Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Fiction that won me back

People who know me know that I'm extremely picky and stubborn like a mule. When I get a notion into my head I'm loathe to reverse my position. Growing up, I was a terrible problem for my family whenever they wanted to see a movie in the theater because I would veto most of what the cinemas were offering. And once I decided I didn't like something, I would remain steadfast in my resolve.

This being so, let's look at three times where I had set myself against a project - only to be won back.

I watched a fair bit of Mission: Impossible growing up, starting with the 1980s revival series, then seeing the original program when it ran in reruns on FX. It was often an uneven series (particularly in the later years) but there are many episodes which I can point to as great television. The series also had a great number of repeated tropes, moments which would appear in virtually every episode and so would be anticipated each time - and then surprised in those episodes which didn't follow the typical Mission: Impossible formula.

I did not like Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible. Oh, how much did I not like this film. As a Mission: Impossible fan, I simply couldn't stand seeing the program's hero - Jim Phelps - turned into a villain then thrown under the bus in order to promote Tom Cruise as the new hero. This film angered me, so much so that I couldn't appreciate any of the craft which went into its much-admired stunts.

Many years later I found myself on a flight from Canada to Sierra Leone and noticed Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol among the in-flight entertainment. After getting through the films I really wanted to see, I lowered my expectations in order to give Ghost Protocol a shot. I reasoned that while it wouldn't be the Mission: Impossible I enjoyed, as it was directed by a director I enjoyed (Brad Bird) maybe I'd get something out of it. I was won over by the time the opening credits rolled.

The bongo music - the fuse moving across the screen - the clips of upcoming moments - wow. Instantly, I gleaned that Brad Bird might have been a fan of the original series. I became immersed in that film and enjoyed that it was - like the original series - an ensemble piece (that is, less of a Tom Cruise vehicle). So many of the trademarks of the television program were present, from stealth gadgets to changing room numbers to trick people. I enjoyed this film so much I went to see Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation on its opening weekend! Ghost Protocol remains a film I would happily watch again.

I came somewhat late into Star Trek fandom, arriving just as Star Trek: Voyager launched. I went back to catch all that I had missed and soon found there were episodes I liked, other episodes not-so-much, characters I liked, characters I loathed. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine became my favourite of the franchise I still watched Voyager to the end - gradually realizing it wasn't that great, often viewing it from a sense of inertia and seldom engaged with the stories, but it wasn't bad enough to switch channels.

Then came Enterprise. Although I had misgivings about the series' approach to continuity, I respected that the program wanted to break out of the usual tropes and find a new angle on the Trek formula in order to attract a wider audience. I gave the first season some rope and found it likeable enough. That changed with season 2, particularly with the notorious "A Night in Sickbay" episode, but also a series of other similarly lousy programs. I gave up partway into the season and decided I was done with Trek. I ignored what I heard about the show's changes in seasons 3 & 4.

One day, a friend eagerly insisted I watch the season 4 two-parter "A Mirror Darkly." I spent a great deal of time laughing at the over-the-top performances and the audacious number of references to classic Trek. This convinced me to go back and see the rest of season 4 to discover what the series' new showrunner (Manny Coto) had done to improve the series. I ultimately judged he had made the show a solid good program and felt better about how Trek's TV franchise wound up. Still, some fans insisted the show had actually become good in season 3. Eventually I would watch everything I had missed (including more of the lousy season 2 episodes) and concluded that it had actually become decent near the end of season 2 and even hit an all-time high during its 3rd season. Enterprise didn't deserve a better chance - simply being Star Trek gave it a better chance than most programs - but, like every Trek program, if you ignore the really bad episodes it's not such an awful series.

Finally, Star Wars. I've blogged before about how Star Wars was a very important franchise to me in my childhood but how I began to feel disinterested even before Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released. That feeling continued throughout the era of prequel films. I recognized the product as a legitimate Star Wars offering, yet had a sense of disassociation, not feeling any emotion about seeing the product. This finally changed when I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which offered some compelling new characters alongside a hefty dose of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is the common bond between these franchises. To win me back to Mission: Impossible, it took an homage to the original series opening; for Enterprise, it was bringing in the Mirror Universe; for Star Wars, it was familiar characters and situations. But I would say in each instance nostalgia was a means to an end, not a means unto itself. Beyond the nostalgia I sensed in the opening of Ghost Protocol, I enjoyed the risky stunts and character interplay. Enterprise dug deep into franchise lore for its 4th season, but it also worked hard to rehabilitate its own characters, particularly by calling out its lead character (Jonathan Archer) for his sins. Finally, The Force Awakens trod upon familiar soil, but it was the new character Finn who gave me hope for the franchise's future.

How about you? Is there a series or franchise which you came to dislike, then found yourself being won back?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Roadblock and the Art of Smothering Explosives

Here's a great scene from G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #29 (1984) by Larry Hama, Frank Springer and Andy Mushynsky. The scenario: Cobra has planted a bomb on the boat the G.I. Joe team is gathering aboard. It is discovered by the Joes' expert explosives defuser Tripwire. Hama endowed each of the G.I. Joes he wrote with a particular unique personality trait to set them apart; Tripwire was notorious in the series for being extremely clumsy, seemingly the last person you would want to see working with explosives - but when at work in the field, Tripwire would become intense and determined. This scene gives us Tripwire's attempt at being heroic. He flings himself upon the bomb:

It sure looks like good ol' Tripwire is about to go out in a blaze of glory, right? At least his comrades will be safe - assuming his body could shield a bomb intended to destroy an entire vessel. Unlikely, I guess. But behold how his teammate Roadblock reacts:

Roadblock takes the bomb from Tripwire and punts out the nearest vent, causing it to explode in the ocean. He then gently reprimands Tripwire for his actions:

"That took a lot of heart back there, Tripwire, but don't do it again! Uncle Sam paid megabucks to train you to fight with a team. A dead hero don't do his buddies no good and medals ain't no shinier when they're posthumous."

Well said, Roadblock. Come with me now to G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #233 (2017) by Larry Hama, S. L. Gallant and Brian Shearer. The scenario: A terrorist has just lobbed a grenade into Roadblock and Duke's vehicle. Roadblock catches the grenade midair and smashes out of the car to get rid of the grenade; problem: they're in the middle of a crowded marketplace with civilians everywhere. There's no safe place to dispose of the grenade!

How to shield the civilians from the blast? Roadblock simply places the car door over the grenade to smother the explosion. This works.

So 33 years ago Roadblock should have followed up his speech to Tripwire with: "...Now maybe if you had a car door with you, that would be something..."

Monday, June 19, 2017

In Defense of "Oceans"

Yesterday my church introduced a new song to our congregation - "new" being a very relative term. "Oceans (Where My Feet May Fail)" was written by Matt Crocker, Joel Houston & Salomon Ligthelm of the band Hillsong United in 2013. It's been a popular Christian tune over the past four years; it took this long for someone in my church's worship team to suggest performing it.

The song was already on my mind because of an article I had seen on a Christian blog: "Hillsong's "Oceans" (Where This Song Fails)" by Jonathan Aigner. I did not agree with his conclusions about the song and with "Oceans" entering my church's repertoire, the time seems right to respond.

The tone of Aigner's article is very troubling for a Christian blogger speaking to a Christian audience about Christian worship. The opening paragraphs are full of snark and presume the audience already shares the blogger's opinion of the song ("If you’ve been in contemporary worship circles, you already get what I’m talking about"). He then relates an anecdote about how he first learned of the song from a teacher, including as many dismissive and condescending remarks as he can ("...I said, wanting to be supportive..." "...she probably didn't know the difference").

But then he gets into his criticisms, beginning by complaining that the song doesn't rhyme. He states "on the most basic level, this is terrible poetry," having no apparent appreciation for free verse - it is a valid form of poetry and common to contemporary worship. I understand that he doesn't like it but he presents his opinion of contemporary worship as though it were something quantifiable or canonical. His distaste for the song is evident in the anecdote about the teacher, as is the relish he takes in tearing down something he knows other people enjoy.

He goes into some lyrical analysis which is astoundingly off-base. He complains that "I thought we were trying to walk on water, which will fail of course, because we aren’t Jesus." I don't know what denomination he belongs to but it is not impossible for us to do perform the miracles of Jesus for we "can do all things through Him who strengthens." (Philippians 4:13). Further, the phrasing is "let me walk upon the waters," which is a prayer, something we want to see accomplished. He also complains about following this lyric with the phrase "take me deeper," suggesting that this indicates drowning. "Deep" is referring to a more profound understanding of Christ, not a vertical direction.

He complains next about the word "I" being too common. Amazingly, his next section complains about the use of the Spirit which is pretty important to the context of the "I"s: "Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders." As well, throughout the song are the "yous" - "I will call upon Your name," "I am Yours and You are mine," "Your sovereign hand will be my guide," etc. This doesn't seem to be bad theology to me - I am not a singer, songwriter, musician or theologian but the song is talking about setting out under the direction of the Holy Spirit and that we have no borders - that the titular oceans need not impede us. As someone who has stepped out into the world (across the ocean, in fact) on mission work and has had his trust in God strengthened through those experiences I think I could pray to this song.

The blogger closes his post by noting Hillsong Church isn't currently playing "Oceans" (or another popular song of theirs "Shout to the Lord"). He presents this as some proof of the song's irrelevancy. He ignores that the reason the song has left rotation there is that the band is constantly writing new material. Songs fade in and out at churches across the world; my church does not perform the hymn "Lift High the Cross," but that's not a slight against that old ditty - it's a great hymn, but it's not quite right for the current environment of my church. It is right for other churches. One can only fit so many songs into the set lists in the course of a year!

Above all, I have to return to the tone of this blog post. Christ left us instructions for how to love each other (John 15:9-17) and to deal with those among us who sin (Matthew 18:15-20). Unfortunately, he did not address those occasions when we will wish to write snarky criticisms of our brothers and the way in which they worship. Again, I am not a theologian but I will suggest Jesus wouldn't care for it.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

It's a Wonderful Woman (Wonder Woman film review)

At the dawn of the 21st century - before Marvel's super heroes came to wider audience awareness - Wonder Woman was one of the world's top three best-known super heroes alongside her DC pals Superman & Batman. Although her comic book had never been a sustained hit and her television exposure limited to a live-action show and a few cartoons, Wonder Woman was extremely well-represented in licensing and, due to her continuous presence and prominence in comics, became the go-to reference for discussions about female super heroes.

Although I know a lot about Wonder Woman, I've never been a fan. Heck, I've read about 12 issues of Wonder Woman taken as a whole and most of those were George Perez issues. I haven't read so much as a comma from Greg Rucka's work. I suppose you can chalk it up to my being a Marvel fan, coupled with the generally underwhelming reception much of her recent work has received. I've also kept away from the latest attempt at creating the DC Cinematic Universe and had no intention of watching the Wonder Woman film - until a week ago when there was a tempest in a teapot about misogynists trying to label the film anti-male. I chose to counter that by giving the film my money (strangely, the people who are against this film have also chosen to fight it by giving it more money).

While I have no particular interest in Wonder Woman as a fan, that at least frees me from many of the anticipations fans would have about how she's portrayed. Let's assume I'll be talking *SPOILERS* here on out.

Part of what I enjoyed about the film Captain America: The First Avenger is that it was set during World War II, the conflict which spawned an immense flurry of comic book super heroes, yet had been largely excised from the big screen adaptations of said heroes up until then. Upon hearing Wonder Woman would be set during the first World War instead of the second, I assumed it was an attempt to avoid comparisons to Captain America: The First Avenger. However, Darren Mooney made a good case for the idea that the first World War was better suited to the mission statement of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was, after all, a character created to oppose not only the 2nd World War but the very concept of war.

The problem, then, with World War II is that it is less open to anti-war criticism, especially in the mode of a blockbuster super hero action film. Although both sides in the 2nd World War committed atrocities, the sheer magnitude of what the Japanese did to the Chinese and the Germans to the Jews renders any attempt to criticize the Allies' behaviour as 'unfair.' On the other hand, World War I has long-since been absorbed into popular thought as an unnecessary and pointless bloodbath of carnage which was so badly botched that it spawned a whole other terrible conflict. Thus, in Wonder Woman our hero is allowed to be against the Germans, yet appalled by the Allied leaders speaking callously about casualties. Popular culture has only really remembered two stories about the 1st World War: All Quiet on the Western Front and Blackadder Goes Forth; Wonder Woman will make sense to anyone who is familiar with those works.

What I appreciated the most about the film's characterization of Wonder Woman is that she was incredibly earnest. It's a quality I personally appreciate in super heroes such as Superman and Captain America - the idea that they're nice people, a bit naive but very trusting and trustworthy. The story itself is very accessible, standing alone as an origin story that doesn't feel the compulsion to intentionally set up future films. This seems to me to be what DC should have been doing all along and will hopefully inspire them to make a bit of course-correcting for their coming films. It's not filled with sarcastic remarks like so many of the Marvel films, but it's not oh-so self-serious either. The film understands it has a fantastic premise (woman raised on all-female island created by the gods) and treats it like a great Greek myth instead of a dour Greek tragedy.

In recent years it's become very popular to depict Wonder Woman with a sword and shield, playing up the idea of her as a rough warrior woman. I've had some problems with that as I've always thought she was powerful enough to handle enemies without needing to kill them, y'know, like Superman (*ahem*). I suppose a shield is fine, but seems derivative of Captain America. Yet, behold! By the climax of Wonder Woman she's shed the shield and sword and the final battle with Ares is conducted using her traditional equipment - her fists, her bracelets and her lasso of truth. Bravo!

The fight scenes certainly remind one Zack Snyder is a major part of this film series as the speed-up/slow-down stuff felt right out of 300; I actually enjoyed most of them, particularly a scene where she slow-mo dodged a sword thrust while kicking a man in the head. However, a scene near the end where she went into slow-motion while piling through a bunch of Germans felt like it was sapping energy from the climax instead of ratcheting up the tension.

Steve Trevor was handled very well, treated as a decent, likeable guy. I wondered at times if the climax would go for the he's-old-she's-young development (as in Justice League's "Savage Time") but his purpose in the film - demonstrating the good aspects of humanity for Wonder Woman - was nicely played. It's a pity this is his only film appearance; guess she'll need a new love interest next time she gets a solo film. And how about that, look at the box office! There's totally going to be another one of these. Warners, now that you've raised people's expectations don't screw up again.

I suppose there are three things I could nitpick:

  1. Diana is never called Wonder Woman, thus joining the ranks of other super hero characters who try to play down their codenames (Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Falcon). It's a little weird considering the film committed to a reasonably faithful bright red/blue Wonder Woman suit and as it was set in the past it would have seemed... less corny, I guess. (having grown up with super hero comics I never find this stuff corny)
  2. When the film didn't open with Diana's creation as a clay statue (instead referring to it) I wondered if they were going to go with the more recent retcon where she's the daughter of Zeus, and I became convinced the moment Hippolyta began uttering ominous things about Diana's origin. The thing is, it doesn't matter. Zeus is dead. Statue given life by Zeus or daughter of Zeus, what's the difference? I guess as the daughter of Zeus it places here on more even footing with Ares but the "shocking revelation" about her parentage didn't change anything. (I also guessed she was the god-killer; you grow up with these tropes, you stop getting surprised)
  3. The moment David Thewlis appeared I instantly went, "bad guy?" The man simply has that look about him. Now, if the character had been played by Patton Oswalt I wouldn't have suspected a thing (don't know how believable Patton Oswalt would look firing lightning from his hands).

Did you like Wonder Woman? Has it changed your mind about the future of the DC Cinematic Universe? Do you know more about the comics and have some perspective on that? Don't be shy, I'm easy to speak to; comment below.