Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

So, up front:

1. This is a very funny and charming movie, in a broad-brush banter-driven general-audience kind of way.  I had a lot of fun; I laughed much more than I cringed.  If you’re willing to put up with Hollywood-style jokes as a general matter, you’ll probably enjoy yourself.

2. In addition to being a funny and charming movie, this could have been a genuinely deep and interesting movie, with something worthwhile to say.  It wouldn’t even have had to be very different in order to accomplish that.  But it botched certain key narratives enough that the chance for serious quality was completely lost. 

I’ve felt this way about a few other comedies, notably Simon Pegg’s The World’s End.  It always bothers me tremendously, more than it probably should.  I understand that the writers are trying first and foremost to elicit the yuk-yuks, that no one really expects Guardians of the Galaxy to function as Literature, but — you had all the pieces in place, people!  Why wouldn’t you make good art, real art, when the opportunity is right there lying in front of you? 

I’m going to need to spoil major plot points in order to go into this further.  If you care about Marvel movie spoilers, read on at your own risk.

Continue reading “Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Never Has a Fantasy Been More Final, Part 2

…this is less a “conclusion,” or even an “argument,” than an apology.  I am no longer convinced that my literary-theory ideas about Final Fantasy hold any water.  In particular, it is not clear to me how much I’m seeing something real and how much I’m looking through the lens of my own personal memories and resonances.  I’m going to have to think about this some more before I have anything especially useful to contribute.

*****

As I said: as a kid, I was obsessed with Final Fantasy.  This is not any kind of distinctive or interesting.  Being obsessed with Final Fantasy was pretty close to a default, at least for geeks of a certain stripe, during the late-90s-to-early-aughts era when VII and VIII became unfathomably huge.

I can say that I was obsessed with the series before it became so huge, which is true, but still not super interesting.  Even the early games were pretty big.  There’s no hipster cred here, I assure you.

It may be a little bit more noteworthy to point out that I was obsessed with the series for many years before I ever once played a Final Fantasy game, and before I ever knew of a single other person who cared about Final Fantasy.

When I was very young (five? six?), there was a brief period when I was getting regularly left alone for a while in the public library after kindergarten.  I did some amount of the exploration and book-finding that you’d expect from a Bookish Kid in such a situation, but honestly I was kind of skittish and easily-spooked, so I spent a lot of time waiting around in the main well-lit common area and looking through whatever there was to be found right there.  Mostly there was a ragged collection of magazines.  Including several issues of Nintendo Power, notably this one, which contained a comprehensive rundown on Final Fantasy I.  I read it over and over and over.  It developed a grip on my soul comparable to the grip held by my very favorite stories and novels.

Or, in other words: a sufficiently-thorough description of FFI is enough to enthrall an imaginative child, even without any social or cultural support, even without the (dubious) joys of the actual game itself.  This is the phenomenon that I want to unpack.

*****

But of course this history makes it clear that my interest in the series is, at least to some extent, an Extremely Niche Special-Circumstances Thing.

It is true that it’s easy to fall in love with almost anything big and weird, when you’re sufficiently young, if you encounter it in an unsupervised way and get to make it part of your own private kingdom.

It is also true that, even within the population of people who are prepared to be obsessed by stories, only a few people are inclined to appreciate those stories by hoarding bits of story-related data like magpies.  Not all geeks get really excited by the appendices; not everyone finds a comforting warmth in fake maps and fake historical chronicles and so forth.  I am, to be sure, pretty much at the far end of that spectrum.  And of course it is mostly this magpie-like love of loremastery that can lead someone to find interest in a Nintendo Power strategy guide, without any access to the game itself.  I really liked knowing exactly what all the monsters were and what they looked like and what they could do, how strong all the weapons and spells were and where they could be found, etc.

If your artistic Stickiness involves appealing to that instinct, well, all I can say is that it’s not going to scale up very well and it’s not going to appeal to more than an  extremely-limited audience.

And yet.  There’s obviously something to the Final Fantasy phenomenon that transcends such idiosyncrasies.  Were it not so, the series wouldn’t have gotten so much traction.  And, as I said in my last post, it’s really not that the games are so pleasant and fun to play.  They are not.

(It must be admitted that FFI came out in the dark days of monotonous grind-tastic RPGs.  There was a definite market for games that weren’t pleasant or fun; for some people, in the absence of better options, filling bars and killing time was enough.  But Final Fantasy rose on eagle’s wings above all its many competitors in that genre, and did so for a reason…)

I dunno.  I shall ponder.

Never Has a Fantasy Been More Final, Part 2

Never Has a Fantasy Been More Final, Part 1

I recently finished the storyline campaign of Final Fantasy XV.

I’m glad to have done so.  It’s been a while for me.  I’ve missed the last several entries in the series — I just never got around to XII (to my regret), I skipped XIII (which I don’t regret at all given what I’ve heard), and XI and XIV are MMORPGs that don’t count and clearly shouldn’t be in the main series in the first place.  I haven’t played through a Final Fantasy game for the first time since Final Fantasy X in…God almighty, it was 2002.

And Final Fantasy is important to me.  It’s been important to me since early childhood.

More than that: I’m willing to say that Final Fantasy is important in general.  It’s got a bizarre kind of social and emotional traction.  Anyone who fancies himself a culture-designer should want to understand it.  It is on my shortlist of Games That Could Be Reverse-Engineered to Help Save the World.

So, in honor of the end of a 15-year hiatus: a little bit of talk about Final Fantasy and what makes it work.

But, first, a little bit of talk about what doesn’t make it work.

*****

My last post, which laid out a tripartite model of media value, was specifically meant to lead into this one.  Because, when you look at all of Final Fantasy’s success, it’s kind of amazing to realize how many things it does really badly.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that FF games don’t contain much in the way of (ahem) Literary Merit.  The characters are mostly shallow and stereotypical, and their particular quirks mostly come pre-Flanderized — everything they say and do can be derived from a few simple keywords, except at a few moments of Great Drama, when they say and do whatever is necessary to advance the plot or the alleged character-development arc.  The themes tend towards the maximally-cliche, like “love will find a way” or “courage and friendship are good” or “destroying the planet is bad.”  As for the mechanics…well, in Ye Olden Days of Final Fantasy I they represented a clever way of having the player engage with a D&D-type story in video game form, but since then they haven’t done anything to provide a revelatory new experience for the player.  All in all, your English professor will not be impressed.

More surprisingly, Final Fantasy games also mostly fail to be very Digestible.

I mean, they do all right with the standard RPG bag of tricks, finding various ways to string the player along with small achievable goals and irregular-but-frequent rewards.  (Some of those tricks originated in Final Fantasy games.)  They do manage to achieve a certain level of just-one-more-sidequest can’t-put-down-the-controller hypnosis, without which they probably couldn’t function at all.  But it’s less than you’d think, given how popular the series is, and given the genre in which it’s working.  Both the storytelling and the mechanics, rather than soothing, do an awful lot to grate.

Traditionally, the actual gameplay part of a Final Fantasy game consisted of mostly turn-based menu-driven battles.  A lot of turn-based menu-driven battles.  These are not particularly fun, or immersive, or engaging, or anything.  When they’re easy, which they usually are, they boil down to “press X repeatedly until all the enemies die.”  When they’re hard, they are simple spreadsheet management.  Everyone who’s played the series knows the feeling of being driven totally batty by Yet Another Random Encounter and wishing that all the fighting would just fucking stop — despite the fact that the fighting is the core of what the game has to offer.

Recent installations have tried to mix up that model somewhat.  FFXV gets you gameplay that consists of “not-quite-as-good Kingdom Hearts fighting, which is itself not-quite-as-good God of War fighting plus menu manipulation, as well as a few frustrating badly-implemented stealth sequences and a frustrating fishing minigame and similar out-of-genre inclusions.”  FFXIII, as I hear tell, had an innovative “run down a linear hallway and hold down a single button to win battles” model of gameplay for its first 20 hours or so.

Point being, this is not the kind of fun that gets its hooks deep in you.

As for the story, well…there’s a reason that Final Fantasy has become a byword for nonsensical, hole-ridden, aggravating plot.  Here are a few true statements about FFXV, which I promise you is one of the better and more focused Final Fantasies in terms of narrative:

  • Long stretches of events are driven by motivations like “you have to find the One Rare Well-Guarded Piece of Metal that will allow you to fix your boat so you can travel to the major city across the sea.”
  • You spend the bulk of the game on a long meandering journey, with story quests pulling you from breadcrumb to breadcrumb.  Which is fine as far as it goes.  But the actual purpose of this journey is unclear and constantly shifting; it seems to slide randomly between “visit all the royal tombs to acquire the power of your kingly ancestors,” “find all the gods and make pacts with them,” and “make it to the city where your fiancee is so that you can meet up with her.”  At no point is it clearly established why you think that any of these things will help with the very major problems that you’re allegedly trying to solve.
  • The villain — who is actually very well-written and well-acted on a micro level — is a smug-snake type who offers (aggravating and sketchy) assistance as often as he throws obstacles in your way.  It’s the sort of behavior that would make sense as part of a complicated Xanatos Gambit where he needs the heroes to accomplish certain things for him.  Turns out, nope, he just does whatever’s needed to get you to the next plot point, whether or not it makes a lick of sense.
  • Your party members get into angry recriminatory fights for no real reason except “this is the part of the story where tension is generated by an angry recriminatory fight.”  It would not have been hard to give the characters in question actual reasons to be mad at each other!  But no, it’s all things like “you’re a selfish whiner for being sad that your loved ones keep getting murdered.”

Which is to say nothing of gems like FFVII’s “only you can fight the villain, even though the villain has already displayed the power to mind control you at will.”  Or FFVIII’s “whoops, amnesia, we will now reveal that all your relationships and motivations are completely different from what you spent the last many hours thinking they were.”  These are the kind of stories that make you want to throw your TV out the window.

When critics like Yahtzee say “this series is terrible, I don’t understand why anyone enjoys it” — it’s not like they’re pulling their arguments out of nowhere.  Even fans like me can’t help nodding along.

Point being, this is not the kind of fun that gets its hooks deep in you. 

Except that, demonstrably, it does.  So what gives?

*****

Given all the setup, the core of the answer is presumably obvious: Final Fantasy is distilled industrial-grade Stickiness.  You keep on playing for hour upon hour, trudging through the dumb storytelling and the irritating battles, so that you can keep on being a part of the game world.  Those half-baked shallow-as-a-puddle characters somehow matter enough to people that they inspire reams upon reams of fanfiction.  No matter how dumb you think it all is, at least if you’re a certain sort of person, you can’t help caring.

That’s a power that I would really, really like to understand.

Never Has a Fantasy Been More Final, Part 1

Media Review — Reign: the Conqueror

There is good media, which is sometimes good enough to be worth consuming.  There is bad media, which is sometimes bad enough to be worth consuming.  And then there’s media where you can’t possibly tell whether it’s good or bad, and by the same token you know in your gut that its goodness or badness doesn’t matter, that its quality is totally orthogonal to its value.  The sort of media that deserves your time and attention simply by virtue of existing, because there is absolutely nothing else like it.

*****

In 1996, a prominent Japanese occultist — well-known, inter alia, for his work translating the writings of people like Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson — decided to put together a biography of Alexander the Great in the form of a light novel.

In 1999, an animation studio called “Madhouse” determined that this light novel would make a good cartoon series.  The guy they got to spearhead this project was Peter Chung, best known for being the mastermind behind the brain-breakingly weird animation and visual design of Aeon Flux. 

The thing that came out was…exactly what you’d expect, I suppose.  A miniseries-format biopic of Alexander, filtered through the creative genius of two famous lunatics.

*****

I am now just going to list a random assortment of true facts about Reign: The Conqueror.

Hephaestion, Alexander’s best friend and lover, is depicted as a ninja harpist.

The Macedonian phalanx, the military formation central to Alexander’s conquests, is depicted as some kind of cybernetic centipede.  Individual infantrymen form into phalanxes by combining Voltron-style.

Alexander’s final confrontation — the “boss fight” of the series, the absolute climax of drama and revelation — is a conversation with the otherworldly shade of Pythagoras.

In fact, the Pythagoreans are the main antagonists of the show.  They want to stop Alexander at all costs, and they put a lot of effort into doing so, mostly through use of their magical combat-geometry powers.  Later on, as Alexander moves east, we learn that they’re in cahoots with the Zoroastrian Magi and the Brahmins of India, forming some kind of ancient international Illuminati of math-oriented priests.

Most of the characters wear what I can describe only as “pantsless plate mail.”  It is possibly the most uncomfortable-looking variety of fetish gear that I have ever seen.

There is a much-coveted magical widget called the “Platohedron.”

Almost an entire episode takes place inside Diogenes’s barrel.

One character is subjected to the classic old “uncomfortably-close bladed pendulum” torture…except that, instead of lying under the pendulum, he is for some reason held spread-eagle by chains over an enormous rotating axe blade.

Darius III goes into battle on something that very much appears to be an Eldar grav-tank from Warhammer 40K.

*****

Also, one episode contains the following exchange:

STUDENT: “It can’t be you!  You’re…you’re dead!”

MASTER: “Don’t you understand?  This is my ghost.”

STUDENT: “That’s impossible!  There is no such thing as a ghost!”

MASTER: “Then how can you explain what you see before you, using the system of your science?”

…except that the Master is Plato, the Student is Aristotle, and instead of “ghost” you should read in “Form.”  And suddenly that last line becomes a lot more interesting.

*****

So yeah.  That’s the kind of thing you get in Reign.  If that’s not enough to sell you…well, you’re not very much like me.

In broader terms —

The visuals alone are worth the price of admission, even though they’re not so much “pretty” as “fascinatingly ugly.”  The world of Reign is some kind of surrealist Iron Age cyberpunk wonderland, where random things are super-high-tech, but in a bizarre organic way that doesn’t actually look like any technological aesthetic that’s ever existed.

The characterization, sadly, is mostly bland and generic.  Alexander’s various military companions (whom I really want to call “the members of his nakama”) are all kind of one-note, and you get the sense that only the author’s sense of shame is preventing them from being totally interchangeable.  Everyone else important — Aristotle, Darius, Philip, Olympias, etc. — is either (a) a stock character or (b) too distant and enigmatic for you to care very much about him as a person.  The big exception is Alexander himself, a complicated guy with a lot of thoughts about being a Leader of Men and a Figure of Destiny, which develop over the course of the show.  I should note that, if you’re expecting the jovially philosophical Alexander of Fate/zero, you’ll be thrown a bit — this King of Conquerors is strange and often broody, stretched taut by his need to encompass more than any one human can possibly be, alien and frightening as well as charmingly charismatic.

The plot is bugfuck nuts, but I’m of the opinion that it mostly works very well.  There are really two stories here — the military/political/adventure story of the great eastward conquest, which focuses on the “nakama,” and a murky metaphysical struggle involving Aristotle and Diogenes and the Pythagoreans and other in-the-know types — which are in fact deeply intertwined, but in a way that’s only accessible through the figure of Alexander.  This oddball construction has the effect of giving the viewer two parallel sets of feelings about the progress of Alexander’s ambitions.  On the one hand, it’s an exciting story of genuinely heroic accomplishment, and you do in fact feel excited for the heroes who are pulling it off.  On the other hand…the smart people, the people who are actually thinking about large-scale effects and consequences, are fucking terrified.  And they seem right to be.  It’s hard not to sympathize with the Pythagoreans and their allies, with all the people who think that something dreadful is brewing.  Alexander’s only dedicated supporter on the metaphysical side is his mother Olympias, a demonic snake cultist whose motives do not seem savory.  Aristotle is conflicted and ineffectual.  The conqueror himself grows increasingly hard and implacable, in a way that seems narrative-bound to lead to disaster.

And then we get to the end of the road, and the nature of everything is revealed, and the metaphysical plot — the plot that the show actually cares about — ties together in a curious but satisfying way.

The biggest problem (from my perspective) is that the “real” plot is, by the end, totally sacrificed to the metaphysical plot.  The story just kind of ends abruptly after Alexander’s last great military victory, because that’s where it makes sense to put the conceptual stinger, and the things that come afterwards don’t fit neatly into the show’s favorite themes.  But, given the power and pathos of Alexander’s true ending…his own men turning against him, his abandonment of the quest, his death of bored excess in Babylon…it feels dishonest to excise all that for the sake of theme.  Especially since it could have been worked into the plot in a coherent, meaningful way.

*****

Even so, I sincerely hope you go watch it.  It’s short — just thirteen episodes, each less than half an hour.  It’s easily findable.  And, as previously intimated, there is really nothing else like it.

[A hat tip to my beloved friend who introduced me to this show.  I’m not going to identify her in any way, because I don’t know a sufficiently-pseudonymous way to do so, but I owe her much for this and for all manner of other crazy media that I’ve consumed at her behest.]

Media Review — Reign: the Conqueror