Books: Good As Gone, Powers, Volume 1
Movies: Captain Marvel, Don't Think Twice, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol
TV: The Dragon Prince (season 2)
Good As Gone by Amy Gentry
This is Amy Gentry's 2016 debut thriller about a missing child who returns to her family nine years later.
I liked this book. I know Ms. Gentry, and if I hadn't liked her book, I would have just quietly forgotten to write anything about it. But this book is both good and well worth discussing.
One of my favorite mystery writers is Reginald Hill. Mr. Hill worked very well within the bounds of a mystery-based police procedural, with his detectives patiently following leads and piecing together how some complicated murder had happened. But at his best, he subverted the genre, taking a story in a very precise, swiss-watch, plot-driven genre and focusing instead on how it *felt* to the people involved. Murder is a puzzle to be solved, yes, but it also tears through a community, and is itself the end result of relationships that have gone unimaginably wrong. One of my favorites reveals that the murder happened when man accidentally killed his best friend, realized that it will look like foul play, and spent two hundred pages desperately covering things up under that cloud of guilt and gloom.
All of this is a lengthy run-up to saying that that's how Good As Gone felt to me. Ms. Gentry is working within a very plot-heavy, lots-of-fiddly-bits genre — the twisty, psychological thriller. In this case, the setup is that a missing child comes home after nine years, but maybe not everything is as it seems. The book carries off the genre well, with reveals that throw you off-guard, leaving you always uncertain of who, if anyone, you can trust.
But it's also pulling that same "here's how it would *actually* go" trick for all the characters involved, giving an almost uncomfortable level of psychological verisimilitude to everybody going through this rollercoaster.
It also plays its plot realistically. It starts from that improbable premise: a child goes missing for nine years and (apparently) shows up again on the family doorstep. But from there, it's almost relentlessly logical: if that's what happened, then this is what must have happened. And this happened after that. And this happened after that. That commitment to emotional truth is mirrored in its commitment to an honest plot.
The book is also a... I keep circling back to the phrase "feminist scream", and I mean it as a compliment. Allow me another digression.
So imagine you're Upton Sinclair. You're writing The Jungle, his seminal muckraking novel about corruption and exploitation in the Chicago meatpacking industry. Lots of bad shit happens in The Jungle. It's hopeful towards the end — a few inspiring socialist rallies — but for the most part, it's workplace accidents, debt, illness, and moral and physical decay. Your editor gets back to you, and asks you to "maybe make it a little more positive?" So you pitch the story differently — it's about a HERO who TAKES ON THE BAD GUYS in the meat-packing industry and WINS, making a BETTER DAY FOR EVERYONE!!!1
The Modified Jungle makes people feel good. It sells well. It does indeed inspire a few folks to take a closer look at the industry. But there's no stark portrayal of just how bad things are. It doesn't grab you collar and make you *see* what's going on. The readers don't really take any action. And the book doesn't *mean* as much as it could have. It's soon forgotten, and no high-school kids in the late 80s get assigned it for homework.
This approximates a feeling that's creeping in, for me, about many "strong female protagonist" stories. Yes, it's great and inspiring to show to show someone overcoming the social ills of your society, or someone unaffected by it and doing good deeds. But if you're not showing how bad things *are*... the story feels like a lie. Like a happy lie we tell ourselves, so we can go to sleep convinced that things aren't so bad, and surely the right hero can come along and set things right again. Maybe it's a good lie, and it's one we collectively need, but eventually you want to start screaming at the top of your lungs that DAMMIT THERE ARE CHILDREN SLOGGING THROUGH BLOOD ON THE FACTORY FLOORS.
And so I finally circle back to Good As Gone. Yes, it features women, with agency, in prominent roles in the story, and that's good. But also, while it opens in a comfortable, upper-middle-class home, it quickly moves outside of that. And once it gets away from the Houston suburbs, it makes the point, with closely observed verisimilitude, that America is a shitty country to be poor in, and an incredibly shitty country to be poor and female in. And we are perhaps unforgivably bad at handling sexual assault.
And so, while the story makes its twists and turns, there's a confusing sort of relief to the book. Someone is saying these things, and saying them in a wildly popular thriller.
Seek this book out; it's well worth your time.
Powers, Volume 1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Oeming
I read the first trade paperback of the 2000 comic about police detectives in a city with superheroes. (It was adapted into a forgettable PS4-network series in 2015.)
The comic opens with a beloved superhero dead on a city street, the victim of a grisly murder.
And your immediate thought is, "Okay, we're doing some kind of Watchmen riff." But the story quickly turns into something that is very, very not that. What surprises me about Powers is that, while it goes on to perform some of the same deconstruction of the superhero genre that Watchmen does — tropes along the lines of "no man, *this* is what a superhero world would *really* be like" — it doesn't share Watchmen's sense of grand, philosophical ambition.
And that is a good, good thing.
Wait, why is it a *good* thing? Well, for one thing, we've already got Watchmen — and we've already got Alan Moore blowing up one property after another into mystical philosophizing on the nature of reality. But also, Powers forgoes any grand statement about What Superheroes Mean, and pitches its ambitions purely at telling good crime stories. One after another. Solid procedurals, with interesting inferences about might happen (read: what might go horribly, horribly wrong) in a superhero world, and honest characterizations of the people caught in the crossfire.
And gradually, just by doing the hard work of creating emotionally impactful stories, issue after issue, in this constricted procedural genre, it builds *up* to making the big statements. It's not beating you over the head with philosophy. It's not doing any obvious structural fireworks. Instead, it gives you this visceral feeling of what it is to be in this "cops and capes" world. Characters talk about how unhinged you feel when you're an ordinary person watching übermen battle in the skies every day — but really you feel it in your gut.
It also does a phenomenal job engaging with relatively new (at the time) 24-hour-news phenomena. Again, it's not beating you over the head with the content, but you settle into the world and you see from a certain speculative-fiction distance what the constant barrage of arguing pundits is like, and how bad actors can deftly manipulate the media narrative to their own ends.
Again, it's not the bombshell that Watchmen was, but I don't think it's trying to be. (To be clear: I love Watchmen.)
And I love it for what, in the end, feels like an elegiac tone. It's not a comic that's preeningly gritty — "yeah, life is tough and only REAL MEN LIKE ME can deal with it, audience!" Instead, it builds a world of superheroes that's still beset with corruption and banal, venal evil — but then it fills that world's comic-book shops with the same bright, optimistic superhero comics that we're used to. And there's a sense among the characters like... we're supposed to be better. We're supposed to have these heroes who are good and right and strong, and who we can look up to without concerns or reservations. And somehow, we're just not quite good enough, as the human race, to deserve that.
That tone is beautiful, in an autumnal, melancholy sort of way. I haven't really seen it anywhere else.
There are plenty of other things to dig about the run. Bendis is a huge fan of Mamet, and manages to pull of his own style of clipped, repetitive, jazzy Mamet-speak without sounding like, well, a giant pretentious douche imitating Mamet. And that's at least in part because Oeming backs him up with brilliant artwork. Oeming, for his part, is working from Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's work on Batman: The Animated Series, using very stylized, simplified art that (1) makes a lot of drab realism in comics look dull by comparison, and (2) still leaves room for very subtle 'acting' in his close-ups. It's like the old line about Hirschfeld — "he'd only draw five lines, but they were the right five lines". With that nuance, you can have a character, say, repeat the same line five times and it still works as meaningful dialog.
They balance the A-stories with an overall arc beautifully. In this collection in particular, they slowly reveal Detective Walker's background, and the answers you finally get are surprising, satisfying, and surprisingly affecting.
This run is as good as everyone says it is, and you should seek it out.
This is the latest MCU film, in which a mysterious space soldier pursues enemy combatants to earth, only to find traces of her own mysterious and unknown past.
I feel like my friends set my expectations just right for this movie. They all liked it. They were all glad it had a positive message for girls. They all enjoyed the 90s references. Very few said it was their favorite MCU film, but everyone thought it was a solid, enjoyable movie.
So I came in expecting a nice, three-star movie, and that's what I got.
I joke occasionally about "originality capital" or a "creativity budget", where a movie gets to be only so innovative about only so many things — and if they're wildly original in one regard, then they have to make up for it by being safe and conventional in others.
In this case, they spend that capital very wisely. Better critics than I (gah, I can't find the twitter thread now) have pointed out that Captain Marvel's main innovation is flipping around the basic origin-story structure. The well-worn and rightly-loved MCU formula is that some dick/dweeb starts out being kind of average both morally and physically, gains some superpower, and then spends their arc learning to be heroic as well. By the end, they use their superpower, and their increased self-knowledge, to complete a great act of heroism.
So Captain Marvel flips things around. Carol Danvers *starts out* heroic — i.e., she's willing to go fight space battles based on her boss's claim that it's for a good cause. She starts out with her powers — part of the arc is learning how she got them. The arc, then, is all about the self-knowledge — getting over Jude Law's gaslighting and actually *using* the power she's already got.
Now, to be clear, this is borrowing a trope from a lot of genre stories. "The magic was in you all along!" is a cliché for a reason — many many stories are about discovering what you've already got, and it makes for very emotionally satisfying and honest-feeling plots. But using it here, in a superhero movie, in this context, with a female lead — well it's obvious even to a blinkered old man like me that this exactly relates to the shit women put up with in the real world: an entire patriarchy telling them to calm down, feel small, and limit their accomplishments.
It's a great story structure. And I'm very glad that, with their first female-led film (after 20 others), they're not making a movie that just *happens to have* a female lead. They're making a story about female experiences that you couldn't do worth a damn with a dude front and center.
And I say this not only because it's meaningful for female audiences, or because it's progressive, or because it's (as we've seen) highly profitable to hit an underserved sector of the ticket-buying public. It's also absolutely *necessary* for the MCU to empower different voices to tell their stories. Simply put, conventional superhero origin stories are a kind of narrow genre. So, if you're going to keep telling stories about white dudes, it's gonna get tougher and tougher to avoid repeating yourself. You could already see this with Doctor Strange — if you're going to tell a story about a snarky white-dude asshole learning to be a hero, we've already done that with Iron Man, and that's a flick you don't want to go up against.
I loved how genuine the performances felt. At first, the acting seemed kind of "off", just because the acting didn't feel, for lack of a better term, "actory". There's a spectrum between "documentary found footage" and "the full Shatner", and these performances veer much more towards the former than we've seen in MCU flicks. You often feel like you're overhearing real conversations; put another way, it often feels like, for the first time, these are real human beings dropped into this whimsical superhero-origin story. The buddy-cop chemistry between Fury and Danvers has a warmth and honesty that could frankly carry a whole film — some spinoff that's just them solving crimes and cracking wise.
This especially comes in handy when the aliens do their reverse heel-turn. Having aliens is weird and strains disbelief. Having aliens in someone's living room, and having them exchange an Office-like interaction about a translation problem ("You never checked in orbit?" / <shrug>) grounds it in a way that gets us past the goofy prosthetics.
And I do love the performance Mr. Jackson gives here. First, de-aging CGI has gotten eerily good. But second, it's great to see him find new notes to play on his decade-old MCU character — younger, out of his element, an affinity for cats. It was great to sympathize with Nick Fury, and be concerned for his well-being, in a way that the other movies couldn't really make room for. And again, more observant critics than I am have pointed out that he serves as an excellent counterpoint to Jude Law's Kree commander — Fury is friendly, straightforward, supportive, and secure.
So all in all, it's a success. Fun, funny, with a little real-world weight to its storyline. It's not as good as Black Panther, but what is? Captain Marvel is still a solid, reliable piece of entertainment.
Don't Think Twice
This is the 2016 Mike Birbiglia film about the strains within a New York improv troupe when a star member gets a lucrative career opportunity.
It's interesting to compare this to GLOW, the netflix TV series about 80s women's wrestling that wound up, much to my surprise, also being about improv. But that show, and this movie, manage to cover completely separate ground. GLOW was about the deeper artistic questions — how do you create a show?; how does a performer create an engaging persona?; how do you portray problematic aspects of society without just indulging the audience's worst instincts? The arguments were all arguments I recognized readily.
Don't Think Twice goes an alternate route, trading the heady theoretical questions for close, precise, anthropology-like observation. He gets the details eerily dead-on, from the neverending "bits" in improv conversation, to the held-together-with-baling wire feel of the average improv-theater backstage, to the fact that, welp, there are some skeezy guys in improv. The conflicts in the movie stem mostly from improv-as-a-career situations.
I recognized those arguments, too, but not from personal experience. Austin is, as they say, the "velvet coffin," where artists tend to be comfortable, happy, and unambitious. Improvisors who want to go far leave town — for Chicago, or LA, or (this movie's setting) NYC, leaving behind a population of artists who fight about, well, more GLOW-like disagreements. All of this was just as precisely observed, but it was, for me, all at an odd remove.
Like, it's weird, very weird, to be reminded that a good fraction of the people in my hobby, above everything else in life, want to be cast members on Saturday Night Live. Like, it's a dream. It's a life ambition to a part of the sketch show for people who think Sam Bee is too political, Portlandia was too surreal, and Adam Ruins Everything too smug. It's like if all the writers you knew were obsessed with getting a piece into American Airlines Sky Magazine. I mean, you do you, but... what?
Little if any of the movie is about artistic questions. It's about people who already know what improv is, and what it does. It's just a question of whether they can be the best improvisors in improv-land, and whether they can use recognition there to further their careers. And that, again, is a good chunk of what the improv world is like.
It was kind of hard to watch for me, specifically because I'm so burned out on improv right now. They did their first scene for an audience, and I audibly groaned. (Oh. Right. Tedious whimsy. Okay then, let's soldier through watching this.) And I suspect a lot of what's burned me out on the art is that so much of it the workmanlike practice of Don't Think Twice and not enough of it is the freewheeling invention of GLOW.
But all that said, again, it's a great, closely-observed portrait of the improv world. It gives a happy frisson of recognition to improvisors, and it's a great glimpse into the world for non-improvisors. The story is simple, and it does what it needs to do, and produces a few moments that are genuine and heartfelt.
I'm glad I watched it, but I'm happy to go back to Mission: Impossible spy-em-ups after this.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
This is the fourth installment of the Tom Cruise super-spy franchise. In this one, the US government disavows the entire IMF organization, leaving Ethan Hunt and his team entirely on their own to stop a global nuclear war.
This movie is a fascinating contrast to Mission: Impossible 3 — to the point that it feels like some kind of scientific experiment, like they specifically engineered this movie to answer the question "What if we did a movie just like MI3, but completely removed the character growth and emotional weight — just got rid of anything that would make you care about the movie?"
They're left with a very clean-running machine. Mr. Bird directs excellent action scenes. He constructs very solid heists: you can clearly track all the moving pieces, and he creates delightful complications that inevitably send them off the rails. His special-effects work — especially the explosion at the Kremlin — has weight and verisimilitude. There are little grace notes to the mechanics of the movie — like Ethan suddenly realizing, "Hey, I still have my goggles" during the sandstorm chase scene — that give you little appreciative chortles, because you're happy with the careful craft that went into piecing this film together.
On top of that, this movie does humor better than any of the previous films in the series. Now, granted, that's not intense competition — even MI3, the best action movie I've seen in years, may not have made me laugh even once. So I'll go further and say MI4 does humor better than most action films.
Action movies tend to flub humor in one of two ways. First, they'll have a witty (or, more precisely, 'wry') character who cracks wise through the film in ways that... aren't *actually* funny. Here's a good example — you keep getting lines that are, yes, the same *format* as jokes, and you sort of mentally acknowledge "Yes! A joke has been provided!", but there's no real wit to it. The other way action movies flub humor is by ruining the tone of the film. In improv, we call this "gagging": where you take time to be silly and tell wacky jokes in a way that completely deflates any tension in the scene, and torpedoes whatever tone you were going for.
So Mr. Bird avoids both of those, finding great character moments that don't force people into out-of-character gagging, and don't undercut the tension of the movie. My favorite: Ethan jumps, with a rope, from the side of the Burj Khalifa, trying to get to a hole in a window. The rope stops two floors shy of the target.
Everyone inside the window: "Your rope is too short!"
Ethan: "NO SHIT!"
It's just perfect — humor that comes straight from "this is what people would really say in this scenario". And it doesn't ruin the tension — Ethan is still very, very screwed — and it doesn't overstay its welcome. Just one quick, perfect little moment.
And yet. Aaaand yet.
There is only one thread in this movie that could charitably be called a character arc. That's with Jeremy Renner's character. This is so dull, I feel no shame about spoiling it entirely: his analyst character used to be an agent; then he failed to save Ethan's wife's life in an incident in Croatia; then at the end, he found out that Ethan was faking Julie's death, so: no worries!
Again, this is the only part of this movie that you could even paint as an *attempt* at a character arc. And it's not an arc. It's not a character changing in any fundamental way, or sacrificing something of great value, or learning something new about themselves or about life. It's just a worried guy getting a new piece of information that, hey, that thing you were worried about was no big deal. Yes, he goes from "worried" to "not worried", but that's not growth. That's not an arc.
And to be clear: nobody else goes through *any* kind of arc through this. Nobody has personal shit to deal with. They just do their jobs, and it's very difficult to do their jobs, but nobody changes and nobody learns anything.
And note that this means nobody screws up, either. One of the best things about MI:3 was that Ethan was badly flawed — in some ways he hadn't really owned up to how he felt about his job, and how he felt about having a relationship. And because of that, he made bad choices. He made moves that were bold, exciting, and made you think, "Heyyyy... that might not work out." The complications in MI:3 stem directly from the heroes making mistakes.
But here, nobody steps wrong. They make good plans. They put those good plans in place. From their end, everything goes as expected. All the complications are impossible-to-predict elements introduced from outside: oh, this unexpected person arrived; that server room is inaccessible; there's another team hitting the same archive we are. It's just the screenwriter throwing bricks at the heroes, arbitrarily, so we can see everyone's professional competence under stress.
And believe it or not, that's okay. I'm okay with a movie saying, "Y'know, I don't think we can handle telling a *personal* story. Honestly, a big, crazy spy story is hard enough. Let's just curb our ambitions, limit our scope to our capacity, and deliver well on the plot mechanics and action scenes." Sure, that produces a movie that is competent, exciting, and forgettable, but as far as movies go, that's still a solid ground-double.
So honestly, the attempt at a character arc with Brandt felt... awkward and out of place. The first time they mentioned Julia's death — about an hour into the picture — it felt like Barney the Dinosaur sitting a kid down to talk about cancer. Sure, I don't mind dark subject matter. I don't mind emotional subject matter. But this particular whiz-bang super-spy story was so clearly not the venue for anything real or sad. And the subsequent development of that story arc felt... weird, needlessly complicated, and by the end, very dumb: so the "happy ending" for Ethan is that he can never be with his wife again? Because... he just couldn't stop being a superspy?
Likewise, the villain has no weight to him. Yes, *any* actor looks bad compared to Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But it goes beyond that — the bad guy wants to start a nuclear war because... reasons. And we know nothing about him, beyond "he wants to start a nuclear war". There's no relationship between him and any of the heroes. He's just the classic "convenient übervillain", who has the ability to provide any kind of adversity that the screenplay requires, no matter how improbable. He's pure script mechanics and plot spackle.
And then all the moving pieces click into place and the good guys stop the bad guys and it's done. And you think, "Well, then, I certainly did see a lot of action. That Kremlin explosion was especially well done!" And you carry on with your life.
The Dragon Prince (season 2)
This is the second season of the 2018 Netflix animated series about a trio of kids on a quest to save their fantasy kingdom.
Yes, it's almost as good as season one. There's a slight dropoff, for reasons I'll get into, but "a shade under one of the best debut seasons of 2018" is absolutely fine.
I want to digress a bit, and talk about storytelling. George R. R. Martin employs two metaphors to talk about storytelling. He says there are two types of storytellers: "architects", who patiently draw up complete plans for their structure, and then implement what they've started out with to the letter; and "gardeners", who wander outside, see what's naturally growing, and maybe prune a few things and water a few others to see where they lead.
As I do work in improvised narrative, I find myself leaning on a third, different metaphor: a table full of mousetraps.
Specifically, I'm talking about that science experiment where you set up a hundred mousetraps on a table. You set each mousetrap, pushing back on the spring and locking the rodent-neck-breaking metal in place. And then, on top of each trap, you gently set a ping-pong ball. Then the cool part happens: you take one more ping-pong ball and you drop it on the table. Instantly, there's a chain reaction: that ball hits a trap; that trap snaps shut; that launches a ball into the air; that ball hits maybe two more traps; two more launches; and so on.
In improv, and in television, I'm looking for storytelling like that: not totally specced out and not totally organic. Instead, you're focusing on creating a setup where *any* action is going to make a story happen. So: you set up characters who have sharply different points of view; you make those characters want things; usually from each other; you make them care about each other; you give them secrets, and make the secrets matter. If you do enough of this in act one of your story, then literally anyone can do anything and it'll kick off a chain reaction.
It's useful for improv, and it's useful for TV.
I bring this up because, in season two, the storyline splits into halves. There's the "adventure" half (Reyla and Callum and Ezran); there's the "castle" half (Viren). And the adventure half hews perfectly to this "mousetrap model". The characters are sharply different. The relationships are all sharply different. Characters have secrets — most notably, Reyla knows that the king is dead, and that it was her mission to kill him. And characters want things from each other — for instance, Callum still has that doomed crush on Claudia. This means that pretty much anything can happen in this storyline, and immediately a million ping-pong balls shoot in all directions. "They get on a boat", and suddenly shit happens. "A dragon appears," and half the rest of the season tumbles out of that.
Meanwhile, the Viren storyline plugs along. Viren has no characters around him that are very sharply drawn. Viren is the only person with secrets, apparently. Nobody really wants anything from anybody else, or has clear relationships beyond "nobody likes Viren". So suddenly, all the plot has to come from outside. There's a mysterious magician who appears from outside and manipulates Viren. There's a foreign queen who shows up, and won't do what he wants. There's another court official who materializes and is angry with Viren. As with Mission: Impossible 4 above, the screenwriter has to keep prodding things along, because the story can't really sustain a story on its own.
So you flip back between the adventure story and the castle story — the former, where literally any action taken by any character takes us somewhere interesting, and the latter, where the writers have to keep inventing things to throw in Viren's way. Or failing that, Viren just keeps checking in on his magic mirror.
The flashback story, with Viren and Harrow, is another interesting data point. Here, you can see them trying to do the same thing — bringing together Viren, Harrow, Sarai, Amaya, and several others, but they can't quite make it sing. There's not enough time to set up all the relationships; they can't set up any secrets; they can't get everyone wanting things from each other. So for the most part, it's now a *group* of people dealing with a series of outside adversities. What's worse, the whole flashback is presented as Very Very Serious Fantasy, almost unnaturally humorless.
And it's worth stopping on that point for a minute, because it makes you realize how deftly they use humor in the "adventure" storyline. Not only are the jokes good — and let's just pause here to appreciate this:
Villads: The D is silent.... but also, jokes are how we express some of our most sophisticated ideas. Yes, this is where we cue a fart joke, but seriously, think about it — Reyla's "Howdy human fellas, fella humans" bit really does capture a complicated attitude towards humanity. For Reyla, it isn't just one thing: it's this mix of affection, condescension, and that form of idiocy where you know all the facts about something without really 'getting' it. Without humor, they have to write the flashback sequences with a hand tied behind their back.
Reyla: There's a D?
Reyla: There's an R?
Reyla: So, no R.
Reyla: Aha! There's an I--
Mood: contemplative · Music: none