their call to action was a lie all along, and they must choose if and how they continue from there. That’s something wholly new.

The twists don’t stop there, but that is the main one I want to talk about. See, in my mission to make Batman the hero I’ve always seen him as I have allowed Bruce Wayne to fall from grace. In theory, I could have a violent Batman and a criminal Bruce Wayne, or altruistic sides of both of them, but for me the symbol of Batman as a force for good is so much greater than Bruce’s standing with the public.

The first episode of season 2 of this series just dropped and, along with a vastly improved Bat Suit, this follows the same trajectory the first season started. The Riddler is loose in the city and to find him I had to choose between questioning a criminal as Batman or visiting a crime lord as Bruce. I chose the crime lord and, to get what I needed, O facilitated his escape from the city.

Then the Riddler forced me into the best trap I’ve seen in a Batman story. He locks Batman and a goverment agent in a cell with sonic emitters around them, meanwhile two other agents are caught in “death chambers”. The Riddler asks a question and, if Batman gets it wrong, one of the agents in a death chamber dies, but if he gets it right he and his agent are blasted with deadly sonic waves. You have to choose to take on the pain for yourself and an innocent or give up the lives of two other innocents. A no win scenario.

Basically, they made The Riddler scary for the first time.

That’s what makes this story so original. They take elements from the mythology and fit them into a different puzzle. The Penguin was a childhood friend of Bruce’s, Bruce is helping Harvey Dent with a mayoral campaign, Batman must choose between the police and Gordon or the press and Vicky Vale. It uses your knowledge of where things should be affect how you interact with them.

For the first time in a long time, I’m excited about a Batman story.

-JP

PS, by the same token Telltale has a Guardians of the Galaxy series that is so closely riffing on the movies, but doesn’t quite capture the same spirit, that I don’t like it so far.

Don’t Binge Watch TV

My roommates has been binging Supernatural for the past three weeks. There are about twelve seasons of the series about brothers hunting monsters on Netflix, and the other day I asked him what season he was on. He thought he was on season six. He was actually on season nine.

I myself recently had my own first experience binging an entire season of TV in a day a month or so ago. My sister and I binged all of season three of 12 Monkeys across thirteen hours and I honestly could only tell you a few important moments from it. It’s mostly a blur and I honestly have no idea how it ended off the top of my head.

Binging is bad. I’ll say it. It’s bad because it ultimately takes away the very point of episodic and serialized storytelling.

Consider the cliffhanger. A moment at the end of an episode, or season,  designed to keep you on the edge of your seat until the next one. When that episode ends and you are left in the dark on what comes next, you’re left to mull over the implications. What’s in the hatch? Is Fred Andrews going to make it? Did Kevin Garvey just die? (I finished The Leftovers recently) That week, or those months, of wondering makes the moment that answers your questions that much more palpable. You’ve been waiting for this moment, whereas if you just barrel through that cliffhanger can it mean anything at all? That exasperation and wonder compacts itself into the 15 seconds before the next episode starts. It doesn’t have room enough to breath to create the same emotional response in the audience.

Then there’s the concept of the singular episode of television. TV series built to be binged, and I’m mostly referring to Netflix’s series here, may was well be giant length movies with natural pauses in them. Each episode will feel like the rest. But in weekly television, a series can take turns into different genres and formats to tell a singular story. There are more opportunities to experiment with the form, and that creates episodes that stand out from the rest. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, Avatar: The Last Airbender’s masterful recap via stage play episode, or just about any episode of Doctor Who’s ability to be a different beast than the rest in a season. Or, considering that’s where we started, take Supernatural. As a series they are mired in the dark, dangerous, and monstrous, but the episodes the fans remember are the ones where they turned the concept on its head. Sam and Dean are trapped in a sitcom, Sam and Dean find out imaginary friends are real, Sam and Dean travel to a world where they’re the actors starring in Supernatural the TV series! You lose that when you write TV with an eye toward binging. Episodes can still have their own flavor, but they can’t be too distinct from each other.

Most importantly, however, is the loss of the conversation around TV shows. Every major Netflix show, from Orange is the New Black and House of Cards to Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why hit big when they were released, prompting massive amounts of conversation online. But with everyone on different episodes, those conversations were difficult to parse without accidentally spoiling the season for some. The conversations were loud, but a week out from their release and they’ve died down. On the other hand there’s Game of Thrones, possibly the last great series people still gather around to watch live every week. The conversation is constant while it’s on the air for ten weeks (or less now) and then that conversation continues between seasons while its fans wonder what’s coming next. Shows that come out with 22 episodes a season every year keep up that conversation for months on end, and those conversations are what gets more people to try the show once it’s out.

Yes that wait can be unbearable sometimes, and you wish it could all just come at once so you don’t have to walk away from the show until you’re done with it. I know a lot of people who prefer to wait until a season is over until they jump in and watch the whole thing, and then wait for the next season to end to do the same. But that’s what gets TV shows cancelled. Two years ago my favorite new series was Limitless. Based on the movie of the same name, a New York City slacker takes NZT, a drug that amplifies his brainpower, and joins the FBI as a special asset. If you’ve seen the movie, this was not like that. Limitless the series was fun, with episodes that would break the mold and stand on their own like one episode length ode to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and an ongoing mystery that will remain unresolved. The audience wasn’t there, and Limitless was cancelled. Don’t worry though, it’s streaming on Netflix so you all have a chance to see what you missed.

Sorry, I’m still salty about that one. I will digress that binging can be good. Since Riverdale closed out its first season on the CW its gained a ton more fans through Netflix, but that only works if they tune in for the new episodes next season.This is the point of episodic and serialized storytelling. To create something that keeps fans engaged week in and week out, with moments that resonate outside of their episode, and episodes that stand out from the others in a season. That’s the reason why TV is the juggernaut it is today, arguably better at telling satisfying stories than film. Every time you binge, you chip away at TV’s ability to draw you in and resonate with you, to make their strongest moments shine. That’s why I’m asking you to please stop binge watching TV.

-JP

PS, since Netflix skips the “previously ons” my roommate has never seen one of Supernatural’s “The Road So Far…”, their very fun season encompassing recaps. That was one of the greatest pleasures for me when I stumbled upon the first one on my own Supernatural catch up, but he’ll never know it. If that’s not a flaw with the system I don’t know what is.