Tag Archives: pop culture rants

Two half-episodes for the price of one

Just caught up on last night’s Supernatural, and I have to say, I wanted to like it a lot more than I actually did. (Spoilers follow, but mostly for this specific episode unless you’re very behind on the show.)

On paper, I was all set to love this episode, because it was pitched as what the people of Lebanon, Kansas think of the Winchesters, and I love the Outsider POV trope. That’s one reason I always liked the Henriksen arc, where the FBI was hunting Sam and Dean–because from the point of view of law enforcement, hunters absolutely would look like serial killers. So sure, let’s see what the good folk of Lebanon think of those weird guys in the classic car who swing through to buy groceries, whiskey, and alarming quantities of ammunition.

The execution let me down, though, and I think the problem is that it was trying to be two episodes at once. “What do the people of Lebanon think of the Winchesters?” and “John is accidentally summoned from 2003 to the show’s present” are both perfectly solid pitches for an episode of Supernatural; I just don’t think they should have been the same episode. Both halves felt underdeveloped. We barely got to know the townspeople at all, or see much of what they thought was up with the Winchesters. And John had barely arrived before it became clear that he had to be packed off back to the past again. Not to mention, pulling John out of the timeline should have had huge ripple effects on all the cosmic-scale events Sam and Dean had a hand in. This was hinted by the appearance of Zachariah and the new timeline’s Castiel, but there just wasn’t time to engage with the full repercussions, which could easily have filled a whole episode.

I like the idea of both the stories this episode was trying to tell. I would happily have watched both of them in full. But getting the bare bones of each one without room to fully develop either was disappointing.

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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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Ace headcanons (and a TV pitch)

Coming in late to Asexual Awareness Week, but I had to jump in on the AAW Fandom Challenge! Since I only just discovered the challenge, I’ll do a few days at once (cherry-picking the ones where I had something to say).

Sun 22nd, Day 1: Post about canon and headcanoned asexual/spectrum characters in books and comics.

Canon: Jughead, obviously! I might do a post later about Riverdale and ace erasure and trying to watch the show with my Wishful Thinking Ace Goggles on. But comics!Jughead is an ace representation treasure.

Headcanon: The Fool, from Robin Hobb’s Farseer/ Tawny Man books. He/ she (the character is canonically genderfluid) clearly has a massive thing for Fitz, but gets really offended when Fitz construes that as being necessarily sexual. I think the Fool is asexual and Fitz-romantic, which kind of sucks because they keep running headlong into Fitz’s wall of heteronormativity, allonormativity, and transphobia, none of which their universe has words for yet. The later books, where the Fool spends more time in their female identity of Amber, have some painful scenes of Fitz Tries and Fails At Allyship.

Mon 23rd, Day 2: Post about canon and headcanoned asexual/spectrum characters in shows and movies.

Canon: Sadly thin on the ground (see my earlier lament about Riverdale), but apparently I need to watch BoJack Horseman.

Headcanon: Adrian Monk. It’s been a while since I watched Monk, but I remember him being very sex-repulsed. He clearly had a loving relationship with his late wife Trudy, but there’s a scene with his therapist where he refuses to discuss their sex life that I choose to interpret as evidence that their relationship was non-sexual. I’ve just learned the term acevague (asexuality influenced by neurodivergence), which I think applies here because it’s likely his sex-repulsion is tied up with his OCD and germophobia.

Sat 28th, Day 7: Post about asexual representation in general. What does it mean to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? Why is it important to you to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? What sort of stories/plotlines would you like to see about asexual/spectrum characters? What genre do you really want to see asexual/spectrum characters in? How would you like to see asexual/spectrum people represented?

I’ve written this post already, but it bears repeating: asexual representation is how we normalize asexuality. It’s something for aces to latch on to for validation of our identity, but it’s also for the benefit of people who don’t know much about asexuality–like, say, that it exists. I also think that wider awareness and normalization of asexuality might help challenge some of our toxic cultural narratives about sex, which hurt both aces and allos. (And hoo boy, has this been a month for confronting the consequences of our culture’s fucked-up ideas about sex and consent.)

For example, compulsory sexuality. In the older post, I mentioned the asexual relationship at the heart of Pushing Daisies. Even though neither Ned nor Chuck is asexual, I love that their inability to have sex with each other isn’t really an obstacle to their relationship. In contrast, I had soooooo little patience for Richard and Kahlan’s angst over not being able to have sex in Legend of the Seeker.* Ned and Chuck can’t even hug each other! Stop whining about your lack of orgasms when you’re supposed to be saving the world! I want to see more fictional relationships that aren’t centered around sex, and having ace characters in the mix is a great way to bring that issue to the surface. I would love to see ace/ace couples in fiction, but I’d also love to see long-term ace/allo couples who have figured out something that works for them.

But hey, the aros can come join the party too! Let’s have some plots about aro characters dating and figuring out that it’s not really what they want, or dealing with the social expectation that they’re supposed to date.** Let’s have some gray-A and demisexual characters. The more I think about it, the more I think there needs to be a rom-com anthology series about every shade of the ace spectrum. Love, Asexual Style?


* Yes, I watched Legend of the Seeker. I also watched every episode of Heroes Reborn. I hesitate to use the term “pop culture junk food”, because I hate genre snobbery and that kind of judgment gets disproportionately aimed at SF and fantasy, but it really is a bit like eating a whole bag of potato chips when you know you should have a proper meal.

** For example, the story in Jughead where aroace Jughead goes on a date with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, thanks to a misunderstanding and Archie’s misguided attempts to play matchmaker. Sabrina tries casting a love spell that will amplify any tiny bit of attraction someone feels. On the one hand: that’s perilously close to date rape. Not cool, Sabrina! But I appreciate that in this case all that happens is that Jughead feels hungrier.

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The pack survives

(Here be Game of Thrones spoilers! Also wild speculation, but if any of my guesses happen to hit the nail on the head, I take no responsibility for spoiling the future.)

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