Friday, July 19, 2013

Bells and Whistles: Is this all Science Fiction is?

I love science fiction: hard, soft, military, drama, mixed with fantasy, you name it.  My mom, on the other hand, isn’t the biggest fan.
I remember one time way back when I was in middle school, I asked her why she didn't like sci-fi.  She responded that it was because sci-fi would take a story and throw a few "bells and whistles" at it and call it something new; the story would have been able to function on its own without the fancy gadgetry.
At first I thought that was a little unfair.  In my mind I was trying to think about how Star Wars could be a functional story if you did take away all the spaceships and lasers and Death Stars.  It didn't seem like it could.  Later, I would realized that was her point. My mom likes Star Wars.  Star Wars is a story that can't function without the "bells and whistles," thus turning them into "gears and motors" instead, turning the story from cheesy schlock into a full course meal.
I actually didn't go through Star Wars to get to this point.  I went through Halo.  I was thinking over the different games and how well the stories and characters were developed.  In my head I was praising Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 3 for their grand-scale stories and Halo 2 and 4 for their character-focused stories.  Part way down this track, my thoughts stopped at a station containing Halo Reach, Halo ODST, and Halo Wars, the games that don't follow the main storyline of Master Chief.  I started flipping through them to really see what I thought of those stories: were they more character- or plot-focused?   I stopped at ODST and peered at it. This one was odd.
    It was a character-focused story.  It had all the bells and whistles of Halo - the aliens, the technology, the two military powers of the future, even a fan-favorite character from the other games - but it felt so disconnected from the Halo Universe.  That's when I remembered my mother’s comment.  In ODST, the gears and motors of the Halo 'Verse had been demoted to bells and whistles.
    The war story, the love story, the team story, all could make sense outside of Halo.  The stories in the other tales needed essentials of the universe to exist.  An example is below; an example that does not disregard key plot points in ODST or elaborate Halo 4's.  I did my best to boil them down to simply the basics.

  • Halo ODST's love story is about two soldiers.  The woman never answered the question of "Will you marry me?”  Now they are on a team together.  She's his superior officer and keeps secrets from him, which causes friction during the mission.
  • Halo 4's love* story is about an A.I. and a super soldier.  Since he was trained since he was six, he acts like a machine.  Since she is an A.I. made from a human clone, she helps keep him human and has for years.  She begins to deteriorate, causing them both to confront their own humanity and mortality.

You can see that ODST's story could be easily removed and placed elsewhere.  4's could not unless it was placed within a universe that established the same or similar parameters.  ODST easily had the weakest story out of all the Halo games because it had to take time out from the character’s story to explain the "bells and whistles" instead of having the "gears and motors" drive it forward**.
This unfortunately happens a lot in sci-fi***.  Want a space-romp?  Let's take this tale everyone likes and slap lasers, starships, and aliens on there and those nerds will eat it right up.  Well, thank you for that vote of confidence in our mental capacity, I mutter at the publishers between bites of the most recent schlock.
That sort of meal is behind me now, as I understand my mother’s dislike for the bells and whistles, and I agree with her.
At least until I get a hankering for cheese.  Anyone for up for Fantastic Four?

*In this case it was more agape than eros.  Another discussion for another time.
**I think I should note that I like ODST  and the characters within, and the "tale within a tale" that is Sadie's Story is flat out beautiful and powerful.
***Isaac Asimov wrote a rather entertaining poem that could apply to this situation called "The Author's Ordeal." (Complete Stories Vol. 1.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Pleasant Surprises (5+6/6)

Never underestimate your enemy, or your potential entertainment source.  

Sometimes disappointment will win out, but other times you may find a pleasant surprise lurking where you least expect it.  Here are six works I found waiting just around that proverbial corner.

Ranking of these is not by quality, but rather how unexpected it was that I liked them.

These last two entries I have place together because there is nothing much to analyze.

I just can't look away.

2.  “Hero Up, Squaddies!”   - Even the catchphrase is painful.


Hey, remember how we made Rescue Bots?  Let’s do it again!

PlaySkool aesthetic.  Check.  Marvel characters.  Check.
End result?  Hilarity.

I’m not going to lie; it took me a few tries to like this.  First scene I saw was the Silver Surfer as a surfer dude - Wow. Massive creativity there. - not understanding the difference between pants like the clothing and pants like a dog’s breathing.  

- Norrin Radd.  Cosmic explorer.  Doesn't understand suspenders. -
Super Hero Squad Episode 11

The humor was lame and seriously, the Silver Surfer is the incarnation of nobility in the Marvel Universe and this is how he’s portrayed?  It was painful enough that he barely got screentime in the second F4 film and his 1990’s show got cancelled, but now this is his enduring legacy for the mainstream cultural conscience?  Yay.

Then I kept hearing of all these talented voice actors working on this show and being encourage to improv it up.  Then it started reruns on the Hub and the Hub’s website.  So my curiosity got the better of me and when the Hub posted the first two episodes online, I took a watch.

I’m not sure if I have giggled so incessantly in my entire life.  Oh sure, there were fart jokes and belch jokes and jokes that made me roll my eyes.  That did nothing to sully the rest of it though.  I giggled like a maniac and then when this frame popped up, I lost it.  

-Falcon, Wolverine, and Iron Man just pressed the red button-
Super Hero Squad Episode 1

I just out and out lost it.  Then I went back so I could watch it again.  And again.  My sides hurt.  I thought such hilarity could not be topped.  Then I saw a clip of the Punisher.

Now, the Punisher is a vigilante to the extreme.  Think Batman with guns and without his “one rule.”  Think Marvel's Rorshach.  There is no way that anyone could make the Punisher kiddie material.

Well, paint me wrong.  Could you get a more G-rated Film Noir speech?  I will never look at macaroni or broccoli the same way ever again.

There is nothing deep or meaningful I learned from the Super Hero Squad.  There were no heart-wrenching moments.

Marvel’s Super Hero Squad is just hilarious.

1. This.  Why am I still watching?

Barbie has no right to be this entertaining outside of Toy Story.  This show is aware that it’s about a doll that has been mocked, loved, and despised with equal measure and milks it.  Slapstick.  Meta-humor.  Godfather and 2001 Space Odyssey references.

Some of the jokes work, some fall flat, and I have no excuse.  No deep or shallow analysis of the jokes or the acting or characters.  Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse is fluff at its fluffiest.  I like this show.

How did this happen?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Pleasant Surprises (4/6)

Never underestimate your enemy, or your potential entertainment source.  

Sometimes disappointment will win out, but other times you may find a pleasant surprise lurking where you least expect it.  Here are six works I found waiting just around that proverbial corner.

Ranking of these is not by quality, but rather how unexpected it was that I liked them.

3.  Look there, up in the sky! It’s broken!  It’s overpowered!  It’s Superman!
I think my feelings for Supes were just about summed up.  How on Earth can there be any nail-biting battle or drama for a guy who is perfect?  To hurt him you need to be obscenely powerful or holding a specific sort of green rock.  He has superpowers up the wazoo and no visible weaknesses.

Gaaah... where’s Spidey? Give me Spidey.

Ah, there he is.  Standing over with the rest of the boy scouts... alongside Supes.  Hrmh.

If you couldn’t tell by the previous entries of this list when I’ve discussed a character, I tend to favor those who will do the right thing.  Those who have a standard that they set themselves towards, that they won’t break.  Kind of like Clark Kent.

That was the argument my parents always made about Superman when I derided his blatant boringness.  Superman/Clark Kent is a gentleman.  He’s honest, hard-working, and virtuous.  Of course, some might say that makes him even more boring.  I, despite being the fan of goody-two-shoed heroes, might have agreed.  I’m fairly sure I did agree.  Until a webcomic proved me wrong.  
I don’t remember how I came across JL8, but I’m glad I did.  It’s blinkin’ adorable.  And I mean adorable.  It’s the Justice League as eight-year-olds.  

Image from JL8 Comic Facebook Page. JL8 #53

Image from JL8 Comic Facebook Page. JL8 #5
Image from JL8 Comic Facebook Page.  JL8 #127
It is also hilarious

Creator Yale Stewart has put a lot of time into developing the cast, including of course Clark.  Almost immediately, I was struck by how much I liked him.  Naive like a child, he can’t work out how to approach the girl he likes.  Wiser than most, he pulls back from a fight that won’t solve anything.  Kind-hearted, he believes in the best of others.


Hooked on this comic I began to think: if this is how a fan sees Superman, what am I missing out on?  So I began “researching.”  A few episodes of Justice League here, a collection of All Star Superman there, a peek at Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and all the JL8.  Not all were perfect.  Not all were good.  But I even with this cursory look I found something I did not expect.

The drama behind Clark Kent comes from his overpowered abilities.  He can do anything in the world, physically.  Barely anything can hurt him, physically.  He can save everyone, physically.  Mentally, spiritually, emotionally, he is just as powerless as the rest of us.  And while I was certainly enjoying his moral uprightness from the start of my “research,” it wasn’t until an issue of All Star Superman that this hit me right between the eyes.

“The Gospel According to Lex Luthor:” this man is on death row, and wants to tell his side of the story to a reporter of the Daily Planet.  Who else would he ask for but Clark Kent, a man Luthor likes because the bumbling reporter is everything “he’s” not: human.  And through the two’s interaction in the prison, be it in the middle of the interview, a riot, or fleeing a hungry monster, there is something about Clark that just screams regret.  

Luthor rants and raves about Superman constantly cutting him down.  Clark quietly asks why Superman and Luthor could not have worked together, and gets another rant.  In a later issue, Clark will return as Superman to try to make peace with Luthor before the end, and is spit at for his trouble.  Luthor is morally dying, and Superman cannot do a single thing about it.  For me, that bloody hurts.

Have you ever been unable to save or simply help someone?  Have you ever been simply stuck on the sidelines, frozen not from fear but from sheer inability.  It’s horrid.  Now consider if in every other case, you are fully capable of saving anyone, everyone.  Would not the one case you cannot aid be all the more painful?

And for all that, Superman still tries.  And tries.  And tries again.  In fact it’s when Superman stops trying that he becomes terrifying.  In the Justice League episodes “A Better World Part 1 & 2,” we see what he becomes when he gives up on those morally dying.  It makes me grateful for “our” Supes.

And you know what? I’d say our Supes is dangerously similar to Spidey.  I think I'll take ‘em both.