The Emotional Puzzle of a Shared Universe

A lot of the most powerful storytelling happens in the moments between scenes, the pieces we put together to fill the gaps. If someone has died and then we see a relative rebuilding in the aftermath, we fill in the trauma of loss. When the happy couple ride off into the sunset, we feel happy for their future life together.

In a shared creative universe, there are even more of those gaps.

There are lots of shared creative universes out there. From the half-dozen interlinked Star Trek shows to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the insane sprawl of DC Comics, they’re something most people are exposed to. Maybe you just dip in and enjoy a little of what they offer, but for the hardcore fan, they’re a rich treasure trove. The more you consume of a single universe, the more of those gaps and connections you see. You fill them in through imagination, conversations, and fanfic, exponentially expanding that universe.

I used to think that the satisfaction in this was comparable with referencing in other parts of our culture. Looked at this way, recognising a Captain America character’s cameo in Ant-Man is like spotting a reference to Shakespeare in Stoppard – the satisfaction is all about feeling smart. You’re in on the reference. You’re part of the game.

But I now think that there’s more to it than that. Because these references exist within a continuity, there’s an extra layer of emotional meaning that those Shakespeare references don’t have. We’re not just recognising Agent Carter as a character from another film. We’re seeing how she’s aged, learning some of what she’s been through over the years, filling in gaps in her story. We feel for her. High culture references, with their focus on intellectual satisfaction, don’t do that.

Marvel’s Infinity War is full of this. It pulls in characters from so many other films, while leaving their familiar families and friends out. By the end, it only takes the slightest drift of imagination to start filling gaps elsewhere in this world, with tragic results. I’ve seen reviews that say the film is accessible to a Marvel outsider, but for someone who has been following these films, its impact stretches on and on.

I’m not arguing for the superiority of shared universes. Like any form of culture, they have advantages and disadvantages, can be good or bad. But their references have an extra layer of meaning that some others don’t. They don’t just hit you in the thoughts. They hit you in the feels.

Braveheart All Over Again

Last week I was all excited for upcoming historical films. This week though, I learned about Outlaw King

Maybe I’m still hurting from Braveheart. Maybe I’m hyper-sensitive to depictions of periods I’ve studied in depth. Or maybe, just maybe, this is lining up to be something awful.

What are the danger signs?

First, they’re referring to one of the most famous stories in British history as “untold”. Robert the Bruce’s war against the English is one of the most famous incidents in British history. He’s Scotland’s biggest national hero. The only way your version of this story is “untold” is if you’re making it up instead of trying to tell the truth.

Then there’s the version of Bruce they seem to be going for – the struggling hero. Bruce was many things – successful soldier, political manipulator, a man who freed Scotland so that he could rule it. If we want to tell a real story of nationhood and liberation then we should acknowledge that it often happens for selfish ends. Accuracy means not idolising a man who murdered his rival in a church.

That more nuanced story would be more interesting as well as more accurate. We’ve seen plenty of un-nuanced stories of historical heroism. Let’s having something more sophisticated. Let’s trust readers to follow a flawed man achieving great things.

Of course, I’m prejudging. This film could turn out to be fantastic.

But it won’t.

And worst of all, because I love this period of history, I’ll still end up watching it.

Some Upcoming History Films

I love historical films. I blame my dad for that. He raised me on a diet of westerns and World War Two movies, in between the sci-fi. It’s part of why I do what I do today, including writing scripts for Commando comics and articles for War History Online.

But there’s a bit of a problem with historical film-making. A lot of the time, it covers stories people already know well. Like superhero remakes, those stories are safer box office options, as the studios know that people will be interested. It’s great that we had a movie about Dunkirk, but that’s an incident that’s already gone down in legend. What about the important stories we forget?

That’s why I’m excited about a couple of upcoming films.

First, there’s Hurricane, the story of Polish pilots flying for the RAF during the Second World War. It’s a reminder that no nation ever stands alone, and therefore important to busting some jingoistic myths. Even without that, I’d want to see the story of men who crossed a continent to keep fighting against the Nazis, who faced prejudice and confusion in a strange land, and who were part of one of history’s greatest conflicts.

The second trailer makes it look a lot better than the first one did, which is a relief. Plus it’s got Iwan Rheon, who was fantastic in Misfits and Game of Thrones.

Then there’s Peterloo, an incredibly timely piece of film-making from Mike Leigh. It’s about the Peterloo Massacre of  1819, in which peaceful protestors were attacked and killed in Manchester.

The Peterloo Massacre has incredible symbolic importance as a reminder of the power of protest and how the powerful treat dissent. It highlights the connections between social, political, and economic factors in reinforcing existing power structures. And sadly most people aren’t aware of it even in the UK. At a time of growing inequality, protest, and political turmoil, it’s a story we could all do with learning again.

Historical films have power. They keep the past alive in our imaginations and so help us understand the present. I can’t wait to see these less familiar stories on the big screen.

Bringing Together Two Stories – Agents of SHIELD Vs Daredevil

When you’re creating something as sprawling as Marvel’s superhero screen efforts, there are going to be inconsistencies. Still, it’s strange to see the lower prestige show Agents of SHIELD get something right that Netflix blockbuster Daredevil got wrong.

Season four of AoS and season two of Daredevil share a similar structure. Two plot strands are built up. One dominates the first half of the season. It’s then resolved and the other strand emerges to take centre stage. They sort of connect up in the end, but not in a massively substantial way. There’s some thematic resonance, but it’s a little strained.

Watching Daredevil, this left me disappointed by the payoff. Finishing AoS the other night, I felt satisfied. So how did the usually less impressive show get it right?

It might partly be about expectations. I expect great things from a Netflix Marvel show, with its high production values and careful approach to storytelling. AoS is more of a broadcast TV adventure-of-the-week phenomenon. Relatively speaking, it takes less effort to look impressive there.

But I don’t think it’s just that. I think that the writers on AoS also did a better job of managing my response to their story. They made it clear that a climax was coming for the Ghostrider story. They gave the follow-up arc with Aida higher stakes. They carefully and naturally made me care about that arc in advance. They gave it an interesting novelty, in the form of an alternate reality, that kept me engaged. And when they brought the plotlines back together, they did it in a way that made it feel important.

Daredevil is still a more powerful show, but in resolving these seasons AoS made better use of what it had and deserves credit for it.

Structure is important in storytelling, and sometimes the nuance of how you use it can make all the difference.

Infinity War: Spectacle Through Character

Like around 90% of western civilization, I recently went to see Avengers: Infinity War. And like most fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I loved the sheer spectacle of it. Creating something this huge with so many big-name stars is a staggering achievement. That the Russo brothers created something so entertaining just adds to the joy of the moment.

Thinking back on this film, and on the others that have led up to it, I realised how basic the secret to their success is. The heart fo this franchise, the thing that keeps me coming back time after time, is one of the most basic elements of storytelling.

It’s good characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the spectacle and the humour. I enjoy seeing a universe emerge through a web of interconnected films. The all-star casts really help. But what sucks me in is how well the characters are depicted. Each one is interesting and unique in their own right. Their relationships with each other are rich and believable. Some of them having cracking character arcs, especially Steve Rogers, whose journey of growth has been truly compelling.

Sure, I have an interest in superheroes, but as DC have proved, that’s not enough to drag me to the cinema. What Marvel is doing right, and what we can all learn from as storytellers, is a focus on the fundamentals.

I don’t go to Marvel movies for the spectacle anymore. I go for the characters. The spectacle has become the bonus feature.

Black Lightning: A Superhero Who Makes Sense

I love superhero stories. I watch the films, I read the comics, I binge the shows. There are pictures of Spiderman, the Hulk and Captain America on my living room wall. But even I have to admit, superheroes don’t often make sense.

Take Batman. I love Batman, but Bruce Wayne’s vigilante antics aren’t the best thing he could do for Gotham. If Bruce Wayne invested all that time and money into supporting the police, the authorities would be able to handle the supervillains. On top of that, cops wouldn’t waste time hunting him down. His city would be a better place if he didn’t make it about him.

A lot of stories have tried to solve this problem. Superpowered villains are used to balance superpowered heroes. Writers roll out awkward arguments about accountability and authority. Sometimes someone creates something unusual, like Warren Ellis’s politically charged run on The Authority. But there’s always a drift towards the status quo. A superhero acts outside a system that’s assumed to be just, and a minute’s thought shows that this isn’t a good thing.

Not so in Black Lightning,  the latest TV show based on a DC comic. The protagonist is African-American and a leader in his community. The show highlights inequalities of race in the United States. The system, built out of law, economic interests, and social attitudes, is rigged against him and the people he loves. And thanks to that, his story makes sense. As Bradon O’Brien cogently argued on Tor.comBlack Lightning reflects the experience of black America in a way other superheroes don’t. It’s an experience that cries out for justice the system can’t provide.

In some ways, this harks back to the origins of Superman as a left-leaning character looking out for the downtrodden workers. But it’s more than that. It’s a show that takes an injustice baked into western society and offers a superhero as a symptom, if not a cure. The character of Black Lightning doesn’t go around calling for radical reform, but his life shows why it’s needed.

Sure, creators have prodded at this combination of ideas before. But this is the first time it’s been so thoroughly explored on screen, where superheroes reach a wider audience. And for that, it’s both an interesting and an important show.

“Why We Fight” – Getting a Story’s Name Just Right

One of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding a good name. It should evoke atmosphere, draw attention, maybe even add something more to the meaning of the tale. I don’t find a title I like even half the times I write. So when a story does it really well, that’s worth looking at.

“Why We Fight”, the ninth episode of historical drama miniseries Band of Brothers, has one of the most perfectly chosen titles I’ve ever found. It evokes the tone of the episode, draws the audience into the characters’ minds, and adds nuance to the uncomfortable issues present.

Like all of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight” follows Easy Company, an American paratroop unit taking part in the Second World WarThis episode focuses on Captain Lewis Nixon, while also showing the experiences of other characters.

It’s late in the war. The company are fighting their way across Germany. They’ve lost a lot of people and they’ve seen a lot of destruction. Most of them look battered and weary.

Nixon might be one of the weariest. He’s missed out on fighting thanks to a command liaison job, but has still seen the hellish side of war. Now he’s battling with the bottle and been booted back to a combat post. His wife writes to say that she’s leaving him. Nixon, who we first met as someone bright and charming, is falling apart. He fights with others because of the toll the war has taken on him.

Meanwhile, a new man joins the squad. He’s never seen combat. He’s eager to do his part and to see action while he still can. He wants to fight because it seems noble and heroic, while the men around him fight on because that’s their job. The innocence was long ago knocked out of them.

During the first half of the episode, this is how the question of “Why We Fight” is addressed. It’s all about individual motives and personalities.

Then comes the moment that changes everything, both for Easy Company and for the viewer. A group of soldiers stumble across a sight of such horror that they don’t have words for it. We seem them standing stunned, unable to comprehend what lies before them. A few minutes later, the truth is revealed to viewers, most of whom must already have guessed.

Easy Company have found a concentration camp.

Suddenly, the meaning of the episode is turned on its head. Now, when we ask “Why We Fight”, we’re talking about why these nations have gone to war, why the horrors of the Nazi regime had to be faced. “Aha!” thinks the viewer, myself included the first time around. “This is why they fight. To stop the Holocaust.”

But that reaction digs out a deeper, less comfortable truth.

The Holocaust was one of the defining features of the Second World War, a process of nearly unparalleled evil. Yet we’re on episode nine out of ten of Band of Brothers and it’s only just been mentioned. Why?

Because the Holocaust is not “Why We Fight”.

The Allies fought against Nazi Germany for many reasons. Out of self-interest. To protect friendly nations. To stop a relentlessly aggressive regime. But to stop the Holocaust? No.

When they entered the war, Allied leaders didn’t know how bad things were under the Nazis. They had no way of knowing how bad they would become as the war progressed. In 1942, when reports reached them through the Polish government in exile, they chose not to publicise the attrocities. They were afraid that no-one would believe them and that there would be a backlash against the extreme claims.

An argument can be made that the Allies fought to stop evil regimes. Their actions certainly had the effect of ending the Holocaust. But the death camps and the horrors they represented were not “Why We Fight”.

And so the name of this episode draws attention not just to the struggles of Easy Company, but to our own struggle with the past. The fact that the Allies ended something so evil lets us paint the Second World War in black and white. But just like the soldiers who stand stunned in the face of that concentration camp, our governments didn’t know what they were facing when they went to war. They didn’t fight to stop this. That they did so was a happy side effect, if the word “happy” can ever be used here.

This is why “Why We Fight” is the perfect name for this story. It gives us an angle from which to consider what the characters are going through. It provides a lever with which to open up our own perceptions, to face questions about the past and about how we view it.

Story titles don’t get more fitting than that.

Remembering What Something Once Stood For

I’ve been rewatching a lot of the sitcom Friends recently. It popped up on Netflix and, as a show that meant a lot to me at a key point in my life, it evokes a warm sense of nostalgia. So episode by episode I’ve been working my way through the adventures of a bunch of privileged 1990s New Yorkers.

Friends has gotten a lot of flack in recent years, and not unreasonably so. Half the humour is based on gender stereotypes. There’s some not very funny stuff about a character once being fat. Ross turns from a sympathetic nerd into a whiny tosspot whose scenes I regularly skip. There’s a lot here that hasn’t aged well.

But there are other things that were fantastic, given the context this show was made in. This was the show that put a lesbian wedding on primetime TV. It showed both men and women enjoying and talking about their sex lives without stigma. It tackled issues of infertility and divorce, not always maturely, but at least with sympathy. As someone coming of age in the 1990s, this was a huge deal. It helped set a more enlightened tone for the coming century.

I’m not holding up Friends as some kind of beacon of progress. But it had its moments, and it’s good to see them again.

Star Trek Discovery – Does the Payoff Justify the Buildup?

The new Star Trek show, Discovery, has been more than a little divisive. Some fans love it, some hate it. Its very different tone and storytelling from previous Treks either delights or appals, depending on your point of view. But one response has been near-universal – excitement at recent episodes.

These episodes have taken the show and its character in surprising and dramatic directions. Viewers who liked it are more excited than ever. Those who disliked it are being won around. It’s gone from something I was happy enough to watch to something I’m excited for every week. Story decisions that didn’t work before, like using the first two episodes as a prologue, are proving important.

Does this payoff justify the problems with the buildup? I’m not sure. I’ll certainly look at those earlier episodes in a more positive light. But seeing these recent episodes, I feel like the writers could have done better than they did from the start, while still providing the setup they wanted.

The Wire had a slow start, only becoming truly gripping halfway through the first season, and it’s now considered a groundbreaking TV classic. Will Discovery do the same thing within sf? I’m not convinced, but the payoff is still coming, and you never know

Gilmore Girls and Portraying Motivation

In my last blog post, I talked about character motivation in terms of pirates and economics. Today I want to look at it from a softer angle.

I’ve been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls, the early 2000s TV drama of fast dialogue, family angst, and failed romance. It’s cute and relaxing. It’s also very good at portraying the irrationality of human motives.

Pretty much every episode, a character will have several issues going on in their life. One thing will get them frustrated. They’ll carry this frustration into the next scene. They won’t deal with the issue there as well as they could have done because their emotions are already in knots.

It’s fantastic storytelling, because it makes sense on a human level and because it’s clear to the audience even though it isn’t explained. Anyone can join the dots from one incident to the next. It means that smart characters can act stupid, ensuring that conflict happens, without undermining the audience’s affection for these characters.

It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like smartly written characters, or you want to study what drives human drama, I can’t recommend this one enough.