What We Want to See in Avengers: Endgame

It’s now just over a week until Avengers: Endgame comes out. The trailers have given us a few hints about what we’ll see in the conclusion to last year’s Infinity War, but there’s still so much we don’t know about how this is all going to end. So, as we await the final countdown, here’s our thoughts on what we would like to see when the lights go down in the theatre:

 

Erik:

I was disappointed in a lot of Infinity War‘s choices, so it’s easier to say what I hope we don’t see, but in the interest of staying positive, here’s what I actually want:

  • A resolution to the Steve/Tony conflict from Captain America: Civil War. I have complained in the past about the Marvel movies being too focused on Tony Stark’s emotional life, but this one is too big a deal to leave hanging. I want to see them come together, not just because they need each other in a moment of crisis but with a proper resolution.
  • The consequences of the Great Snap. I want us to spend some time understanding the real effects on the world of half its population disappearing at once. Not just that so many of our favorite characters are gone, but that the death of half of all the people on a planet necessarily has profound effects on the culture and society of those who are left behind, effects that stretch beyond the immediate grief and trauma of loss.
  • Someone to tell Thanos that he’s a complete idiot. Thanos’s history and motivation make him an interesting villain, but we spent so much time listening to him monologue about his very, very stupid plan for the universe in Infinity War that I really want someone to let him have it and tell him just how very, very stupid his plan is.
  • At least one more Stan Lee cameo. I really hope they got one in the can for this movie.
  • Heroes with a plan. Most of what we saw the heroes do in Infinity War was scrambling, improvising, punching first and asking questions never. I want to see our heroes take the time to regroup, think about the challenge ahead, and make a proper plan.
  • Shuri. I know she seems to be among the dusted, but dang it, I want more Shuri! More Shuri in everything!

 

Eppu:

Unlike Erik, I’ll throw in some negative stuff, but I’ll front the good:

  • If the movie’s going to be 3 hours long, good pacing is a must. Marvel Cinematic Universe has generally been pretty good with that, but I found AIW less successful on that score. Here’s hoping for a great editing team!
  • An intelligent plot twist and some semblance of balance between action and planning. I get that the world is reeling after the snap, but especially since AIW failed so spectacularily in trying to counter Thanos in an intelligent manner, they’re gonna need some brain in the game. Like Doctor Strange to have done something epic, planted some seed somewhere, that along with the remainder of the Avengers’ actions will turn the tide.
  • Shuri! Anywhere, doing anything. Likewise for Okoye and Janet Van Dyne, and it had better be more than a flashback!
  • A solution for Banner’s Hulk problems would be nice but optional.
  • I already mentioned Thor using his new axe-mace. (Stormbringer, I think?) We barely saw it in AIW. Some more awesome lightning blast fights like in Ragnarok, too, please!
  • In the same vein, clever fighting tactics and using individual characters’ strengths to the fullest in cooperation with others. (Like Bucky grabbing Rocket by the scruff and spinning around, both of them firing off at Thanos’ monster troops in Wakanda in AIW. That was a thoughtful bit I liked.) That’s why we watch superhero movies: for the smarts and the smashes.
  • Fewer Thanos manologues. So. TIRESOME.
  • For Peter Quill to grow up and stop being such a whiny, self-centered, insecure git. It’s not fun to watch but painful, since he’s not given any growth to speak of. (Whatever there was at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy was essentially negated in AIW when he started measuring himself against Tony Stark. And this applies to any feature he might appear on.) Oddly, though, last I checked I couldn’t find his name on the IMDB full cast and crew for Endgame. I wonder what’s up with that?

 

That’s what we’ll be looking out for when we head to the movies next week. What about the rest of you? What are you hoping for in Endgame?

Image: Avengers: Endgame poster via IMDb

Creative Differences is an occasional feature in which we discuss a topic or question that we both find interesting. Hear from both of us about whatever’s on our minds.

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Fantasy Religions: Novel Religions

The religions that exist in our world can be broadly divided into two categories: traditional religions, which developed gradually in their own native societies and have no clear beginning point, and novel religions, which began at a fixed point in time. Many of the great world religions of the modern day, like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, are novel religions, while some traditional religions, like Shinto, still thrive. Some religions, like Hinduism and Judaism, have features of both. In earlier posts, we’ve discussed what sort of things you may want to keep in mind in your worldbuilding for stories or games to make your imaginary religions feel more authentically traditional. Today we’ll take a look at what makes a novel religion feel alive.

There have been many novel religions in world history. A few have gathered large followings and become major forces in the world. Many have faded away after a few generations. Some have done well for a long time, even for centuries, before finally disappearing. There is no single thing that every novel religion has in common, but looking at history, we can see definite patterns as to what makes a new religious movement thrive, even if only for a time. It takes more than a charismatic leader with a new idea, although that is where most of them start.

Connection to the past

New ways of life can be hard to adopt, but they are easier if they connect to things people already know. Christianity and Islam both drew on Jewish traditions, as Buddhism did with the same ancient Indian traditions that informed Hinduism. The ancient Mediterranean cult of Isis based itself on ancient Egyptian religion. Similarly, Zoroastrianism drew on ancient Iranian religious ideas. New movements within existing religions that do not split off on their own also often share the features of novel religions, like the Protestant denominations within Christianity or the Shia branch of Islam. The degree to which new religious movements identify themselves as new or as reforms to or revivals of older traditions can vary widely.

Texts and beliefs

Not every religion, novel or traditional, has sacred texts, but many novel religions do. Such texts help to define how the new movement differs from what has come before and what its followers are expected to do or believe in order to be counted as part of the group. Depending on the religion, these texts may be openly available to anyone who wants to read them, or access to them may be limited only to those who have joined the movement. Novel religions are also more likely to focus on belief, unlike traditional religions which tend to focus on practices and rituals.

Hope in times of trouble

The success of any new religion depends largely on its ability to attract new followers in sufficient numbers to keep the movement going. Most people most of the time aren’t really “in the market” for a new religion, but there are certain times in history when large numbers of people are ready to embrace something new. It tends to happen in times of suffering and uncertainty, among people who have been displaced from their homes and familiar ways of life. The Bacchanal cult of the second century BCE appealed to Italian peasants who had been driven from the countryside into the cities by economic desperation. Haitian Vodou and related religions came out of the traumas of enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas. Christianity and Islam both, in different periods and different ways, emerged among the victims of Roman imperialism. Novel religions often offer purpose, identity, and community to people who have lost the things that gave them those comforts before.

Difficult (but not too difficult)

A novel religion often thrives when it demands practices of its followers that are difficult, but not excessively difficult, to carry out. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. Buddhists engage in meditation of many different kinds. Followers of Isis were expected to furnish a feast for their fellow worshipers upon joining. These kinds of practices, which require time, focus, and effort, but are not overly demanding, help foster a sense of community by creating shared experiences. At the same time, religions which demand overly difficult practices tend to see their followings dwindle. Converts to Mithraism went through initiations involving withstanding heat, cold, and pain (although probably not bathing in bull’s blood, as sometimes alleged). The rigors of these initiations, as well as the fact that it seems to have been open only to men, may have limited the cult’s appeal and kept it from gaining a critical mass of followers.

Outward from the middle

Novel religions tend to begin neither at the top nor at the bottom of the social scale but somewhere in the middle. Simply put, the rich and powerful have little to gain from upending the order of things, while the poor and powerless don’t have the time to ponder on the mysteries of the universe. New religious movements tend to begin among people who, if not always “middle class” by a modern definition, are somewhere on the middling ranks of the social and economic hierarchy. How they spread from there differs. Some religions grow by promising the hope of a better life to the poor, as Christianity did, while others, such as Confucianism, grow by appealing to a discontented elite.

Food

Food, for many of us, is a vital part of our sense of identity and community—think of your favorite family recipes or the special holiday dishes that remind you of heritage and home. Many novel religions present new ways of eating as part of the creation of a new communal identity. One of the central rituals of Christianity involves consuming (literally or metaphorically, depending on one’s theology) the body and blood of the founding figure. Muslims are enjoined to fast during daylight hours during Ramadan and to avoid certain food and drink, including pork and alcohol, altogether. Manichaeism taught that adherents had a duty to spread light in the world and combat darkness by eating certain foods and avoiding others. Eating together, or eating in similar ways to other followers elsewhere, helps to maintain the bonds that hold the adherents of a new religion together.

Thoughts for writers

As an example of how these features of novel religions can inform worldbuilding, here is a short description of an imaginary movement in an imaginary world.

The borderlands of Jash have been ravaged by decades of war between the Jashite cities and the invading armies of the Akluni Empire. As refugees from the rugged hills and scrublands of northern Jash stream into the cities of the lush Jash River valley, they find misery, poverty, and violence. Many of the refugees, looking for the solace of the familiar, have filled the neglected temples of Uzuli, the moon goddess favored by borderland shepherds but little regarded by the city folk.

Among the merchants and farmers of the Jash cities, tensions have been growing as no city seems capable of leading a coordinated response to the Akluni threat. Factions have formed within the cities, some arguing for peace with Aklun, others for resistance to the death; some for throwing the refugees out to fend for themselves, others for redistributing farmland to provide for the hungry. Encounters between members of these factions in the streets and market often lead to harangues, arguments, even fistfights.

Lately, a woman calling herself the Moon Daughter has been gathering crowds in the side streets of the city of Busa, giving stirring speeches promising a return of peace and prosperity. She comes from one of the lesser merchant families of Busa, but no longer speaks to them after beginning her work in the streets. She reports visions from Uzuli that call for all the people of Jash to be as one, to return to the simpler ways of the country, and to withstand the assault of Aklun not by arms but with the patience of Uzuli, who does not fear the waning because she knows that the full moon will come again.

The Moon Daughter’s early followers came from among other merchants families, whose fortunes have fallen under the pressure of war, but she increasingly draws crowds of hinterland refugees. Some of her followers have begun writing down her speeches and publishing them as pamphlets. “Eat of the bitter terebinth and the prickly pear” she says, “in memory of our home that is lost. Then drink of the honeyed wine that promises peace and harmony forever in the turning of the moon.” Her followers gather for common meals, eating and drinking as she commands, but also sharing what food they have with those who have none.

Building in some of the common features of novel religions helps the Moon Daughter’s movement feel fuller and more grounded in the world. It also offers interesting storytelling hooks. What happens if Busa is conquered by Aklun and the Moon Daughter and her followers have to flee elsewhere? What if the priestesses of Uzuli challenge the Moon Daughter for false prophecy? What if the Moon Daughter’s movement becomes so popular its followers take control of Busa, and then have to negotiate with the other Jashite cities who haven’t joined the movement? What if the Akluni Empire collapses and the refugees return home bringing the Moon Daughter’s words and ideas with them, but leaving the life of the city far behind? There are lots of directions you could take a story or a game from this beginning.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

Image: Manichaean diagram of the universe via Wikimedia (China; 1279-1368 CE; paint and gold on silk)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Chariots

War may never change, but the technology of war is always being updated, adapted, and replaced with new inventions. Because of the powerful emotions invoked by our experience of war, outdated military technology is sometimes invested with cultural meaning and takes on a new symbolic life when its functional utility is past. Suits of armor designed to protect soldiers from spears and arrows in wars hundreds of years in the past have become decorative objects that convey a sense of antiquity and dignity to a stately home. Swords have been obsolete on the battlefield for a century, but they still exercise such a fascination for us that we give them to heroes in stories set in the present and future. The town where I live boasts of its possession of a disabled artillery piece from a war more than a hundred years past. In the ancient world, chariots went through a similar transition from practical military hardware to symbolic possession.

A chariot is a light cart, usually on two wheels, though four-wheeled examples exist, designed to be pulled by one or more animals, usually horses. Four-wheeled versions, using heavy solid wheels and pulled by onagers (a type of wild ass) are documented in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE. These wagons would have been relatively slow and ponderous, but they allowed the transport of fighters across the battlefield faster than infantry on foot and provided a defensible fighting platform. Light, fast chariots became possible with the invention of the spoked wheel on the steppes of Central Asia around 2000 BCE.

Light, mobile chariots pulled by horses offered several advantages in war. They allowed swift movement around the battlefield, provided an elevated platform from which to observe the progress of battle, and, on open ground, could stage mass charges to intimidate opposing troops. Horses that were too small to carry a rider under the rigors of war could be used to pull chariots. Between 2000 and 500 BCE, the use of chariots spread across a large swath of Eurasia and northern Africa, from China to Ireland, and from Egypt to the Baltic Sea.

Chariots also had some drawbacks, however. They required skilled construction and maintenance. To be effectively mobile, they had to be built light, but such light construction also made them relatively fragile. They required lots of space to operate and were of limited use on narrow, uneven, or muddy battlefields. Driving and fighting from a chariot solo was a virtuoso feat that few could manage, so the need to provide separate drivers in addition to the fighting troops was a drain on fighting power. In most places, chariots were retired from the battlefield as soon as horse breeds that were large and strong enough to carry an armored soldier became available.

In a few places, like the wide, open plains of Mesopotamia, where the terrain was favorable, chariots were used for fighting into the first century CE, but in most places they had vanished from military use centuries earlier. The glory of the chariot, though, kept its hold on people’s imaginations. In most places where they had been used in war, they were repurposed for symbolic and artistic purposes. In China, chariots were used to make impressive showpieces of engineering, like the famous South-Pointing Chariot, equipped with a figure that always pointed to the south no matter how the chariot turned. In India, chariots were reimagined to become vessels for carrying images of the Hind gods in ceremonial processions. In the Mediterranean, they were used for racing and military parades. In many of these places, chariots also entered mythology, remaining the conveyance of heroes and gods long after they had ceased to be used to carry soldiers around the battlefield.

Image: Model of a four-horse chariot, photograph by BabelStone via Wikimedia (found in Takht-i-Kuwad, Tajikistan, currently British Museum; 5th-4th c. BCE; gold)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries Season 7

Turn-of-the-twentieth-century Toronto detective William Murdoch is back for season 7, and so are we. Here’s what we thought of the episodes this time:

  1. “Murdoch Ahoy” – 6
  2. “Tour de Murdoch” – 7.5
  3. “The Filmed Adventures of Detective Murdoch” – 7.5
  4. “Return of Sherlock Holmes” – 8
  5. “Murdoch of the Living Dead” – 5.5
  6. “Murdochophobia” – 4
  7. “Loch Ness Murdoch” – 7
  8. “Republic of Murdoch” – 7
  9. “A Midnight Train to Kingston” – 0
  10. “Murdoch in Ragtime” – 6
  11. “Journey to the Centre of Toronto” – 10
  12. “Unfinished Business” – 7
  13. “The Murdoch Sting” – 6
  14. “Friday the 13th, 1901” – 6
  15. “The Spy Who Came Up to the Cold” – 6
  16. “Kung Fu Crabtree” – 4
  17. “Blast of Silence” – 2
  18. “The Death of Dr. Ogden” – 4

This season’s average rating is 5.8, which is pretty good. There is one standout great episode and one standout awful one, but most of the season is middling to good, which makes it good for comfort rewatching.

On the whole, this season holds up well. It offers a lot of what we have come to expect from Murdoch. There are clever takes on modern stories, like the zombie-ish “Murdoch of the Living Dead,” the turnabout con in “The Murdoch Sting,” and half of “Friday the 13th, 1901” in which Drs. Ogden and Grace get a horror movie plot (meanwhile, the boys enjoy an adorably Canadian story about curling). There are also the usual return appearances by our favorite guest characters, like Terrence Myers and Alan Clegg in “The Spy Who Came up to the Cold,” which uses the assassination of US President McKinley as fodder for an espionage thriller. And James Pendrick, the perpetual inventor of things before their time, is back to invent… Murdoch Mysteries!

This season is five episodes longer than previous seasons, coming in at eighteen episodes, which is great. We’re always in favor of more Murdoch. We also see signs of change starting to show through as this season features more people of color as incidental characters and women pushing against the boundaries of social convention.

Our lowest rating for the season goes to “A Midnight Train to Kingston,” at 0. This episode features the return of genius serial killer and Murdoch fanboy James Gillies. We have made our feelings about genius serial killer detective fanboys clear before, and we still have no interest in seeing more of them.

On the other hand, “Journey to the Centre of Toronto,” which takes up contemporary speculation about a hollow earth with a steampunkish spin, makes for a thoroughly delightful 10. This episode suffers a bit from odd pacing and a somewhat unsatisfying ending, but it presents Detective Murdoch and company with such a unique challenge, and they rise to it with such gusto, that we can forgive these weaknesses. We also love the adventurer character, Elva Gordon. It’s a shame she can’t become a regular guest like Myers and Pendrick.

Few series can stand up to the pressures of a long run without faltering, but Murdoch Mysteries continues to deliver. Long may Murdoch continue!

Have a different take on this season? Let us know!

Image: Detective Murdoch explaining an earth-burrowing mole machine, from Murdoch Mysteries via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Gaulish Wheelbarrow Pigs: A Cautionary Tale

Primary sources are a historian’s best friend, and sometimes worst enemy. Primary sources are essential to our understanding of the past, but if not handled carefully, they can also be deceptive. For a case in point, here are a couple of comments on the Gauls of northern Italy in the third and second centuries BCE.

The Gauls were a warrior elite who had migrated into northern Italy over about a century and established themselves as leaders of scattered towns and settlements in the Po river valley. Some of these groups settled down and built up local power bases based on agriculture and trade. Others made their living by raiding the rest of the Italian peninsula or taking service as mercenaries in the many local wars being fought between Italian peoples like the Etruscans, Romans, Sabines, and Samnites. The native people of the Po valley sometimes resisted Gaulish influence and sometimes assimilated into Gaulish culture. By the second century, the expansion of Roman power had subdued or eliminated many of these groups, while some others had allied themselves with Rome.

The cultural realities of northern Italy were complicated. The view from Rome tended to be simplifying and stereotyping, but even the stereotypes themselves could be complicated.

Here is how the Greek author Polybius, who lived in Rome and aligned himself with Roman culture, described the Italian Gauls:

They lived in unwalled villages without permanent structures. Sleeping on leaves and eating meat, they knew nothing but war and farming; they lived simple lives and had no acquaintance with any art or science.

– Polybius, History 2.17-18

(My own translations)

The image is one of poverty in both material and cultural terms. Polybius’ Gauls are little better than wild animals.

Should we take Polybius’ account as an authoritative statement on what the Romans and their Greek allies thought about the Gauls? There is no doubt that the image of Gauls as feral savages lacking even the rudiments of civilized life was common in the ancient Mediterranean, but it was not the only possibility. In fact, just the opposite was also possible.

Cato the Elder, a Roman statesman, took a different view of the Gauls. Most of his account is lost, but a couple of fragments survive in quotations in later works:

The Gauls devote themselves most diligently to two things: war and cunning talk.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Charisius, Ars Grammatica 2

 

The Insubres [a Gaulish tribe] in Italy lay up cuts of pork, three or four thousand at a time, and the pigs grow so big that they cannot stand on their own or walk anywhere. If they want to take a pig somewhere, they must put it in a cart.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Varro, On Farming 1.2.7, 2.4.11; Columella, Res Rustica 3.3.2; Pliny, Natural History 14.52

Cato was no friend to the Gauls any more than Polybius was, but his view of them is different. Unlike Polybius’ ignorant savages with no art or sceince, Cato’s Gauls are cunning talkers. In contrast to the poverty of unwalled villages and beds of leaves, Cato pictures Gauls as so rich in agriculture that their pigs grow too fat to walk unaided.

Polybius and Cato were roughly contemporary and moved in the same elite social circles in Rome. Despite the differences in their points of view, they both reflect attitudes that must have been current among the Roman upper class. We can explain the differences in their views by their different audiences. Polybius was writing primarily for his fellow Greeks and aimed to portray the Romans as a force for order and stability in the Mediterranean. The more wild and bestial he could make their enemies, the more he could burnish the Romans’ credentials. Cato, by contrast, was writing for a Roman audience in the aftermath of Rome’s complete conquest of the Po valley. By building up the Gauls as a worthy foe, he made the conquest seem more glorious.

The variations in these perspectives should not surprise us. It is rare that any group of people has a single opinion about anything. Even the most reductive stereotypes are rarely universal among the people who hold them. Individuals and groups alike can hold multiple attitudes at the same time, calling up one opinion or another as the occasion demands.

For more recent historical periods when we have richer records of peoples’ thoughts and words, it is easier to get a fuller sense of this sort of complexity. In more distant periods of history when we have much more limited records, it can be tempting to assume that the documents we do have represent an accurate picture of what people thought on a given topic. Polybius and Cato are a good cautionary example that even among people who traveled in the same social circles in the same places and times, multiple different opinions were equally possible.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

A Drink from an Octopus

Some ideas are so good they come around again, even thousands of years later. I recently stumbled across this beautiful glass bottle adorned with a sinuous octopus on Etsy seller Elstwhen’s shop. You can find this particular bottle here.

The Beast of the Void by Elstwhen

 

It reminded me of Minoan pottery, which is often adorned with vividly rendered sea life. While Elstwhen’s work is not a copy of the Minoan style, it makes similar use of asymmetry, flowing lines, and strong contrasts to create a similarly impressive effect.

Minoan flask, photograph by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia (Archaeological Museum, Herakleion; c. 1500 BCE; painted pottery)

 

(We have no connection, financial or otherwise, with Elstwhen.)

In Making Stuff, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Some Random Thoughts on Captain Marvel

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Erik’s random thoughts:

  • My overall impression of this movie is that it was good, but not great. And that’s fine. For Marvel’s first woman-led movie, the pressure is on to excel, and we would have loved it if this movie had measured up to some of the great Marvel triumphs like Avengers and Black Panther, but it’s also perfectly okay for this movie to just be perfectly okay. In a franchise where Tony Stark gets six or seven movies to learn not to be a total raging jerk all the time, there’s plenty of room for women to lead good, great, and even not-so-great movies.
  • As someone who doesn’t know the comic character, I was rather lost for the first hour or so until Carol Danvers’s history finally got explained. Some of the narrative choices made in the first half of the movie even seemed to deliberately push Carol’s confusion about her identity onto the audience. I expect to enjoy the movie more on a second or third viewing when I can focus on the characters and the action rather than trying to sort out who is who, where we are in the timeline, and which memories are reliable.
  • There are also some individual plot elements that would have benefited from taking a little more time to introduce and develop, like the background of the Pegasus project, Mar-Vel’s plans, “Vers’s” relationship with Yon-Rog, and the power-inhibiting neck disk. As it is, there are some moments in the film that don’t have the emotional weight they should because we lack an adequate set-up.
  • They’ve really nailed the de-aging technology. In the brief scenes they’ve done in previous movies it’s been very good, but still looked a little fake. Even Coulson in this movie looked just a bit digital, but young Nick Fury was absolutely convincing.
  • I loved the Carol Danvers / Nick Fury buddy cop road movie parts of this film. The two actors played beautifully off one another, and I could easily have had a full movie of Danvers’s and Fury’s road trip adventures.
  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Fury, notice that he doesn’t make any fuss about helping with the washing up. That’s class.
  • Brie Larson is perfectly cast as Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel. She plays the character as tough, resourceful, and snarky without being overbearing, but also wounded and sometimes unsure of herself without undermining her own strength. By the end of the movie, we can totally believe that she is not only a super-powered hero who can blow up an invading spaceship by punching right through it, but also the kind of person whose response to an alien invasion would be to blow up their ship by punching right through it.
  • Monica is great, full of life and spirit in a believable way, and the relationship she has both with her mother Maria and her auntie Carol is beautiful to watch. It’s nice to see a movie quietly acknowledge that women can be loving mothers and aunties while also flying fighter jets, blowing up alien spaceships, and generally kicking ass. There is no reason why these things cannot be compatible.
  • Well, now we know how Fury lost his eye, and really, could it have happened in any better way?

 

Eppu’s random thoughts:

  • Going in, I had no idea what powers Captain Marvel has in the comics nor how she got them; everything I knew came from the trailers, but of course they don’t really explain anything. I confess I was curious how the heck was she able to fire photon blasts from her hands and fly. Aha—the Tesseract; a-okay.
  • The movie not only easily passed the Bechdel test, it chomped it up for breakfast. LOVED THAT. Just like in Black Panther, all the women were competent, complex, and clearly their own personas instead of cardboard cutouts or boob bimbos reciting lines.
  • Great acting all round, too. Brie Larson, Lashana Lynch, and Akira Akbar’s power trio was awesome! You could almost feel the history between the three. (And I really hope we get to see an older Monica Rambeau in MCU some day.) Annette Bening was wonderful despite her relatively short appearances, and Ben Mendelsohn was very impressive even through the latex mask. Jude Law I’ve never cared for, but he didn’t bother me in this.
  • While the pacing was ok, the plot felt overly complicated—and to be explicit, I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a bad thing. Then again, BP really has raised the stakes for MCU movies for me; stories are facing a steep uphill battle to get the gold star.
  • The movie sure had a lot on its plate. First it needed to introduce this new MCU character, give us some idea of who the Kree are, and outline the Skrull threat. Then we get glimpses into Danver’s previous life on Earth, the identities of Dr. Lawson / Mar-Vell plus Maria and Monica Rambeau, and the eventual regaining of Danver’s memories and relationship with the Rambeaus (but whether it was all memories or just most I’m still unsure about). Add to that not only the super-duper-short intro to S.H.I.E.L.D. and a more extensive one to Nick Fury, but also bringing Fury and Danvers together to chase leads, reversing the Skrull threat, adding the threat to Earth by Kree, the secret underneath the cute surface of Goose, Danvers discovering the extent of her abilities, and, finally, Danvers / Captain Marvel winning the day. Still, Captain Marvel didn’t feel quite as jam-packed as Avengers: Infinity War did.
  • Speaking of AIW, CM was clearly geared to directly feed into the upcoming Avengers: Endgame; the focus was on explaining how come this Captain Marvel character is the one Fury calls when shit really, truly hits the fan. Consequently, there wasn’t much room for showing how Carol Danvers came to be who she is, especially compared to the male heroes (say, Steve Rogers). It was interesting, though, to compare this origin story with that of the first few MCU origin stories / introductions (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America). I’m not the only one to compare Steve Rogers’s and Carol Danvers’s tenacity and their steadfastness in working towards their goals. Abigail Nussbaum put it best: “When she finally embraces what she is, she becomes unstoppable.” (As a side note, I thought the Carol Danvers character is quite good an example of the Finnish concept sisu. Steve Rogers is also in the right direction, but he didn’t have to time and again break through the glass ceiling women face.)
  • I loved how different a Fury we see, and can easily believe how this version could turn into the older one we were first introduced to—Samuel L. Jackson has great acting chops for sure. He didn’t just feel younger and less hardened than Director Fury, for the lack of a better word he felt lighter (more optimistic? more trusting? more naive? all of the above???).
  • Which reminds me: I almost cried out loud out of frustration towards the beginning when Fury and Coulson pursue Vers / the train in LA and they drove the wrong direction. That’s been done a gazillion times in action movies and I’ve had my fill of it. Fortunately it lasted only a few seconds. Phew.
  • Goose the cat being a Flerken able to swallow the Tesseract was a really interesting choice. Where did he end up living afterwards? And how long do they live to begin with?
  • Coulsooooon! Nice to see a glimpse of the young Coulson, too. (I’ve seen the first two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with Coulson of course, but I just don’t find the series as satisfying as the movies.)
  • Ditto on Fury and dishes.
  • The canyon dogfight between Minn-Erva and Maria Rambeau was great. I was starting to be worried that Rambeau wasn’t going to be given any moments to shine in her own right (apart from being shown a great best friend and mother; i.e., only in relation to others). There were just two soldiers who happened to be women doing their jobs. Awesome.
  • Speaking of, Maria Rambeau got some of the best lines: “You call me ‘young lady’ again, I’ll shove my foot up somewhere it’s not supposed to be.”
  • Minor nitpicks include the crest on Vers’s helmet (looks stupid to me) and the unrealistically low amount of catcalling and/or harassment she gets at the train station looking for the Skrull runaway while wearing the Kree armor—then again, if LA residents are as focused on their own thing as NYC commuters are, it’s not that unrealistic after all. (Haven’t been to LA myself, so I don’t know.)
  • Best moments: “I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back!” and “I have nothing to prove to you.” *pow!*
  • I’ll end with a note from a Forbes article by Scott Mendelson listing some of the film’s earnings: “Because the financial metrics, both in North America and overseas, clearly show that the future of the MCU is essentially everything except more white guys named Chris.” *harf!* 😀 You got that right.

 

Image: Brie Larson as Carol Danvers from Captain Marvel via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Wine and Sheep for a Princess

Administrative records from the Persian Empire preserve some evidence of a lady of the royal court gathering resources, probably in preparation for a feast:

A message to Yamaksheda, the wine carrier, from Pharnaces: Issue 200 marrish [about 2,000 liters] of wine to Princess Artystone. By the king’s order.

First month of the nineteenth year [March or April, 503 BCE]. Ansukka wrote the text. Mazara conveyed the message.

– Persepolis Fortification Texts (published) 1795

A message to Harriena, the herdsman, from Pharnaces: King Darius commanded me in these words: “Issue 100 sheep from my estate to my daughter, Princess Artystone.”

Now Pharnaces says: “As the king commanded me, I command you: Issue 100 sheep to Princess Artystone as the king ordered.”

First month of the nineteenth year [March or April, 503 BCE]. Ansukka wrote the text. Mazara conveyed the message.

– Persepolis Fortification Texts (collated) 6754

(My own translations.)

We can learn some interesting things from this evidence.

For one thing, it gives us a sense of how the Persian imperial bureaucracy worked. There were higher officials like Pharnaces who were responsible for overseeing the distribution of goods, scribes like Ansukka, messengers like Mazara, and lower officials in charge of particular categories of goods. Messages like these directed those who were lower down in the hierarchy to issue certain quantities of goods while at the same time keeping a record of what had been issued and where it came from.

Secondly, this is evidence for the scale on which elite Persian women could command economic resources. 2,000 liters of wine and 100 sheep cost no small amount of labor to produce. Artystone could, with her father’s consent, draw on the fruits of all that labor.

And finally: it looks like Artystone really know how to throw a party.

Image: Tribute bearer with rams, photograph by A. Davey via Flickr (Persepolis Apadana staircase; c. 518 BCE; stone relief). CC BY 2.0

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 6

It’s another season of Murdoch for us to rewatch and rate. This one flies high at the beginning, then crashes and burns at the end. Here’s our take:

  1. “Murdoch Air” – 10
  2. “Winston’s Lost Night” – 6.5
  3. “Murdoch on the Corner” – 8
  4. “A Study in Sherlock” – 7
  5. “Murdoch au Naturel” – 7.5
  6. “Murdoch and the Cloud of Doom” – 6.5
  7. “The Ghost of Queen’s Park” – 6
  8. “Murdoch in Ladies’ Wear” – 2.5
  9. “Victoria Cross” – 5.5
  10. “Twisted Sisters” – 3.5
  11. “Lovers in a Murderous Time” – 3
  12. “Crime and Punishment” – 0
  13. “The Murdoch Trap” – 0

This is a remarkable season of Murdoch Mysteries, ranging from the very best the show has to offer to the very worst. The average for this season is only 5.1, which is the lowest yet for a season of Murdoch, but the average is deceptive since this season is half good-to-brilliant and half disappointing-at-best with not a lot falling in the middle range. It’s an odd roller coaster of a season, and, like all roller coasters, it eventually ends at the bottom.

That bottom is pretty darned low. “Crime and Punishment” and “The Murdoch Trap,” both rating a solid 0, make up a two-parter in which two of our least favorite things get combined: overly clever serial killers who get away with everything and artificial barriers thrown up by writers to squeeze more drama out of romantic angst. Darcy Garland, the multi-season speed bump to the blossoming relationship between Detective Murdoch and Doctor Ogden, suffers a character assassination this season as he goes from being reasonable and charming to being obstreperous and capricious, all for the writers’ increasingly desperate ploys to keep Murdoch and Ogden apart as long as possible. Rather than offer us something truly new and original on tv—reasonable adults dealing with complicated emotions with compassion, self-awareness, and generosity—the writers fall back on one of the most worn-out tropes of mystery fiction: have the offending interloper murdered by a genius serial killer who frames the detective. These are two episodes we will never be watching again.

But what a joy of an episode we get to start the season off with! “Murdoch Air” earns its full 10 rating with a thrilling opening, some great character moments, the return of the beloved James Pendrick, a dash of international intrigue courtesy of Myers and Clegg, and an exhilarating ending that has Murdoch soaring over Niagara Falls years before the Wright brothers got airborne. “Murdoch Air” has a little bit of everything that makes Murdoch so delightful.

There are a lot of other good episodes in the first half of the season, too, bringing us young Winston Churchill boozing around Toronto, a Sherlock Holmes impersonator with a mystery of his own to solve, an introduction to the turn-of-the-century nudist movement, and a poison-gas terrorist. On the other hand, you can skip the second half of the season and not miss much.

How did you like this season of Murdoch? Was the final two-parter right up your alley? Not thrilled by the airborne first episode? Let us know!

Image: Constable Crabtree trying pizza, from Murdoch Mysteries via IMDb.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

I Miss Episodes

I turned 40 last year, and I think it’s starting to affect me: I’m beginning to feel the urge to rant about kids these days and how everything was better when I was young. So be warned, there is some curmudgeonliness ahead, but I do have a point here.

I’ve been thinking lately about why I find a lot of contemporary tv so unsatisfying. It’s not that tv shows are bad now. It’s been aptly said that we live in a golden age of television. Freed from the constraints of syndication and network time slots, modern shows have dared to tell bigger, more complicated stories. The proliferation of cable channels and online services producing their own original content has meant a chance for a wider range of productions, from big-budget crowd-winners to oddball side projects. All of this is to the good.

At the same time, we’ve lost something in the modern approach to tv-making: episodes. It used to be that a season of a tv show was one or two dozen short stories, each told over the course of an hour or half hour (or twenty to forty minutes, on commercial television). Nowadays, a season of television is a ten-hour movie with arbitrary breaks for theme music. Stories are not told in an episode but slosh over to the next hour or two before there’s any resolution; meanwhile, another story has started going at the same time and continues to slosh forward on its own. Every tv drama has now become a soap opera.

I miss shows that had actual episodes, each a story unto itself with a beginning, rising action, climax, and denouement all in one sitting. As much as that format could sometimes be limiting, it also had its artistic virtues. It forced the action to move along at a brisk pace. It created a sense of urgency that shaped the storytelling. There was a feeling of satisfaction that came with watching the problem of the episode be resolved. Modern shows tend to wallow in characters’ unresolved feelings, pad their running time with filler, and dive down narrative dead ends, much of which would have been cut short in properly episodic television.

Of course, lack of satisfaction is the point. Now that we can stream any show we want any time we want, the economic pressures have changed. Rather than keep us coming back every week to see more commercials, the business imperative of tv is now to keep us from clicking away to another streaming service. While new content models have freed tv from some artistic constraints, they have imposed new ones that are just as limiting. It is now tv’s job to never give us satisfying endings lest we wander off to do something else.

I do appreciate tv shows that have continuity and ongoing stories. I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when the end of an episode meant a complete reset back to status quo ante, but continuity can coexist with episodes. Shows of the 1990s like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, X-Files, and Stargate pulled it off. In these shows, episodes mostly told self-contained stories, but they also remembered what had happened in previous episodes. Characters grew and changed, major plot twists had ongoing consequences, and big multi-season arcs played out a piece at a time, and yet when the credits rolled at the end of an episode, you still had the satisfaction of a resolution.

I wish we had more shows like that these days.

Here there be opinions!