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.

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.

Good Bye Lenin and the Nature of History

On the surface, the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin! seems like a simple piece of absurdity. During the late days of the Cold War, East German Christiane falls into a coma, only to awake after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her son Alex, believing that the shock of the fall of communism will kill her, decides to hide the truth. He creates a fiction around her, an imaginary Germany in which communism has triumphed. To protect his mother, he reinvents history. So far, so ridiculous.

But as I watched the film, I was struck by the commentary this offers on real history. History isn’t a straightforward view of reality. It’s something we create with a purpose. Part of that purpose is to understand the past, but we usually have other motives too. Whether we’re seeking entertainment, making a political argument, or trying to keep mum from slipping back into a coma, our reasons for exploring history give it form. Most of the time, we don’t deliberately try to deceive, but our motives and interests filter what we see. If you want to be entertained, you see the action and daring of war, not the civilian casualties. If you want to prove that Britain is a standalone powerhouse, you see the British RAF and not the Eastern European pilots who were part of its squadrons in the Second World War.

Like Alex, we create a history that suits us.

Sure, some people are more blatant about this than others. The way Donald Trump constantly reinvents the recent past, starkly filtering out his own inconvenient statements, is particularly glaring.  But there’s a spectrum of behaviour here, from Alex’s deliberate deception to Trump’s narcissistic denial to more mundane bias.

I know I bang on about this a lot, but history isn’t a window into the past. It’s our relationship with it. Like Alex, we can go to extraordinary lengths to see the past we want to see. But unlike him, we’re seldom aware of the deceptions we create. And sometimes, other people’s deceptions catch up with us.

Try to remember that, next time you cite history to make a point. How far has your purpose shaped what you’re seeing? And what have you left out in the rush to see a history that suits you?

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Beautiful and Surprising Characterisation

Sometimes a film comes along that’s so awesome I barely know what to say about it. It feels beautiful and surprising and utterly human. It makes me wish I knew more about films so I could better understand its magic. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those films.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople was written and directed by Taiki Waititi, the New Zealander behind the wonderfully deadpan vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows. It’s about a boy who’s been bounced around the social care system and is on his last chance before he goes to juvenile detention. He’s placed with a foster couple also living on the fringe of society, in a physically isolated cabin at the edge of thousands of miles of wild forest. That might sound like a bleak start, but their lives together and what follows are quirky, touching, and filled with hope.

I love a lot about this film and don’t want to go into details for fear of spoiling or over-hyping. But I feel it’s safe to say that what makes it so great is the characters. They’ve been written in a way that displays, challenges, and twists stereotypes and cliches. The writing and performances bring the same approach to emotion as to humour, gently easing a reaction from viewers rather than trying to force a laugh, a gasp, or a tear. Ricky’s way of expressing his emotions is particularly surprising and lovely.

Taiki Waititi is clearly an awesome director. It feels bizarre that the man who created this will also make the next Marvel Thor film, but I can’t wait to see what he does.

In the meantime, go take a wander with the Wilderpeople.

Moana – An Awesome Disney Not-Princess

I’ve always loved Disney films, but the older I get, the more problematic they become. No-one reinforces gender stereotypes like the House of Mouse. Given the way these films hook the brains of the young people in my life, that’s worrying.

So thank all the Rock-voiced hook-wielding demigods of the Pacific for Moana.

I’m a little behind the curve on this one, I know. Not having kids, it took me weeks to see the latest Disney offering. But when I did I was delighted.

There’s everything good you expect from Disney here. Fun characters, great animation, catchy songs – I can’t stop singing about how shiny I am, and I’ve only heard that song twice.

There’s also a level of fantasy world building that feels deeper and more interesting than in most of their previous offerings. Because this isn’t based in European folklore like most Disney, there’s more space to present something unfamiliar to an audience like me and more need to explain it. This is done as subtly as you can get away with in a kids film, using songs to make the exposition more entertaining. It creates a world and its people I found fascinating, with their isolated island life and gradually revealed ancient sea-faring culture.

On top of this, the central character gets away from the Disney princess cliches, to the point where there’s even a joke about whether or not she’s a princess. She’s self-reliant and strong-willed without being irrationally obstinate. She doesn’t end up needing rescue by men. Her life is in no way defined by romance.

This isn’t a hero defined by being female – it’s a hero who happens to be female. And an awesome, skilled, fun hero at that.

I’m sure this film has flaws. Everything does. But I was so blown away by the good parts that I didn’t even notice them. Maybe one day we’ll look back on this and see its failings, both in film-making and in gender representation. But right now it sets a very high standard.

I won’t say it’s my favourite Disney film. Until all the copies of Robin Hood are expunged from existence, no other Disney will ever displace it in my heart. But this comes a close second.

Go watch Moana. It’s one of the best fantasy films in years.

The Best Bit About Rogue One

I’ve been a Star Wars fan most of my life. So while I was delighted to enjoy Rogue One, my favourite bit wasn’t any of the stuff that makes a good movie. It wasn’t the exciting plot. It wasn’t the diverse cast of characters. It wasn’t the action, though the final act was pretty bad-ass.

No, it was a single moment snatched out of childhood memory and shifted from the first film in the sequence to the eighth in this franchise:

“You may fire when ready.”

Those words, that tone, it took me straight back to my childhood excitement. It’s an obscure little touch, but damn, these guys know how to please their fan base.

My Favourite Things of 2016

What’s that you say, it’s the end of the year? Time for an inevitable best-of list?

Alright then. Who am I to resist. Below are some of my favourite new things from 2016. Have a read and let me know your favourites in the comments – they’ll give me more to explore next year.

Comic – The Wicked + The Divine

Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillon continue to mesmerise with their story of music gods and potent magic. Part pop culture pastiche, part epic saga, all wonderful to behold, even in a year that saw the Chew finale, this was my favourite comic. McKelvie’s art is richly intoxicating, bringing both the mundane and the otherworldly to vivid life. Gillen’s plotting is strong and his dialogue sharp. They’re one of those creative teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the already great parts.

Music – Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become absolutely addicted to the work of Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit. So when a new album came out this year, I was nervous that the spell might be broken.

There was no need to worry. This is another brooding yet uplifting mix of atmospheric guitars and brooding lyrics. As usual, Frightened Rabbit pick over the pieces of troubled emotional lives against the backdrop of modern Britain. And again, I could listen to this on loop all day and never get bored.

If indie angst isn’t your thing, then there’s always This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, in which Macklemore and Ryan Lewis proved that there’s still plenty more of their quirky hiphop to come. Songs flit between the raunchy, the acerbic, and the deeply heartfelt. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it gets my blood racing.

Film – Arrival

The idea – trying to translate the language of minds utterly unlike our own.

The emotions – loss, bewilderment, hope.

The style – sedately stunning.

The performances – Amy Adams. Such wonderful, wonderful Amy Adams.

In the era of big spectacle sci-fi movies, this was the year’s slick, Hollywood budget think piece, and it is stunning in every sense.

Book – The Tiger and the Wolf

A lot of the books I read this year weren’t new releases. Of those that were, the standout was The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

This is a great fantasy adventure in which a young woman comes of age and must decide where her loyalties lie. The world, initially reminiscent of the European Dark Ages, has a variety and fascination that goes far beyond mud huts and tribal politics. The shape-shifting magic reveals interesting layers and implications as it’s laid out before us. The characters are varied and likable. With two more to come in this series, I’ll definitely be back for more.

TV – The Ranch

This choice has been made on very different grounds from the rest. With so much amazing TV out there, it’s hard to pick one show on grounds of true greatness. The Expanse, with its space adventures and socially grounded noir? The Man in the High Castle, with its reminders of the danger and attraction of fascism and the spell-binding yet subtle performance of Rufus Sewell? Marvel and Netflix’s ongoing stream of top superhero action?

These are all great. I recommend them. But with so much great TV out there, each piece isn’t as distinct and surprising as it once was.

Then there’s The Ranch. In so many ways, this is a perfectly ordinary American sitcom. The performers are good but not being used to the best of their abilities. The jokes are predictable. The emotions are overblown. The direction and camerawork are standard, uninspiring sitcom stuff.

Yet there’s also something surprising about The Ranch. Set in a small community in the heart of rural Republican America, it shows that side of the USA in a way the rest of the world seldom sees. Things we think of as progressive and as conservative get jumbled together by characters who see Hilary Clinton as a figure from nightmare yet keep weed in their vegetable box. The attitudes and actions of the characters, as well as the events of the setting, showed me a side of America that TV producers usually ignore. It took me to a world that was genuinely new to me.

And then there are the characters. Sure, they’re often cliched. Dad’s grumpy, Ashton Kutcher’s stupid, hahaha *sigh*. But they have nuanced emotional lives. They grapple with their thoughts, feelings, and self-perceptions. Because this is a Netlflix show, designed in the expectation that new viewers will start at the beginning, they change over time more than in many sitcoms. For all their dysfunction, these characters provide a healthy model for dealing openly with friends, family, lovers, and ourselves.

Even I’m shocked to find myself typing this, but in among so many far better shows, the one that defined my year in TV was The Ranch. It’s not amazing, but I love it.

Games – Fallout 4

OK, this was from 2015. But I don’t play a lot of computer games, and this was the one for me. The world building of the Fallout series is fantastic and the game environment gives you space to explore that. Its retro-futurist post-apocalyptic wasteland would be a nightmare to live in, but it’s great fun to explore. Combat, puzzle solving, and conversation flow smoothly together. It’s an example of what great story telling computer games do. It has its flaws, the plot and mechanics not quite meshing, but for the most part this is amazing work. I’ve spent days in this game, and I consider that time well spent.

 

So there you go – my top picks of 2016. What have I missed? What am I wrong about? What would you recommend? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

Arrival – Breathtaking Science Fiction

As we get to the end of 20016, it was a huge relief to see Arrival, a science fiction film that is thoughtful, emotionally powerful, and built around interesting ideas rather than epic spectacle.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action blockbuster. I am delighted to live in an age of Marvel movies and the Star Wars resurgence. I could not be more excited about Rogue One if I tried.

But while hugely enjoyable, these spectacle films seldom push the genre forward or provide anything new of substance. Arrival, like Ex Machina and in a very different way Mad Max: Fury Road, does just that.

I’d like to be able to say that Arrival showed film-makers taking a risk with genuinely original science fiction, but that isn’t quite true. Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, it shows that the short story, more than the novel, is the right length for adaptation to a standalone feature film.

Amy Adams plays Louis Banks, a linguistics professor struggling with memories of a terrible loss. When alien spaceships arrive on Earth, she’s called upon to try to communicate with the new arrivals. Tensions are running high as humanity tries to assess whether the aliens are friend or threat, and as governments walk a line between cooperation and competition for access to new technology. Against this backdrop, Banks struggles with the most challenging assignment of her life – decoding the language of a species whose existence is radically different from our own.

Intellectually, this is a fascinating story, exploring the challenge of communication with aliens. Emotionally, it’s both devastating and uplifting, using the implications of its sci-fi premise to deliver some surprising and powerful beats. The visual and audio style match this tone perfectly.

The characters are all believable. Even when they act in ways most of us would condemn, their actions are totally understandable and real. The cast are generally excellent and Adams is wonderful. This is a huge contrast from my other favourite performance of hers, in The Muppet Movie. She handles the different style of story with aplomb.

I’m not going to say “if you watch one sci-fi movie this year, watch Arrival“. It’s far too late for that, and we should all be watching Rogue One. But however many popcorn blockbusters you chomp through in the next few months, try to see Arrival too. It brings a different sort of life to the genre, a range of ideas and styles that sci-fi needs, and above all it’s an amazing film.