Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Joke's On Who? Romances in Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 is looming on the horizon like a great big looming thing, and the question in everyone's mind is: "Will Joker be a love interest?" Actually it's "Will BioWare add another Game of the Year to their groaning shelf of awards?", but we'll leave that speculation for later. Especially with some leaked footage seeming to indicate that our favorite pilot is contested territory, my burning questions on the way into ME3 are: Can the player character, Commander Shepard, romance Joker? Or will the pilot fall for his co-pilot EDI, as the leaks suggest? Will either or both be possible or optional? And which one should happen, to make the game narrative most satisfying for the most amount of players? I'll be discussing this in my next couple posts as a springboard to ME3's launch on March 6.


Whether it's because of his humorous dialogue, his unique status as a disabled character in a combat zone, or because he's pretty much Seth Green in space, Joker has become a fan favorite. In Mass Effect 2 he was given more dialogue than in the first game, and more impact on the plot and the endgame, even including a short playable mission. But fangirls (and boys) still aren't able to add Joker to the handful of characters who can give the player the coveted Paramore achivement.

Unlike in games such as Skyrim, romancing another character doesn't give you any sort of stats advantage in Mass Effect. In Skyrim, marriage means you have a home base and a portion of your spouse's income. In Mass Effect, romancing someone provides a relevant cutscene and extra dialogue options, but mostly, the reward isn't intrinsic to the game. 

But in-game romances provide pairing options that other RPG fans might need to search media produced by their own community to find. Adding an emotional side to their games is a very smart move for BioWare, who have now grabbed people by their emotions as well as by their desire to shoot aliens. Fans are clamoring for Joker as a romance option.

Joker and Mass Effect 2's EDI.
However, in the leaked script for Mass Effect 3, fans were treated to a different suggestion entirely: Joker might end up paired with his ship's artificial intelligence, EDI. In the second game she was a glowing blue ball with a sultry voice. Joker's initial dislike for her changed to a friendly rivalry in which he calls her "mom". The change comes about after his playable mission, in which EDI is also primarily featured. This mission played with the differences between bodiless EDI and the body of the spaceship she inhabits, and it was fun and exciting to play, and interesting to think about after.

But the suggestion that EDI and Joker engage in a physical romantic relationship disturbed a lot of fans, myself included. It seemed like pulling the rug out from under us to suggest that instead of romancing the player character, Joker would end up with an inanimate object. Other fans pointed out that Joker and EDI having an inevitable in-game relationship would send the message that disabled people and able people can never have successful relationships.  I was uncertain about the whole thing. Then I saw some concept art.
This is concept art for the new EDI.
It's almost too easy for me to get on my usual soapbox about how female characters with model proportions like this are too common and too objectifying. (The fact is, EDI is an object, even when she has legs.) However, I can come at this from another direction too. This is not a unique design. It's nothing we haven't seen before in Star Wars or, heck, Metropolis. The goatlike horns on the top left concept may be the only original thing about this. I'm happy on neither an emotional nor an artistic level.

It was hard for me to really get on the feminist soapbox when I saw the art for another new character.
Concepts for an as-yet-unnamed prothean squad member.
This guy is supposed to be a prothean, an ancient alien from before humans were around. And if EDI's proportions are designed to appease the male gaze, then I'd say this character's wide shoulders and ridiculously human cleft chin are designed to to the same for the female gaze. So at least BioWare's being equal in its design strategies. That doesn't mean it didn't make me laugh.

Whether the Joker - EDI relationship is going to turn into a romance is still something I have to wait until March 6 to find out. I've shown so far how Joker has been used in Mass Effect and its sequel, and that it looks like EDI will be set up as a more human, more sexual character in the third game. This seems like an entirely unnecessary bit of gloss to me. EDI functioned well as a character who, like Legion, straddled the line between human and organic. Unlike Legion, she was clearly constructed. She had been built, somewhere in the Cerberus facilities. She may be intelligent, but intelligence in a science-fictional universe does not equal sentience, and a game pairing a character with a non-sentient construct in opposition to a biological human disturbs me. It's just uncomfortable on a certain level that the story could allow human-alien romance and human-computer romance, but not human-disabled human romance.

I like EDI as a character and am fascinated by the idea of AI having to deal with exactly how human they are and aren't.  I think the voice actors can pull it off, I think the writers will do well and won't give an artificial character short thrift. She'll be well-characterized. But I also think that pairing the two of them would be a disservice to fangirls and give off the attitude that people can never change, that Joker will always be antisocial, and Shepard will always see Joker as just her crew.

Because this is in opposition to the Shepard-Joker relationship. I'll talk more about that in my next post. For now, I hope I got across the idea that the Joker-EDI relationship comes off initially as salt in the wound for the fangirls.

Star Wars Books Cancellation Makes EU Marketing Even More Male-Centric, no one is surprised

Club Jade picked this up from the Del Rey facebook page a short time ago: a planned Nomi Sunrider novel has been cancelled, and Drew Karpyshyn's next Old Republic title will be given the teenage-boy-trap title Annihilation. I'll be entertained if it turns out to feature Darth Nihilus, but Karpyshyn does not exactly raise Star Wars' fans collective brows. Nor does he create especially interesting female characters. I wouldn't go so far as to say Drew Karpyshyn killed female Revan, but he sort of did.

The Sunrider novel, tentatively titled Mandorla, would have joined only a handful of other Star Wars books with titular female protagonists.  Even including Knight Errant, Choices of One and the Mara Jade graphic novel, and The Courtship of Princess Leia in that list is a stretch.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Clone Wars: Massacre

“Massacre” is a unique episode. Almost shockingly violent and creepy, it focused entirely on the Nightsister clan. In a season filled with big battles, “Massacre” ups the ante by being almost one continuous scene of warfare, with occasional asides to Dooku or Grievous. There is comparatively little dialogue, although one thing that hasn’t changed from the movies is the lingering shots on the droid deployment that someone, somewhere must find riveting. The majority of the characters are female, and the majority of the characters are unlikeable. New magics are introduced, with the Nightsisters able to raise an army of undead. Introducing a lot of new elements at the beginning of an arc makes for a very exciting episode, but also left me feeling a bit uncertain about where that arc is going to go.

    The epigraph says,  “One must let go of the past to hold on to the future.” Presumably the past that must be let go is the history Asajj Ventress has with the Nightsisters. The episode focuses on them and is visually and thematically dark from the beginning. The first ten minutes also have the most telling dialogue. In a few lines of conversation we learn that both Asajj and Mother Talzin see the Sith and the Nightsisters as completely different entities; to have loyalty to both of them is to be split in two. Both Talzin and Asajj know that Asajj will not be happy being “a true Nightsister,” and the fact that Asajj feels that she is destined for something else - Sith, Jedi, or a goal she herself doesn’t know - makes me feel for her. Throughout The Clone Wars we’ve seen a lot of Asajj angst, so it was enjoyable to get hints at where some of it comes from. This episode was not intended for heartfelt talks, though. Asajj says, “I have nothing,” and thereby agrees to officially join the sorority of the Nightsisters out of desperation. But she’s still not happy with it.

    Next comes one of the aforementioned asides to Grievous, who stalks around in fine Grievous fashion. I felt a little thrill at the prospect of him joining the battle, because suddenly it’s possible a scenario heretofore only found in fan material might actually come true: Grievous could fight Darth Maul.

    Here’s a secret: I’m primarily concerned with Darth Maul. Ever since Savage’s face appeared out of the dark gray floor in a chalk drawing at Celebration V two Augusts ago, Filoni has been teasing that Darth Maul was coming to The Clone Wars. It makes sense to coincide his return with the 3D release of The Phantom Menace. Maul was my favorite character when I first saw Episode I. Charmed by Ray Park’s grace and the implied determination and patience behind Maul’s villainy, I thought he was a unique character, both subtle and grotesque at the same time. Most fans agree that he was given short shrift. But it’s not quite time for his appearance on television just yet. I can’t judge “Massacre” based solely on the fact that there wasn’t a single mention of Darth Maul - but I do have to get it out of the way.  If he is the major face of the arc’s marketing, it would have been nice to have a mention to whet the fan’s appetites. Maybe there’s a framing device somewhere in “Massacre” that will be revealed later, but for now, I feel like this episode was a branch off of a central timeline instead of a critical event on that timeline.
   
    Asajj might disagree. Her induction into the Nightsisters is clearly a big deal for her. The sisters’ hazing ritual is creepy and ties in well with what we’ve previously seen of their power. The green fog gets a lot of mileage in this episode, and clashes dramatically with the red haze that was shown in Grievous’ space scenes to be apparently covering the entire planet. Asajj sinks into the ground and re-emerges. She doesn’t receive a dramatic physical change like Savage.

    When the battle begins, Mother Talzin uses some pretty cool new powers to produce green Force lighting and an equally sickly green Glinda bubble. She has stated that Asajj’s knowledge of technology will help the witches, who have their magic but are sheltered from the rest of the galaxy. Asajj, though, doesn’t pass that knowledge on. She brings her lightsabers to bear along with the witches’ purple bows and destroys some droids and tanks. 

    I didn’t like the introduction of one Nightsister, Karis, by name simply so she could get killed off later. Karis did appear last season, but not with a personality attached. Her presence here reminded me of Ahsoka’s friend Kalifa in last year’s season finale, whose importance to the more central character immediately signaled her death. I’m not sure whether the way it also reminds me of the Ewok mourning his dead companion in Return of the Jedi makes the scene more affecting or just unintentionally funny. 

    It’s telling that Talzin turns to something other than technology when she’s really besieged. She scampers away to a hidden cave to introduce yet another new element: a wizened woman who is the oldest of the Nightsisters. I was initially a bit disappointed by yet another new element being added instead of an existing one expanded, but the matriarch’s character design, with her big headdress, was pretty unique, and as soon as she began her “chant of resurrection” I knew that this could explain the return of Darth Maul.

    Before Maul comes back, though, we were treated to Star Wars with zombies.
   
    I don’t have either a negative or positive gut reaction to zombies. What’s more interesting to me is how they’re used, and in “Massacre” I feel like they’re a dark twist on the mechanical versus organic theme that Star Wars often uses. I said before that the Nightsister battle reminded me of the Empire versus Ewoks fight in that it presents a technological society pitted against a natural one. We also saw this eco-friendly slant when the primitive Gungans defeat the Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace or Grievous’ CIS forces in The Clone Wars’ “Shadow Warrior.”  In “Massacre,” although the lines are clearly drawn, the most repellant act of war is to make organic life continue to be organic life after its expiration date.
   
    The Nightsister zombies are really remarkably disgusting, with green eyes trailing smog and a couple shots focused on distended, broken jaws. They originate from vampiric upside down pods. Either it’s normal Nightsister protocol to be commemorated by hanging upside down from a tree, or these bodies have been kept in case of emergency. Their origin is like a mix of Voodoo lore and vampiric legend, and for me, its introduction into Star Wars was very shocking.

    However, it wasn’t shocking in a way that knocked me out of the fictional dream. We’ve already got the Son and Daughter, Red Harvest zombies, werewolf-like rakghouls, and the Force itself. Compared to these, zombies aren’t especially unusual. We even saw more unexplained but also misty magic from the Gungan sorcerer in “Shadow Warrior.” But the undead - and especially that specific term being uttered in the episode - did prompt me to agree when a friend said that this episode pushed Star Wars straight over the line from science fiction into science fantasy. That’s not a problem. It was simply made more obvious in this episode.  (And I might have preferred a term other than “undead,” with its wealth of contemporary pop culture associations.)

    After the zombies, the episode just gets scarier. A small metal MacGuffin hides....a tiny feather duster? Nope, a voodoo doll made from Dooku’s hair. A blank-faced homunculus of the Count is produced and gives Dooku the worse acne of all time, melting the mannequin’s face like wax. Dooku being tortured at Talzin’s distant hands was a guaranteed source of wincing, as he sprouted boils and then Talzin seemed to burst out of his chest. Definitely not the usual kids’ show fare, and if anything of these things were inflicted on Anakin or Obi-Wan it would be even more riveting. One of the striking things about this episode was that there was almost no one to root for. Asajj is pitiable but there is absolutely no feedback from the Jedi.
   
    This episode is grueling, filled with action as well as match-ups we’ve seen before, although the longstanding Asajj-Grievous rivalry coming to a lightsaber-clashing close is pretty awesome. Asajj makes a deal that sounds empty: I can’t imagine Talzin and her wizened pet resurrector giving in to Grievous willingly. Grievous is, after all, not only a machine but also a man.

    One cool bit of returning lore is the defoliator, the giant machine used by the droid army. Its silly name makes me think of lumberjacks every time, but I loved how pitting it against the zombies showed an aspect of it that no one had thought of before: it doesn’t work against the undead.

    The end of the episode leaves me feeling even more sorry for Asajj, although whether it’s because of my previous attachment to the character or the animators’ effective use of slumping I’m not quite sure. Asajj feels guilt for the slaughter of this clan of Nightsisters, but Talzin seems to absolve her of responsibility. Asajj sees this as abandonment, and one in a long series. She’s definitely one of the more interesting characters, and one whose difficult past explains her angry outlook.

    In the end, this episode felt more like one long, continuous scene than a full story. Which, in fact, it was: the camera’s attention wasn’t off either Asajj or Talzin very often, and this is the opening act in a larger arc. But Asajj became a Nightsister and lost them, all in 22 minutes. It’s hard to say whether this battle would have been better longer or shorter without seeing the rest of the arc, but I mentioned before my disappointment at the fact that we’re not going to get any framing devices here. The uniqueness of the episode extends to its subject matter as a whole: it could stand alone as an Asajj character piece, entirely unrelated to Darth Maul and Savage. It looks like next week will be the same, and this still seems like a strange choice to me after all the hype.

    I shouldn’t be complaining when Asajj is one of the most complicated characters on the show. However, this episode sometimes sidelined her in favor of lingering shots of droids unbolting from tanks, or zombie jaws going even more crooked than usual. It also sidelined the very existence of the Zabrak brothers, therefore leaving me mostly muddled about what it might be pointing toward. Overall, “Massacre” was technically impressive and surprising in a lot of ways but the minimal plot progression makes the episode feel like filler, and that seems hard to do when there are zombies involved. 

    As a standalone episode, I give “Massacre” a 6/10. It has some really cool, really scary fight choreography and impressive animation. However, I’ll have to wait until the arc ends to see whether this hefty battle scene is balanced out at the season finale or is left weighing the four episodes down on one side.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra now has official Facebook presence

If I had had this blog a few years ago, I would probably have been reviewing Avatar: The Last Airbender and its exuberant fandom.  The show's sequel, Legend of Korra, has no precise release date yet, but does now have an official facebook page. I'll be watching it for upcoming news.

Korra is of special interest for its female main character. Coming from the creators of Avatar, it should also offer great fight scenes, story, characters, and animation.

Expect to see reviews of Korra, as well as Tron: Uprising, coming this summer.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Film Review: Chronicle

    Near the beginning of Chronicle, the antihero Andrew Detmer is shown holding a red toy lightsaber. He’s similar to Anakin Skywalker in a lot of other ways too. The lightsaber can be seen as foreshadowing of the way Andrew uses his powers.  As I watched this movie set in present-day Washington state, I ticked off a list of its similarities to the story of the galaxy far, far away, especially Revenge of the Sith in particular and the prequels in general. Andrew is an angry teen whose flat affect occasionally makes way for joyful scenes with his friends; his emotional arc culminates with the need to rescue his mother; his best friend becomes the only rival he could ever really have, he wears a suit and mask, and undergoes a trial by fire that leaves him scarred but ready to keep fighting.

    Unlike Star Wars and many other recent movies and franchises (Harry Potter, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, X-Men, and the Avengers with its SHIELD group), the world of Chronicle had no magical school for its kids to attend. The lesson of the movie, perhaps, is they needed one. Without guidance, what do they do? Goof off and break rules. And when the rules are along the lines of “don’t harm living things with your magic powers”, breaking them has dramatic consequences.

    A juvenile hall for the criminally super-powered would have been hard-pressed to contain Andrew. Along with his friends, the responsible, social Stephen and the philosophical everyman Matt, Andrew discovers that a glowing blue object has gifted him with pretty much the same powers as Super Man. Assuming that the audience knows how a super hero story works leaves the movie’s writers to focus on snappy dialogue that makes the characters sound like real high schoolers.

    The references to the super hero franchises are relatively subtle: Andrew has a couple of sketches of costumed heroes in his bedroom, and the viewer isn’t sure whether he made them before or after he got his own powers. A complete writeup of the symbolism and repeated motifs in the film would by necessity spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that many scenes reference later ones. Some of that symbolism is heavy-handed, but noticing it and guessing how it will be used later is part of the fun. The ending sets itself apart from most finale fights by using the central conceit - in-universe cameras - to show most of the action from far away. Surprisingly, though, that doesn’t keep the focus off the bloodied and battered main characters. I found that the found footage style was refreshing instead of distracting.

    I enjoyed this movie very much, and can say that the litmus test for whether you might like it is simple: did you like the trailer? The trailer was pretty awesome, and the movie’s exactly what it says on the tin. The wish-fulfillment element is fantastic: I mentioned joy before, and the first half an hour or so of the movie really is a joyful view of people having fun. A scene of the characters flying and screaming "We can fly!" into the camera was particularly wonderful. After that, though, things get very, very dark, and the way the earlier scenes prime you for it emotionally is great. Chronicle is a super hero movie for the angry teenager. The fact that it works for the rest of us is pretty cool too.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Clone Wars: Crisis on Naboo

“Crisis on Naboo” is the final episode in an arc centered on Anakin’s and Obi-Wan’s relationship. The central plot point, that Palpatine will be attacked at a festival on Naboo, is filled with the political haziness of the Prequels. Obi-Wan has gone through tests of loyalty and a complex obstacle course to prove that he’s the bounty hunter best suited for kidnapping and possibly killing the Chancellor. Of course, the viewer who has watched the Prequels knows that Palpatine will survive. What is more at stake, however, is the moral standing of Obi-Wan, as well as the trust of his protégé Anakin and grand-protégé Ahsoka. The epigraph for “Crisis on Naboo” emphasizes this, saying “Trust is the greatest of gifts, but it must be earned.” This arc has done pretty well so far showing the human side of its characters, and the final episode has a lot to cover if it’s going to continue and deepen that trend as well as have an exciting final action sequence.

The opening scene shows the Council planning their defense of the Chancellor, and gives us a pleasant look at some familiar faces like Shaak Ti and Kit Fisto. It was cool to see Mace Windu being as intense about a defense as the other Jedi in The Clone Wars have been in attacks; I thought that maybe this was more like a job the Jedi would have done before the war started. After his discussion with Yoda in last week’s episode, Anakin is even more arrogant than usual. Initially he sees nothing wrong with the mundane defenses placed around the Chancellor, but Yoda seems to sense something amiss, and chides Anakin for his narrow-mindedness. Anakin can only retort a few lines later with an accusatory mention of Obi-Wan being responsible for his end of the plan. Ahsoka gives him a significant look as he walks away, but I couldn’t quite tell whether it was one of anger or concern. Mace and Yoda share a look, too. The secret about Obi-Wan’s new identity is out, but it seems like something is still being hidden from Anakin.

This scene is another from this arc that effectively illustrates dialogue with multiple layers of meaning. It also, though, leaves questions unanswered, and I wish we had gotten more scenes between Anakin and Ahsoka. I would think that she would be one of the first people he confers with about his feelings, and maybe some scenes where he does ended up on the cutting room floor.

The more adventurous part of the episode starts on Naboo. It is a familiar planet, and its lavish palaces and festivities will be fresh in the minds of anyone who’s watched The Phantom Menace recently. It is interestingly different, then, to see a dark warehouse on that planet become a scene of terror for a worker who happens to get in the bounty hunters’ way. I mentioned last time that Moralo Eval was, despite his name, not particularly frightening. In this scene, though, we get a hint at a twisted side to him when he silences his victim. Cad Bane is also legitimately scary, playing the role of a horror movie villain as the everyman warehouse worker runs desperately toward the light. Embo also has a nice moment where he shows that his hat, if not as stylish as Cad Bane’s, can be used as a weapon. Obi-Wan and the female bounty hunter Twazzi emerge last. I kept tabs on Twazzi last week and, although she isn’t a particularly important character, continued to do so this time. She is the lone female in a group of men, and therefore, even the show not making an effort to set her apart makes a statement for those who want to read into it. Her introduction emphasized her physical grace. This time, she’s lurking in the shadows with the only pacifist in the group, and I was curious to see where fate would take her.

The next scene is a briefing from Cad Bane and another new technology introduced to the Star Wars universe: the “shadow hologram,” a holographic suit of armor that the bounty hunters can step into to disguise their identity. My first thought was: Obi-Wan could have used that to transform into Rako Hardeen! My second thought: Why didn’t he? Maybe there’s a caveat or something, like the shadow hologram would be too easily detectable; we may never know. Another note: Twazzi is the only one who doesn’t get a shot focused on her transformation.

Ahsoka is assigned to protect Padmé and the Queen of Naboo. The scene introducing our heroes to Naboo was pretty, with drab tan colors on the buildings showing off the characters’ brightly-colored clothes. Mace has to take a phone call: it’s Obi-Wan, whose role as sniper makes it easy for him to report on the bounty hunters’ actions.

Then the festival begins. It was cool to see a (mostly) human crowd scene. Although there were a lot of repeated hairstyles and what I’m pretty sure was a gray variant on Obi-Wan’s beard, the crowd definitely gave enough of an impression of people attending the event. There were also enough gaps in the crowd to make me think of the animators, or wonder whether a seat at the festival is invitation-only.

The Festival of Lights is pretty much a fireworks display, with hologram-like shifting patterns of light, the occasional fleur-de-lis, and what at first looked like the opening text crawl. (Now that would be interesting.) There was a cool scene where one of the bounty hunters asked for a Republic guard’s ID number, making both the guard and the viewer think the bounty hunter was the one with authority. If you’ve got masks for your characters, you might as well play with identity.

The Festival is also short, with the bounty hunters attacking almost immediately. Ahsoka takes charge of Padmé and the Queen. The bounty hunters have some smart moves: Obi-Wan’s gun has only one bullet, and Twazzi and Bane put a Republic guard hologram over Palpatine while Twazzi goes undercover as the Chancellor. The architecture of the stage is put to good use, with Anakin and Mace fluidly moving around the stairs and railings. I think I see now why the Jedi didn’t use the shadow holograms: they tend to pixilate into uselessness on dramatic occasions.

Twazzi brings us an amusingly memorable scene of Palpatine punching Anakin, and Anakin’s one look of slack confusion before he understands what’s going on. The real Palpatine plays the same sort of captive he did in Revenge of the Sith, quiet and pliant but with plenty of glares. Then it’s time for the Jedi to make what might be one of their easier arrests, with three Masters cornering Bane and Eval (who still likes speaking in third person).

The lack of a very long action scene makes this episode feel a bit less contrived than the others. Of course we saw some good, long action sequences in the beginning of the arc, so the lack of one isn’t disappointing. Twazzi and the ancillary bounty hunters, though, do seem to disappear.

This is far from the end of the episode, however. Anakin is still protecting the Chancellor, who continues to feed Anakin all the information on how no one else trusts him. And Anakin’s words have reminded Obi-Wan not to trust his shady compatriots, either. Dooku is waiting for the Chancellor on Naboo, seated in fine Vader style at the head of a table. (Also reappearing: Magna Guards and “It’s a trap!”.) Instead of being the blasters-and-bounty-hunters sort of fight we’ve seen so much of in this arc, we get a nice classic lightsaber battle to round it all off. The red and blue sabers clash in a darkened room, and Anakin gets impaled with forks. The actual final sequence is exciting, and the Chancellor is recovered again.

I loved Obi-Wan’s deadpan “We specialize in heroics,” although is immediately followed by Anakin trying too hard with “As long as I live, no harm will ever come to you.” Palpatine’s blessing in return reeks of foreshadowing when Vader and the Emperor come to mind.

I was left happy with the writing in this arc, although something still feels off, and I think it’s the lack of closure between the main three heroes. Their first words to one another are “You look terrible” and “Being a criminal’s not easy work.” Then, though, they launch into the discussion of trust I’ve been waiting for during the whole arc. Anakin seems to care more about whether he’s being lied to than about whether his Master is dead: I guess he gets over the death quick when Obi-Wan is standing there in front of him. It’s a short discussion. Then they work together to save the Chancellor (twice), but don’t get another heart-to-heart. I would really like more quiet moments to show how their interaction has changed; Anakin’s trust obviously has, even if he is comfortable fighting alongside Obi-Wan. It’s interesting to see Palpatine planting the seeds of Revenge of the Sith in this episode, but doesn’t make up for a rather shallow exploration of the friendship that he will eventually tear apart. In two weeks a new Nightsisters arc begins, focusing on Asajj Ventress, Savage Oppress, and Darth Maul. With the focus off the Jedi we might not get another chance for Anakin-Obi-Wan interaction, but the trend of people coming back from the dead continues, and it’s worked out decently so far.

I give “Crisis on Naboo” a 6/10 and the arc as a whole a 7/10 for having unique battles, good conversations, interesting looks at new corners of the Star Wars universe, and not enough “I’m glad you’re not dead!”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Things I Like This Week, Issue #2

The internet contains many things. Some of them are likeable.

 Things I Like This Week

1. One Fan's Analysis of Molly Hooper
 
I'm pretty new to the BBC's Sherlock, but I do know that it has a boisterous fandom and a slight lack of female leads.  (It also has brilliant writing and a man named Benedict Cumberbatch.) So I grateful when Long-Suffering Roommate linked me to Miss Transmission's blog post on Molly Hooper. Molly is a forensic pathologist: she's also an in-universe Sherlock fangirl. And Miss Transmission made some great points about why she's a unique female character. I wish some of her points had been around for me to quote in my post about Mara Jade. She writes:   
 
"There is absolutely nothing wrong, of course, with Irene Adler. I admire her immensely.... she’s a character I can objectively admire and understand, but never look for in the mirror. There is a trend in media for strong women who are outwardly so. They are witty, snarky, toned, and know how to hold a gun. The role model being pushed is that of the ultimate woman. It’s progress – I wouldn’t trade River Song for a hundred people from Hollywood’s past – but there’s a silent repercussion, a fortification of the idea that women have to be twice as accomplished to be considered half as good, to deserve this screen time at all. They are always extraordinary, always the one in a million. Importantly, there’s no variety – only one mould to fit ourselves into. It’s a great mould, yes, but not for everyone – because there is no such thing as a real woman, no one mould that anyone should have to squeeze themselves into if it doesn’t fit. Molly Hooper is, finally, different. "

2. Club Jade's Lukewarm Response to Mara Figure

Club Jade is a fantastic source for Star Wars information (you can find them there in my sidebar). It's a treat when they're also a fantastic source for snark, as was the case when Hasbro announced their new Mara Jade figure. 
 
3. Mainstream Media Covers Shippers
 
The Journal of Transformative Works linked me to this Entertainment Weekly article about shippers ("a varied, dynamic, sometimes combative community whose members desire romance from — or project romance onto — almost any kind of pop culture pairing") for Valentine's day. The full article is not available online, but this overview covers some of its main points and promises bits about the history of and the students of shipping for those who buy the magazine in print. I'll be keeping my eyes out. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Light and Dark Sides of Mara Jade

  My Stance on Female Characters in Star Wars and Beyond 
  
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss
Princess Leia was revolutionary when she was born from a line of pulp damsels-in-distress, but now, every summer blockbuster has its token action girl. Scarlett from G.I. Joe, Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, and Katniss in this summer’s The Hunger Games all show that American science-fiction and fantasy has come a long way from either Victorian fainting sprees or Frank Frazetta pin-up characters. Action girl isn’t the new damsel any more. She simply isn’t new - and she isn’t interesting, either. She’s better than the way women are portrayed in Michael Bay’s Transformers, for example, but let’s try to have some perspective here. Females in franchise science fiction and fantasy need to be complex characters, with more to them than their ability to fight. “She’s a woman...who’s also great with a blaster!” isn’t an exciting or revolutionary description any more.

In the Star Wars universe of 2012 we have Mara Jade, Callista, Ahsoka, Aayla Secura, and the recent Juval Charn to show impressionable viewers and readers that a Jedi girl - or a Rebel girl - is a tough girl who stands up for what she believes in. That’s a great lesson for younger fans to learn, especially if they, like Katie, who made headlines last year, are still feeling pressured by Star Wars being “boys’ toys”. (McDonalds isn’t doing anything to change the stereotype that “girls don’t like Star Wars” with their tie-ins for the TPM release.)  

However, with the last live-action Star Wars movie having come out eight years ago and many fans still powered by the passion they hold for the original trilogy when they saw it in the theaters, I believe that we as a group of fangirls have the right to a higher standard. The argument I’m going to make here must by nature be a personal one, born as it is from my experiences of fandom. Not everyone’s experience is exactly the same, and different interests guide each of us.

When I first got into Star Wars, the character that drew me in the most was Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be him: to have an orange flightsuit and and X-Wing and a lightsaber. I wanted to get out of my small town and do new things. I was attracted to the actor, but that existed simultaneously with wanting to be the character.  

I learned of the existence of Mara Jade Skywalker in that same summer, maybe the June after Attack of the Clones came out. I was voraciously searching out everything about the Star Wars universe I could find. This was the era of the New Jedi Order, and I loved its strange aliens and new, teenage characters. Some older girls in my social circles adored Mara. While I was taking the first shaky steps that people at the beginnings of fan fiction careers take, those girls were writing about Luke and Mara. They used her as a substitute for the fan-characters I would create in my own image.  I felt that, through Mara, these girls had claims to the canon that I did not.    

Mara bothered me. She brought a romantic element to the character of Luke, who I had seen as either romantically attainable for myself, in that fannish, hyper-emotional teenage way, or as an asexual, monkish, almost genderless figure upon whom I could project my own traits to adventure vicariously through the Star Wars world.

It’s important to be to be able to identify with a character. There is of course an element of wish-fulfillment in all fantasy: I wish I could fight with a lightsaber and use the Force, for example. This sort of wish-fulfillment probably drew many of us to Star Wars.  However, wish-fulfillment is not enough to drive a character alone. You have to be able to identify with them on a more realistic level.

Your first question might be: what about Leia and Padmé? Lots of fans love them. They’re both competent, confident main characters who have been explored pretty well in fan media. However, they rarely appear on my own radar as characters who will make or break the sale of a book.

This is an entirely personal opinion (or lack thereof), but I think it does have something to do with Leia and Padmé’s presentation in the films. While that presentation isn’t bad, it’s notably different from that of Mission Vao or Deena Shan.  My perception of them may be skewed because both of them are presented as adult characters in opposition to a childlike hero. This is literal in the case of Padmé, who meets Anakin when he is nine and she is in her teens. In the case of Leia, she is an established, independent woman with a career (two, if you count senator and Rebel leader as separate careers), whereas when Luke first meets her he is living with his adopted parents and working only on their farm. I came to Star Wars as a teenager, and many fans come to it earlier in their lives. It isn’t as easy to identify with Leia and Padmé because they are set apart as separate from children. Some fans who have said that George Lucas puts his female main characters on a pedestal might be coming at this same idea from a different angle.

I looked for a character who looked and acted like my ideal self and couldn’t find one. When I began to hear the fan community talk about how fangirls needed to be heard, I was delighted until I realized that many people were identifying the voice they would speak in with characters like Mara. I did not think that Mara represented the kind of person whom female fans wanted. She did not illuminate the female experience by having to work through her emotions. She could not be imperfect (except in a dramatic, “I’ve fallen to the dark side!” kind of way). She came across as a reaction or a byproduct instead of a fully-formed character: a “wouldn’t it be cool if we had a dark Jedi....but she was a woman!” idea that never got past that initial concept. She was created directly as a foil for Luke. She is a man’s woman, shapely and strong. Mara’s voice cannot be mine.

It’s great to support beautiful, talented female characters and then say that they can inspire real women too. It’s also easy. It’s harder to say that a franchise needs varied, flawed female characters of average appearances in order to let the fangirls emotionally connect with those characters. It’s through watching flawed characters that viewers learn about life outside the fiction. Luke’s hero’s journey gave a moral message. I couldn’t find the same in Mara’s development.

However, saying that a publishing house should produce only self-doubting characters I can identify with is a pointless gesture. The franchise is not built around me. There are fans who identify with Mara Jade because they are confident and red-haired and want to be beautiful.  This is neither an unheard-of opinion nor an exercise in shallowness. It’s just true. And that’s how demographics go. If movie studios wanted to cater to a young, freckled audience, they’d cast a young, freckled lead. But I’m willing to bet that not all female Star Wars fans can identify with the nearly-perfect people. Some of us can. But not all of us can, or want to. So where’s our representative? Where’s our demographic?

The next argument that one could make is well, where’s the representative for averageness or fearfulness in male Star Wars characters? Many main characters, like Luke, Anakin, Han, and Dash Rendar, are wish-fulfillment avatars for men. But there are some problems with this:

1. Male is the neutral gender, grammatically and socially. Therefore most characters whose gender is not significant to their actions or role in the plot are male. Thus: Yoda, Chewbacca, Dexter Jettster, the announcer at the Boonta Eve race track, etc. A character being male doesn’t elicit a gender-specific reaction in the viewer. A character being female, well - she’s instantly either an empowered representative of her gender or intended to be attractive. Or both. (It’s when you try to do both that you get Mara Jade.)

2. Most lauded science fiction (I do not count the numberless Anita Blake etc. spinoffs in fantasy) is written by men, for a young male audience. When they put Princess Leia in a bikini, it is not to show empowerment for women, it is not because that outfit just happened to make the most sense for the scene. It’s because scantily clad people are entertaining, and because if you can grab a young person by the hormones you have them hooked to your franchise. This works for women too, whether it’s intended to (Twilight) or not (Halo).

3.  Although beauty is certainly subjective, the list of average-looking males is much longer than the list of average-looking females. More traits are coded to be beautiful in females: most of the Star Wars women are tall, skinny, with brightly-colored hair, at some undefinable age between twenty and thirty, wear makeup and lipstick, and are flawless fighters. The males do not have such clear similarities in type. They vary in age, face shape, attitude, and motivation. Luke, Wedge Antilles, Biggs Darklighter, most of Rogue Squadron, most of the aliens, and most of the bad guys are male. (Exceptions do exist: Asajj Ventress is a good example.)

Instead of just critiquing, I’d like to put forward traits that I would prefer to see in female characters:

1.) Less confidence. Yes they should be role models, yes they should be awesome, but I want a moment, just a moment, of fear to show that they’re human. Someone once said that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s going on in spite of fear. If our heroines don’t show any fear, their young fans are not going to know how to deal with it when it comes in the real world. One of my least favorite lines ever in The Clone Wars is a bit where Ahsoka says something like “I used to be afraid but then I decided not to because fear doesn’t get you anywhere.” Life doesn’t work like that. That’s too clinical, too disciplined to be realistic. Maybe a Jedi could do it but that caveat is never given.

2.) More varied body shapes and traits. Short people in Star Wars are usually aliens.

3.) Varied professions, interests, and points of view.

4.) Character arcs that focus on real emotions and  how to live with them: fear, jealousy, charity, enthusiasm, or simple, honest dislike.

I want to show one more example of the representation of females in a current Star Wars product. The two quotes below are referring to the MMO The Old Republic, a game which has received mostly positive reviews among fans.

 Blogger Rachael Ambrose writes that "Probably the biggest experience changer is the actual appearance options of the male and female characters. With the male, you can have a stick thin, scrawny male, muscular, average, or overweight. Female characters aren’t overweight. You can make one bigger, but it’s not like the overweight male. It doesn’t seem right to limit the possibilities or to only allow players to make characters that some consider “attractive.” The variation between male characters is much more defined than the female characters."

 Another observer has a different perception: "In my opinion, the worst one could say is that the 'fat guy' is a bit easier to believe is 'fat' while the 'fat girl' is really just buxom. I think their objective for 'fat guy' was 'built like a brick house,' and they just sort of landed on 'fat guy,' but pulled it off with the female version."

 The underlying idea in his point is that the characters in TOR were meant to be fit. As Jedi, smugglers, or whatever character class they chose, that character would have to be physically fit to some degree in order to complete the tasks they are given in the course of progressing through the game. 

Just as damsel has made way for action girl, action girl needs to make way for unique characters the likes of which are usually seen outside science fiction.  Women in science fiction can progress again to become not types, but, you know, real characters. My advice to writers and franchise publishers is to vary your heroines: give them different occupations, interests, and areas of speciality. Not everybody has to be good with a blaster.  BioWare does this well: witness Mission Vao, and Atris from Knights of the Old Republic, or Jack and Tali from Mass Effect. In addition to unique backstories they have strong traits and features: Jack’s tattoos, criminal record, and penchant for cursing, or Tali’s almost polar opposite shyness and constantly concealing suit. These characters are more like real people, whose likes and dislikes the reader can predict. Maybe a good test is asking the reader what they think  the character would like for as a gift. If the reader can think quickly of a few areas of interest they might start looking in, the character has enough traits at least for a start. Joss Whedon, as has been discussed extensively in the internet (and, increasingly, in academia), is good at writing characters like this. Keep in mind, I don’t hate a character instantly if they’re good at fighting. I love warriors. Jaina Solo from Star Wars, or Tex and Carolina from Red vs Blue, are great. They just have to have personality traits in addition to their skills.

I hope that I have accurately pointed out the inequality in character designs and why more characters like Mara Jade will not change that. There are some great female characters in the EU and elsewhere in science fiction. I shouldn’t go on without mentioning Jaina Solo, Deena Shan, Laranth Tarak, Yaddle, and the Knights of the Old Republic characters mentioned above. All of these are great. But they aren’t enough yet.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Clone Wars: The Box

It seems far too obvious to say that stories about fighting tournaments are focused on combat, weapons, and who comes out a winner (or even alive). Such stories are a great way, however, to show off characters and what their personalities become in desperate, life-or-death situations. Science fiction and fantasy books like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ideally use their dangerous settings to showcase the people within them as well as the exotic locales.

This week’s episode of The Clone Wars pits Obi-Wan, disguised as Rako Hardeen, against a group of bounty hunters and career combatants in an arena called The Box. The starwars.com teaser for the episode focused on the characters instead of the combat. They included new faces as well as familiar ones like Embo, Cad Bane, and Obi-Wan. With this hint that the episode would focus on the importance of the people as opposed to their Borg Cube-like location, and the current four-part arc doing well on the writing front, I was eager to see how it would continue to explore its characters.

Obi-Wan has already had his morals tested while he pretends to be a criminal under the eye of Cad Bane, and the grim ending of last week’s episode showed Anakin growing increasingly disheartened.

Moralo Eval stalks out of his spaceship making hand gestures at the dramatic tan-and-bronze architecture. The reunion between Eval and Dooku is tense, while Obi-Wan remains masked. This was another instance where I thought “shouldn’t they sense one another in the Force?”

Unlike the stories mentioned above, though, the protagonists here aren’t forced into their battle royale. Instead, Eval is in it for the money and Obi-Wan’s going along with him because his mission is to tail him.

The aside to the Jedi Temple is brief. Anakin’s initial reaction to Obi-Wan not being dead is off-screen. He goes to Yoda in a quiet huff. Apparently Anakin did figure it out when Obi-Wan addressed him by name in the last episode, but the odd timeskip in between “Friends and Enemies” and “The Box” dampens down what emotion there really should have been. It’s an odd slip in an arc that always made sure to return to the Jedi characters and their conversations instead of focusing exclusively on the more action-filled scenes with the bounty hunters. Yoda directly tells Anakin that the Chosen One was left out of the plan because he is dangerous. We mostly see that danger manifest as a shadowed scowl, so maybe Anakin isn’t as much of a loose cannon as the Council thinks. Could their paranoia have been what led to his fall in the first place? Just like his being the Chosen One, his temper was something everyone expected of him. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was a nice touch to see Yoda’s characterization is consistent with The Empire Strikes Back: he specifically tells a Skywalker child not to rescue his friends. Instead of giving a straight answer about what he sees in the future concerning Anakin rescuing Obi-Wan, he says that “uncertain, his future is” and that it’s up to Obi-Wan to get himself out of his adventure.

Before the lineup that was shown in the teaser, the viewer is introduced to the competitors in Dooku’s game through dialogue. I really like the scene of all of them talking, since it gives the viewer the sense that they know the people who are going to be involved in the fights and can be emotionally primed for seeing them in danger.

The introduction of one of the female bounty hunters, the alien Twazzi, is also notable. She is so close to the camera that her hands and feet are mostly off-screen. Her body serves as a scene transition of sorts, which is some clever cinematography. It also establishes her as first and foremost a body, while the males have a voice. Her graceful silence takes up the entire screen.

There’s a funny moment where Cad Bane shoots an Ithorian for possessing what appears to be his Season Two hat. Bane drops his own secondhand haberdashery on his foe’s face and stalks off. “It’s a nice hat.”

The second new female is a Weequay named Kiera Swan, who sports a flower-patterned band around her head that makes her look something like a grandmother attempting to cobble together a ninja costume. The effect is friendly and made me want to know more about her. Dooku says she’s won tournaments like this before.

The Box had some cool aesthetics, from the Tron lines on the outside to a starkly white room on the inside that was reminiscent of the shifting lab chambers from Portal 2. The obstacles the combatants face are creative and bizarre. Energy weapons that look like lightsabers on columns electrocute slower combatants, and a switch hidden behind a force field can only be opened by a serum specific to one species. Dooku is impressed when “Rako Hardeen” maintains a calm demeanor, and glowers at the news that someone besides himself killed Obi-Wan.

I’m partial to obstacle course-style scenarios, and it was fun to see the characters interact in this one. They didn’t have a lot of time, but were visually distinct. One of the problems the episode did have was that it seemed like none of these fearsome bounty hunters could save themselves, and needed Obi-Wan to do it for them. It makes sense that he’s the strongest since he’s a Jedi, but it was strange that none of the others was more prepared for Eval’s test. I also didn’t like the untranslated alien speech: while some babble followed by Eval saying “Unfortunately, no,” is funny, it got a laugh in a way that I felt took my attention away from the episode and toward the image of writers in a boardroom deciding not to add subtitles like the ones sometimes seen in the Star Wars films.

Toward the end of the episode the focus shifts to the competition between Eval and Dooku. The alien wants the “lead role” at Palpatine’s parade, but Dooku sees something special in Hardeen.
The way Obi-Wan gets saved from the last challenge was very unexpected, the final showdown with Eval less so. That fight does provide what may be my favorite shot in the episode: Obi-Wan’s foot striking a video projection on the wall and making a momentary blue outline. Choral music enhances the fight between Obi-Wan and Eval, who I fail to find frightening.

Obi-Wan’s morals stretch but hold. Maybe it’s because I’m over-eager for the next Dathomir arc, but I can’t help but think that Obi-Wan’s penchant for enthusiastically punching people should appear again later when things are even darker. At the end of the contest, Dooku gives Obi-Wan a backhanded compliment and explains the plan to capture Palpatine, in case anyone forgot.

Like the previous episode in this arc, “The Box” was a decent adventure story that didn’t do anything incredible for the Star Wars mythos. The last half of this season has hosted some writers who know what they’re doing. If the future of The Clone Wars can keep to and exceed this standard, I hope that it also focuses more on emotional moments like Anakin’s reaction to Obi-Wan’s survival. (It’s interesting that Darth Maul will be coming back from the dead right on the heels of Obi-Wan appearing to do so.)

So, did the characters shine like I hoped? Not particularly, but the fact that this is television rather than a book means that they are memorable based on visuals rather than characterization. I’d still like to know more about Twazzi besides the fact that she survived. (Kiera Swan dropped out along the way.) The lack of Ahsoka and especially Anakin reacting to the events of last episode was also disappointing. However, the last time this many bounty hunters were arrayed together I left the show for a while, and I'm far from wanting to do that this time around.

Overall I also give this one a 7/10, with the whole arc so far standing firmly somewhere slightly better than the average episode. Next week’s “Crisis on Naboo” debuts on the same day that The Phantom Menace is re-released into 3D and conventional theaters.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Things I Like This Week

The internet contains many things. Some of them are likeable.

I'm planning on a new weekly feature for this blog that will highlight news and fun from around the internet. I'm still playing with format, but the end result should look something like this.

Things I Like This Week

1. Mysterious UFO-Shaped Object Found on the Ocean Floor 

Treasure hunters found a UFO-shaped object on the floor of the Baltic Sea. Its identity is unknown at this point, although some speculate that it is a collection of Russian ships known to have been sunken near there. The funny part is that one of the first pieces of speculation put forth was that it was the Millennium Falcon.  Is this a sign of people wanting to use the familiar Star Wars phrase to bring attention to their article, or does a fictional ship ending up in our world really sound more plausible than one from an unknown, extra-planetary location? And what the heck is this thing?

2. Tumblr

Tumblr is social media pared down into flashes of words and pictures. It is an entity that, as a friend of mine says, "freaks out and then forgets". It's also a hotbed of memes and fandom. You don't have to be logged in to find cool Star Wars pictures or fanfic, but doing so does enable you to see the rapid-fire way in which information gets passed around. The format of the site means that you can see pretty much exactly how a meme develops and how fast it moves: and then, it's gone.

3. Red vs Blue

I always like Red vs Blue. You can assume a quiet, high-energy current of me liking it behind everything I say. I've thought about writing posts on RvB's plot line, character development, female characters in particular, or the way it's pretty much the best piece of fan fiction ever, of all time. These may still be forthcoming. Red vs Blue is a piece of fan media that has grown large enough to provide its creators with an entire company of their own, as well as official endorsement from the owners of Halo, upon which their videos are based. It's a brilliant example of how fan narrative can take the original canon and expand upon it, play with it, and change its tone while still paying homage to the original. You can start at episode 1 season 1, but if you don't like the tone then the miniseries "Out of Mind" provides another entry into the darker second half of the series.