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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Quentin Coldwater’s a Whiner: The Magicians Trilogy Reviewed

Alas, I still don’t have a new illustration for you. Lately my life has been hectic, and not conducive to creative projects. Happily there is light at the end of this particular tunnel, so maybe next time.

But for now, another book review.

Another trilogy review, actually. This time, I’ve gobbled up Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy, and it is good. Very good.  But I didn’t think so at first.

The problem was Quentin Coldwater, whose shoulder we perch on throughout The Magicians and for much of The Magician King and The Magician’s Land. Quentin grows up longing for magic, and then finds it while applying for college. Like Harry Potter (whose books are referenced frequently, along with Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and Discworld), Quentin is whisked out of his ordinary life to join Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Except unlike Harry Potter, magic and friendship don’t solve all his problems.

Which I like. I like Grossman’s more grown-up, sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach that still manages to hold so much whimsy. I like the self-awareness of the characters. They come from our own world, read the same books we’ve probably read, and so know the rules of magical lands and adventures without having actually been on them before. Like how quests just work out if you go with it, or how to assume the role of a King, or a Queen, or a Magician for that matter.

I like the various settings. There aren’t too many fantasy novels whose lands I would actually want to visit — they’re usually too war-torn and scary. But Brakebills is totally a college I would have attended. I would be happy to explore the Narnia-esque kingdom of Fillory, or even the eerie, endless Neitherlands.

And I really like Grossman’s take on the practice of magic. It’s hard. It requires an unbelievable amount of esoteric knowledge and finger dexterity. It requires mind-meltingly difficult calculations regarding the Conditions — time of day and year, latitude, temperature, etc. — to determine just how a spell should be adjusted and cast. To keep up with all this, the Brakebills students are all young geniuses; academic over-achievers, bored, intoxicant-seeking, and generally dissatisfied with their mundane schools and lives.

The result is that the characters are all damaged and self-hating, and none more so than Quentin. That’s usually fun for me. I have my own issues, and so do many of my closest friends. But there’s no obvious reason for Quentin’s deep malaise. Parents still together, no history of abuse, no dead friends, no chronic illness. He’s just aimless, and being aimless, terribly unhappy.

I can empathize, but after awhile it gets old. I got really tired of Quentin after The Magicians, and didn’t plan to go back for more of him.

But after a few months I went back anyway.

Part of it was that — in hindsight — the magical settings and beings and quests were so damn creative, they overshadowed my memories of what a self-destructive whiner Quentin Coldwater was.  Good fantasy is hard to find, and even if I didn’t like Quentin this was the good, pure stuff.

And part of it was solidarity.  Admittedly, Grossman doesn’t need my solidarity; he’s a successful author with books out, and merchandise to match.  And I’m not.  (Yet.)

But I’ve got my own self-loathing magus, Thades Morgan, and I’ve had my own beta readers go every which way on their opinions of him.  Mostly they love him, but one reader detested his melancholy.  So I toned it down, only to have a more savvy beta reader tell me that she wasn’t always convinced by Thades — that I should make him more disgusted with himself again.

You just can’t please everyone, can you?

In any event, I gave Quentin Coldwater another chance, and I’m glad I did.  Quentin matures considerably in The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, and learns to like himself.  The spells get bigger and flashier, more of Fillory is revealed, and the adventures get more creative and intense.  And Grossman does something really smart — as the story gets bigger, he switches from sticking with Quentin to hopping around between his friends.  And they too progress from dysfunction to finding peace with themselves, no matter what transformations they go through.

The Magicians Trilogy is just fantastic, really.  And if you get frustrated with Quentin, as I did, don’t worry.  You’re in the hands of a master here.  Lev Grossman’s the real magician.

Map of Drakehall Thaumaturgical Academy

A Tour of Drakehall

So far, I’ve critiqued various books, movies, and TV shows, discussed a little of the “how tos” of writing a good fantasy novel, and rambled all over the place.  But I haven’t said much about my own work.

Well, now that I have finished the manuscript of my first novel, Proper Magic*, I’m ready to talk about it.  And Drakehall Thaumaturgical Academy, namesake of my blog, is a good place to start.

The magic school is an old staple of the fantasy genre.  Credit is usually given to Ursula K. Le Guin for inventing the modern literary concept of the wizard school in her Earthsea novels, but wizards have long represented the power gained through hard study in Western mythology — a tradition that goes all the way back to King Solomon.

Traditionally, it was study that made wizards “good”, and the lack thereof (combined with a partnership with Old Scratch) that made witches “bad”.  And this dichotomy remains in fantasy, although without the overtly religious overtones.  “Trained” magic is usually seen as superior to “wild” magic, whether the student follows one master or enters an appropriate institution.  Magic users across the genre require training before they take full control over their own powers, and that training (and the ways it may go awry) is the bedrock for many, many novels.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, young Ged is nearly killed when he attempts more advanced magic than he is prepared for, and spends years dealing with the consequences.  Much of Dragonlance centers around just how badly The Test at the Tower of High Sorcery screwed up Raistlin Majere.  Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is a more inviting place, but the school ultimately fails the protagonist of The Magicians by doing nothing to help him deal with his inner dissatisfaction.

Can you see the pattern?  Knowledge is power, but too much power too quickly is dangerous and corrupting.  If a school does not impart good character to its students, its lessons are wasted, or worse than wasted.

Hogwarts, that pinnacle of wizard schooling, gets that.  Dumbledore and his professors ready Harry Potter for the dangers he will face.  The conflict lies where Harry is kept ignorant, or where Hogwarts itself is harboring the danger.

So what does Drakehall bring to the genre?

To start, I dispense with the tradition that the headmaster of such an institution be serene, kindly, and nigh all-powerful.  Drakehall’s headmaster, Felix Grizweld, is no Albus Dumbledore.  Grizweld drinks, he swears, he’s abrasive, and he’s not above taking his frustrations with the temples out on his staff.  He’s not all bad — he cares about his school and his students, he maintains a loving (if sometimes absentee) relationship with his wife and son, and he kicks a lot of ass.  But he’s not a guy to turn to for comfort.

Drakehall is also a practical place, a part of its world instead of set aside from it.  The academy sits smack-dab in the center of the Golden City of Haleidon.  The magi who work and study there make themselves useful to their community.  They run a teaching hospital, manage a postal service (utilizing drakelings to carry the messages) and a library, and craft potions for common use.  The school is an extension of a powerful guild that helps defend Haleidon, chasing off dragons one week and fortifying levees in a storm the next.

Despite all the goodwill they garner with such services, the magi are always wary of losing their popular support.  Drakehall itself is built like a castle, with gardens, dovecotes, a well and cistern, and supplies on hand for months in case the magi should find themselves under siege.

The magi themselves are proto-scientific.  They are not part of a world standing still, like Middle Earth or Krynn, where technology, fashion sense, and language has stayed more or less the same for a thousand years.  They are advancing magic, and with the help of a blue alien who crash-landed on their planet, they will soon be advancing science and manual** technology as well.

The magi of Drakehall might even build themselves a printing press, and start a broadsheet.

Want to learn more about Drakehall Academy, the world of Endrion, and Proper Magic?  Keep checking back.  I’ll be sharing more as I work on maps and illustrations, and you’ll hear about it here first when I get lucky with an agent or publisher.

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* Working title, it hasn’t been published yet after all.

** “Manual” is the word I use for “non-magical” in my novel.  As good as “muggle” is, it would have been a bit fourth-wall breaking to steal the term.