Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Mary Sue Misapplication

Mary Sue (n): An idealized, practically perfect character in fan fiction, almost always created as a way for the author to insert themselves into their favorite fictional universe. Mary Sues often upstage the universe's established characters, winning their respect and sometimes even their romantic interest.

Believe it or not, in the early years of Star Trek fandom the fanbase was predominately female. In fact, without the passion of the mainly-female fans who organized conventions and published fanzines during those years when Star Trek was nothing more than a cancelled TV show, we never would've gotten 13 feature films and five spinoff television series. Kind of makes those dudes who accuse female fans of being "fake geek girls" look like even more voluminous douchebags, doesn't it?

Anyway, fanzines were fan-published magazines that contained fanfic, poetry, and essays--the kind of things you see on the Internet today. In the second issue of the Menagerie fanzine published in December 1973, author Paula Smith coined the term "Mary Sue" to describe the type of Star Trek fanfic featuring the youngest officer in Starfleet history who comes aboard the Enterprise and instantly wins the admiration (and possibly romantic affections) of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, even as she upstages them all by effortlessly saving the day with her brilliant genius. It goes without saying that a "Mary Sue" character could also be male, it's just that the vast majority of fanfic authors in that first decade of Trek fandom were female and therefore the nickname that was coined for any wish-fulfillment author-stand-in character was a female one. At least it should go without saying. In actual practice, female fanfic authors quickly found that any female character they created, no matter how well-drawn and realistic, was dismissed by male readers as a "Mary Sue". But it gets worse:

Until pretty recently, I never heard the term applied to any characters outside of fan fiction. The only exception I can think of was Star Trek: The Next Generation's Wesley Crusher, (a youthful super genius who often improbably saved the day and who Gene Roddenberry admitted was somewhat based on himself). But then a funny thing happened. Female protagonists started to show up with increasing frequency in sci-fi and fantasy, and suddenly male fans were loudly denouncing every one of them as a "Mary Sue".

Case in point: Rey from The Force Awakens. Google "rey mary sue" and the number of results is depressingly more than zero. But why? The main reason the (always male) proponents of this argument give is that she has "unrealistic abilities". Well duh. Most every story you love features a character with superpowers or super awesome fighting skills or genius-level intelligence that helps them solve complex mysteries or invent incredible things that defy the laws of physics. News flash: those are all unrealistic abilities. Here are some other reasons why Rey cannot by definition be a Mary Sue:
  1. The Force Awakens is not a fanfic. Maybe it's not exactly the Star Wars Episode 7 you imagined in your head after the disappointing prequels, but the fact is that The Force Awakens is an official entry in the Star Wars canon. and one of the things it's designed to do is introduce a new generation of characters like Poe, Finn and especially Rey. 
  2. Rey is not an author stand-in. The Force Awakens was written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams. I'm 99% sure neither of those guys is a young woman, and I can't prove it, but I'm fairly certain none of them fantasizes about being one. At least it's never come up in their other work.
Since basically forever the entertainment industry has been catering to white guys like me by giving us heroes who look like ourselves. But now Hollywood is slowly starting to realize that women have money, too, and they're more likely to spend it on movies where are the characters who look like them are treated like real people and not just a talking prop or a trophy given to a male hero for saving the day. Only an idiot would feel threatened by this. Or Max Landis. But I repeat myself.

So knock it off, guys. Stop trying to disguise your sexism as thoughtful artistic criticism. Your genitals aren't going to fall off just because traditionally male-dominated franchises are starting to get more female heroes.



Monday, August 8, 2016

The Axanar Meltdown II: The Moltening

I generally don't get involved in Internet controversies. I just don't have the time. But, for years I've enjoyed some of the Star Trek fan productions out there, especially New Voyages/Phase II and Star Trek Continues. And I was initially excited about Star Trek Axanar. I even donated $25 to one of their crowdfunding campaigns. And then everything went straight to heck.

First, Axanar managed to get itself sued by CBS and Paramount. You'd think that producer Alec Peters and his followers would immediately do whatever was necessary to keep this huge multimedia conglomerate from crushing them like a Fudgesicle under a steamroller, but throughout all of this they've remained defiant, even launching a countersuit against CBS/Paramount. And after months of waiting for the other shoe to drop, in June CBS and Paramount released a list of Star Trek fan film guidelines that close the door, not just on productions like Axanar, but also on my two favorite fan productions New Voyages and Continues.

While the official Axanar Twitter account was retweeting anyone who pledged to boycott official Star Trek productions because of the lawsuit or the guidelines, Vic Mignogna of Star Trek Continues published a very classy statement shooting down calls for any such boycott and reminding fans of CBS and Paramount's intellectual property rights. I was annoyed that Axanar's recklessness and profiteering was going to bring an end to fan films as we've know them, so I fired off this tweet:

I was just venting. I never expected any kind of reply. But my tweet must've touched a raw nerve with Alec, because he initiated a conversation with me via direct message. What follows are screenshots of the full conversation, with only one redaction (which will be obvious when you see it). I've debated posting this, but some folks have expressed interest. And I think it's important to see how Alec behaves when he's backed into a corner by logic. Make of it what you will.


One bit of clarification: my statement that I don't disbelieve the allegations made about Vic Mignogna means that I have no evidence that they're true or false. They are, however, utterly irrelevant to the topic of Star Trek and intellectual property rights.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Batman v Superman: Happy Funtime

So recently I saw this movie from a director who many believe has made more bad films than good ones. It's a visually-rich, strangely-paced film that was almost universally panned by critics; one especially famous one called it "a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story." I'm talking, of course, about Blade Runner.

Today, of course, Blade Runner is widely regarded as a classic, and as director Ridley's Scott's best film. But back in 1982 most critics (including Roger Ebert, whose review I quoted above) said the same kinds of things they're now saying about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I finally got to see BvS this weekend, and I have to say it was much better than I expected considering the shellacking it's received from critics both professional and amateur.

Am I saying that Batman v Superman: Could This Title Be More Cumbersome? is as good as Blade Runner? No. I'm saying that although it's not a perfect film, I still enjoyed it.

Are there any perfect movies? Name one if you can, and I guarantee I can point out one giant story-derailing plot hole in it, or a bunch of little plot holes and imperfections that will completely take you out of the movie every time you see it from now on. Movies and TV shows are designed to entertain us during their running time. But somewhere along the way the Internet decided that in order for something to be good, you have to be able to watch it again and again and again and again and again and again and again into infinity without noticing any imperfection. Otherwise, that movie or TV episode sucks.

Of course, the most fanatical proponents of the Infinite Rewatchability Standard have their own personal lists of things they believe should be excluded from it, things that they love even though they're flawed. But that is not the point. The point is that the Internet often arbitrarily decides that things are bad, even if they share many common characteristics with other things that the Internet loves.

For example, early on in BvS there's a scene where an African terrorist warlord is holding a gun to Lois Lane's head, using her as a human shield to get Superman to back down. I was instantly reminded of a similar scene in the first Iron Man movie, when a bunch of Afghan terrorists hold guns on women and children to get Iron Man to back down. You remember what happens: Tony Stark uses the technology in his suit to target the terrorists and shoot them all at once, and not with tranquilizer darts, either. The outcome in BvS is similar; Kal-El uses his super speed to knock the warlord through several walls. We don't see the guy after that, but it's pretty safe to assume he's dead. I've seen lots of complaints about this, and oddly enough they all come from people who think the DC films should be more like Marvel's.

Do I thrill to the sight of superheroes killing bad guys? No. I'm just pointing out that the people who make the loudest noise about Superman or Batman killing villains have absolutely no problem with Iron Man or Captain America doing the same thing. They're just grasping for reasons to validate the decision they made to hate the movie way back when it was first announced.

So, what did I like about Batman v Superman: How Many Focus Groups Did It Take To Come Up With This Title? Well, as a Superman fan I really liked how the movie treated him. Look, the first Christopher Reeve film is one of my favorite movies ever, but it's almost 40 years old. This Superman can't go to the Fortress of Solitude and have the giant floating head of Jor-El tell him what to do whenever he has a problem. The people of Earth don't instantly accept him. And a lot of the time his efforts to save people spawn unintended consequences, some of which are engineered by Lex Luthor in a deliberate effort to discredit him. In light of all that, is it reasonable to expect him to be the smiling Superman that Christopher Reeve portrayed? Of course not.

In the final act of the film, Lex Luthor did something that he's done many times in the comics but never in the movies: give Superman in a genuine moral dilemma--does he kill Batman or allow his mother to die? When he leaves Lois to confront Batman, he seems resigned to killing Batman. But he doesn't. Even when Batman reveals he can hurt him with his Kryptonite gas, Superman continues to try and get him to stop, rather than just heat-visioning his face off. And in death, this Superman does something that we never really saw in the Donner/Reeve films: inspire people. He inspires Bruce Wayne to be a better man. He inspires Wonder Woman to come out of retirement. And he inspires the people of Earth to come together. The scene of the multiethnic crowd holding a candlelight vigil at his monument was maybe the most inspiring Superman-related scene we've ever seen in live action. All of these are good things. I've seen people complain that DC did the Death of Superman too soon, but in this universe Superman needed to die heroically for the world to embrace him.

Of course, there's stuff I didn't enjoy so much, like Jesse Eisenberg's over-the-top performance. And the killing. Let's talk about that again. Near the end of the movie when Batman is firing the Batplane's machine guns at Luthor's henchmen on his way to rescue Martha Kent, I realized that this is the world we live in now. Batman has been killing his enemies on the movie screen since 1989, and the world is an even grimmer place today. A majority of Americans favor the torture of captured terrorists, even though the facts are that torture is not a good way to extract reliable intelligence. Politicians running for office get big cheers from their supporters when they promise to massacre the families of suspected terrorists. Back in the early 1950s when the Comics Code Authority forbade comic book heroes from killing their enemies, these kinds of things would have provoked outrage. But to modern audiences, someone who identifies as a "good guy" taking the Judge Dredd approach to crimefighting seems justified, if not praiseworthy. I don't like that at all, but it's not an issue that's restricted to this movie; it's part of the cultural soup we're all cooking in.

Another thing that a lot of people didn't like/were confused by were the strange dream sequences that were never explained, and mostly seemed to be shoehorned in there to set up the upcoming Justice League movies. I don't mind a movie having weird stuff that's not explained, and since I read the spoilers ahead of time I mostly understood what I was seeing. Still, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the writers threw those scenes in there just because they seemed cool, without any firm idea how they would fit in with the Justice League films. You know, kind of like what the Battlestar Galactica writers did with the Opera House visions. If that's the case, I foresee many Internet tantrums in the future.

Overall, Batman v Superman: I Can't Believe They Actually Went With That Title was a solid, interesting movie that tried to explore the implications of someone like Superman in our world. I wouldn't call it fun, and I'm not sure if I'll buy the Blu-Ray when it comes out (if I do, it definitely won't be the R-rated extended cut) but it didn't provoke the vitriol in me that it did in so many amateur critics.

I guess I'm getting soft in my middle age.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Star Trek 2017 Wish List

For a while now, I've been trying to write something about my hopes for the new Star Trek series that premieres in 2017. Lots of fans have their wish lists, full of stuff like what timeline the show should be set in (Prime or JJverse) what the characters should be like, and so forth.

I really don't care about any of that minutiae.

What I want more than anything is for Star Trek to return to its roots by grounding itself in reality once again. Now I know what you're thinking: how can a show about people who zip around at faster-than-light speeds and teleport back and forth to alien planets were the natives always speak perfect English possibly be grounded in reality? Well, back in the late Sixties the only other "space show" on the air was Lost In Space, a program that did not take itself or its audience seriously:

Yes, that's a carrot-man

Meanwhile, the Gene Roddenberry-penned Star Trek writers and directors guide contained this important paragraph:

AND SO, IN EVERY SCENE OF OUR STAR TREK STORY...
... translate it into a real life situation. Or, sometimes as useful, try it in your mind as a scene in GUNSMOKE, NAKED CITY, or some similar show. Would you believe the people and the scene if it happened there?
IF YOU'RE ONE OF THOSE WHO ANSWERS: "THE CHARACTER ACTS THAT WAY BECAUSE IT'S SCIENCE FICTION", DON'T CALL US, WE'LL CALL YOU.
Those words are the most important single guideline for good Star Trek storytelling that has ever been given. Sadly, future iterations of the show pretty much ignored them.

A huge chunk of the blame goes to Gene Roddenberry. By the time The Next Generation went into production he had almost totally lost his marbles, and he decreed that 24th century humans had none of the flaws and foibles that every storyteller in human history has used to craft dramatic tales. As I wrote in an earlier article, this led  The Next Generation and its spinoffs (especially Voyager) to lean way too heavily on technobabble to tell stories. Instead of the Man vs. Man or Man vs. Himself plots that drive a lot of dramatic stories to this day, TNG-era Star Trek gave us the Holodeck Malfunction story, the Weird Space Anomaly story, and the Time Travel/Time Paradox story. Any of these stories are fine as one-offs, but towards the end of its run TNG was going back to them more and more frequently.

Fortunately, TNG went off the air before it could really start embarrassing itself (it waited until the movies to do that) but Voyager picked up right where TNG left off. The first episode after the two-hour pilot was a Weird Space Anomaly story. The very next episode was a Time Travel/Time Paradox story. And so it went, for 170 more episodes. Ronald D. Moore worked on Voyager very briefly before leaving in disgust, and in an interview afterwards he had this to say about how technobabble-based storytelling had damaged Star Trek:
"It’s a lot easier to tech your way out of a situation than to really think your way out of a situation, or make it dramatic, or make the characters go through some kind of decision or crisis. It’s a lot easier if you can just plant one of them at a console and start banging on the thing, and flash some Okudagrams, and then come up with the magic solution that is going to make all this week’s problems go away." source
The first season of Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica reboot ran concurrently with the final season of the last Rick Berman-era Trek spinoff, Enterprise, and it's very instructive to compare the two. Although Enterprise's fourth season is its best, it still feels rooted in that 1990s brand of TV storytelling that Rick Berman-produced Trek could never break away from. And while BSG was doing what Star Trek used to do in the '60s--use science fiction to tell stories about current events and the human condition--Enterprise was just checking off items on Trekkie wishlists while awaiting its inevitable cancellation.

The problem was that Enterprise was a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff. It never did anything original because Star Trek wasn't based on reality anymore, it was based on previously-existing Star Trek. The franchise was caught in a self-referential Irrelevance Loop.

So what are my hopes for the new Star Trek? A clean start. No compulsive references to previous Star Treks, no trips to the Well of Tired Plot Devices. You want to do a show about a group of  space explorers? Then have them actually explore space. Real space is vast and mysterious, lonely and inhospitable. Show that. If you're way out on the edge of explored space, you can't be zipping back and forth to Earth whenever you want. You can't have instantaneous Skype sessions with Starfleet Command. We know so much more about our universe and the phenomena it contains that we did in the '90s when the last iteration of Star Trek was at its peak. Use those discoveries. Show us spaceships that are bound by Newtonian physics, not swooping, diving, and banking like the ships in Star Wars. Use the show to comment intelligently on current events and the human condition with Star Trek's trademark optimism.

Of course the new show will have to take shortcuts for dramatic convenience. Every TV show and movie does that. But that doesn't mean that Star Trek can't reclaim its mantle as sci-fi for thinking people, as the show that inspires kids to become astronauts, scientists, doctors, and engineers.

I hope this is what Bryan Fuller, Nicholas Meyer, and the rest of the Star Trek 2017 team will do. Because if they bow to the wishes of the most vocal members of the fan community, then the new Star Trek will be a tired retread of previous Treks, a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff.

And it'll remain trapped in the Irrelevance Loop.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Batman Is Stupid

At some point, Batman became the DC universe's favorite superhero. In the comics, Batman can defeat any adversary with enough preparation. Green Lantern, the Flash, Superman, and even Darkseid are no match for Batman's intellect and array of bat-gadgets. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if someone (Frank Miller, probably) eventually writes a story where the Dark Knight sneaks into heaven and beats up God.

But Batman shouldn't even exist.

Think about it: young Bruce Wayne swore to fight crime after a mugger murdered his parents. He's a billionaire businessman, maybe the most important person in Gotham City. And how does he choose to fight crime? By using his wealth and influence to attack the root causes, perhaps? Maybe nonprofit foundations and strategic partnerships with law enforcement and educational agencies to help lift people out of poverty and cure the ills that afflict Gotham's slums? Nope!

Instead he puts on a bat costume and randomly punches criminals.

Batman has no superpowers. He can't fly over the city using his super-hearing and super-vision to spot trouble, then zip down and stop it at super speed. So how does he go about his Batmanning? Every night he drives downtown, parks the Batmobile, and swings from building to building with his Batarang and Bat-rope looking for criminals to stop. Maybe he has some audio tech in his cowl to help him listen for things or some night-vision tech so he can see what's going on, but still his effectiveness is limited to whatever area he's in at the moment. He doesn't have super speed like Superman or The Flash, so he can't zip across town at will if the Joker or Killer Croc starts attacking people on the opposite side of Gotham City. And anyway, his "jump from rooftop to rooftop" method of patrolling the city would only work in some podunk place with a tiny downtown area of a few blocks. Gotham is supposedly the size of New York! Ah, but maybe Batman's stopping of a few random crimes here and there will serve to scare Gotham's criminal element straight! Sure, but has that ever actually happened? Gotham City is routinely depicted as a corrupt, crime-ridden dystopia that makes Detroit look like Disneyland. Obviously Bruce Wayne's "don a bat costume and punch whatever random criminals you happen to encounter" crimefighting scheme is about as effective as trying to fight fires with a flamethrower.

Also, it's ridiculously illegal. Kind of like those Death Wish movies where a fed-up Charles Bronson decides to make his neighborhood a safer place by going on a murdering spree. Only a psychopath would think Bronson's character is a good guy. In real life, he's a serial killer. Sure, Batman doesn't kill people, but the principle is the same: he chucks the legal system and dispenses vigilante justice to whoever he thinks deserves it.

But maybe you're thinking that Batman is necessary in a world where you have deranged super-criminals like Two-Face, Penguin, and the Joker. Except that each of those guys is a take-off on the ridiculously smart criminal trope you see on TV crime dramas, just weirder-looking. And you know what? Those guys always get taken down by ordinary cops who are not into cosplaying as winged rodents. But what about the bad guys that have superpowers? Don't the cops need Batman to step in with his array of anti-supervillain bat-gadgets? Well, in the Superman comics the Metropolis PD has a Special Crimes Unit that's specially trained and equipped to take down the various superpowered criminals that attack that city. They even have a specially-reinforced prison to contain them. Why doesn't billionaire Bruce Wayne make a donation to the Gotham PD so they could set something up like that?

I know, because the Gotham police are all corrupt except for Commissioner Gordon, right? Well then, gee, why doesn't billionaire Bruce Wayne use his connections to get some national media attention for the issue or get the US Justice Department to investigate Gotham the way they're doing in other real-life cities right now?

Look, I know the superheroes we love are basically just decades-old kids' entertainment. They weren't meant to withstand the endless scrutinizing and deconstruction that we do in the 21st century to make ourselves look smart on the Internet. But the conventional pop-culture wisdom that Batman's lack of powers makes him a realistic superhero is ridiculous.

In his hilarious reviews of Frank Miller's insane All-Star Batman and Robin comics, Internet reviewer Lewis Lovhaug (neĆ© Linkara) posits that Miller's unhinged Batman is really Crazy Steve, a violent nutjob who somehow got his hands on a batsuit. I say that Crazy Steve is the real Batman. And he's no hero.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Star Wars Universe Reset

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode VI: The Force Awakens, which has been out for almost a month now and has been seen at least once by everyone in the Western world.

A big complaint some folks have about The Force Awakens is that it takes away the happy ending we saw in Return of the Jedi. In what seems to be kind of a trend these days, the movie has a ton of backstory that's only addressed in ancillary material (books, comics, etc). Supposedly, after the events of Return of the Jedi, our heroes reestablished the Republic and spent a good many years kicking the Empire's butt all over the place. But eventually a newly-armed Empire reinvented itself as the First Order and came roaring back with a vengeance thanks to the New Republic's complacency.

I have no idea what historical parallel they're trying to draw here
In the movie, the First Order destroys the Republic's seat of government and space fleet with their totally-not-a-Death-Star, so now our heroes are essentially back where they started in the first trilogy: part of a tiny resistance against a more-powerful Empire, and some fans are not happy about this.

My question to this upset group of fans is: what did you think would happen when Disney announced that they were making a sequel trilogy and that Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford were coming back? Did they think we'd get three movies full of Luke, Leia, and Han reveling in how trouble-free their lives are now? That the new trilogy would be named Episode VII: Life Is Good, Episode VIII: No Problems Over Here and Episode IX: Let's Take The Rest Of The Day Off?

When Disney decided to move ahead with this new Star Wars trilogy, they had three basic options:

  1. Set the story a hundred years or more after the original trilogy when the original characters have all died.
  2. Have our heroes face a completely new threat that's not the Empire.
  3. Have the Empire rise again and spoil Return of the Jedi's happy ending.
Any of these options would have let to some kind of fan complaint. In this day and age, unfortunately, being a "fan" of something too often means complaining on the Internet about how much you hate the newest iteration of it. 

If Disney went with Option 1, the fans would have complained that they missed a golden opportunity to bring back Luke, Han, and Leia.

If they went with Option 2 and ditched the Empire altogether, the fans would have complained that the new movies didn't feel like Star Wars.

But maybe you're saying: "I'm not mad they brought the Empire back, I just don't like how they did it. It should've been more like the Thrawn Trilogy: everything's going well and then the Empire shows up. They didn't need to break up Han and Leia or have Luke exile himself after his students got killed."

I sympathize, but I think the way things were ultimately handled is far more compelling. Part of the fun of The Force Awakens is figuring out the new status quo. We're thrown into the middle of things and have to figure out what's going on.  And I like how the mystery of Luke Skywalker drives the plot along,  making his final reveal a very powerful moment.

As for Han and Leia, it was never going to have a happy ending, anyway. As soon as we knew Harrison Ford was definitely returning, I knew Han Solo was going to die. Both Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wanted it to happen in Return of the Jedi thirty years ago, and I assumed Ford would insist on it as a condition of returning. Han and Leia breaking up over their son's fall to the Dark Side of the Force may not be very happy, but it does feel very real.

Also very genuine is Luke's failure with Ben Solo (a.k.a. Kylo Ren) and the destruction of his new Jedi Order. Remember, Luke barely had any Jedi training, and most of what he did get came from Yoda, whose rigidity was a big reason why the Jedi in the prequels were blind to Palpatine's machinations until it was too late. And I have a feeling that Luke's failure will be more understandable once we learn more about Supreme Leader Snoke.

I certainly understand why some longtime fans are upset with The Force Awakens, and they're entitled to their feelings. But I found it to be a pleasant reset of the Star Wars universe, and I'm excited to see what comes next.

NOTE: Because the topic of the post before this one is very controversial within a certain Internet fan community that rivals the Westboro Baptist Church in its tiny size and irrational hatred for anyone who even slightly disagrees with them, I've enabled comment moderation for the time being. Thank you for understanding.