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.

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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.

 

Comic-Con Marketing 2017

While it may have started as a humble gathering of nerds, Comic-Con has grown into a behemoth of a marketing event. Studios come to meet their fans head on and give them a sneak peak into what’s to come. It breeds loyalty from fans and allows creators to meet them head on to get a read on what’s working with them and what isn’t.

What I’m saying is I love Comic-Con. But the best part is the way a new movie or TV series will introduce itself to the fans at Comic-Con. These trailers are so early in the marketing process that they rarely look like what the final film will be. For example:

That’s the original Suicide Squad trailer from Comic-Con in 2005. In the old days a first look trailer like this was only for those who attended the con, but now that’s a futile endeavor. Everyone has an HD camera in their pocket. That trailer leaked, so they officially released it. Which means we can see how the marketing started dark and moody and wound up at Comic-Con the next year as… well…

So yeah, in no particular order let’s take a look at some notable trailers from this year’s Comic-Con with an eye towards how they’re introducing, or re-introducing, themselves to their fans.

Bright

Bright is, ironically, also a David Ayer film like Suicide Squad. This one, however, has a much harder uphill battle towards garnering an audience. It’s an original story about cops in a Los Angeles that features Orcs and Elves. It’s also written by Max Landis, who’s pretty divisive among fans.

Yet I like this trailer. They know Will Smith is their secret weapon and they introduce the world in a clean mundane way. Fairies are nuisances, not special. The marketing wants us to see this as a story about race relations. Then it takes a turn into the weird, and no there’s no cool way to say, “that’s a magic wand.” The trailer takes a turn into a siege movie narrative. The marketing wants you to know you’ve seen this movie before, where two cops find a million dollars or something in a bad neighborhood and have to escape. This version is just going to be the most fantastical version of that.

Plus I really like that song.

Marvel’s Inhumans

I have a lot to say about this show. Namely that it shouldn’t exist and is a bad idea and looks, visually, terrible. But I kind of have to commend this trailer on construction alone. The song it’s wielding with all the subtlety of the Doof Warrior is Human by Rag’n’Bone Man. A choice that induces eye rolls right until that final line of the trailer that single handidly make this project interesting. Well, that and Ken Leung. I’ll watch Ken Leung in anything.

That being said, the most fascinating aspect of this series is how it’s trying to create an event from nothing. Simply putting this into IMAX theaters does not guarantee an audience for that kind of overblown premiere. These characters are complete unknowns to general audiences, and they look insanely cheap here. The marketing isn’t even sure how to sell us this. You have to know what an Inhuman is from Agents of SHIELD to get the significance of a city of them on the moon, but it doesn’t show the city on the moon. Then it becomes a political drama with, again, zero subtlety. And then it becomes, in its final moment, a rumination on genetic superiority.

Basically, it’s a mess. From Iron Fist Showrunner Scott Buck.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The previous trailer for Kingsman: The Golden Circle was more of a teaser than anything. This new trailer is a much stronger introduction to the film. It’s damn good to. It’s clear up front that this film intends to expand on the world of the first. It’s got the action of the original with the addition of the Statesmen and all of the hollywood celebrities who’ve been cast on that side. They have no intention of showing you what the villain’s plan is, instead showcasing Brits and Americans taking the piss out of each other while kicking ass. I’m for it.

There’s also zero attempt at hiding the amount of Colin Firth in this film, as opposed to another movie near the bottom of this list. What’s great is that Colin Firth still cannot confirm or deny he’s in the film despite everything we can see on screen. They’re just making fun of how these movies operate with secrecy.

The Gifted

Is an X-Men TV series a good idea? Yeah. Totally. It’s called Legion, check it out. The Gifted is a tougher call to make, and this piece of marketing just feels… off. For example, I find it extremely frustrating when the blond girl asks, “How do you think we got out of that ship?” and they don’t show us any piece of that. That’s a perfect setup for a shot to hook us! Instead this switches focus to the Not-X-Men talking about how much they wish the X-Men were there. Then there’s the hero shots with everyone’s code names followed by two teenagers with normal ass names and no clear shots of what their powers actually are.

Also, if they want to make mutations seem like a gift, why are the power shots all destructive? There’s no wonder, powers are either mundane or dangerous, despite the lip service otherwise. And then there’s the last line talking about that one guy’s girlfriend. It’s a joke, I guess, but it’s also the only one in the trailer. Which probably makes it the best one in the pilot. It’s just a messy trailer, and I know TV trailers are hard since you’re often working with one episode of footage, but the only people this is grabbing are die hard X-Men fans.

Star Trek: Discovery

Speaking of die hard fans, I am absolutely a Trekker. I’ve mentioned this before. I have been waiting for a new Star Trek series for a very long time. This trailer looks like it’s for an exciting science fiction series, but it doesn’t quite feel like Star Trek. From the first line, “All life is born from chaos. The world doesn’t always adhere to logic.” this piece of marketing is poetic, sturm und drang, instead of the scientific roots of the original series. Logic is Star Trek’s bread and butter. The production design is excellent, and the overall plot on display here is for a dark war narrative against the Klingons. This will undoubtedly be the most serialized Star Trek series ever, but dude, Harry Mudd shouldn’t be scary. The dude is completely ridiculous.

This is marketing that feels at odds with the TV series, but closer in line with the movies as they currently exist for good and ill. Now maybe that’s calculated by the marketing to pull in any fans who arrived with the new movies, or maybe this is what Discovery will be like. I know I’ll be there, but I’ll be really salty if I have to pay for CBS All Access just to be disappointed.

Stranger Things

Now this is an excellent TV trailer. The marketing knows what worked about season one. They bring on the time period in both aesthetics and music choices. They’re leaning into the halloween trappings of this season with Thriller dictating the piece. They’re making it clear that all of this is fallout from what came before. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. And before you ask, they even show you that Eleven will be back.

It must be easier to market sequels, because you already know what works.

Westworld

What’s fascinating about this trailer is that Westworld has only been back filming for about a week. They’re showing us almost everything they’ve got in this. Yet they had great and evocative shots in the can for this trailer. The music is their speed, there’s plenty of death, and seeing Delores take out people with a rifle on horseback is damn satisfying. So is William’s smile at the end. It’s a signal to the fans. The revolution begins now.

Ready Player One

Got to be honest. This teaser is way too proud of itself. The voiceover is fine as a lead in to the plot, I just hope it isn’t in the final film. The dirty real world looks great and the stylized Oasis looks far out. It’s the stuff like, “Cinematic Game Changer Stephen Spielberg” and “Ernest Cline’s Holy Grail of Pop Culture”. Calm down WB, the book has serious flaws and Spielberg definetly doesn’t like being called a game changer.

This teaser is showing off the Oasis. It’ll be grand but not otherwordly. You’ll recognize the elements in it. The Iron Giant, the Delorean, it’s all waiting for you. Wouldn’t you rather be surrounded by safe pop culture instead of in the dreary real world? Look, we have Tom Sawyer by Rush! It wants us to want to live there and adventure there. We want to be in that impossible car chase. Now, if all goes well, the film will make us confront that want.

Justice League

This must be the third trailer for Justice League, but it’s the first one since Wonder Woman became the de facto leader of the DCEU and it shows. Diana, and even Themyscira, are front and center here. She opens the show before they remind us Superman is dead. Good idea, because not everybody saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. They do that thing where news reports fill us in on what’s going on. I hate that thing. But anyway the bad guy we don’t know, like at all, shows up and we get hero shots of all the new characters.

Shout out to the “No Lanterns” line on behalf of my Green Lantern love alone.

The villain doesn’t matter in this piece. It’s about the heroes and they’re coming together. It’s about how cool their powers look. Batman says they’re all held back, but the trailer shows them all being flawless and awesome. Except the Flash. He isn’t a fighter. It shows you how Cyborg… actually I still don’t have a read on Cyborg’s personality here. He’s just… cool? Like all the other ones? Like, yeah it’s cool that he takes over Batman’s… thingy? God I have no context! Why is he entirely CG!?

Also they straight up lie when they Superman was a beacon who inspired people to be better. That’s reductive of their argument in the previous film! In that he was a Christ figure worshiped by people and in the previous film he was an illegal alien feared by people. This incarnation of Superman has never once been seen as inspirational in the text of these films.

That being said, I do like the exchange between Alfred and Batman. “I don’t recognize this world.” and, “We don’t have to, we just have to save it.”

Look this trailer is almost entirely hero shots with out of context, and very important sounding, dialogue hanging over it all. It’s about as Zack Snyder as you can get. The bit at the end with the Flash was good but why are we pretending Superman is in this movie? We all know he’s in this movie. They’re digitally erasing his mustache so he can be in this movie.

Alright, the best for last.

Thor: Ragnarok

First of all, this trailer somehow picks up exactly where the teaser left off. Thor and Hulk meeting. But it uses that to go back and quickly run through the plot elements we learned from that one. Thor loses the hammer and winds up on an alien gladiator planet. It’s quick and simple, this trailer isn’t about that aspect of the story. This bit of marketing is about Hela and Thor’s new team.

Bruce Banner gets to be our perspective on all of the zany space and Asgardian aspects of the plot, but he’s also the Hulk. The Hulk is a champion of the fighting pits and he’s clearly in control so much that Bruce doesn’t even know where they are.

Cate Blanchett gets to chew the scenery to pieces as Hela with a disturbingly comics accurate head piece. She relishes every line she has and quickly makes it clear she’ll be more interesting than the Dark Elves from the last Thor. She’s not a queen or a monster, she’s a god, and my god do they make her look tough. She’s busting Mjolnir, fighting in the rainbow bridge, taking out the Valkryies and all of Asgard.

Neither Valkyrie nor the Grandmaster are the focus of these, but Loki is here because he’s still a massive draw for the fans. They couldn’t possibly hide him. Everything looks bright and colorful and more apart with Guardians of the Galaxy than anything else. Plus it looks aggressively fun.

This too is full of hero shots, but when dialogue is spoken they typically show the person speaking. They pause for jokes in the middle and the end, and they let the villain shine. People know Thor. This doesn’t need to sell us on him. It needs to sell us on what he’s up against, and this does just that.

 

 

It’ll be interesting to see how the marketing campaigns for these evolve over time, especially the really early footage first looks. Be sure to poke around the internet for the other trailers released over the weekend! These are only a few with the most to talk about.

-JP

PS, It’s kind of my life goal to be on a panel at Comic-Con. We’ll see if it ever happens.

Game of Thrones is Long Form Storytelling at Its Finest

Game of Thrones is back. Winter is here, as evident by the oncoming army of white walkers, complete with ice zombie giants, to the north of The Wall. This premiere was momentous to say the least, and not because of the apocalypse bearing down on Westeros. It’s huge because of the scattered character moments we’ve been building to for years. Game of Thrones is a perfect example of emotional catharsis in long-form storytelling. It’s the definitive reason why television can tell a better story than any movie ever could.

In season one, episode one, Daenerys Targarian has been exiled from Westeros for her entire life. She and her brother seek to return home and reclaim their rightful throne, but it will take an army to do so. She starts out as a pawn, used to marry into command of the Dothraki army. Instead, both her brother and Khal Drogo die and she takes command. She continues to sweep eastward, racking up more and more titles along with more and more followers. Finally, she has the army and the ships to travel to Westeros where, for the first time in her life, she sees her ancestral home Dragonstone.

Arya Stark has been on the run since the end of season one, seeking out her family so she could be safe again. She thought she would be safe with her older brother Robb, but when she arrived where he was at the Twins, the Red Wedding had just taken place. Both Robb and her mother were dead. She gave up on searching for family and instead sought the skill to extract revenge on everyone who attacked her family. She trained with the faceless men and returned to the Twins, where she slits Walder Frey’s throat, wears his face, and poisons all of his men who participated in the Red Wedding.

The Hound was escorting Arya to her aunt in the Vale when they came across a simple farmer and his daughter. The farmer offered them pay and room if they stayed to help with his farm. Instead the Hound stole from the farmer and left. After being left for dead by Arya, he was found by some kind pacifists and nursed to health. When those pacifists were killed, he took up arms once again and joined the Brotherhood Without Banners. On their journey northward, they take a night to rest in that same farmers home. The Hound discovers the farmer’s body clutching his daughter’s. He chose death for them both over starvation. That night, in the freezing cold, the Hound gives them a proper funeral.

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These three moments form the backbone of the seventh season premiere of GoT, but also perfectly exemplify the specific thrills of well-executed long form storytelling. We were there when Arya was with her family in Winterfell. We know how much she loved her brothers, her mother, her father. We’ve been with her, hoping she would catch up with her family, agonizing when she missed them yet again. We were there when she made her list of people she’d like to kill, even when she didn’t have the skill to do it. We saw her train and we saw her kill the Waif and walk away from the house of Black and White. It’s been a long trip, but every step along the way feels in line with who Arya is at that point in time (give or take a stabbing on the street) so that when she kills Walder Frey in the sixth season finale we’re excited for her to begin executing her vengeance.

And so she kills an entire house. A moment that’s arguably bigger than her emotional journey. This one is cathartic for the fans, as the Red Wedding remains THE pivotal moment of Game of Thrones. A painful reminder that the game is dangerous, and being good will not guarantee victory. For a lot of fans, their faith in their favorite characters wavered. Are any of them safe? Is this show just going to continue hurting me?

And then Walder Frey called his family to dinner.

Wait. Wasn’t he dead?

And then he calls his men “brave” for stabbing a pregnant woman to death.

Wait. That’s Arya!

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Because we know the rules, the character, as well as we do, the show doesn’t need to tell us what’s happened until after it’s already happened. The same goes for the Hound and that father and child. Even though I didn’t explicitly remember he had stolen from these people, it became clear immediately that he knew who they were. After his own near death, and his time with Ian McShane, it’s clear the Hound has changed in at least one respect. No body should be left out in the cold. Watching this cold blooded killer bury these two on a night that feels cold just to watch makes it clear that the character we thought we knew has changed. He’s getting softer. But we know the world; it’s so well drawn, and we wonder if this will make him weaker in the fights to come. And there are many fights to come.

Which brings me to Daenerys. For the entire run of the show there has been Westeros, and there has been Daenerys. They talk about each other, but they don’t intersect. They are on different continents. They have promised her arrival since the first episode and this week it finally came. Friggin’ finally. It wasn’t explosive, it was quiet. She steps on the beach, walks past the picturesque rocks, and comes upon the coolest throne in the seven kingdoms.

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Seriously wish they had a bigger budget when they made the iron throne

Finally she comes to her war table and with a few words snaps everything to come into focus.

“Shall we begin?”

Everything before this point was prologue. It moved all of the characters into place so they could be the people they need to be here at the end, but it didn’t feel that way. Jaimie needed to be trapped with Brienne to distrust Cersei. Cirsei needed to lose her kids to become the Queen. John needed to join the night’s watch to learn of the white walkers, and he needed to die so he could leave them. Every victory they gain, every homecoming and meeting between characters, sweeps us off our feet because both we and the characters have been waiting for these moments.

There isn’t much time left either, which means a lot more of these moments are in the works.

-JP

PS, but also, like, Stannis bumped uglies with the red woman on that war table right? Eeeeeewwwwww.

Who Is YOUR Spider-Man?

For any character existing in pop-culture long enough, there will be plenty of different interpretations of them. Superman has existed for over 75 years and we’ve seen a multitude of live-action movies, cartoons, and of course comics. Every audience member has a certain interpretation that imprints upon them. There own definitive version of the character. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Mark Hammil’s animated Joker, Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four and Matt Fraction & David Aja’s Hawkeye.

Thanks to the excellent Spider-Man: Homecoming hitting theaters, I’d like to share the version of Peter Parker that imprinted on me. J. Michael Straczynski & John Romita Jr.’s Amazing Spider-Man (2001-2007).

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This was slightly before every change in creative staff led to an aggressive renumbering of a comic book series, which is why Straczynski’s run began with issue 30 in June, 2001. It found adult Peter Parker checking in on his old high school in Queens. He takes up an offer to teach at the school part time, providing its own kind of homecoming for the title character.

But it’s later when things get weird. Peter meets a guy named Ezekiel.

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Ezekiel has the same powers as Peter, knows who Peter is, and has his own personal beliefs on where their powers come from.

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He brings up this idea that Peter’s spider powers might actually be mystical in origin, making Peter a kind of spider totem warrior. The text never answers this one way or the other; it’s up to the reader to decide how much they buy in. But one character certainly does, a new baddie named Morlun who nearly kills Peter. Morlun consumes the spirit of totem warriors and wants to chow down on Peter. Morlun is especially notable for two reasons. One of which is that he would be retconned into a member of a multiversal Spider-Man hunting family to be the big bad of Spider-Verse.

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Morlun is the one on the right with the cane

The other reason is Peter walks away from Morlun so beaten and exhausted he passes out on his bed. And then Aunt May comes in.

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But the story took a break after that issue because by then it was December, 2001, and a certain event had changed the world irrevocably in the months prior.

***Trigger Warning***

 

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Issue 36 is set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In it, Spider-Man and many other heroes arrive on the scene too late to stop the tragedy, but nevertheless join in the clean-up efforts. Now, I was 8 years old at this time and did not have the mental fortitude to comprehend what had truly occurred. But I can tell you, seeing images like these helped:

Earth’s mightiest heroes stood side-by-side with the firemen, first-aid workers, and military members who existed in the real world to protect us, and it made them stand out as one and the same in my mind. I’ll never forget this comic. Not even that time Doctor Doom cries due to the senselessness of it all.

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It’s not perfect

Spider-Man is THE quintessential New York superhero. To have him ignore such a substantial and transformative event in his city would be like the friends from Friends never once bringing it up in their series.

What’s that? They don’t? Huh.

Either way, Straczynski chose to confront these dark times, but also knew not to dwell on them. Which is why the series comes back to Aunt May in the following arc.

 

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May accepts and learns to support Peter as Spider-Man. Peter makes up with Mary Jane (who he had been estranged with) and takes on an upstart new Doc Ock with the help of the original. Peter takes on more and more totem warrior themed bad guys. Peter hangs out with Doctor Strange a bit. And then…

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In comic books they like to renumber because a fresh reader is more likely to jump into issue 1 than issue 324. But they always know what the real score is. Which is why they bring the real numbering in when an important milestone is reached, and this particular run hit issue 500 of the Amazing Spider-Man.

Here’s the skinny. Peter breaks time. He sees both an older version of himself and his own origin story. He can interfere with either one. Save himself from his future death or prevent himself from ever becoming a hero. Ultimately he lets both events play out. From there he has to fight all the way from his origin to the present to save the world. Reality? The stakes are high.

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He winds up beneath piles of rubble. An underwater base falling apart around him. In front of him the cure to an illness Aunt May had at the time. This event was in Amazing Spider-Man 33. The first Amazing Spider-Man 33. In that moment it’s real. If Peter fails again, then Aunt May dies this time. Only Peter’s even more tired than before, and he’s lifting an underwater base plus the water pressure atop it. And god dammit he does it.

ICONIC.

Peter saves the day, the world, everything. And nobody knows what it took. Except Doctor Strange, who gives Peter the gift of one more conversation with Uncle Ben. As drawn by John Romita Sr!

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Peter fights Loki, has one final closing chapter with Ezekiel, there’s a not-so-great arc that implies Gwen Stacy actually slept with Norman Osborn before he killed her. Seriously.

The series continues on until Civil War, where Peter reveals his secret identity to the world.

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Civil War itself doesn’t explore the ramifications of this, but Amazing Spider-Man does. It shows how the world en masse reacts, it shows how J. Jonah Jameson reacts, and it shows how people like the Kingpin react. Which, unfortunately, leads to the end of my Spider-Man.

Kingpin has Aunt May shot. Peter makes a deal with Mephisto, who’s essentially the devil, to trade his marriage with Mary Jane for Aunt May’s life. Time is rewritten so he and MJ never got married, Aunt May is saved, Peter’s secret identity is hidden again, and I stopped reading Spider-Man. That is until Miles Morales came along.

What makes this series great isn’t necessarily all the bad guys Peter fights, or even the widening mythology Ezekiel attempts to bring in, it’s a laser focused understanding of Peter and his surrounding supporting cast. Also, he gets that Spider-Man is just a guy in a suit who messes up all the time.

Plus it’s funny!

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It does my favorite Spider-Man bit which is when he rolls his mask up part way to eat.

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It does my other favorite Spider-Man bit, which is when he just hangs out and talks to new yorkers.

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For all its ups and downs and an ending that forever disconnected me from the character, this particular run on Spider-Man imprinted itself on me. For some it might have been the Ultimate Spider-Man comic by Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Bagley. For others it was probably Toby Maguire on screen in 2002. For me it started right here, and that’s why this was MY Spider-Man.

-JP

PS, read this post after watching Spider-Man: Homecoming. You’ll understand exactly why that particular movie is resonating with me so well.

 

 

Framing the Past in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu is harrowing, painful to behold, and impeccably crafted. Filled to the brim with exceptional direction, production design, and performances across the board. There’s one element I want to speak explicitly about, and that’s the flashbacks in the series.

The world of the Handmaid’s Tale is not an old dystopia. In fact, it’s only about two years old. The conflict of declining birthrates have been around for a while but Gilead, the radical christian country that burrowed out from within the United States like a zealot Xenomorph, has only recently arrived. It’s an element I personally had trouble digesting at the start of the show. That people could so quickly bow to a regime change as violent as this. But there’s as much to be gleamed from what the flashbacks choose not to show us.

Happy memories are framed very specifically in the Handmaid’s Tale. They are tight on the subject. On June’s husband and daughter in the ocean. On Moira and June at the college party. Moira and her daughter at the aquarium. The backgrounds are out of focus, the conversations and moments intimate. We’re with them. Tight in these happy times. The most interesting example of this framing happens on June and Luke’s date.

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June and Luke sit in a cafe somewhere with a window taking up the entire back wall. A frame within a frame. Inside the cafe people eat and talk. It’s all fairly innocuous. That’s the point, as both characters admit they probably shouldn’t be dating. Outside the window, children play. Little girls in red. Little girls in red led around by teachers or nannies. Essentially the future is outside that window, and right now there’s a barrier between June and them. But she’s the one on the inside and they’re the one’s on the outside. Eventually she’s going to have to enter that world.

These framing choices represent how we choose to see the past. For June those are her happy memories, but if we were to open up the frame just a little bit we would see more signs of the world coming undone. Once those signs become impossible to ignore, those flashbacks open up to show their effect on June and her family.

It’s a cold world where any stranger is a potential threat. You find yourself looking around for more oncoming elements of Gilead in their lives. It speaks to the smart film making behind the harsh story that makes you want to come back for more.

Flashbacks are a dangerous expository device that can be more cumbersome than useful in storytelling. Where The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds is they put emotion over information. Yes, we are learning how the world got this way, but we’re being told this in a non-linear order. What matters in an episode is how those memories inform us of June’s current emotional state, not what they can tell us about world history.

They do this not just with what is in the text but with what is in the frame (or what is outside it), which is the whole point of a visual storytelling medium. Information can be conveyed through language, dress, color, location, and most importantly by what the camera chooses to show us.

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The past was full of good times, maybe not perfect, but the present is just so much worse. So we focus tightly on those good moments and flush out everything surrounding them. It’s similar to life, though we don’t live in a dystopia– and feel free to make a comment like, “yet”, based on the current sociopolitical climate. Seriously this show could not be more timely –and that’s just one of the many reasons The Handmiad’s Tale connects so deeply with it’s audience.

I’ve literally never said this before online but, if you can get your hands on a Hulu subscription, do so. This series is worth the price of admission alone.

-JP

PS, that being said, good luck on the existential drama sure to follow watching a few episode. Especially the third episode. You’ll know what moment I’m talking about when you get there.

Coming Back to an Idea

As a writer a lot of my time is spent exploring a narrative idea. I’ll come up with a hook for an idea. A first five pages, if you will, and then attempt to craft the story around it. The problem is, I often abandon an idea once I become sufficiently bored of it. It’s not as much writer’s block as it is coming to the conclusion the idea wasn’t as good as I initially thought.

This happens on literally every story I write. I’ve come to the conclusion that a part of my process is a page 1 rewrite, usually between drafts 3 and 4. Those are the ideas I’m very passionate about. The ones that nip away in my brain so I can abandon what wasn’t working in the first couple drafts, keep what did work, and build around all of that. With other ideas I can’t quite peg down what works other than the basic idea. Those I allow to fall away. I forget about them for a while.

Then all of a sudden they come back and they click.

Most of the time it’s during that time between getting into bed and actually falling asleep. See, when I can’t get to sleep I tell stories in my mind which eventually lead me to sleep. Which is, like, the best. Seriously guys sleep is so dope. Anyway, recently the stories the bubble to the surface have been some of my older ones, but this time they click in ways they never did before.

I think the reasoning for this is simple. I’ve gotten better at writing. That’s not meant to sound pompous but some of these ideas were from high school or college (or admittedly much more recent times) and the writing I have done recently has vastly improved my capabilities. Dungeons & Dragons has also done me a great service. When you can’t control the characters you learn to operate the environment and people around them, a great skill for storytelling. Alongside that, co-hosting a podcast that breaks down specifics of a TV series gave me great insight into how an episode is constructed. Oh my god this post sounds so pretentious.

So I’m coming back around to old projects (Including this blog. I have to stop randomly abandoning this blog) and this time I’m doing them justice. Then, somewhere around their third draft, I’ll rebuild them from the ground up. I’m excited. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about my writing for a long time.

This is basically my reason for explaining why I haven’t been posting here for so long. It’s not that I haven’t been writing, it’s just that I haven’t been writing here. But I find this blog keeps me honest and keeps my working so let’s keep the party going. Here’s an informal contract between you and me; dear reader, I promise to post at least once a week. What will be in the post could be anything; it all depends on where the fun is. That’s Jordan Peele’s writing strategy, go where the fun is, and it’s working out pretty well for him so far.

Today’s post is short. They won’t all be.

-JP

PS, I’m not joking about that sleep thing. Like, I wouldn’t sleep for 10 hours but man those 7 or 8 I do get are stellar.