Why So Serious? Captain America: Civil War Reviewed

In many respects, the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a triumph. The cinematography was beautiful, the acting was excellent, the costuming was marvelous. The fight scenes were well choreographed and easy to follow, and they did indeed drop my jaw. Not to mention that the story held together with only a few holes  despite an enormous number of important characters. But alas, there was something missing from Captain America: Civil War that has been such a major part of the franchise.

What happened to the witty banter and quirky moments?

Like, we get it. Big, serious things are happening. Everyone’s down in the dumps. Are they really going to crack jokes when their friends keep running off to who-knows-where (like Thor and the Hulk)? Or falling on opposing sides in a political power struggle? Or getting seriously injured?

Sure, Iron Man makes a few fun comments. But there’s a reason that Spiderman webbed in and stole the show — he was having fun! Why wasn’t anyone else having fun? Or at least chilling out with some shawarma after a hard day of misunderstanding and brutally beating their friends?

And this is not just a problem with Civil War. I’m sure you’ve all noticed that grit is having a moment right now. Has been for the last few years. From Game of Thrones to Batman v Superman to The Walking Dead, what’s popular in broadly defined speculative fiction is dark and dour.

And I’m kind of done with it, because we can actually do better. I haven’t seen the show, but the book series of The Magicians walks the tightrope between realistic with realistic consequences and big colorful magic, and then finishes with a triple backflip and sticks the landing. Robert Kirkman’s other big comic book series, Invincible, isn’t a TV show like The Walking Dead yet, but it too manages to juggle serious and fun. Deadpool continues to blow my mind for being so crass, so funny, so over-the-top, and so real all at once.

I watched The Witch, a horror film peopled entirely with unsmiling, sin-obsessed pilgrims.  And even they knew to punch up the MAGIC at the end. So what happened, Civil War? Why so serious?

My hypothesis is that our current wave of blockbuster comic book movies is still riding the wave whipped up by Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which were notably dark and gritty in a complete departure from earlier comic book to film adaptations. They did have their fun, colorful moments (the Joker, cough cough), which is why they mostly worked, but grit was the main theme.

So maybe the big studio exec default thinking is if they don’t have utter genius writing the script, at least keep it serious. People take serious things seriously, right? And this is a big, serious story. But the problem is that serious by itself is boring.

Tell me, which would you rather see?

(1) A bunch of characters state that they will or will not sign the Sokovia Accords, give brief explanations as to their positions, and then rather than talk about it Captain America goes to a funeral for a character that — to be honest — only he really cared about.*

(2) A bunch of characters order Chinese take out and have an actual conversation about the Accords, argue its merits back and forth, make each other and the audience laugh about it, have difficulties with their chop sticks, and ultimately agree to disagree without yet fully grasping how bad things are about to get bad. Skip the funeral scene.

Two sounds better, doesn’t it? It still deals with the weighty subject material, but it doesn’t make the audience suffer for it.

I’m not arguing for pure escapism, like a certain serious “literary” subset seem to think all this super hero, giant robot, and magic stuff is. If you divest these characters of their moral confusion and PTSD and just have them fly around and hit each other with wiffle bats and rainbows, you’ve lost my interest and don’t have a story.** It’s a balance.

Here, I’ll make it simple. I liked Civil War, especially the big six-on-six fight which was the entire reason we were all there. But I would groan if you asked me to rewatch it.

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*It could be that Peggy Carter is a major character in Agents of SHIELD, and I’m just ignorant. I have my own books to write, I can’t watch, read, or otherwise imbibe everything! 😛

**Some amazing art though…

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GRRM is Not a Feminist

George RR Martin claims, “I’m a feminist at heart,” but I don’t believe him.

Neither do his many angered fans.  They dealt with Joffrey forcing one whore to murder another.  They weathered the Red Wedding and a pregnant woman being stabbed in the belly.  They continued watching, despite Jaime’s last-character-arc-negating rape of Cersei.  And now Sansa has been pointlessly raped by the pointlessly sadistic Bastard of Bolton, and many of the feminist fans are done.  Just done.  They can’t let themselves tacitly condone the sexism any longer, and have sworn off future episodes.

What’s that?  None of that happens in the book, and GRRM doesn’t have complete creative control over the show?  And he actually griped about (but didn’t exactly apologized for)* some of its deviations from his work?  Alright, that’s a fair point.  The show has actually turned out to be more sexist than the books by a long shot, despite the initial promise that it might tone that crap down.

So let’s focus on the outrages GRRM himself has actually penned.  How about the raping stocks in Harrenhal, or Arya being pointlessly threatened with rape in the same location?  Or Brienne’s inability to save herself, relying ultimately on one-handed Jaime to rescue her from a mere bear?  Or the fact that the ruination of the Starks is almost entirely Catelyn’s fault?

And Cersei…hmm, I don’t believe that’s happened in the show yet.  Well, at the end of book five, that was a complete break of character, and it wasn’t at all like the actual Middle Ages either.  It wasn’t even consistent with GRRM’s own work, considering what happened to poor Lollys just for existing at the wrong moment in the wrong company.

Okay.  Deep breaths.  NK JemisonDiana GabaldonNicola Griffith.

I do think GRRM means well.  I do think that he WANTS to be a feminist, that he believes the feminists are right (as, generally, they are).  He’s a smart guy, he wants to be in on that.  He has created a number of memorable female characters, and writes frequently from their point of view.

And he seems sympathetic to their plight, as women.

But while inclusion is great, it’s only the first step in creating true diversity in your work.  Step two is giving your minority characters some agency, and GRRM’s ladies rarely have much of that.  Instead, they’re all plight.  Forever beset upon by the men and other women in their lives.

That doesn’t sound quite feminist to me.  It doesn’t even sound “realistic”.  We’re not all damsels 24-7.  And really, we’re talking novels, worlds and people created by a truly omnipotent god.  Why couldn’t Brienne just jab the bear’s eye-socket and stab into its brain with her wooden sword?

And then climb on its mangy back, climb out of the pit, and plant a kiss on Jaime Lannister?

Now that would have been feminist.

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*first comment on GRRM’s blog post “Author, Author!”

Killing Your Darlings (like actually killing them)*

Death is an important part of fiction.  We spend a lot more time contemplating Hamlet (where almost everyone dies) than A Midsummer Night’s Dream (where no one dies).  And in speculative fiction, the bar keeps rising.  JRR Tolkein may have killed Boromir, but he’s the only one of the Fellowship of the Ring who kicks the bucket (permanently anyway).  JK Rowling definitely raised the stakes with Dumbledore, George RR Martin axed both Ned Stark AND put on a Red Wedding, and don’t get me started on the end of The Hunger Games.

(For those who haven’t read it and are waiting for the final movie, I’ll be vague and just say that Suzanne Collins broke my heart.)

So, how do you pick who to kill?

First, it’s a matter of timing.  You can kill a number of characters all within a short span of time or pages (as JK Rowling does at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), but each death is going to pack less punch.  The reader gets a little numb.  It’s one thing to kill a room full of extras, but space major deaths out if you can.

I won’t tell you to keep deaths to the end of a story or character arc.  It’s frequently a good idea, but Hedwig’s death (at the beginning of Deathly Hollows) was a powerful death that foreshadowed the more serious tone of the last book in the Harry Potter series.

Next, make sure that you don’t have anything really interesting to do with that character later.  That’s one reason you may get a slew of deaths at the end of a book or series.  The story is over, there isn’t anything left for any character to do anyway (except star in fan-fiction).  This is key.  George RR Martin had a stroke of brilliance when he thought to execute Eddard Stark — the character was at a dead end, imprisoned and with no other out but ignominy among the Night’s Watch.  AND it is Eddard’s family’s thirst for revenge that inspires the continuation of the plot.

But the Red Wedding?  Shocking as it was, it ground the plot to a halt.  With the only serious threat against the Lannisters taken out, there was nothing left for the nobles in King’s Landing to do except tear each other to pieces — which turned out to be a lot less fun than I thought it was going to be.  Catelyn Stark’s death was appropriate, but Robb King in the North still had work to do!

And finally, don’t plan your deaths.  I’ve found that the best, most shocking, and most meaningful deaths just happen.  I’ll walk my character into a situation fully intending to carry him or her through, and I can’t.  There’s no way without a corny deus ex machina, or without turning the dreadful foe into an oaf.  It hurts sometimes — I’ve cried after killing characters.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  We read and write to process our darker emotions, and the most primal of those is the fear of death.

You don’t have to write tragedy.  Personally, I like a little more sweet than bitter in an ending.  But don’t go into a story refusing to sacrifice any particular character.  It’s a lot more fun to keep your readers — and yourself — on pins and needles.

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*I’m aware that the meme “kill your darlings” originated as “murder your darlings”, advice given by Arthur Quiller-Couch during a lecture titled “On Style”.  Quiller-Couch spoke about “murdering” frilly turns of phrase, not characters.  But it still makes a great blog post title, doesn’t it?

How to Write Time

My writing follows a yearly cycle, and once again I have followed that cycle into — and by now mostly through — the creatively barren months of December and January.  The days are short, the sun-angles are low, and these things trick my brain into thinking I should be eating and sleeping more and working less.

We remain tied to the physics of the world around us, humbled by the tilt and spin of our planet, despite the best efforts of Tesla, Edison, and general industrialization.

It’s easy to forget how dependent we are on astrophysics while writing a novel, particularly one set somewhere other than Earth.  There isn’t a ready-made calendar; no system of days in a week, or months in a year, or annual holidays.  The writer has to make all that up, and then keep track!  That isn’t an easy task, and many writers simply don’t bother.

For all the work J.R.R. Tolkein did on language for Lord of the Rings, the scale of Middle Earth remains vague.  He usually doesn’t tell us how long the Fellowship of the Ring remains on the road, or how far they have traveled.

The Midworld of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is pointedly timeless, space and time both stretching and thinning as the Beams that support the world erode and break.

In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, summers and winters both last “for years,” whatever that means.  Two or three years pass between books one and five, yet the unchanging season and lack of annual holidays left me feeling as if the events had taken place over maybe six months.

Obviously, you can write something brilliant without worrying too much about time.  But my body goes through monthly and yearly cycles.  Holidays mark my year, weekends punctuate my weeks.  I wanted the time in my world of Endrion to be palpable, just as it is in the real world.

To that end, I set about building a calendar for Endrion.  I decided to use 24-hour days, 7-day weeks, 28-day months, and a 336-day year.  These values are all similar enough to the values of Earth’s calendar that my readers will be comfortable.  My calendar also lacks leap-days, months of different lengths, or other irregularities.  Partly this is to make keeping track of my calendar easier for me, but it also fits the character of Endrion.  It’s a magical world, watched over by beings that might as well be called Gods.  Wouldn’t such a world have an eerily perfect calendar?

However perfect, though, it had to be imposed by the people of my world upon themselves.  I’ve not only invented a calendar, but a history for that calendar.

The days of the week are named by number — First Day, Second Day, and so on though to Sixth Day.  (Many human languages name the days of the week after numbers, including Hebrew and Japanese.)  The seventh day is Sabbath, the day to go to temple and otherwise rest, the weekend.

The months are given names which I meant to be evocative of the time of year, but which are ultimately meaningless.

On a larger scale, I also invented twelve major constellations for Endrion’s skies that fulfill the same role as Earth’s Zodiac.  No, they don’t influence the lives and fates of my characters — they serve as the basis for deciding what the current age is.  We count our years beginning with the assumed birth year of Yeshua of Nazareth.  The people of Endrion count their years by which constellation sits where the sun rises on the vernal equinox.

I keep notes on what day it is as I write — the year, the month, the day of the week.  My characters likewise notice time passing.  They vary their activities on the Sabbath from the rest of the week.  They feel the seasons passing, they note the phase of the moon, they know what day, month, and year it is.

It may be tricky to do all the world-building necessary to have these details at hand, but it is the little details that give a fictive world the air of solidity.

Mockingjay’s Flaw (The Limitations of Perspective)

One of the first decisions to make when beginning a writing project is perspective.  Is the main character going to tell the story herself (first person perspective), or will a more or less omniscient narrator take charge (third person perspective)?

Third person has always been my perspective of choice for writing fiction.  I like to stick close to one character, detailing what she sees, hears, and feels, before leaping away to focus on someone else.  George R.R. Martin uses the same technique in his series, A Song of Ice and Fire, as does Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time.  Stephen King uses a variation of it in The Dark Tower; King frequently wanders from character to character mid-chapter, and sometimes skips off to detail some obscure corner of Midworld or fill in a scenic vista in broad strokes for his readers.

It is the style of big, sweeping epics.  You can have characters in two countries, or on two continents if you like.  You can move around a scene or situation, taking it in from different points of view.  You can still have a main character, or avoid identifying one character as the most central or important.

It is also possible to write without ever quite landing on any one character, but this tends to be an antiquated style.  It is used in myths, legends, and the Bible, but not so much in modern literature.

More focused stories can also be told in third person.  The technique is useful for exploring a character or the events he experiences with more insight and wisdom than the character himself has.  Jack London uses this technique in White Fang, an early 20th century speculative fiction novel detailing the life of an Alaskan wolf.

Because London chose to write in third person perspective, the reader gains insight not only into the events of White Fang’s life, but of the greater forces that shape his life.  White Fang may not understand the Alaskan Gold Rush, greed, addiction, or the psychology of abuse, but London does, and so London can elicit greater empathy for his titular wolf with third person perspective than he could if he forced White Fang to somehow speak for himself.

Similarly, the Harry Potter series uses third person.  It’s an interesting choice now, considering the recent surge of popular first-person, Young Adult novels (Twilight, Divergent, The Hunger Games), but I think it was the right one.  Through third person, we get a clearer picture of Harry Potter growing up than we would if he had to tell us about it directly.

It also allowed J.K. Rowling the flexibility to move away from Harry Potter’s direct experience from time to time, broadening her Wizarding World.  In first person, it’s always a bit awkward to take in a bigger picture, or add a second main character to also speak directly to the reader.

Which brings us to first person perspective.  It is the default perspective, the one we use automatically when telling others about our own lives and experiences.  It also has a long literary history, and can be used to great effect.

If you want to get really intimate, first person is the way to go.  Diana Gabaldon writes her Outlander series in first person, with steamy results in her bedroom scenes.  At the same time, because her main character Claire Beauchamp has traveled back in time, she is able to tell the reader about events and places far away from herself, and so Gabaldon’s 18th century world remains much larger than Claire herself.

I also imagine it is the intimacy of first person perspective that drives the popularity of series like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray.  First person is indeed a powerful tool.

First person is also the right choice if you want to deliberately narrow your reader’s worldview.  Mark Twain uses first person in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and so we only become intimate with Twain’s fictive 7th century England as the titular Yankee does, and that serves Twain’s satirical purposes.

Alternately, first person is the only way to write an unreliable narrator.  Whether the narrator is an anti-hero or a straight-up villain, using first person gives that narrator the chance to give his story spin.  In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov turns Humbert Humbert’s tale of manslaughter, kidnapping, and child-rape into a semi-comic romp.  It isn’t until the end when the full horror of what he has done to Lolita hits Humbert Humbert, and therefore the reader.

And that brings us to Mockingjay.

I love Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series.  I devoured these three books.  They are written in first person, which makes sense.  As Katniss Everdeen dreads, we dread.  Her perspective is limited, and so is ours, adding to the tension.  There is a scene in the second book, Catching Fire, where Katniss hears mockingjay birds (which mimic what they hear) screaming, and sounding suspiciously like her mother and sister.  It is possible that the sound has been manufactured — or has the Capital imprisoned and tortured her family?  She can’t know, and neither can we.

But the third book, Mockingjay, is problematic.  As the conflict becomes larger, as civil unrest grows into a civil war, the first person perspective suddenly becomes claustrophobic.  We’re stuck in a bunker with Katniss and her self-pity.  We’re led to believe that her propaganda videos are the most important element in President Coin’s strategy to overthrow the Capital — and that doesn’t make sense.  She’s important, but not that important.  Through Katniss’s vantage, the war is as distant and unreal as the war in Afghanistan has been to anyone without a soldier in the family.

Katniss does eventually put her boots on the ground in the middle of the main conflict, but even then her point of view is too narrow.  A major character dies off-page because Katniss is too busy running for her life to look back.  We do not see major events, we are told about them afterward.  This is deeply unsatisfying for a reader.

The obvious choice for the epic that The Hunger Games becomes by the third book is third person, not first.  Third person would have given Collins room to tell us about more battles, or the real effects of the war on the Capital and the Colonies.  We could have spent more time with Gale, Peeta, Presidents Snow and Coin.  The world would have seem larger, fuller, more complicated, more satisfying, and less sublimated to the vanity of Katniss.

But the first two books would have lost their edge, and the deep empathy created for Katniss.

It is a puzzle.  I don’t know if the books would have been as popular, or as gripping, had they been written in third person.  At the same time, the film adaptation does greatly improve the first half of Mockingjay by taking a more third-person approach with the script, and spending a good chunk of time with Katniss off-screen.

It just goes to show you, the stories you tell will be shaped and made great largely by how you tell them.

Westeros Doesn’t Work

Infrastructure is expensive, and labor ain’t that cheap.  It’s true!  I know.  I’m a property manager.  And through the lens of my experience with infrastructure, a lot of very famous, very wonderful fictive worlds stop making any sense.

Take Westeros.  How can the lords go around torturing and killing every peasant they find while warring, and not expect the whole continent to starve when that next multi-year winter comes?  Never mind who built that damn wheelhouse from Game of Thrones, or what paved road it traveled on.  And just how wide was that river, that every smith in King’s Landing had to work on that boom chain for the Battle of the Blackwater?  Why didn’t they already have a boom chain for security anyway?  Why didn’t they just keep all of Stannis’s ships out of Kings Landing with that chain in the first place?

And there is no way that anyone would or could ever build a 700 foot tall wall of ice stretching hundreds of miles in length.  Ice is water, and topography is not perfectly flat.  Even if the Wall had been built by magic, it would move, melt, crack, crumble, and otherwise topple within one years-long summer of having been built.

But I can’t really blame George R. R. Martin for not knowing how things really work.  He’s never been a property manager, or a contractor, or a handy-man, and clearly, neither have Joss Whedon or J. K. Rowling.  You probably haven’t been either.  So I’d like to share a few things to think about when building your own worlds.

Giant Sewers and Air Ducts.  I don’t know who started this trend, but my best guess is that it’s Victor Hugo’s fault.  If you ever dare the unabridged version of Les Miserables, at some point you’ll find yourself wading through a 50-page essay on the Parisian sewer system.  There is a point to this.  Two of the main characters (Jean Valjean and Marius) escape from a battle through the Parisian sewers.  That means these sewers are big enough for one grown man to carry another grown man through.

19th century Paris really did have a sewer system that roomy, partly because it doubled as both sanitary sewer and storm sewer, and partly because the people who built it were experimenting and had not perfected the art of sewer building.  But nowadays any modern city is going to build two separate sewer systems, the sanitary sewer (connected to sinks, toilets, and such), and the storm sewer (which drains rainwater from city streets during a storm so they don’t flood).  Contents of the sanitary sewer system go through waste treatment before being released into a waterway, while contents of the storm sewer go directly into the nearest river, lake, or ocean.

This is why I scratch my head when characters hang out in sewers.  Be they the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sunnydale’s vampire population, or the kids from Hocus Pocus, they stand a good chance of getting very wet if it rains.  And most storm sewer lines are not 6 feet in diameter — our property only has 18-inch and 24-inch storm sewers running alongside it.  The sanitary sewer is only 4 inches by comparison, and it empties into a main line that is only 15 inches in diameter.  If you go down just any manhole, you likely won’t be able to journey more than a few feet out of sight of people and the sun.  No one is going to build a 6-foot storm sewer if the engineering calculations don’t require it — it’s too much effort to move all that earth and pour all that concrete.

And while it may not smell good in a storm sewer, it won’t be full of human waste.

Likewise, most air ducts are too small to crawl through.  They do get larger in larger buildings, like skyscrapers, but they’re made out of sheet metal and not designed to support the weight of a human being.  I’d love to see a scene where a hero tries to sneak in or escape through the air vents, and the vent pulls loose from its supports and crashes to the floor.

Basically, neither your heroes nor your villains will get very far if they are doing all their sneaking around within sewers or air ducts.  And no Lizardman or Basilisk is ever going to fit through a 2-inch toilet line (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spiderman and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

Security Cameras.  Considering that homeless spikes (like bird spikes, but for people) are a thing in England and much of Europe, I doubt that King’s Cross Station isn’t chock full of surveillance cameras.  And since the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter series don’t understand AA batteries, I doubt they’d be on the lookout for cameras pointed at their portal to Platform 9-3/4.

Ergo, the secret Wizarding World won’t stay secret for long.

I actually have a lot of problems with the kludgy interaction between The Muggle World and The Wizarding World in Harry Potter.  How do their healers justify letting muggles suffer from broken bones, cancer, AIDS, or diabetes?  When Death Eaters terrorize muggles, why do none of them end up shot by the police?  Why is a AA battery so much more complicated and inscrutable than the Philosopher’s Stone?

And with the advent of security cameras, not to mention satellite surveillance, how does the Muggle World continue to live in complete ignorance of the Wizarding World?

Remember, if you are writing about magic in “the real world”, especially circa today, you not only have to deal with fixed security cameras and traffic cameras, but also everyone on the street with a smart phone.  Sure, you can brainwash a certain number of people into forgetting some show of arcane power.  But the minute that video of your magic user slinging lightning bolts, flying, or stepping through a magic portal hits YouTube, the whole world will know that magic is real.

Infrastructure is Expensive, and Labor Ain’t That Cheap.  So what about if you’re not writing fantasy in a modern setting?  You may not have to worry about cameras.  Your characters won’t be climbing through any sewers or air ducts, but they will be part of a larger society full of tradesfolk and laborers of every sort.  Whatever humans (or elves, orks, dwarves, hobbits, or kender) have was made by someone.  People will be more specialized in cities, and less so in towns and the countryside.  Many people will be farming, because everyone eats.  All goods will have to be moved somehow, be it by road or waterway, by man power, animal power, or with the harnessed elements of wind and river or ocean current.

Houses are still built with the same concerns in mind: they provide shelter and warmth using tried and true methods and materials.  Air and light will need to circulate in this indoor space — even if your characters are using candles or oil lamps at night, during the day they will have opened their windows or doors.  If chimneys are too advanced, there will be smoke holes in the roof.  There will be a water supply, even if it isn’t piped in.  They will need to be cleanable — those rushes you’ve certainly heard of on lordly floors weren’t just strewn about, but woven into rugs and then replaced when soiled.

And if the world is violent (it probably is), appropriate security measures must be kept in mind.

Everything will be made by hand by the people of your medievalish world; roads, wagons, ships, homes, bridges, castles, wells, clothing, tools, weapons, armor, candles, furniture, musical instruments, cups, and books.  A lot of things quickly become too expensive to have, in terms of labor and materials.  Sewer systems are too costly to be built in most cities, which means you have filth in the streets and dedicated individuals who scrape up that filth and cart it out of the city in the nicer quarters.  Most people will have few outfits to wear.  Most roads will be unpaved.  Most people won’t be able to afford multiple rooms in their homes — i.e. they will be used to having no privacy.

And More…  I certainly have more pet peeves about the way writers handle the infrastructure of their worlds, but I’ll leave them for another post.  Until then, just remember that a lot of effort and thought goes into building a world, real or imaginary.  You can have anything you want in your world — lavishly decorated, multi-roomed, hand-dug hobbit holes for instance.  But you’d better figure out what made the hobbits so very wealthy in the first place.