Friday, April 27, 2012

How Darth Maul Encourages Equality?

Sideshow Collectibles is soon to release a new series of high-end figures based on Star Wars characters outside of and around canon. They look awesome, with great sculpting and creative designs, such as a nomad Obi-Wan looking like Alec Guiness but carrying his Clone Wars belongings around in a backpack. The Darth Maul caught my eye immediately as well. Sideshow has caught some backlash from female-centric sites for their slave Leia figures, but Maul seems ready to beat Leia at various ways to show skin, if not how much is shown. I have trouble actually having a problem with this, but the seeming reversal of the double standard is interesting.

The weapon the figure wields (picture in the link) is based on the comic "Nameless", in which Maul wore his usual all-concealing robes. It makes sense to give the character some variety, especially when he wears so much black - not the most visibly arresting color - and his red skin is so vibrant. He is portrayed as violent and capable, almost antagonistic toward the viewer. Sideshow's slave Leia is likewise armed and angry, although her big eyes make her look more vulnerable than does Maul's glare. Both are designed to be appealing - not necessarily empowering, but appealing.

So I suppose Sideshow gets points for both equality and some awesome sculpting. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mass Recap: The End

I've been waiting to review Mass Effect 3 in rather the same way I waited for the game itself to be released. I don't mean "bouncing up and down and running outside at the sound of every car", although that applies too. Rather, I mean that there's a lot emotionally at stake here. The ending of Mass Effect 3 has been so highly controversial that  the fan chatter has even been mentioned in the advertising, and almost as soon as I'd finished the game there was talk of a "new" ending being released to assuage the angry gamers.

I loved the ending of Mass Effect 3, and that's not to say that I loved the out-of-left-field star child or the terrible voice acting and dialogue that showed how Shepard has become a legendary figure. I loved it because I felt emotionally drained at the end. Certain inevitable deaths made me feel like Mass Effect's three-game cinematic experience had meant far more than the sum of its hours. Mass Effect 3 was an incredibly good game, filled with hilarious dialogue, memorable characters, and beautiful action scenes. I was so drawn in that when the final ten minutes came - and then the next few minutes of looking up all the fan reaction I could find - I was not so much disappointed as drawn out of the fictional universe: which amounted to the same thing in the long run.

Because my biggest problem with the ending was the way it seemed to forbid any fan speculation on what happened afterward. If your favorite characters were still alive, they were fundamentally changed and stranded far away from anything they knew. Long gone were the days of wandering around the Citadel Presidium, where after a hard, annoying day of gathering war assets you could sit down with a friend for a chat. Yes there were some quality issues, yes the ending didn't answer questions or quite match up with the Mass Effect universe's pseudoscience. But where it really started to bother me was when I realized I couldn't write fan fiction about what happened afterward. The narrative hadn't provided me enough information to understand the post-ending universe. 

Then I read these clips from an interview with a BioWare writer,  which negate some of the concerns I had about the characters all being irrevocably separate from each other and from any sense of normalcy their universe might have. This explains some of the state of the universe.

In addition, BioWare's "Extended Cut" of Mass Effect 3's controversial final section has yet to be released to the public. The official site declares that it will be out sometime "in the summer".

But I'm not waiting with baited breath for the extra ending. I missed the ideal window for fan fiction writing, while the emotions I got from the game are still running high, because I was confused about the ending. I still bought merchandise and enjoyed the game and plan on replaying when I get the chance. But it feels a bit like the fourth wall has been broken to hear that new DLC will elaborate on the ending. I like to think that canon is irrevocable, but in this case fans have reached in and changed it.

It's rare to find me saying that any form of fan participation is bad, and I have nothing against the various movements to change the endings, even though I'm too content with the status quo to join them. For me, though, the endings were not and should not be the focal point of the game. If you don't like them, like I didn't for many reasons that other fans have expressed, then don't focus on them. There's a lot of bad (Tali's unmasking, EDI's new body) and good (Garrus and Jack's continued characterization, fun modifications to combat, Samara's daughters, and everything on Tuchanka) in the other 29 hours and 45 minutes of gaming experience.

So maybe when I say that talking about the endings is an emotional experience, what I really mean is that it isn't, and that surprised me. The emotional high point of Mass Effect 3 was either Tuchanka or the previously mentioned inevitable death shortly before the star child bit. It's also difficult to name a high point because the game looks very different in hindsight.

To play from the beginning and hear Shepard reassuring people that s/he will succeed gets a twinge going in my heartstrings. Mass Effect has always been a series that has presented moral struggles, whether it be a husband whose wife's geth-killed body is being used to study the enemy's tactics, or whether to tell the harsh truth or a kind lie to an entire civilization. But for some reason, throughout that whole journey, I never thought the fight would be for nothing. I was sure that there would be an option for Shepard to win. Because what does pessimism on a large scale do for a fictional universe? I don't believe it pulls in any emotions or any fans that a bittersweet or at least potentially happy ending would repel. I always felt that Mass Effect was giving off a positive message, darker than Knights of the Old Republic but lighter than Dragon Age, spreading the idea that as long as you have enough help and support, you can get through anything. Mass Effect 3 is all about getting that support, but in the end, Shepard fights alone. The ending was surprising, and not in a good way. The cycles of destruction reminded me of the problems I had with the repetitive ancient aliens in Halo: Cryptum. In the end it all felt like it had been for nothing  - all the friendships, the conversations, the love and attempted love. Whether a story ending with a feeling of hopelessness is a good thing or a bad thing may depend on your personal taste. I felt that the ending prevented further story development for both the fans and the franchise.

Mass Effect 3 was very, very good. The dialogue, the pacing, the characters, the sense of home you can get from the Normandy's halls were fantastic. Those are the things I want to think about, instead of the last ten minutes of the game, and those are the things that encourage ongoing fan participation.

Clone Wars Season Four Roundtable Part Three

I talked Ahsoka, bounty hunters, and the morality of the Jedi Order over at FanGirlBlog in the penultimate roundtable recap. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Star Wars: Scourge

Scourge is the tale of a self-doubting Jedi Archivist from Luke's Academy on Yavin IV, which makes it nothing short of shocking that I haven't read it yet. If you're looking to start your summer out right with a Star Wars read,  Fangirlblog and Club Jade are showcasing (mostly positive) reviews. I guess you really can't judge a book by its bland cover. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thundercats: Trials of Lion-O Part 2

    Last week’s episode of Thundercats left me lukewarm. The stakes of the love triangle seemed low and the landscapes less unique than in previous episodes. Trials of Lion-O Part 2 improves on the ‘trial’ format, and while its science-magic doesn’t make much sense, it satisfies the part of me that just wants a fun fantasy.

    Thundercats is always good at reminding the viewer what they should remember about previous episodes and what certain events meant to characters. Panthro reminds the group that he tried, and failed, to attack Mum-Ra’s fortress before. The blowing, bluish sand gives an apocalyptic feel to the scene as the living Thundercats make plans without their fallen king. The break-in has a Star Wars feel to it, with an air shaft leading to a hallway full of lizard minions. There’s a nice audible effect as Wily-Kit’s flute plays in contrast to blaring sirens.

    Lion-O’s tests were a little more clever this time. Although we do get more recycled locations, the moral lessons received in them seem fresh, Panthro’s especially. It was also cool to see Tygra take on the bell retrieval test from the pilot episodes, now armed with his adult abilities. Returning to familiar locations makes them feel more real. Last episode’s attempts at coming up with new ones and instead recycling them from Harry Potter did the opposite.

    I also love that Lion-O fails his final test. The logistics of his deal with ghost-Jaga were as shaky as the rest of the afterlife stuff, but it makes sense for Lion-O, who has run headlong into every problem he faced even when that’s the worst thing he could have done, to enter into a bet with his very soul on the line. I’m not sure why he didn’t do this in the first place.

    The animation seemed a bit off in this episode. Were the mouths always so simple? It’s easier to notice things like this, or like the twins’ stilted voice acting, when a muddled plot makes it harder to fully engage with the story. But the mediocre first part of this two-episode arc flowered out into a very high-stakes second half. With the reappearance of Mumm-Ra’s boss form feeling like a mid-season climax, I’m wondering what it’s all leading to. There’s been a slightly odd balance out large scale action and smaller set pieces such as the Petalars, but this does make sense for a show patterned on anime, which always has its ‘filler’ episodes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tron: Uprising Trailer

Disney released a new trailer for Tron: Uprising. Mostly it gives us a much better look at the animation than the last trailer did. When people's masks come off you can see a very angular, almost paper cut-out style that I'm not sure I like. The broad-shouldered male hero is likewise uninspiring, but the voice filters are cool. This animation style is very distinct from either Thundercats and Korra's traditional, anime-inspired look or The Clone Wars' 3D, and I can imagine it working very well with the shiny Tron aesthetic. Uprising premiers this June.

Clone Wars Season Four Roundtable Part 2

The second part of the roundtable discussion went up on Fangirlblog this morning. This time around we're discussing General Krell, old Ben Kenobi, and Ahsoka's slave costume.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Worlds Collide with Twitter and Dark Horse

In an interview with the EU Cantina, Star Wars comics writer Tom Taylor had this to say about Darth Maul, the latest character to fall under his pen.

"There’s a cliché in comics and film, and story in general, that people don’t stay dead. But I’ll tell you this; if no one cares about the character, they don’t come back. They stay in their literary coffins and fade away. 

But there are characters who demand to exist. They’re too important to be confined to history. Darth Maul is one of these. He never left. More than ten years after Obi Wan bisected him, he’s still on posters and toys and t-shirts, screaming, ‘You can’t forget me, I’m still with you.’

And I dare anybody to look into the face of Maul on our very first cover by Dave Dorman, this face of pure freakish rage and evil, and tell him he’s a gimmick."
I love that. I completely, shamelessly love that. Why? One, it's true. Through some combination of fear, determination, and raw distilled awesomeness Darth Maul has become arguably the most memorable creation of George Lucas's prequels. Two, Tom Taylor hits on a fundamental fannish truth in his humorous statement. Even after a movie ends, the characters feel real to the fans. Merchandising is as pleasurable to us as getting money is to the studios because when we purchase merchandise we feel closer to the characters that we already love. It's this fourth-wall-breaking passion that enables fan activity at all.

Taylor's words bring us into a reality where fiction and the real world are fused. The transport into that world is the statement that Maul "never left" - an ambiguous phrase that could mean either the Star Wars galaxy or our own. This primes the reader to accept the idea of Maul as a living being, inhabiting a universe with familiar laws. When Taylor mentions the "posters and toys and t-shirts", the reader is brought back into the real world. If they're reading about Star Wars comics they're probably very familiar with shopping for items like these. Then Taylor brings us back to Darth Maul as living, in fact "screaming" for our attention, an action consistent with Maul's characterization in Star Wars.

Taylor's ability to slip in and out of the real world like this bodes well for his work. He's penned issues of the entertaining Star Wars comic series Invasion, and sounds like he might be ready for the challenge of writing a character who was nearly silent in the films.

The other place where people are slipping very fluidly in and out of the real world is Twitter. A trend this week has been the hashtag #SecondaryWorldProblems. It's a mashup of two terms: "secondary world", which J.R.R. Tolkein coined to refer to fantasy realms, and the internet meme "First World Problems", in which inconveniences in daily life are listed ironically. Some of the best "secondary world problems" include "I really wanted to be a blacksmith, but it turns out I'm secretly the rightful heir to the throne." by Dr Nic, and "My counsellor tells me I'm only a symbol in a complex metaphor for the internal psychology of the reader." by Damien Walter.

Both Tom Taylor and the denizens of Twitter had fun - very easy fun - doing the big job of meshing worlds.


Monday, April 9, 2012

The Avengers Project

Marvel's The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon, is premiering this May 4. Reading the facts out like that doesn't quite encompass the enthusiasm the fan community has for this film. The Avengers is more than the latest release of a popular property: it's the convergence of six already beloved-characters and one beloved director. It's crossover fan fiction written by one of the strongest, most popular writers in contemporary science fiction. This means that it draws a lot of people. And those people create the fan fiction and fan art that many of us love.

This film, like most things, got me thinking about how fans relate to one another and to their favorite characters. I've come up with two questions to ask the audience. They should test the waters of fandom and media consumption exactly as those reactions are happening. One of the great things about fandom studies is how immediate and contemporary it is. This article will be active  until the release of The Avengers on May 4 . My first question is, although about an experience not all fans will share, directed at the film experience as a whole. The second question introduces a special interest in feminism. Answers to both will be tallied after the movie is released. My ultimate goal is to produce a publishable paper on the subject of fan opinions about notable subjects related to The Avengers. All participants who are quoted in the final work will be contacted and credited, unless they wish to remain anonymous.

And, because this is all about superheroes, the end goal is to have fun.

This afternoon I discovered that select theaters in the United States were showing "premiere marathons" of Marvel movies before The Avengers is released. They will air all the movies that show the origin stories of the Avengers characters, ending at the stroke of midnight when the new film is released. That sounds awesome. It also sounds like a great opportunity to go a little deeper into the workings of the fan experience. Because here's the question: what exactly is the appeal of a marathon of chronologically connected films? What is unique about a movie-going experience designed to familiarize or re-familiarize viewers with the history of a fictional universe?

 Question 1. Do you think it makes the world and characters of the Avengers more 'real' to see the movies consecutively?

A preview clip recently released for The Avengers featured the character Black Widow wearing a low-cut dress and tights and fighting three men while tied to a chair. Whedon is known for the variety and strength of women in his shows and movies, but that doesn't mean they aren't going to be showing off the bodies of the actresses who portray them. Black Widow is the sole female in a cast of six, and although some versions of the mythology give her cybernetic enhancements, she has no super powers. Her wrist-mounted weapons are called the "Widow's Kiss", a name which draws specific attention to her gender. Some fans love her, some ignore her, and some have difficulty seeing her as a character at all instead of the token beautiful woman of the film. There's a lot of talk about what is and is not empowering or appropriate for female characters. One viewpoint says that characters should be role models and weak ones can encourage weakness in viewers; another that characters are people before they are examples and should have flaws.

Question 2:  With the understanding that the above clip is taken out of context, is Black Widow's portrayal empowering? Should it be?

Thanks to everybody who participates in this fan studies project. It's sure to mutate a bit along the way, so suggestions on ways to modulate or focus the questions are also awesome.

Spontaneous Collaboration and Tumblr Posts

On tumblr this evening I was part of a fan fiction Round Robin game. The idea, of course, is that one person starts a story and another continues it. They trade back and forth. There are a couple ways in which the tumblr version differs from the real world version, though, besides it happening on two screens.

First of all, its genesis was entirely undeclared. The participants referred to it as "Round Robin" as early as the second post, but neither participant was expecting its existence. Collaboration toward a common goal on a scale that produces tangible, recorded results emerged from the relative discord of separate tumblr posts and branching conversations.

I recently watched this video, in which the speaker questions how fearlessly and positively gamers approach fictional quests. The Round Robin experience seemed to have the same traits: people working together to solve a puzzle (the lack of fan fiction, or a seemingly open-ended story or scene) without any outside influence. (If writing fan fiction "without outside influence" seems impossible, we can have a discussion about the history of literature.)

The second way that the fan fiction Round Robin differs from a real world version is that the story is assumed to be serious instead of joking. The fan fiction medium allows a basis on which to build additional stories, and also constrains the tone to an extent. Fans become familiar with talking to one another mostly about a certain aspect of their fandom: in this case, how very serious it is. That assumed conversational affect influences the writing and makes it easier for two authors to mesh styles. They have, after all, been doing so all along by being influenced by one another and branching off of the source medium.

It is this sort of joyful, team-affirming work that can be harnessed to produce immediate and skilled results in other forms of writing or art as well. If it seems like I'm saying things are more fun when you work with your friends, which makes you like your friends more and if people think their jobs are awesome they do better at their jobs, then you are correct. Now we just need to figure out how to make these factors more common in the real world to increase employee productivity and happiness.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Red vs Blue Season Ten Teaser


 A teaser clip for Red vs Blue season ten aired at PAX East this afternoon.* The most important announcement besides the clip's existence is the casting of Elijah Wood (yes, the actual Elijah Wood) as Maine's AI, Sigma. Also exciting is confirmation that CT will be a major villain this season, and that the season will, like season nine, be a combination of original animation and machinima. 

Red vs Blue is amazing and I should have posted a list of its accomplishments ages ago. Let it be known that Red vs Blue is the longest running American science fiction serial, having stolen that title from Stargate SG-1 last year. It also has a great cast of female characters. The season ten clip does contain some hokey dialogue, and action that's flashy on the surface but makes a little less sense than usual. (Why is Carolina upside down? Why is Wash failing at everything?) 

It's awesome to see Sigma, though, especially with this odd fire theme and the fact that he actually has a face.  I'm looking forward to this season, and although it might not be feasible to review one three-to-six-minute episode per week, I'll have more about Red vs Blue's characters, themes, and accomplishments as the year goes on. 

Season ten begins on Memorial Day (Monday, May 28) and can be found on the Rooster Teeth site.

*(For the uninitiated, PAX is not supposed to mean really important peace, but rather stands for Penny Arcade Expo. It's a convention.)