Tag: characters (page 2 of 3)

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

It really feels like Marvel Studios can do just about anything. Back when it was announced as a film, Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a risk, an out-of-the-blue change in direction. Most franchises prefer to play it safe, sticking with the recognized story and character beats known to work. But Marvel’s big idea dreamers do not rest on their laurels. They looked outward from the world of the Avengers and began to pull in more threads from the greater universe. But they’ve done this before – several years ago, Iron Man was relatively obscure in comparison to other superheroes that have graced the silver screen, and now Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr are practically synonymous. Marvel takes chances. They try new things. And they went back to the well of obscurity and elevated a band of five cosmic misfits into this summer’s most anticipated blockbuster.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Peter Quill was eight years old when he got abducted from his homeworld. Having grown up among a rather nasty band of pirates called the Ravagers, the Terran is on the trail of a mysterious orb people are paying good money to acquire. There are also those who would rather kill than pay: Ronan the Accuser, a Kree extremist, dispatches one of his chief lackey, Korath the Pursuer, to retrieve the orb. Quill (who for some reason calls himself ‘Star-Lord’) escapes to Xandar, home of Ronan’s enemies. Ronan sets the assassin Gamora on the trail, while the Ravagers post a bounty for Quill, a hefty sum saught by Rocket (an enhanced raccoon) and his best friend Groot. When they wind up in prison together, along with a well-spoken but driven maniac named Drax, they hatch a scheme to escape and split the reward for the orb, even as Ronan hunts them down.

As a complete, start-to-finish film, Guardians of the Galaxy has a consistent and strong storyline that is not difficult to follow. Its tone has a tendency to vary, but that is definitely a strength rather than a weakness. James Gunn, director of Slither and Super, is just as adept with comedy as he is with emotional scenes heavy with pathos. In the final equation, it balances out extremely well. The heavier scenes pulls us into sympathetic embraces with our characters, and their comedic turns let off some of the pressure to pave the way for more antics and action.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Something tells me they don’t want to talk about having a personal relationship with Galactus.

These characters, in addition, are definitely worthy of their places in Marvel’s cinematic universe. In particular, I was very happy with Gamora’s characterization. In my previous discussion, purely based on some erroneous conjecture, I feared that she would exist as the ‘token girl’ and disappoint in doing little more than rolling her eyes at the tomfoolery of the males. Thankfully, she is very much her own character, with agency, drive, and independence, from start to finish. I was wrong in what I said before; I couldn’t be happier to admit that. What we see on screens is most definitely the deadliest woman in the galaxy, and Zoe Saldana brings her to vibrant, captivating life.

The two CG characters, Rocket and Groot, are incredibly well-realized. Rocket, in particular, is a wonder just to behold. While we’ve seen mo-cap characters before, Rocket is easily believable with his attitude, outlook, pain, and power. You actually feel something for the little guy. Similiarly, Groot conveys a great deal without saying more than a few words. His expressions, actions, and presence all speak to an individual that means well, and that can’t help but stand out in light of other characters behaving in very selfish ways. As for Drax, I definitely need to see the movie again because I swear I missed some of his loquacious dialog in the middle of all the ray-guns and explosions. I like what they’ve done with him and I’m eager to see more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
“I’d flash you my business card, but my hands are too full of guns.”

The glue holding the entire endeavour together, however, is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill. This man is going to be very busy in the years to come. He carries the mantle of leading man very well. His performance draws out the best in the cast around him, and he very much gets both what motivates his character and how the audience can relate to him. Under the flippant demeanor and die-hard nostalgia is some very real pain and more than a couple unresolved issues, and as I mentioned before, the whole film exists in the same balance between the two feelings. Both the actor and the story do more than just walk that line, however; they outright dance on it.

I could spend a lot more time discussing the villains, universe, and greater implications of Guardians of the Galaxy, as it is a surprisingly dense film in terms of lore and setting. There is a huge universe implied in almost every shot of the movie, and I am merely scratching the surface. What I will say is this: we have not had a romp through space like this since Serenity, and even that had a rather intimate scope within which to tell its tale. In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is the direct opposite of the previous Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that just makes them two sides of the same excellent coin. The previous film was a powerful story of intrigue and personal trial with a very modern bent; this one is a deliberate throwback to more whimsical tales like Flash Gordon or Star Wars, but bearing extremely modern sensibilities. The universe we behold has a very lived-in feel, is filled with color and wonder, and clearly contains perils and unknown terrors that are ripe for the exploration. It expands Marvel’s cinematic arm exponentially, and gives us just the right mix of heroes and villains to leave us wanting more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Even minor characters have distinct personalities and memorable traits.

As a movie-goer and erstwhile critic, I would say Guardians of the Galaxy is exemplary science-fiction action-adventure storytelling that I unreservedly recommend. As a long-standing fan of the comics, particularly since I picked it up back when Dan Abnett was starting to write the team we see on screen, I could not be happier. Much like our first real shot of the Avengers, seeing these misfits, murderers, and makers of mayhem come to vibrant life tugs at all of the right strings in my heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what you want and precisely what we need in the middle of summer surrounded by drek and drudgery: a damn good time at the movies. It is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t be surprised if you do, in fact, get hooked on a feeling.

Bring Out Your Dead

Courtesy HBO & GRRM

Writers are murderers. This is an established fact. But I would contend that only bad writers kill characters on a whim, “just because”. If you look at good writing, a character death is never accidental, never flippant. It’s a calculated move. And, if you’re attached to said character or characters, after the initial shock, if you think about it, you can nod and say “Yes, that was a good death.”

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

Quite a few character deaths are, unfortunately, are a means of raising the stakes. Joss Whedon has a habit of doing this. From Shepard Book and Wash in Serenity to Coulson in The Avengers, the death of characters is a sudden gut-punch that knocks the wind out of the audience for a moment and demonstrates that things are serious, and deadly. Our pathos shoots up for those left behind. We feel raw loss at the same time as the surviving characters, and while this can sometimes feel like manipulation on the writer’s part, the effect is undeniable.

Character deaths are even better when they are the result of character decisions and actions, cause and effect, leading to that terminal point. I think of The Wire as a good example of this. Some of the character deaths may seem senseless, in one case even random, but a moment’s thought puts the violence in context, and the realization comes that every bullet is the final result of a series of choices made by the characters. Especially since good writers go out of their way to realize their characters as people, we can understand why those decisions were made, even if we don’t agree with them.

A Song Of Ice And Fire is notorious for character deaths, but here is another example of characters dying more as a result of deicions made by themselves or others, rather than seemingly at the whim of the author. The deaths are just as calculated, but the arithmetic is obscured by deep characterization and excellent dialog. Consider the death of Tywin Lannister. Here is a man who had power and ambition, but also cunning and charisma. He definitely made enemies, and burned a lot of bridges, but for a while, he seemed almost untouchable. But many of the decisions he made were disadvantageous for his second son, Tyrion. He underestimated the fury and calculation of his malformed child, and even when the terminal point was reached, Tywin’s pride does not allow for him to do anything other than confront Tyrion directly and boldly. Neither man backs down and, in the end, it’s the one with the crossbow that walks away.

So. Character deaths. Let’s talk about them. What has stood out in your mind as a good death for characters? Which have seemed pointless, or badly executed? How powerful is death when applied from a writer’s toolbox?

Connect Your Characters

Courtesy Netflix

Good fiction, when you get down to it, is about people.

I don’t just mean the characters. It’s true that, no matter how original or fascinating your premise, you need to have three-dimensional characters. If your characters are flat or uninteresting, or exists solely as ciphers for your own expectations or those of the reader, or blank slates upon whom the reader can project, the story will fall apart. Characters with depth and personality keep your story going and, at times, can even help you write it. If you find yourself trying to write out of a corner, have your characters strike up a conversation. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. Just have them start talking to one another. Before you know it, you’re either out of the situation you were in, or you’ve started something new.

However, when I refer to good fiction being about people, I also mean the audience. A good novel thrives on the reader wanting to turn the next page – or, perhaps, not wanting to, for fear of what will happen next to the characters they’re following. To truly hook a reader in this way, there has to be a connection between them and the characters you’ve created. While you can’t necessarily make a reader give a damn about your characters, you can certainly encourage them to do so.

Compelling stories thrive on conflict, be it internal or external. I don’t just mean the gunfights and fisticuffs. What moral decisions must the characters grapple with? What complications arise due to relationships, be they familial or social? Is there a supervisor involved, and if so, is there tension or disagreement there? Are there incidents in the character’s past that embarrass them? If a character’s present form is different from one they had in the past, how do the people around them reconcile that change?

Even more questions can be asked based on the role the character is filling. If they’re a protagonist, what are their motives, and can an audience get behind them? When they make a decision that is against the law or contrary to prevailing morality, will the reader understand why and, more to the point, accept it? Can your antagonists justify their actions in a way that’s understood, or even forging a connection of their own to the audience? Doing these things will elevate your storytelling.

Ask yourself these questions. Find the ways to connect your characters to your readers. It’s a solid way to make a good story into a great one.

Wired Up

Courtesy HBO

I know I’m pretty late to this party. It’s only thanks to the advent of Amazon Instant Video and my Prime membership that I’m finally getting around to watching HBO’s inner city crime drama The Wire. But I still want to talk about it. Maybe ‘talk’ is too gentle a word; I want to sing its praises.

Crime dramas and television are one of those chocolate/peanut butter combinations. It’s popular because the aspects of one compliment the other. In most instances, you have case-of-the-week shows like Law & Order or CSI, giving fans their weekly infusion of familiar characters in the pursuit of justice. Some episodes are stronger than others, but the show’s popularity is maintained because we are creatures of habit, and television shows can be habit-forming, even if they’re subscribing to a formula.

The Wire‘s formula is a completely different animal. It’s a wolf, prowling and watching, while other television crime dramas play like puppies. Not to say there’s anything wrong with the aforementioned shows; I’ve done my share of indulging in a good Special Victims Unit binge. But The Wire is simply a breed apart. And it exists that way for a few very interesting and powerful reasons.

Instead of relying on a ‘ripped from the headlines’ rotation of cases, The Wire tackles one case a season. Just one. We see how the case begins, who is involved, what drove them to that point, so on and so forth. In some cases, it can take a few episodes for the investigation to truly begin. These are true procedurals: we see the process in all of its grueling details, the camera an unblinking, non-judgmental lens giving us all of the facts. There are times when The Wire almost feels like a documentary in its presentation, which brings me to the authenticity of the characters.

It is not forgotten, not for a moment, that each and every character in The Wire is a person. Even minor characters feel like they have dimension and agency. We won’t always like the decisions characters make, but we can understand why they’re made. I’m a season and a half into the show, and I have yet to see a character do something that makes no sense from their perspective. Sure, a character or two has done something that to me seems obviously bone-headed, but the show is written in such a way that I can get into the character’s shows and see things through their eyes, even if the vision isn’t all that clear.

The biggest thing about The Wire that keeps me coming back, though, is the conversations. The dialogue in this show is some of the best I’ve ever heard. It feels authentic and natural. Even the legalese spoken by lawyers and judges feels like its born out of years of experience, not words on a script. There’s also the fact that it’s being spoken by some extremely talented actors. There’s just as much expression in the looks and body language of these people than there is in the words. You can feel discomfort, anger, satisfaction, and scheming, all taking place just under the surface. Text and subtext blend together into storytelling that is truly gripping and absolutely brilliant.

If you have access to it, via Amazon or some other means, I wholeheartedly encourage you to check out The Wire. I can’t call this a full review since, as I’ve said, I’m only a season and a half in as of this writing, but you can bet I’m in it for the long haul, now. It’s simply one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

Informing Through Action

Cloudbank, by Jen Zee

I have many, many good things to say about Transistor.

I’m processing my thoughts for a review that will go up tomorrow, but my immediate takeaway was that Supergiant Games have done it again. They’ve shown how coherently and completely a story can be told in the medium of video games, with a bare minimum of exposition and dialog. In Transistor, they also demonstrate how effectively one can characterize a silent protagonist through action.

More often than not, silent protagonists are conveyed to us through the reactions of others than anything else. They tend to be blank canvases for the player to project themselves upon. Other characters, mostly in first-person games – Garret in the Thief series, Master Chief from Halo, etc – gain more of their own character from the occasional line of dialog, opting for the taciturn badass mold of protagonist. Not so with Red. Her voice stolen by the Camerata, she cannot speak for herself. But despite being silent, and our protagonist, Red is very much her own character.

Throughout Transistor, Red pulls the titular sword-like device around her as if it’s quite heavy. Yet, she pulls of flourishes with it, tossing it up in the air to catch it as she runs. Her initial pose not only allows her a good range of motion with the weapon, but it can be off-putting to foes: they may think she is too weak to use it effectively, only to be surprised when she enters Turn() to bust some heads. She hums, either along to the music when in Turn() or holding the Transistor, as well as short vocalizations when she sees something in Cloudbank the Transistor wants to tell her (and us) about. Despite the loss of her voice, Red refuses to be completely silent. This is also evident in the terminals scattered throughout the game – the roles of which I will not spoil here. Finally, in the Backdoor hub for the ‘bonus’ portions of the game, there is a hammock, and after using it, Red yawns and dabs at her eyes, a gesture that speaks to someone used to a refined and maybe even posh lifestyle. Her life might have been thrown into upheaval, but Red refuses to let go of herself, allowing time to breathe in the midst of the chaos.

All storytellers, not just video game designers, could benefit from Red’s example. She informs us of who she is through her actions. Nobody tells us that she’s this smart or this stubborn. It comes across in what we are shown. The guys at Supergiant are not in the habit of explaining much of anything in their games at first; players discover more about the world and the characters through play rather than through cutscene. Brevity, it is said, is the soul of wit, and it’s also helpful in conveying a story in the most effective way possible.

If your characters have agency, and you’re allowing them to change and grow as your story progresses, you’re well on your way to this effectiveness. Building on the foundation of agency, you’ll want your characters to come across to your audience through actions, possibly more than words. The more speech you cram into your character’s mouths, the less story you’ll actually be telling. While it is occasionally okay for a character to be long-winded as part of who they are, or needing to explain something to someone else, for the most part, our conversations are relatively short. We do far more than we say. Your characters should be no different.

There are a lot of things to take away from the experience of Transistor, many aspects that other game designers, even for big publishers, would do well to emulate. One of the strongest is this method of conveying character through action. I may reiterate this point in my review, but Red feels like a person, with her own life and thoughts and emotions, and this pulled me even deeper into the experience. It’s powerful storytelling, and in an interactive medium like this, it’s always wonderful to see. Like characters in Journey communicating almost entirely through action, forcing the player to pay attention and forge connections through their own agency, Red takes on a life of her own not just because we have a mouse or thumbsticks to guide her. Her actions show us who she is.

Can you say the same for the characters you’ve created?

Art by Jen Zee

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