This time, it isn’t personal. (aka How do you solve a problem like Infinity War?)

I haven’t yet seen Infinity War–understandably, because at time of posting it’s still a day away from release. I probably will see it, let’s be real, but even before setting foot in the theater I can guess the biggest problems with it.

One is a problem that I’m sure has occurred to most fans: how can a movie containing twenty-plus superheroes do justice to all of them? Granted, I don’t expect a complex character arc for Rocket Raccoon, but the more time the movie spends making sure all the secondary characters have put in an appearance, the less time there is for even a few primary characters to get the attention they deserve. And I say this as someone who loves crossovers and is still pouty that Clark Gregg has been exiled to the TV side of the MCU. Age of Ultron was already overstuffed, and that was maybe half as many characters fighting for center stage.

This review confirms a lot of my fears in that direction. Apparently even Cap barely gets his moment in the spotlight, and I’m concerned that there’s no mention of Gamora or Nebula; while the Guardians are otherwise the obvious choice for whose screentime to pare down, their personal connection to Thanos should bump them up in priority. But the review also points out another way in which Infinity War goes too big, namely in the scale of the threat:

Maybe it comes down to stakes. They’ve never been higher than they are in Infinity War, which rests half of all life in the hands of this superhero supergroup. But that’s almost too huge of a dilemma to even dramatically register; one ends up feeling nostalgic for the more relatable and comparably intimate conflict of, say, Civil War, which underpinned its globe-trotting, hero-on-hero fireworks with personal stakes.

When I read that, I was reminded of this writing advice from author Hilari Bell:

A good rule of thumb for emotional importance is: If someone asked your character Why do you care so much about saving X? can the character reply Because it’s my X. without sounding pretentious—or ridiculous? Why do you care so much about saving a dog? Because it’s my dogMy family is a no brainer. My neighborhood works pretty well. With the culture that prevails today, my country is a convincing motivation. But Because it’s my planet sounds a bit over-possessive to me and the further you go, It’s my galaxy, universe, etc. the more ridiculous it gets. Because it’s my multiverse. Sure it is.

The “make the threat bigger” mindset is a common enough failing of genre storytelling. Doctor Who has fallen into the trap time and again, saving the universe, the multiverse, and the timestream when saving the planet got too humdrum. On the other hand, I’ve also seen some good examples of tying the big threat to personal stakes. The most recent season of Legends of Tomorrow springs to mind, where the threat of the demon Mallus is intertwined with both Amaya saving her village and Damien Darhk saving his daughter. Harry Potter’s final battle isn’t just to save the entire wizarding world, it’s to save Hogwarts and his friends. On Supernatural, everything up to and including the apocalypse is really about family. Sci-fi universes that treat planets like countries can maybe get away with my planet; I was going to use Miles Vorkosigan as an example, until I realized that even when Miles is doing something for Barrayar, it’s usually tied to danger to his family or his subordinates or his mentor or his love interest. People over principles, as Miles himself once said.

In general, the MCU is actually pretty decent at abiding by this rule. Take Captain America: The First Avenger. Cap finds Red Skull’s bombs, each with the name of a city on the side–and the camera makes sure we get a look at the one labeled “New York”. Now it’s not just about lots of people dying, it’s about his hometown. (It’s not a coincidence that New York is also threatened in The Avengers, especially since it’s Iron Man’s hometown as well.) In Winter Soldier, the big goal is saving the world from Project Insight, but the emotional stakes are about Steve saving his friend. For Ant-Man it’s his daughter. For Daredevil or Luke Cage it’s his neighborhood. For Black Panther it’s his country. Even when something bigger is threatened, something personal to the heroes is front and center.

So the threat of Thanos is just too big, but that problem is compounded by the first one: the crowd of characters and the lack of time to focus on any single character. Civil War had a similar bevy of superheroes, but it was anchored by the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man; all the movie had to do was establish stakes for Steve (his friend again) and Tony (his parents, his residual murderbot guilt) and align everyone else with one side or the other. (And even then, we also had room for T’Challa’s father and Wanda’s freedom and Bucky’s freedom and everyone’s friendships, which is a whole load of personal stakes for one movie.) With Infinity War, it’s unclear how we’re going to have enough time with anyone to make this fight personal for them.

If I’m wrong and Gamora gets tons of screentime, she has personal stakes all ready to go, much as Guardians 2 made Star-Lord’s stakes my father by making his father the villain. But Gamora isn’t a central character of the MCU the way Cap and Iron Man are. She could carry the main plot of a Guardians movie, where the main characters are her friends and will care because she cares, but her stakes won’t carry enough weight to support Infinity War singlehandedly. What Infinity War needs to do, and may well fail at, is make the fight against Thanos personal for a large enough number of important enough characters that the audience will care about stopping him in more than the abstract.

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Sailing for adventure on the big blue wet thing

The thing about thinking about tropes as much as I do is that it starts to follow you around. Today, I just wanted to see a funny movie, and I ended up thinking about genre standards and suspension of disbelief.

The movie in question was Muppet Treasure Island, and of all things, I focused in on the sailing. I blame Scott Lynch, because Red Seas Under Red Skies so thoroughly deconstructed the idea of a character taking off to sea without knowing how to sail a ship. This previously came up when I read A Darker Shade of MagicLight spoilers ahead: the ending of that book included a character going off to become a pirate, with no previously indicated nautical experience. After having read Red Seas, this bothered me to the point where it’s part of the reason I haven’t yet read A Gathering of Shadows.

The part where I noticed this in Muppet Treasure Island was when Jim told Squire Trelawney to take the helm of the ship. For context, in the Muppet version Squire Trelawney is played by Fozzie Bear, he refers to the ocean as “the big blue wet thing,” and everything he does is on the advice of an imaginary friend who lives in his finger. So Trelawney’s lack of sailing experience is almost the least of the reasons this seems like a bad idea. But Jim asks him to take the helm and nothing goes wrong. And I’ve been trying to figure out why that didn’t bother me more than it did.

I think the answer comes down to genre and suspension of disbelief. Now, sci-fi and fantasy get some kinds of suspension of disbelief standard in the package. All but the hardest of hard sci-fi is allowed FTL travel, and fantasy novelists don’t have to explain how dragons exist or why they’re physically able to fly, unless the author is really into that sort of thing. But that doesn’t mean those genres get a free pass on everything; accepting the existence of aliens or magic doesn’t preclude applying other kinds of real-world logic. (This is where most of my Harry Potter posts come from.) So I can accept characters in A Darker Shade of Magic traveling between worlds, but that doesn’t stop me wondering how exactly a character with no sailing experience is going to fare at sea, because it’s outside the category of things the author set up as part of the fantasy world.

Comedy, though, is playing on a totally different field. Under Rule of Funny, almost anything goes; as long as we’re laughing, we’re not going to question the logic of it, which is how Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Douglas Adams get away with all sorts of ridiculousness. But as a corollary, the sillier the surrounding work, the lower the standard for suspension of disbelief overall. Going back to Muppet Treasure Island, the moment where Jim tells Fozzie to steer the ship isn’t really setting up a joke in itself. But… come on, it’s a Muppet movie. It just seems silly to quibble about the realism of anything in it.

Of course, suspension of disbelief also varies from person to person, based on your particular background. I have friends who are much more concerned than I am with the realism of spaceship physics in Star Trek, where I tend to handwave it and get on with the story. But since this one particular issue of realism has popped up for me, I’m trying to think of other examples across genres of when this particular issue did or didn’t bug me. The one that springs to mind is the Redwall series; I’m sure that had a few characters who went off sailing and did it skillfully the first time, but Brian Jacques more or less made it work, and I couldn’t say how much of that was the suspension of disbelief allocated to a talking animal story and how much was Jacques (a former sailor) genuinely knowing his stuff. I might also have grouched about this back when I read Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe, but it would have been the tip of the iceberg of my complaints about that book.

Maybe the sailing issue is just standing out to me because of Lynch; I should start paying attention to other instances of characters succeeding immediately at something that should really take extensive training. Which, let’s face it, fictional characters do all the time.

Edit: It occurred to me later that it’s not just Rule of Funny that gets exemptions from plausibility. Welcome To Night Vale, for example, runs on Rule of Weird: the weirder something is, the better it fits into the established setting. Everything in the show is so surreal that when something doesn’t quite make sense, it comes off as intentional weirdness rather than a plot hole. (And the authors can patch actual plot holes by invoking the town’s weirdness to invent a bizarre law or local phenomenon that explains the discrepancy.)

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Arisia!

As usual, I will be at Arisia this coming weekend. This year is particularly special to me because it’s my first time as a program participant! I will be on the following panels:

Fri 8:30 pm: Dragons!!!
Sun 10 am: Riverdale: A Great Place to Get Away With It All
Sun 1 pm: Marvel Cinematic and TV Universe, 2017 Edition
Sun 8:30 pm: Getting Started with Experimental Video Game Dev
Mon 1 pm: Songs of Drink

I will also be co-running playground games for kids and just might be entering the Doom, Gloom, and Despondency Song Contest. If anyone reading this is going, come say hi!

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Number one with a bullet (journal)

Happy New Year, if anyone out there still reads this! I’m not going to resolve to blog more this year, because frankly there are so many things I want to improve on that blogging probably doesn’t make the top ten. Instead I’m resolving to take up bullet journaling — the idea being that getting my to-do list more organized will help me improve a lot about my habits at once. Well, we’ll see! I wanted to do it because the idea seems very compatible with the way I already keep lists, and I’m excited looking at all the shiny things people do with bullet journal layouts, so maybe at least a little of the organization will stick.

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Don’t mind me, I’ll just be sitting in this pumpkin patch…

Because I’m a sap for tradition with a needy and demanding inner child, I still make a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween. Last night I finally carved out (ha) some time for it, and I cued up my DVD of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. 

I watched this cartoon every Halloween as a child. As an adult, I’ve been using it as my pumpkin-carving background noise for years. By now, it’s a comfortable routine; I wasn’t even paying much attention. And then, during the scene where Linus writes his letter to the Great Pumpkin, it hit me right between the eyes that the Great Pumpkin is a metaphor for God.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by the revelation. After all, another beloved cartoon has made a similar analogy about Santa Claus, and Linus explicitly calls out the parallelism between Santa Claus and the Great Pumpkin. But somehow I had never seen it before. The rest of the episode only strengthened the metaphor: Linus, the true believer, ridiculed by those who don’t share his belief. Preaching the good news of the Great Pumpkin to potential convert Sally. Denying himself worldly pleasures to wait patiently in the pumpkin patch for a reward from a being who never appears and may or may not even exist.

And from there, I had to wonder: did Charles Schulz do that on purpose?

It’s plausible. Schulz often made references to Christian theology in his work; this is the same man who could turn a baseball game into a meditation on the Book of Job. It seems significant that the Great Pumpkin believer is Linus, the same character who quotes the Gospel of Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas and who in the comic strip is something of a pint-sized Bible scholar. And Charlie Brown frames his and Linus’ differing beliefs (in Santa Claus and the Great Pumpkin) as “denominational differences”, which makes the metaphor nearly explicit. But if Schulz did intend the metaphor, what was he trying to say? Was he implying that God is no more real than the Great Pumpkin, or is Linus meant to be an admirable example of holding fast to faith without proof? Or, following the Peanuts theme of failure, is it that whether or not God the Great Pumpkin is out there, Linus has no more chance of seeing him than Charlie Brown has of kicking Lucy’s football? Or is none of it deliberate, and Schulz just wanted to make a silly joke about Linus confusing Halloween and Christmas?

But really, does it matter what he intended? Sure, it might be interesting to trace the history of the Great Pumpkin Peanuts strips and see if they reflected changes in Schulz’s religious beliefs over time. But even if Schulz deliberately set up a parable about faith, he doesn’t hit anyone over the head with the allegory. (I’m looking at you, C. S. Lewis.) Most viewers watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and enjoy it without reading it that way. Up until this year, that included me.

Nothing has changed about It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown since I last watched it. If anything was different, it was me. The text revealed a new meaning because I had changed in some way, or happened to have different things on my mind. It’s Death of the Author: whatever Schulz was thinking, the work is going to carry whatever meaning a particular viewer sees in it. Maybe all art, done well, is bound to carry undercurrents in it that the author never consciously set up.

 

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