Tag Archives: storytelling

Terrible Reviews: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


I love Tarantino movies.

Which is why what I’m about to say is gonna hurt.

I saw Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs within about a week of each other when I was in high school, under the assurances of my actor friend that the movies were “brilliant” and “hilarious” and all the good things, and like a good friend desperate to fit in I dutifully loved these movies in all their fast-talking, self-aggrandizing, slow-mo-walking, perversity-loving and gratuitous-gore-worshiping glory.

I say that with cynicism but I really did love the movies, and for better or worse, they taught me a lot about movies, and especially about writing; I think there’s more than a little bit of a Tarantino echo in my back-and-forth often-anticipating-what-the-other-guy-is-thinking kind of dialogue. (Or maybe I’m just being kind to myself; always an option.)

Anyway, I loved Tarantino in high school but pretty much left it at that until Kill Bill came out, and while I don’t think that one (well, two) reaches the pinnacle of Pulp Fiction for sheer filmmaking swagger, it’s a heck of a good time and hey SAMURAI SWORDS EVERYWHERE and that’s kind of awesome. Not for nothing, too, it sort of establishes a trope in his movies of the “avenging angel” style of heroine, which is a nice flourish, so I went ahead and loved those too.

Then it was Inglorious Basterds and it felt like we were back to master-class form again, with the masterful opening scene and the bloody inspired performance of Christoph Waltz and the avenging angel in full fiery glory.

Some years further on, then, there was Django Unchained, and while I only saw it once (and consequently don’t remember it as well), it felt very much like a natural addition to his catalog: There’s Waltz again killing it, and oh man here comes Leonardo diCaprio killing it, to say nothing of Jamie Foxx killing it (and everybody on screen), and there’s blood and gore and uncomfortable topics right in your face and COWBOYS YEEHAW.

And it’s like, you know, this Tarantino guy, he seems to know what he’s doing.

And then we get Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Here is where the minor spoilers kick in, so, y’know, heads up and whatever.)

And, look, I’m as skeptical as the next guy. All kinds of things can affect your reading of a book or your viewing of a film: the particular circumstance of your life at the time of the reading, who you’re with when you see it, heck, the leftover pizza you had for dinner before you turned it on. Anything can throw the experience off, can make things strike you in a different way, if not entirely wrong.

But I don’t think that’s what happened here.

My wife and I were super bored by the movie for the entire first half. I’ve never felt bored by Tarantino before, and here, I felt bored. We’ve got Rick, the washed-up movie star, and Cliff, his stunt double, trying to figure out their way in a Hollywood that’s leaving them behind, and … well, that’s about it. Rick bumbles around and Cliff is a badass but there’s no particular sense of where they’re going, no particular sense that they’re actively adapting to this new world, just that they’re scraping by within it.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. Not every movie has to have blood and guts and a streak of searing-hot vengeance through its core to hold my interest, but over two decades, I’ve developed a series of expectations for a Tarantino movie, and it ain’t this. It was well done, mind you, and had all the clever dialogue and stuff you want from a Tarantino movie. In fact, taken out of context, each scene could probably be considered masterful, but as a whole, the first half is a snore.

And then we have the second half, which just feels like we were cruising along having a good old time (albeit a boring one) on a peaceful country highway, then suddenly detoured onto a bumpy side road leading up to a satanic church in the woods. The second half feels entirely disconnected from the first in every way except the presence of the main characters; it’s almost as if the second half of the movie is telling its own story independent from the first half.

And that’s … just … not great. As an audience member, I felt like my time had been wasted. And as somebody who thinks a lot about entertainment (specifically, about how an audience feels about their entertainment), wasting your audience’s time feels like the closest thing to an unforgivable sin.

The climax of the film is as unconnected to the rest of the film as the second half is to the first, and it’s nothing to do with either of the two protagonists’ struggles. nor does it test them in any way that challenges who they are or what the rest of the story has taught them. It’s almost as if Tarantino had almost finished the film, then remembered, “oh crap, I’m Tarantino, I’ve got to have some ultraviolence in here somewhere” and that was it.

Seriously. Brad Pitt and his trusty dog go insane on a band of would-be murderers while Leo is zoning out in his pool out back. There’s a flamethrower involved. It’s awesome. But it’s almost nothing to do with the rest of the story. I mean, in Pulp Fiction, you get Jules and Vincent shooting people up left and right, you get Bruce Willis slicing up a serial rapist, but it’s all in service to the narrative. In Kill Bill 1 (the better one), yeah, you get a twenty-minute long orgy of blood and blades as Beatrix slices her way through an entire gang of Japanese mobsters, but the whole movie has been building up to that moment. Ditto when Shoshanna locks a gaggle of Nazis in a theater to burn them alive, ditto when Django shoots up a plantation.

In Hollywood, the antagonists stumble into Leo’s home on a whim.

It’s just so slapdash and haphazard. DiCaprio is crushing his performance, but to what end? Rick doesn’t really go anywhere, emotionally. Pitt’s performance is in the same vein. He trounces Bruce Lee in a sparring match early in the film, so when he curb stomps the killers at the end, we’re just like … duh. Of course he did. Margot Robbie is here, too, and her purpose in the film is … what, exactly?

Contrast that to Pulp Fiction, where you have these two hitmen at a crossroads. They go on a routine hit and it goes sideways; a goon with a gun gets the drop on them and unloads. Shoulda killed ’em. Doesn’t. Samuel L. Jackson takes this as a sign from God and decides to reform his life. John Travolta reads absolutely nothing into it and keeps on mobstering. Later in the film, the two have diverged. Both characters come to meet with other obstacles — dangerous people at the end of their rope — and their actions earlier in the film have consequences. Jackson, with all his serene understanding that he’s on a new path, uses his calm to save not only his own life but the lives of his partner and several others in a restaurant holdup. Travolta goes on from there to get killed by a washed-up boxer because he’s still just blundering around with his guard down. There’s a setup and a payoff. And there is *nothing* like this in Hollywood.

This film is just lost as a story, and it’s frustrating, because as I said some 1200 words ago, I love Tarantino. I love his movies and his characters and the clever way he puts things together and the way little things in the plot pay off. And ALL OF THAT is missing, here.

The film is pretty, the dialogue is sharp, and the individual performances are good, bordering on great. But as a whole, the thing falls on its face like a decapitated Japanese mobster.

Final Verdict: Two out of Five butcher knives shoved into Brad Pitt’s hip.


Terrible Reviews: (The Ending of) The Rise of Skywalker


I want to talk about the end of “The Rise of Skywalker”, so rest assured, there will be spoilers ahead in this post.

Not a lot of them, mind you, and certainly not wide-ranging. In fact, the spoilers are really limited to one, and that to a specific moment. Specifically, I want that specific moment to be the final moment of the final movie, itself the final moment of the most recent trilogy, itself the culmination of a trilogy of trilogies. The previous nine films (let’s leave Rogue One and Solo out for the time being — and perhaps for good) all build up to this particular moment.

It must be said first that I was a Disney Star Wars skeptic, but now I’m a convert. Taking on a new trilogy in and of itself was a tall order to say the least, but I think that Disney not only stuck the landing, but they did it in a way that somehow threads a wicked-tiny needle: the new series is awesome, it preserves and reinvents the magic of the original series, and it lays to rest the fear that the prequels gave us that new Star Wars movies were doomed to be crap. The new Star Wars are not crap. Probably not least of which is because the franchise was pried from the grasping clumsy fingers of George Lucas.

But enough preamble. Let’s get to the spoiler and that all-important culminating moment.

The war is over, the fighting done, the survivors gone home, the obligatory LGBT inclusion included and summarily fast-forwarded over. Rey returns to the scene of the crime, the iconic planet of Tattooine, specifically Luke’s hut on said dust mote, to entomb the light sabers belonging to Luke and Leia. She’s approached by an old crone who demands her name.

“Rey,” she says.

“Rey who?” the crone replies.

And after a brief but poignant gaze into the middle distance, she replies, “Rey Skywalker.”

And then we get a lovely bookending shot of Rey and BB-8 silhouetted against those bloody twin suns over the desert world.

And when I first saw it, I was mad. It felt like a whiff on a perfectly good opportunity, a lame attemt at fanservice, a copout to justify the movie title, a phone-in in lieu of something actually clever.

See, there’s this moment near the end of the first act of RoS where the story is actually starting to get some legs. Rey gets approached by this kid in a crowd who asks her for her name, and Rey’s all, “Rey,” and the kid goes “OK but Rey who” and Rey’s like “just Rey,” and it’s a sad moment for her but also a growing one, because Rey has spent the better part of the last two films sort of tied up in knots about her parents, and she seems to be coming to grips with it there, though she still has some feels. So having a parallel moment at the end of the film seemed a perfect time, to me, for her to answer back “Just Rey” again, but with a bit more sass and certainty. “Rey Skywalker” felt … well, just wrong, on first look.

But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. And the more I continue to think about it, the more I think it’s the perfect ending to the movie, to the trilogy, and to the trilogy of trilogies. And it’s for much the same reason I didn’t like it at first.

See, by the end of episode IX, Rey has been through it. Faced certain death, become a jedi or whatever passes for a Jedi now that the order is gone, learned the truth of her bloodline, lost friends and mentors and … yeah. Wringer 800, Rey 0.

But the Galaxy has been through it, too. Planets wiped out. Spirits broken. Kids kidnapped and forced into service. A loss of hope. The spirits of the average sentient creature in the galaxy are broken. (This is a huge motif in the new trilogy.) And what rallies people together in hopeless times? A symbol. Something to believe in, something to throw their energy and, for lack of a better word, faith behind.

I mean, in the original trilogy, Darth Vader and the Emperor are out there scaring the hockeysticks out of everybody and it takes the arrival of a new Jedi, a nobody from nowhere named Luke Skywalker to pick up the mantle and a lightsaber, go get trained by a fuzzy little green guy in a swamp and give Vader what for.

Then, in the prequels, the Jedi Order is there, you know, being inept as they strive against the Sith but there’s all this babble, this prophecy, about the One who will bring Balance to the Force (randomly capitalizing words is fun). And they find this podunk kid, this nobody from nowhere, who’s force sensitive, and holy crap his MIDICHLORIANS (let us never speak of them again) are off the scale, and could he be the one?YES HE IS, and his name is Anakin Skywalker and he carries all our hopes and dreams until Ben’s all “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE” and cuts him in half.

So in the new trilogy, we have … what? We have Luke but he’s in the wind, took his lightsaber and his fancy force powers and fargo’d off to a nowhere that wasn’t even on the map. He’s gone, the Resistance is in disarray because of it, everybody’s looking for Luke to save the day, but he’s off drinking green milk straight from the beached whatever-the-heck-that-thing-was and putzing around with porgs. He can’t be the symbol people rally around anymore; he’s old, he’s disillusioned, he’s SCARED maybe.

But then — but THEN we have the end of TLJ, where Luke becomes the legend again, where he single-handedly faces down an entire squadron of First Order walkers and Kylo Ren himself, and the Resistance has their minds blown in real time and the legend spreads and at the end of TLJ that kid force-pulls the broom over and you see that silhouette where he looks like a Jedi and HOLY CRAP the end of TLJ is so damn good.

Except now Luke’s gone again. Dead for realsies, or as dead as a Jedi ever is in this series, which is to say only as dead as he wants to be, but as far as being a symbol, he’s toast, because he can’t exactly go appearing to the galaxy in his little blue outline, can he? No. Ghosts can’t be symbols. The galaxy needs a new symbol.

The galaxy needs … a Skywalker.

Rey groks this. She knows how important Luke was, not just to her for her training, but also to the entire Resistance and to everybody who was too scared to stand up to the Empire. She feels the void left by Luke’s passing, probably more acutely than anybody who’s left alive, and she knows. There has to be a Skywalker.

And it has to be her. Who else is left?

“Rey who?”

“Rey Skywalker.”

God, it’s so poetic and awesome and simple. George Lucas said in that interview that Star Wars is like poetry; it rhymes. That quote is dumb and it pretends to be deep even though it isn’t, but there’s still truth in it, in that while the history of Star Wars doesn’t necessarily repeat, there are those elements that keep coming back. The galaxy needs a Skywalker, and Rey, like Luke before her and Anakin before that, sees the mantle there, abandoned by the one who came before, and says “guess I’ll put this on then.” Never mind she’s not a Skywalker by blood. Hell, Luke even tells Rey in RoS that some things are more important than blood.

But that only leads into the other reason that I love this as the last moment of the saga, which is that my wife read this moment in a completely different way than I did and she still loved it just as much. To wit: as I mentioned before, Rey spent the better part of the past two films in various stages of despair and disillusionment over her parents and not knowing her identity. And the more she learns about her parentage, the less she likes it. First it’s the gut punch that she got abandoned in the first place. Then it’s the big reveal that her parents were … nobodies. (We learn that in TLJ, even though we later learn that it’s only half-true.) And then there’s the haymaker of the truth that comes in RoS.

The parentage, or rather the lack of parentage, that has haunted Rey from the word go turns into the most catastrophic news Rey could hope to learn.

But.

Along the way, she has also gained a family that she never had. First there’s Finn, who “helps” her even though she doesn’t need it, then Han Solo, who recognizes her potential and takes her under his wing, and then Leia who does the same but also bonds with her over Han’s passing, and then Luke who becomes her mentor, and finally her … what, her romance? Weird sibling rivalry? … with Kylo Ren, nee Ben Solo. This is her family. In the strangest of ways, she has become the child of Han and Leia and Luke (that’s a fan-fiction I will not be writing) and so she *really is* a Skywalker.

Rey who?”

“Rey Skywalker.”

Again, it’s all so bloody poetic and beautiful that I could almost cry manly tears if my heart weren’t frozen and shriveled like a womp rat’s testicles on Hoth.

The fact that the new trilogy (and by extension the trilogy of trilogies) manages to end on a note that echoes and reverberates and boomerangs back on itself and on all the movies leading up to it is a master stroke, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Then again, here I stand, having an opinion about Star Wars on the internet, so rest assured I must be wrong.

But you know what? Wrong or not, I don’t care. I got new Star Wars in my lifetime, and I got to re-capture some of that joy that the original movies brought me, and the new movies are good, dammit. Yes, all of them. And yeah, Disney is a horror conglomerate that’s assimilating all of our entertainment like the Blob with Mickey Mouse ears and that’s, you know, that’s a thing that might be a problem that we’ll have to deal with one day. But for now, for today, we have Star Wars, and it is good. Perfect? No – but I promise you, the original trilogy is far from perfect itself. These movies are good. And that’s enough.

The Force will be with us. Always.


Terrible Reviews: Endgame (Or, Why Fat Thor is All Of Us)


I always see myself in movies. I can’t help it — I’m always comparing myself to the characters, having the internal monologues of “I’d never do that” or “if it were me I’d…” which is part of the fun of the movies, and literature generally, innit? We get to live vicariously through the figures on the screen.

Which is why instead of doing a full-on review of Avengers: Endgame, I instead want to look at two things I absolutely loved about the movie.

Here’s your obligatory *MILD SPOILERS AHEAD* warning, but y’know, the movie has been out for two weeks, so avoiding spoilers is your lookout at this point.

Let’s start with the big one (pun intended): Fat Thor.

For my money, Thor has been the best thing about the MCU since the first Avengers movie. The best thing, by like, a lot. And since Ragnarok, the gap is only getting wider. Chris Hemsworth’s take on the character is so charming, so goofy, and so heartfelt that it’s hard not to love him. Also, he’s, y’know, the freaking god of thunder, so there’s that.

chris hemsworth GIF

And … actually, I need a detour here. Because what I really love about the Marvel universe — and what is giving its films such staying power, and what’s making its films resonate even with people (like me!) who not only aren’t comic book fans, but who might actually turn up their noses at the notion of being comic book fans — is that they really work hard at fleshing out their characters. Making sure that the movies are more than just beat-’em-up formulaic tripe of hero is the best at everything, hero gets his butt kicked by baddie, hero goes off to train and recruit buddies, hero kicks baddie’s butt, hero is the best at everything again but even better now. No, for a Marvel movie, if a hero wants to be successful in the end, they’re going to have to grow for it, learn for it, change for it.

The example springing to mind right now is in Spiderman: Homecoming where young Peter, just laid low by a failure to save the day, gets chastised by mentor-figure-doubling-as-surrogate-dad Tony Stark. Stark is taking his high-tech Spiderman kit back from Peter because he’s not ready for it. Peter protests that he’s nothing without the suit. Then, this from Tony: “If you’re nothing without the suit, you don’t deserve it.” Peter has to return to his un-souped-up heroing, takes a step back to work on his personal life, ends up saving the day by the skin of his teeth without the suit. He learns. He grows. And he becomes what we knew he was all along.

So — back to Thor. Thor has been laid low by the most recent slate of movies. Ragnarok saw the destruction of his home world and the loss of his hammer. Infinity War began with the death of his brother (and most of the rest of Asgard) and sent him on a quest to retrieve a weapon mighty enough to defeat Thanos — and he still fails. Loss after loss after loss. Thor, by the end of Infinity War, is way past due for a win.

Luckily, the Marvel gods know a good story arc when they see one, and in the opening of Endgame, Thor gets to make good on what he failed to do at the end of Infinity War: he lops Thanos’s head off with his fancy new thunderstick. (Mid-sentence, if I remember properly, for extra effect.)

But when the Marvel gods giveth, the Marvel gods also taketh away. Decapitating the biggest of bads feels good — damned good — for about five seconds, but it’s not actually a win. The stones are lost, Thanos’s evil 50% population downsizing can’t be reversed, everything is awful. Thor’s friends are still ashes, and Thanos wasn’t a threat to anybody anymore. The victory is entirely hollow. Still, it’s early in the film — lots of time for that character arc to swing upward. And that’s what we expect — the hero gets laid low, and he pops back up onto his feet and keeps fighting.

Except, no, that’s not what we get. Instead, our favorite thunder god goes into hiding like a spooked turtle retreating into its shell. Five years pass, and when we next see Thor, not only is he not bouncing back like a good superhero should (Cap is heading up support groups, Black Widow is running a global security system, Iron Man has embraced his family side and moved on), he’s wallowing in his despair. He’s put on weight, he’s stopped shaving, he’s wasting his days sucking down brewskis and playing video games with online trolls.

Man of the Year, right here. Pass the beer.

Now, here’s where the controversy comes in (because for goodness’s sake we can’t have a thing without spinning up a jolly good controversy about it) because apparently a lot of people are upset about Fat Thor. It’s fat-shaming, they cry, it’s an overweight character played for laughs, they moan, it’s cheap and hurtful, they warble.

Bollocks, I say. Yes, Fat Thor is played for laughs, but everything in the MCU is up for becoming a punchline — why should one of the most beloved butts of the brickiest brick jokes suddenly be immune? Just because he put on some pounds? Nonsense. Fat Thor is funny because Chris Hemsworth is a funny guy, and because we expect Thor to be chiseled and slinging lightning and hammers around, not pudgy and parked in a Barcalounger shouting at noobs on Call of Duty.

In my not-so-humble opinion as a somewhat overweight guy myself, I’m going to say that Fat Thor’s portrayal is absolutely not fat-shaming — in fact it’s just the opposite. For one thing, there’s no training montage, no blast of lightning that burns the fat away and gives us Chiseled Thor anew. No, Fat Thor goes through the entire movie as Fat Thor, squeezes into the jumpsuit as Fat Thor, saves the world as Fat Thor. Sure, we laugh at him along the way, but we also love him for who he is, as we always have.

Also — I’m gonna go ahead and say the controversial thing — when people get upset, sad, depressed even — sometimes? They let themselves go. It happens. And again, I’m saying this to you as a guy who has packed on a solid twenty-five pounds over the past several months myself. For some people, that’s a natural response to stress. It’s not shaming to point that out — it’s also not shaming, I’d argue, for that guy’s buddies to rib him a little bit about it. But (and here’s the heroic thing) Thor lets himself be talked out of his funk … sort of. He suits up and goes to work even though he’s not really feeling it, because he knows his buddies need him.

And that brings me to the second thing I love about the movie — really an offshoot of the first. Which is that Thor — Fat Thor, by this point, but still God-of-Thunder-Thor — struggles not against a foe, but against doubt. Because of his recent spate of failures, Thor — literally capable of almost anything Thor — falls into inaction, packs on the pounds and hides from the world, because of his own feelings of inadequacy.

Thor suffers from Impostor Syndrome. And a healthy dose of anxiety and probably depression to boot.

He has a panic attack, for goodness’s sake. The God of Thunder is literally struck helpless by the imagined gremlins running amok inside his brain.

thor i cant GIF

So while I absolutely adored Thor before, I double-dang-diggity-love him now, because, like I was saying way back at the beginning of this post that’s quickly getting away from me (WordPress for some reason removed the word count from the editor and it leaves me absolutely rudderless), in Endgame, Thor’s suffering is my suffering. And — as I always tell my students — the world is large. If you’re feeling it (or thinking it or wondering it), other people are feeling it, too.

Luckily Marvel has an answer for us — for the problem of one of the most powerful beings in the universe struck helpless by the feeling that he isn’t as much of a superhero as he thought. (And, by extension, for that existential doubt worrying away in all our hearts that we aren’t gonna be able to do the things we want to do, or that we need to do. Cuz, y’know. Thor is us.) And the answer is delivered by, who else, but his mother.

Frigga (Norse mythology has the best friggin’ names, I don’t care what anybody says): Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor. The measure of a person — of a hero — is how well they succeed at being what they are.

And I can’t get over that. I’ve been hearing it in my head ever since. It’s the perfectest advice you could give to somebody suffering the way Thor is suffering.

Thor goes on from there to help save the universe. He’s still fat, of course. He saves the universe as he is, not as the idealized version of what he’s supposed to be.

This is why I am loving Marvel movies, still, so many years down the line, and even though there are, admittedly, way too many of them. Because their heroes are us — just, y’know, with better abs and magic hammers and stuff.

Until now. Now they’re just us.

thor GIF

All images are obviously the property of Marvel, except for the fact that Thor belongs to all of us.


Terrible Reviews: The Avengers, Infinity War (On Protagonism)


There’s a lot to be said about Infinity War that can’t be said without spoiling some of it. Based on the state of my local movie theater on Sunday morning at 10:30, it’s a little hard to swallow that anybody with a serious interest in seeing the movie hasn’t already seen it, but surely these people must exist.

I have thoughts that must be thought about the movie, though, so here’s the obligatory warning: here there be spoilers.

Furthermore, in the interest of not turning this post into a 3000-word monster, I’m going to break it up. Here, then, is the first installment. With extra spoilers.

On Protagonism:

Let’s get one thing clear: the movie is a thrill-ride. It’s hard to look away (and harder still to walk away, for example when your six-year-old in attendance has to go to the bathroom for the third time just when you feel yet another climactic battle looming) for fear you will miss something, and miss something important. The film is eminently watchable.

But from a narrative perspective, I found myself getting frustrated. Every time you start to settle into the groove with one of the bands of heroes (and the fact that there are multiple bands of heroes is maybe the first indicator that trouble is afoot), you have to cut away for an update on the other bands of heroes. There are at least three — and sometimes four — groups of heroes doing different things in different places until the final battle. And this is a Marvel movie, mind you, in full swagger, using every tool they’ve honed over the last ten years — every subgroup is rife with internal conflict between its members, cheeky one-liners, and hilarious deadpan.

In short (too late!), as an audience member, I am fatigued with protagonists. Who am I supposed to root for and identify with? Banner and his performance anxiety? Thor and his abs? Stark and Strange trying to out-Alpha each other? Captain America and his beard? I’ve seen almost all of the movies at this point, and each of these characters is lovable, so I want to root for all of them — but there just isn’t time. Because the cast is huge and the plotlines are tangled and far-reaching, the film is paced like a coked-out cockroach skittering for the sugar bowl. You can’t identify with a protagonist, you barely have time to recognize them in their shiny new duds (seriously, it’s like every superhero gets a costume upgrade in every sequel) before the movie is shuffling you off to the next thing like an overbooked tour guide. Character development? Forget about it. There are no less than a dozen heroes here — it’s enough work just to remember who’s doing what.

Very frustrating.

Until you shift your perspective.

There’s no consistency to be found amongst the heroes. Some are all business while some crack wise, some concoct elaborate schemes and others wing it. The movie even seems to shift in tone based on who you’re following at the moment. No, the consistency comes from the bad guy.

Related image

Lurking behind everything that happens is the swollen, ill-proportioned face of Thanos. And once I realized that this movie is pulling a fast one on the audience, I became much more sanguine in my thinking about it.

Thanos is the villain. He’s also the protagonist of the movie.

Thanos hogs the screen time. Thanos has all the character development. Thanos chews on the scenery for every shot he’s in, and thanks to the magic plot devices, he’s literally hiding around every corner. Thanos, in other words, takes the hero’s journey in this movie. Every twist and turn that happens in the movie is centered not on the Avengers — a kicked anthill is as frantic and as useful as they seem to be in the movie —  but on Thanos.

He hears a call to action when his home world is plunged into strife, and goes on a quest to deliver the same peace to the entire universe (just, you know, not in the way we’d prefer). He meets a mentor character who helps him in his goal (Red Skull, we hardly knew ye!) He and his band of villains have all the try/fail cycles. (Didn’t get the time stone there, didn’t get it there — third time’s the charm.) He has to make sacrifices to meet his goal. And the final victory brings him within an inch of his life.

Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. And the filmmakers know this: in the closing credits, where we usually get the grim but reassuring message “The Avengers will return,” we get instead “Thanos will return”. That’s not just a cheeky jab to drive home the stake in the hearts of all the Loki fanboys (and fangirls. And the fanboys/girls of Spiderman. And Groot. And Black Panther. And and and YOU GET THE POINT). It’s an acknowledgement that this movie is not about what — or who — you thought it was.

Once you’re down with that, the movie becomes a lot easier to digest, narratively speaking. The quest we’re on is Thanos’s, and the Avengers — legion as they may be — are but speedbumps on the residential suburban street leading to the eradication of half the population of the universe. Our favorites are cannon fodder — occasionally seriously inconveniencing the real protagonist, but ultimately never really standing a chance. Which is the posture of all the villains in every other Marvel movie to date.

I’ll point out that this trick of the light only works because the filmmakers have pulled the cinematic bait-and-switch of turning the Infinity War story into two movies. When Thanos receives his comeuppance, as he must in the next chapter, Thanos’s current arc, which is riding the hero’s trajectory, will come crashing back down to reality.

But once you engage with the movie on its own terms (and failure to meet a story on its own terms is basically the biggest source of strife, not just in Marvel movies, but in any cinematic universe — I’m looking at you, butthurt Star Wars fans), it starts to make a lot more sense.


Hirsute Spheroids, née Hairy Balls, and Your Story


I’m a bit of a physics nerd, by which I mean I love physics oddities and learning macro concepts about how the universe works without actually getting my hands dirty in any of the intractible numbers involved. That fascination often leads me down rabbit holes on youtube, whence I arrive hours later, head buzzing with cosmic understanding or mind shattered from inability to process.

Today’s SOCS prompt is “hair”, and while it’d be easy for me to write again about my lack thereof, my mind immediately leapt to the hairy ball theorem (which is, if nothing else, a perfect example of how badly scientists need help naming things — the “hirsute spheroid theorem” would prompt no more than 1/5th the giggles). In short, the theorem states that if you have a hairy ball (*snicker*), there is no way to comb it in such a way that all the hair lays flat. (And there’s nothing worse than a hairy ball with a cowlick.) The math proves this, though I don’t care too much about the math (that’s the department of my sister and her husband, both Georgia Tech grads who do the rest of us the favor of making sure that the numbers support the buildings that stand up around us and the rockets that put our fancy things up in the air or shoot other countries’ fancy things out of it). What I care about is concept. Hairy ball. Can’t comb it flat.

Here’s a brief explanation of the theorem, if you want a better explanation of it (and Minute Physics is worth the subscribe, by the way):

But this is a writing blog, not a maths blog, so why the hockey sticks am I blerping around, getting all hot and bothered about a physics conundrum?

Because writing stories is a bit like the hirsute spheroid theorem. (Nope, still makes me giggle, if only 1/5 as much.) Stories are these weird little hairy balls. The ball (giggle, snort) is the world of the story, where the characters frolic and screw up and alternately threaten the safety of the world or rescue it from deep-sea humanoid squid monsters. The hair (chortle, cackle) is the characters and their frolics. And like the follicular matter in the hirsute spheroid theorem, there’s no way to have those frolics or those characters line up perfectly. Like a lump in the carpet or, well, like the hair on a ball (okay, seriously, I’m done laughing at that), when you flatten it down in one spot,  it springs up anew somewhere else. Lay a perfect plotline that neatly traverses the entire surface and you arrive back at the beginning to find a bizarre cowlick sticking up.

For a writer, this seems like a problem, but it’s not. Note that the hairy ball theorem is stated as a theorem, not a problem. An observation of reality, not a lament of the way reality ought to be. It’s only a problem if you assume that your hirsute spheroid must somehow attain a measure of perfection, which it never will anyway — the perfect being the enemy of the good, as it is.

Stories have flaws, in other words, and it’s a fool’s errand thinking we can iron them all out. Instead, embrace the flaws, iron out what you can, and accept the odd fact: bed-head is, for some reason, in style.

Image result for bed head

Also, a note: careful with your googling if you go searching the hairy ball theorem. Also, just for the lolz, the Wikipedia entry for the hairy ball theorem cheerily points out that, on Wikipedia at least, “‘hairy balls’ redirects here.”

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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