Midseason Recap: Scorpion

Hey, let’s talk about TV shows! I haven’t followed any TV shows in a long time but this season I’m watching four, yes four of them. Since it’s the time of year where most shows are on break for the winter (at least while I’m writing this, I think most of these posts will go up after the actual shows start airing again) I thought I’d take a little time to look at the shows I’m watching from a writing perspective. Let’s start with the show that I feel is currently doing the best, writingwise, of those I’m following. That show is Scorpion, which I’ve already talked about some here.

If you want a quick rehash of what the show is about and haven’t watched it, my linked recommendation serves as a good primer and I’m going to skip rehashing the premise of the show but I will talk a bit about format. Scorpion is an episodic show that deals a lot with the mechanics of hi-tech crime, at least in theory, and tries to wrap up each storyline within the course of a show. There are some exceptions, Walter trying to find a cure for his sister and Ralph’s dad coming back into his life for example, but for the most part each episode is a stand alone adventure. This is both a strength and weakness of the show but, as it’s been written so far, I feel like it’s more of a strength.

The fact that there’s no overarching plot in this first season means I’m going to skip an analysis of that so far and just talk about the characters, relationships and episodes I feel were best and worst in this series.

Favorite Character: Cabe Gallo

While Paige is our audience surrogate, the normal person in the herd of geniuses, Cabe is the heroic normal and he’s perfect in the roll. He’s competent, knowledgeable in his field and surprisingly tough for a grumpy old man. Although if Up and Gravity Falls have taught me anything it’s not to underestimate grumpy old men.

What makes Cabe so well written is how well he handles his team. He’s a stern leader when he has to be, and you never get the impression that he’s overly familiar or affectionate. But there are enough glimpses of the compassionate and caring person who values his job as a way to help people to ensure that we never see Cabe as just a suit or a handler. He’s a wise man and mentor of the group and he fills the roll to a T.

Least Favorite Character: Sylvester Dodd 

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Sylvester a lot. He’s funny and sweet and his neurosis remind me a lot of famous fictional detective Adrian Monk. And that’s my biggest problem. Other than age and mathematical acumen, Sylvester doesn’t feel a whole lot different from Monk in the way he’s presented most of the time. Sure, Sylvester smiles more but that’s about it.

Mostly, I feel that Sylvester lacks development. Hopefully as we learn more about his background and see him in new situations he’ll grow and become more interesting but right now he feels a little flat against all the other, louder characters in the group.

Favorite Character Dynamic: Happy/Toby

These two. Happy could just come off as a stereotypical abrasive, angry woman. Toby could just come off as another snarky man with a huge ego. The two together could just feel like clashing personalities in a boring, predictable relationship.

And okay, on occasion they do.

But for the most part the two complement each other well and they’re written with a light touch, not overused, and we see their good sides very often as well. It makes them fun to watch and gives an alternative to the much more vanilla relationship between Paige and Walter.

Least Favorite Character Dynamic: Walter/Drew 

I’m not sure where the relationship between Walter and Ralph’s dad is going, what Walter thinks of it or if we’re supposed to find it touching or disappointing or what. Walter seems just as conflicted about it so that may be intentional but I think it’s cluttering up the show when I’d much rather see the Scorpion team being fleshed out more in their own right. Just not sure this is adding anything to the show right now.

Favorite Episode:  Rogue Element (S01E09) 

This episode introduces us to Cabe’s ex-wife, fills in much of his backstory and lets us see how Cabe’s leadership of the team now is just an extension of who he’s always been. I really like the dynamic we see between Cabe and Rebecca, his ex, and I love the sense of longstanding partnership between the two. Rebecca is obviously a toughminded woman but still charming and thoughtful. It’s easy to see how she and Cabe would have wound up a couple and how Cabe’s regrets over their falling apart would mark him.

I also enjoy the clear signs that Cabe and Rebecca actually thought about what their relationship would mean for each of them as a result of Cabe’s career, avoiding what I like to call the Gwen Stacey Fallacy, but more on that another time.

Least Favorite Episode: Plutonium is Forever (S01E04) 

Did not care for the scenario, antagonist or general direction of this episode. While Scorpion has a theme of great intelligence not necessarily being a blessing, the way this episode tries to portray Walter as a personality waiting to collapse under it’s own genius just doesn’t ring true. Many of the plot points are predictable and the resolution lacks tension. Cabe walking out of the ocean is a really funny scene, though.

Other Stuff

Okay, so that’s the highlights and lowlights of the season’s writing for me, so far. Some other things I like about the show include it’s casting – only Elyes Gabel (Walter) and Katharine McPhee (Paige) fall into the typical Hollywood “beautiful people” range. The rest of the cast, while not unattractive by any means, feel much more like real people and not the over-stylized figures that you typically find in a TV show. Props for that.

Also, the heist-esque elements in many of the episodes are very entertaining, giving what could be a slow-feeling premise (dealing with cybercrime and security) a more lively feel.

On the other hand, the acting is not always all it could be. Robert Patrick (Cabe) and Eddie Kaye Thomas (Toby) do the best most consistently, in my opinion, and this is probably a big part of why I like their characters as much as I do. The other actors aren’t bad, but they don’t feel particularly inspired either. Hopefully as the cast gels more we’ll start to see more engrossing performances from them as well.

Scorpion has had a good first season so far and it promises to be interesting and fun come the new year as well so if you’re not watching it yet give it a shot. It’s good stuff.

Cool Things: Soulminder

Timothy Zahn is the king of well crafted scifi thrillers, specializing in space opera. But in Soulminder he outdoes himself twice.

The premise – Dr. Adrian Sommers looses his five year old son in a car accident. For years he lapses into obsession, convinced that with the right technique his son’s body could have been healed. Finally he perfects the Soulminder, a device to that hangs on to the human soul long enough to let modern medicine repair the body intended to host it so the soul can be returned. A new medical procedure capable of saving thousands of lives has been created. And with it comes problems. So very, very many problems. The first comes when a man who’s soul is in a Soulminder is declared dead and malicious parties try to have the body cremated. And the cases only get more bizarre from there.

Zahn is always at his best when there’s scheming and clever tricks to be played and the concept of the Soulminder gives him an incredible new set of gambits to make. Soulminder is episodic, with each chapter covering a new problem Soulminder causes Dr. Sommers, his clients and frequently, the legal systems of the countries where Soulminder Inc. is operating. While the ideas are interesting and each new problem is handled in a clever way, many of the problems Zahn presents us with are frankly disturbing, not only in what they do to the people trapped in them but how realistic they sound. If a Soulminder trap were to be created in the modern day, these are exactly the kinds of things we could probably expect to happen as a result.

On the other hand, Zahn also approaches this new technology with a clear understanding of the need for moral oversight. In fact, the second chapter of the book deals extensively with how religious leaders and other sources of moral oversight might react to something like Soulminder and, in a refreshing change from the way such figures are normally treated in scifi, even Sommers’ most strident critics are treated fairly and respectfully, with the understanding that they are also doing their best to deal fairly with strange, new technologies. In fact, for the fairness and clear understanding Zahn shows to his religious characters alone this book is a stand-out among scifi today and worth your reading.

Sommers tries his best to ethically use his technology but ultimately others have to be involved and the problems just keep multiplying. That leads to his ultimate solution which, while interesting, does disturb me to a certain degree. I’m not sure if Zahn was trying to make a point with it or not, and I don’t think there really was a better solution for the problems Sommers faced, but I have to admit on reflection it’s uncomfortably close to an endorsement of suicide. I don’t think that’s what Zahn meant by it, I may just be overanalyzing it and in the context of Soulminder, a technology that’s more fantasy than true prediction of the future in my opinion, it may be the only right solution. It’s the only thing keeping me from recommending this book to anyone and everyone who loves good thrillers.

But still, that small caveat aside, it’s a good book. If you don’t mind reading about the darker things man can do with technology and trying to work out whether the solutions we find to those problems are correct, Soulminder is the book for you.

Thunder Clap: Hit Bottom

Izzy

Life is all about plans changing. Still, going from “get down the stairs, smash stuff and get gone before you get shot” to “run around and get shot at as a distraction” is a pretty extreme change.

“There’s four stairwells open,” the mysterious Agent Stillwater told us. “Closest is around the second left.”

“Got it.” I leapt down the hall, leaving Clark to catch up, and did a quick glance around the corner. The way was clear so I signaled Clark to come forward and headed to the stairs. We’d been doing this for the last ten minutes, trying to buy time for whatever Stillwater’s team was doing, baiting Circuit’s guard forces from floor to floor to keep them from paying too much attention to the lower floors. I wasn’t quite sure what he was up to but he’d known an access code that Clark recognized – field analysts have this huge list of codes they’re expected to memorize and apparently the old man knew one really high up the list.

And so, a mad dash through the tower was the order of the day. We’d been looping back and fourth through the building, going down floor by floor and attracting as much attention as we could without getting shot. Agent Stillwater hadn’t told us what his game was although, to be fair, he was kind of busy just directing us through the building and keeping a listening ear on our pursuers. At some point he’d done the math and figured out there were probably only fifteen or twenty guards on our tails, not enough to watch all twelve stairwells in the building effectively, so we were doing our best to stay a step ahead. But they were herding us into one corner of the building and it was getting harder.

Worse, we’d come down at least ten floors and were somewhere around the fortieth floor now. At some point Circuit’s people could start coming up at us.

I gave the stairwell a quick check, although so far Stillwater hadn’t been wrong about a stairwell being empty, and waited for Clark to catch up. He was starting to get really winded, he probably did some PT but we’d covered a lot of ground. I don’t have a good grip on this kind of thing but I’d guess anyone would be tired after all that. As he skidded to a stop I knelt down and picked him up in a piggyback carry. Odd, perhaps, but it’s the safest way to jump while carrying someone and we weren’t actually using the stairs just sort of falling past them from one landing to the next.

Clark started to slip off my back as I reached for the door but Stillwater chose that moment to break in and say, “Agent Rodriguez?”

“Call me Izzy,” I said by reflex.

He ignored me and went straight on. “We’re ready for you now. You and Agent Movsessian can come down to us now. We’re in the third subbasement.”

Clark groaned and climbed back on. I took a deep breath, did my best to ignore my stinging feet, which had decided to start getting their feeling back two floors ago, and got ready for the next jump.

We wound our way down the stairs for a good fifty to sixty seconds, the way lit only by the dim light of emergency exit signs. I’d briefly considered asking if we could just knock out the building’s generator and hamstring Circuit that way but Stillwater, whoever he was, didn’t seem to be in the mood to consider other ideas and there wasn’t that much time to talk. Besides, given what I’d heard about him, odds were Circuit wasn’t actually running off of the building’s power grid. Finally we arrived at the subbasement in question, and for those of you wondering a subbasement is what they call anything below the first basement in a building. So we were basically three floors underground and isn’t that just something to make you feel great about yourself?

Stillwater’s voice led us through the basement hallways and over to one of the two elevator banks that led down to the subbasement. Finally we wound up in a small utility room beside the elevator shaft with two men in wheelchairs, a nondescript white man who could have put on a jumpsuit and passed for a janitor anywhere and a black guy who would pass for a basketball or football coach most places if not for the tank he wore on his back that made him look more like an exterminator.

In wheelchair number one there was an old man, hunched to the point his head was almost resting on his chest, who I guessed was Stillwater. The other man had a head like a pool ball, shaved clean and smooth, and looked vaguely familiar.

Clark placed him before I did. “Matthew Sykes?”

He looked up from a laptop he’d been engrossed in. Lit by the screen, Sykes was easier to make out than most of the people in the room and the first thing I wanted to ask was why he was strapped in to his chair with something that looked like a cross between the restraint bar on a roller coaster and a rappelling rig. Thick, padded straps covered his shoulders and fastened to a bar that was tightened down over his waist. It looked like the laptop was connected to a pannel in the wall, at a guess I’d say it was a router of some sort. A wan, distracted smile changed his rather unremarkable face to something almost inviting and I suspected he’d be a fun guy to hang out with under other circumstances. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names?”

“Clark Movsessian.” He twitched a thumb at me. “Isabel Rodriguez. We work with Project Sumter and can I ask what you’re doing down here?”

“Expert consulting,” Stillwater said.

“But what’s he consulting on?” I asked.

Sykes tapped the side of his laptop. “The network those guys are running on was built by my company and I did a lot of the basic setup work on it in my younger days.” He hit a few keys. “And now it’s gone.”

“Gone?” Clark hurried over and looked at whatever Sykes had just done. “Are you sure? They can’t get access back?”

“Not without coming down here and asking us to share,” Sykes said.

“Oh.” I looked back out into the dark hallways we’d just come through. “I guess that’s what we’re here for?”

“We could always use more hands.”

Stillwater spoke at the same moment Sykes said, “What do you mean?”

The two men shared a confused glance. Stillwater quickly said, “Mr. Sykes, perhaps my tactical man and I should take it from here? I may be old but this isn’t-” Stillwater paused and tilted his head in a way much like Amp did when she heard something odd. “Someone’s coming down the elevator shaft. I can hear them talking.”

“How?” Clark asked. “Elevators shouldn’t be on the backup circuit.”

“They’re not in the elevator, just the shaft,” Sykes replied, setting his laptop on the ground nearby. With the quiet whir of an electric motor his chair rolled out the door and towards the elevator entrance. The rest of us hurried to keep up.

——–

Helix

Jack met Teresa and I as we headed towards the interview rooms. “She just got here with Mr. Sykes’ secretary,” he said without preamble. “No trouble on their way over from the airport.”

“Have you seen her yet?” I asked.

“Nope. Guards said she seemed collected but nervous.” He shrugged. “Sounds like a tough lady but no idea if that means she was involved or not. That’s her.”

Jack pointed to a average sized brunette, seated with her back to us, in one of the nicer interview rooms. A snappily dressed man in his mid to late forties sat to her left, a hand resting lightly on one shoulder in a caring but somewhat distant way. He had salt-and-pepper hair and beard and an intelligent set to his features. I was guessing that was the secretary.

“We know anything about that guy?” I asked.

Jack shook his head. “Didn’t even get his name. Apparently he was waiting for Mrs. Sykes at the airport and she wanted him to come along. No idea if there’s anything beyond casual acquaintance between the two.”

I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and popped my knuckles. “Okay. Let’s go see what we can see.”

Secretary guy stood up as soon as the three of us stepped into the room, automatically taking a half step to put himself between us and his employer’s wife. Mrs. Sykes turned at the same moment and for a brief moment she seemed familiar to me before the secretary distracted me by talking. “Good morning gentlemen, ma’am,” he said, nodding to each of us in turn. “I’m the office manager for the Sykes Telecom home office. Simeon-“

“My God.” Teresa brushed past both of us and grabbed Mrs. Sykes by the shoulders. “Elizabeth?”

Simeon cleared his throat, looking a little uncomfortable, and continued on. “I am Simeon Delacroix and this is Elizabeth Dawson Sykes.”

Which was why she looked familiar. We’d never met but I’d seen her picture many times. I looked up at Jack. “I think we have a problem here.”

——–

Izzy

The elevator door slid open without that usual ding. And I guess that makes sense, the thing that dings is probably in the elevator cab not the door, right? Putting one on every floor would be a lot more expensive than just putting one in the elevator cab. Dumb thing to be thinking about at the time, but it’s what went through my mind.

Sykes came to a stop in front of the elevator as the doors started to slide open. With the exit sign above the stairwell nearby providing the only bright source of illumination in the hall I couldn’t make out much. Just the blocky shape of Sykes’ wheelchair, which now that I thought about it looked way overbuilt. The frame seemed to go all the way down to the floor and extended over the wheels several inches. And it was solid, like someone had put a golf cart engine under the seat. Or a couple of car batteries, since that made more sense.

But the really wild thing? When the elevator doors opened there were three guys in the shaft and they were flying. Clark whistled softly when he saw that. “Maglev elevator shafts. This place really did have a lot of nonstandard work done when it was renovated.”

The first man in line stepped out of the shaft, squaring off against Sykes as the other two came out behind him and three more dropped into view. The leader wore a dark suit, fedora and a black cloth around the lower half of his face hiding his features and expression. But his tone of voice was pure contempt. “Who are you people?”

For just a second the tableau held and I felt the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. Then Sykes slammed his fist down on the armrest of his wheelchair and the men still in the elevator shaft dropped like puppets with their strings cut. I got a brief glimpse of another batch of three going past the open door while Sykes snapped, “I’m Open Circuit, that’s who I am. You are in my tower, stealing my plans and even ripping off the way I dressed. So tell me something, young man. Who are you?”

Fiction Index

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Avengers Analyzed: Tony Stark

The Avengers – most people in America can tell you at least a little bit about who they are, at least in their most well known incarnations that have been around in theaters for nearly ten years(!), and that’s really pretty amazing. Writers can always benefit from analyzing writing that’s successful and the most successful part of the franchise is undoubtedly its ability to craft memorable characters. So, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe builds towards the second touchstone movie in the franchise, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’re taking a look back at the first movie, Marvel’s The Avengers, to see what makes its characters so well defined. Today, we’re tackling Tony Stark.

Because it’s important to state biases I should note, before I begin, that I pretty much like Stark the least of the Avengers presented in this movie. That’s not to say that I don’t like him. I smile at his banter and I find him entertaining. But when I first watched the movie I suspected that he would begin to grate on me if I had to watch him solo and found that I was correct when I watched some of his stand-alone movies. I do like his character arc in this film but I don’t really love the character like a lot of people do. That said, his character arc in this film is really good.

Stark’s Background

Stark, as portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the only portrayal that matters for the purposes of this analysis by the by) is a genius weapons inventor turned general industrialist. His change of heart came after he was kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan and forced to escape by inventing the Iron Man power armor that he now uses to fight injustice. He claims to have privatized world peace. His ego is larger than the Hulk’s enraged form.

The Conflict

Like his friend Bruce Banner, Tony Stark’s conflict in The Avengers is character against himself. (And yes, one day soon I will be talking about what all the basic conflicts at the heart of writing are.) In Stark’s case it’s a conflict between his expectations for himself, rather than his actual personality. One half wants to continue to be the high-rolling, easy-street-walking, devil-may-care egotist he’s always been. The other half wants to be a superhero. Tony thinks he can be both but the fact is, the two halves are at odds.

We Meet Tony Stark

“Like Christmas, but with more me.” – Tony Stark 

We are introduced to Tony when he’s completing Stark Tower, a massive testament to three things – Stark’s genius, as the whole thing runs of one of his arc reactors, his ego, in his comparing himself to a major religious icon, and his wealth and influence. These are the underpinnings of his character and we get them in less than fifteen seconds. Well done, Avengers. Well done.

As a side note, the choice of Christmas as the point of reference for Stark Tower is interesting. Why not the Fourth of July or, for something more in line with Stark’s character, a rock concert? Hang on to that thought for a bit.

Stark’s Starting Point

“Phil? Uh, his first name is Agent.” –  Tony Stark 

Stark’s biggest problem is that he’s lived an essentially selfish life up to the point he became Iron Man and, really, for a little while after he first donned the suit. He’s set himself a goal of being a hero but he doesn’t really understand what that means and his behavior towards most of the people around him is unbalanced.

We see this fairly clearly in the way he can’t seem to pay a straight compliment to Pepper and the way he spends most of the time he’s around Phil treating him like an annoyance at best and a nonperson at worst. And these are the people that Tony Stark really likes, the people who have done their best to help him become the hero he wishes to be. Our Anthony clearly still has a long way to go.

First Bridge

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” – Tony Stark 

In a choice that is at once odd and probably inspired, Tony actually drops out of The Avengers for a good tenish minutes to give other characters a chance to breath. He’s had two films to the one the other superheroes have and it lets us get a good idea who the more restrained characters – Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers – are before they have to deal with the louder and more bombastic characters of Tony Stark and Thor.

But almost as soon as Stark comes back his conflict is at the forefront. He starts a pointless fight with Thor that Captain America has to diffuse but then he turns around and leads the charge to find the Tesseract while also privately offering Phil Coulson the use of his private jet to visit an offscreen love interest. Both modes of Tony are at full blast and causing problems.

Ever the perceptive leader, Steve Rogers spots the hypocrisy in Tony’s claim to heroism and calls him on it, precipitating another conflict of a much different type. As a soldier and a veteran of actual war, Captain America knows that you can’t win the fights that mean something without suffering casualties. Steve recognizes that Tony’s in denial about what being Iron Man will cost him and tries to confront him about it but Stark weasels out by trying to make it Steve’s problem, not his.

After all, Tony Stark has always been smart enough, rich enough and, thanks to Iron Man, strong enough to solve his problems without ever having to give something up. What possible need could there be for him to consider giving something up for the greater good?

Ultimately, though, not all choices are in his hands.

When the brainwashed Agent Clint Barton and his squad attacks the Helicarrier Tony has to play hero again and keep the ship in the air. And he does save lives. Lots of them. But in the process Bruce Banner goes missing, Loki escapes… and Tony looses a friend.

Stark Changes

“He was out of his league. He should have waited. He should have…” – Tony Stark 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the term Kobayashi Maru to the geek lexicon. For those not familiar, the Kobayashi Maru is a training scenario for Starfleet cadets and officers in the command branch of the fleet, in other words those seeking to eventually command ships of their own.

The set-up is thus: The cadet being tested is placed in command of a mission to patrol a demilitarized zone between the Federation and their bitter enemies, the Klingon Empire. On patrol they receive a distress call from a freighter called the Kobayashi Maru that has broken down in the neutral space between galactic superpowers. The cadet must decide if they will go and rescue the freighter, thus risking a breach of the peace, or leave the crew of the freighter there to die. If the cadet does send his ship in to rescue the Kobayashi Maru Klingons attack and destroy the trainee’s ship.

In the course of the movie we learn that the point of the scenario is to see how cadets react to a no-win scenario and to help them mentally prepare to face such a possibility in the future. We also learn that Kirk cheated, adjusting the programming in the scenario to make it possible to succeed, and Spock went through the Academy in the science branch and thus did not take the test. Neither one had really faced death. Ultimately both characters will face a real, life or death no-win scenario of their own and the outcome will mark them for the rest of their lives and become a touchstone of scifi literature.

I mention all this because out of all the Avengers in this film, there’s one who’s never faced a Kobayashi Maru before. Just like Kirk, Tony Stark didn’t believe in no win scenarios. Sure, Yinsen died when Stark first made his escape in Afghanistan but Tony hadn’t really been friends with him and he hadn’t really been Iron Man either. Tony thought being a hero meant never having to loose something again.

He was wrong.

Phil Coulson was Tony’s Kobayashi Maru. A wake up call to seriously consider the cost of the heroism Iron Man was supposed to embody. A reminder that Tony Stark could do everything right and still loose.

And Tony is still so very, very far from doing everything right. But at least he’s thinking about it. And Tony Stark thinks a lot faster than most.

Confrontation With Loki

“His name is Phil.” – Tony Stark

Stark begins his character’s transformation and the change in course almost immediately throws him in the face of Loki. Almost.

In the larger context of the Iron Man movies Tony has a habit of dropping into funks whenever things don’t go his way. And things didn’t go his way in a big way. So he goes off to brood after Nick Fury gives the team a little push. It takes Steve Rogers to snap him out of it and get him back on track. By example and by his own involvement Cap is making himself something of a thorn in Stark’s side, reminding Tony of his own failings in a way that makes him distinctly uncomfortable.

Steve also pushes him to get in Loki’s head and deduce his next move. Romanov and Loki may have the most similar skill-set but in terms of personality Stark and Loki are the most alike. That makes Stark Tower a fitting location for their showdown.

The confrontation between Tony Stark and Loki is interesting for any number of reasons but I’m just going to discuss two of them. First, Stark confronts Loki when he’s not in his heroic element, at least most of the time. All the other Avengers do.

Why? Well, I suspect it’s to emphasize the transformation going on inside of him. Stark’s never been a coward but, unlike Bruce Banner, he fully accepts the tools he has for the job. When he needs to put the hurt on baddies he does it with the Iron Man suit. But his current suit is busted and he needs time to get the new one ready and that means confronting Loki under conditions that aren’t optimal.

Stark’s never done this before. (As an aside, I like the fact that a major part of Iron Man 3 is Stark hacking it as a hero even without the armor.)

So in Stark’s willingness to confront Loki without his greatest resource at his disposal and without waiting for the rest of the Avengers to show up and make life a little easier we see a growing maturity in Stark’s behavior. He’s accepting risk as part of the job.

And why? Well, that brings me to the second thing that’s interesting. Tony’s trying to intimidate Loki, he actually uses the word “threaten” a couple of times. He plays up the overwhelming nature of the forces arrayed against Loki. As a former arms merchant, Stark knows a lot about the value of displaying overwhelming force against an opponent and he’s a natural salesman. He does everything he can to sell Loki on the overwhelming nature of the weapons at Earth’s disposal. And what are they?

Two of the best trained spies in the world, a man with breathtaking anger management issues, a demigod and the greatest soldier the world has ever known. Plus one more.

Phil Coulson.

Tony Stark is nowhere on that list. Why? Is it because Stark was ashamed of himself for not protecting a friend and didn’t think he had anything to contribute? Possibly, but if so why bother going to Stark Tower at all? Did he feel his presence there was all the mention he needed to make? I don’t think so, he’s never passed on the opportunity to talk himself up before.

Instead, I’d suggest that Stark’s incredible high opinion of himself has been shaken. Oh, it will recover to be sure but, for the moment, he doesn’t really feel like a hero. His illusions of power and efficacy have been shattered and Phil Coulson, who’s actions objectively did little to directly hinder Loki, has risen to a place of prominence in his mind not through something he did but through the attitude he demonstrated. That’s fitting given Phil’s role in the story. More on Phil later, for now it’s important that during Tony’s confrontation with Loki he replaces himself with Coulson.

There’s a lot of other interesting things going on in the confrontation between Stark and Loki, not the least of which is Loki’s failure to dominate Stark’s mind, but from the perspective of Tony’s character arc the fact that he stuck his own neck out and did so in part because of the example of Phil Coulson are the salient points. The confrontation ends when Loki throws Stark out a window and the new generation of Iron Man armor goes after him, allowing Stark to take to the skies and grapple with the incoming alien menace.

Second Bridge

“JARVIS, have you heard the tale of Jonah?” – Tony Stark

Once again the focus swings off of Stark as the Chitauri army fills the skies over Manhattan and a huge brawl breaks out. Stark is first on the scene and throws himself headfirst into holding the gap, a purpose he fills admirably.

Of note is the fact that from this point onwards Stark stops pushing back against the leadership of Steve Rogers. The two characters have grown to the point where they can no longer really serve for foils to each other and, to the movies credit, it doesn’t try and keep them in this role. Tony follows Steve’s orders both because he has a new understanding of what Captain America, who has lost many friends in past battles, has gone through and because Cap is clearly the man for the job. The only thing of note that happens regarding Stark’s character is when he and his electronic co-pilot JARVIS are trying to figure out how to take down the heavily armored Chituari sky creatures.

Taking Jonah as an inspiration is an interesting choice. The obvious reason would be the most famous part of that prophet’s story, his time in the belly of a great fish. But more interesting as a part of Stark’s character development is the fact that Jonah wound up in the water because he volunteered to be thrown overboard. Why?

Because he knew that the storm threatening to sink the ship he was on was caused by his presence. He knew that by leaving the ship he could save everyone else on board even though it might cost him his own life. Again, why is this important?

Well, I’ve asked you to hold on to a few thoughts during this analysis, I guess it’s time we tied them all together.

Character Resolution

“I know just where to put it.” – Tony Stark 

Over the course of the story Tony has compared himself to two religious figures, Jonah and Jesus, both of whom have self sacrifice as a component of their story. He’s also outright replaced himself with Phil Coulson when confronting Loki, and Phil is also a character who made a sacrificial stand during the course of events.

Now if only one of those comparisons had taken place we could say it was a coincidence. Christmas fits the theme of a tower of blazing lights. Stark was mad about Phil’s death. Jonah did go into the belly of a great fish and the leviathan Stark was fighting looked a lot like one as well. But all three together? That’s too much to be coincidence. Three is a number human beings like, three is the number of acts in the typical story, three is the number of times the comparison is made. Not accidentally. Deliberately.

Joss Whedon wrote this script and he’s an incredibly literate, articulate and artistic man. He knew the significance of the words he was putting in Tony’s mouth and he knew the picture they would paint. Tony isn’t serious when he compares lighting up Stark Tower to Christmas. He doesn’t want a religion built around Iron Man, although he probably wouldn’t mind being seen as a more conventional savior.

But when Phil dies it exposes something that Stark lacks and he’s trying to figure out what it is. He thinks Phil had it and as a result the humble Agent Coulson becomes the biggest thing in Stark’s mind. Thus for a moment Phil takes Stark’s place in the Avengers, at least in Stark’s opinion.

Finally, when JARVIS suggests Jonah isn’t a good role model Stark ignores it and treats the prophet as just that. He’s gone from not believing in heroes to recklessly following in their footsteps.

When world leaders deploy a nuke against the Chituari and threaten all of New York Tony Stark is a different man than he was at the beginning of the movie. He’s prepared to, as Steve Rogers put it, make the sacrifice play and lay down on the wire. Rarely do those who fail the Kobayashi Maru get a chance to redeem themselves. When Stark finds his he’s more than ready.

For a man pretty much defined by his ego and selfishness, it’s an incredible journey.

Of course a big part of what defines Stark’s journey is the constant presence of a man who has faced everything Stark hasn’t, and more than once. It’s ironic that Tony Stark spends most of the movie clearly of the opinion that Steve Rogers is naïve and out of touch but, when things go south, we find that it was really the other way around. While Iron Man is the most charismatic and charming of the Avengers, clearly it’s Captain America who is fit to lead them.

So next month let’s take a look at the man who’s struggle is one of the most relevant to the Avengers as a whole and the other characters individually. Come back in January and we’ll look at Captain Steve Rogers and the question of purpose.

Cool Things: Big Hero 6

It’s time to contradict a rule I shared with you just last month – I’ve only seen this movie once. I’m still okay with recommending it to you.

Big Hero 6 is, hands down, the best movie released in 2014 that I’ve watched so far. For those wondering, other movies of this year that I’ve seen include The Amazing Spiderman 2, The Lego Movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Edge of Tomorrow. And yes, Big Hero 6 is better than all of them. Not by much, in the cases of fellow Marvel property Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Edge of Tomorrow, but still better.

Let’s start with the basics. If you’ve seen any of the trailers you know that, at it’s heart, the movie is about grief. Protagonist Hiro Hamada lost his parents at a young age and his remaining family consists of his single aunt and older brother, Tadashi. Then Tadashi dies.

The sum total of Tadashi’s legacy consists of his younger brother, his four friends from college and his experimental healthcare assistant robot Baymax. Again, if you’ve seen a trailer for this film you already know that the squishy, huggable Baymax is a major character in this story.

Other films and other media have tackled the issue of robots among us before. It may seem hard to believe that there’s any new ground to break. And maybe there’s not but every moment Baymax is on the screen he’s so fun, so charming and so pure-hearted you really won’t care. It may be odd to say but it’s Baymax, the creature of programmed behavior and mannerisms, that comes off as the real hero of this bunch.

Baymax has one purpose in life – to see to the health of the people around him. When it becomes apparent to Baymax that Hiro is suffering from grief and depression he starts working to cure it. Most of the important moments of emotional development in the story are a direct result of Baymax’s actions.

Robots tend to be very flat, one dimensional characters even in their best depictions. But Baymax surpasses that problem in spades and he alone would make the movie worthwhile. Fortunately we get more than just one good character in this movie.

Hiro is a very believable protagonist as well. Sure, he’s a genius and most of us movie goers aren’t but in watching him get caught up in dreams, goals and ultimately grief we see in him a very human, relatable character who’s just trying to figure out who he’s supposed to be in a world that seems very set on taking away all his points of refrerence.

The supporting cast is a lot of fun, too, and better experienced than described. Unfortunately, outside of the mask-wearing villain and Tadashi there’s not much development among them. The movie is already pretty packed and there wouldn’t have been much time for developing them more but it’s still kind of disappointing to have funny stereotypes rather than funny characters. Keep your fingers crossed for a sequel and maybe we’ll see more of them developed.

It’s really hard to talk overmuch about the plot in this film. Most of the villain, from his identity to his goals, is kept a secret until the end so I can’t really say much about it. A shrewd writer will probably see through the twist but the ride is still more than worth it. I will say I like the way the story sets up and then subverts common expectations.

In the end the one complaint I had about Big Hero 6 after walking out of the theater is that I wanted more of it. More fun, more time with the characters, more stories to explore and enjoy. And if that’s the only complaint you have then the movie is obviously doing a lot right.

Thunder Clap: Break Out

Izzy

I finally managed to squeeze my hands out of the shackles and carefully set them to one side on the floor. Then it was back to the hole in the wall to glance in on Clark. “Alright, I’m out. From the way you were moving around I’m guessing they didn’t bother to tie you up?”

“Just took away all the furniture and jammed the door somehow. If you’re ready to move then so am I. What’s the plan?”

“We need to get out of here.” I drummed my fingers on the wall for a moment. “And if possible, we need to try and wreck whatever system Circuit is using to keep in touch with the outside world. If we can blind him he’s crippled. He was tampering with all those development projects to build a network we couldn’t tamper with, right?”

“That’s a good guess.”

“So where would the connection to that network be?”

Clark thought about it for a few seconds. “Well, in a building of this size it’s going to be somewhere in the basement or subbasements. Probably not down too low, Sykes Telecom wouldn’t have wanted to run too much extra cable through the ground to wind up lower down so I’d guess somewhere in the first basement. Mind you, I have no idea what floor we’re on now.”

“Wonderful. Just a sec.” I crawled over to the door, still careful of my stinging feet, and gave it a once over. It was a wood or faux wood thing that looked hefty enough that it might be useful as something to throw, if I could find enough space to heft it, but probably wouldn’t stop bullets. Assuming I could even rip it off it’s frame without shattering it into something useless. I went back to the wall and asked, “How tall is this building again?”

“Eighty-six stories. Give or take.”

I squeezed the bridge of my nose between the palms of my hands. “And Circuit was pretty far up in the video Helix saw.”

“That’s what he said, yeah.” Clark gave me a worried look through the hole in the wall. “Why? What are you thinking?”

“We could just go straight down from here,” I said, glancing down at the floor before remembering he probably couldn’t follow the action.

Fortunately he caught the idea. “We might, although I’m not going to try and guess what that might do to the building overall. Smashing through eighty floors just to get to the basement doesn’t strike me as the smartest idea if we want the building to keep standing. On the other hand, we might only need to go down a few.”

“Right. The guys who were in here a little while ago seemed like they were overworked. Probably short on people. There’s no way they fill this whole building.” Which reminded me. I waited for a moment, listening to see if there were any signs of life coming from outside. But all was quiet. “I don’t suppose you memorized floor layouts for this place, or anything?”

“No. But Waltham Towers doesn’t have a large footprint, as skyscrapers go. It shouldn’t take us too long to find stairs or an elevator shaft. The real question is did they rig the building in any way? My gut says yes, just because Circuit seems to rig just about everything. If he hasn’t it’s probably a red herring or a trap of some other kind.” Clark thought for a moment. “Five floors. That should put us outside their reach and give me enough time to check over whatever route down we discover before we commit to it. Think you can get us that far?”

That was a stupid question and I answered it by sticking my hands into the hole in the wall, pushing outward a few inches until I touched the joists on either side of it, and said, “Stand back and get ready to move.”

He stood back and got.

One thing you never appreciate about being a human demolition charge until you do it is how dusty the job is. After the first experience or two you either learn to hold your breath really, really well or you get used to coughing and puking everywhere. Tearing through the wall was easy but the bigger mess, drywall pours out huge clouds of dust everywhere and it didn’t settle fast. That meant holding my breath as I stepped into Clark’s room and dropped an elbow on the floor. Under normal circumstances we were supposed to discuss strategy before pulling a forced exit (entry?) like that but the longer we sat around in enemy hands the greater the chance that someone would stumble on us and we’d be in deep.

Breaking through floor is generally less of a mess than walls, it’s mostly insulation, wiring and supports, nothing as powdery as drywall.

The problem is, while I’m pretty muscular my cardio is kind of weak. It comes from not really having to exert much to do anything. While Al’s been working on correcting that in training we haven’t made as much progress as he’d like. And with my feet still in pain and a long night already under my belt I wasn’t exactly in top form to begin with.

So I botched my landing. After coming in through the ceiling I landed in a pile of debris and went down flat, wheezing in a lungful of dust and coughing spastically. I caught a glimpse of a big room, later I’d learn we’d come down in a reception area on the floor below where a singe guard was on station. He couldn’t have gotten a good glimpse of what was going on since one of the light fixtures broke free and went swinging unpredictably through the room on its wiring and casting weird shadows all over the place. The light had just slowed enough that guard man was okay with getting close to see what had happened when Clark dropped through the hole and onto his back, putting him to sleep with a quick follow-up kick.

I didn’t see any of that personally but the dusty footprints on his shirt and sneaker shaped bruise already forming on the guard’s head when I got clear of the wreckage gave me a pretty clear idea of what happened. Clark was frisking him and had already taken his pistol and a spare magazine and was in the process of freeing something else from the man’s waistband. He looked more like the street thugs we’d been seeing all night than the trained paramilitary people that Circuit had used during the Michigan Avenue Proclamation and later at the Chain O’ Rivers state park.

“Circuit must be at the bottom of the barrel,” I said.

“Maybe.” Clark glanced at the gun. “But it’s not like he didn’t have the tools to hurt us.” Then he hefted his other prize. “And this.”

I rolled my eyes. “Your tire iron.”

He grinned. “My tire iron.”

“Just get ready to drop again.”

He collected the sidearm and down we went.

The next three floors were empty, in fact that guard Clark KOed was probably the outer edge of security in the building. But that didn’t mean we were out of the woods. When he failed to report in Circuit’s people would come looking to see what was wrong and it wouldn’t take them long to figure it out. But we hit kind of a snag when we got to the stairs since Clark didn’t want to go down them.

“Just give me a few seconds,” he said, carefully looking over the doorframe. “If this thing is rigged it will be faster to know about it ahead of time.”

After about fifteen seconds of time wasted he finally decided the doorway was safe and we pushed it open with a desk I grabbed out of a nearby office. Well, more like I threw the desk at the door from about twenty feet away. Nothing exploded or shot out of the stairwell at us so he ruled it safe to go in.

In, mind you, not down.

“Stairs and elevators are part of the skeleton of a building.” He rand his hand absently along the stairwell wall. “The major utility wiring runs alongside them. If we can cut it off here we can cut Circuit’s headquarters off. No electricity or Internet will go a long way to blinding him and helping us retake the city.”

“Do you know where the cables are?” I asked, looking around at the blank walls. “And can I rip them out without hurting the building?”

“Oh, a few holes in the wall shouldn’t be that big a deal,” Clark said. “But we don’t want to cause too many or hit anything loadbearing. It won’t drop the whole building but it probably won’t be great for us.”

“Perhaps I could offer an alternative.”

I froze, quickly examining my surroundings even as my brain told me the voice I was hearing was exactly like Amp’s. Which is to say, it had that weird distant quality and no visible source, it sounded much like a tired old man doing the talking.

Clark recovered first. “Can I ask who’s talking here?”

“I’m Special Agent Stillwater of Project Sumter,” the voice answered. “I heard you break into the stairwell just now and you don’t sound like you’re here to ruin our plans. Which is what you’re very close to doing right now. So, again, might I suggest an alternative?”

Clark and I shared a quick glance then I asked, “What did you have in mind?”

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Genrely Speaking: Parody

So last time around I talked about deconstruction and how it’s all about taking a genre back to basics. This month let’s take a look at another genre that’s very meta in it’s approaches to tropes, characters and story – parody.

Parody is a genre (metagenre?), like deconstruction, that is best when the creator behind it has a deep and abiding love of the foundational genre. While it can be done without that love, parodies that are just done to create a parody have a tendency to feel flat and lifeless at best or downright mean-spirited and petty at worst, frequently lapsing into the third metagenre, satire. Parody is closest to a characteristic genre, because most of it’s scenarios are drawn straight from the aesthetic genre being parodied while the characters toss around more lampshades than a discount furniture store.

The goal of all this nonsense is, of course, to illustrate the nonsense of the genre being parodied. Fun is the name of the game, fun had by pushing tropes to the limit and beyond to see how absurd they are then cleverly tying it all together to give the viewers the resolution they expect but not in the way they expected.

When you see the following, it’s probably safe to assume you’re dealing with parody:

  1. Lampshades. Big lampshades. Everywhere. Part of the humor in a parody is showing how the conventions of the parodied genre don’t actually make a whole lot of sense. And then, of course, allowing your characters to accept that absurdity as a part of their world and move on. In addition to being very funny it offers a valuable life lesson – much of real life doesn’t make sense to us but we still need to accept it to be able to function. Doing it with a bit of humor just makes it that much easier to do.
  2. Characters who are dangerously genre savvy. Since parodies tend to stack up tropes faster than Scrooge McDuck stacks money there’s a real need for the main characters to recognize and deal with the situations as fast as possible, otherwise the story either bogs down horribly or reaches the point where any believable resolution is impossible. Most of the time genre savvy is restricted to just one or two characters in a standard genre story – if more are demonstrating it odds are good you’re in a parody.
  3. As much flair and embellishment as possible. While most genres are trying to keep focus on their own central elements parody expects the audience to bring a functional knowledge of the central elements of its parent genre to the table so it can focus on making the tropes as big and over the top as possible rather than digging in to the depths of potential meaning the parent genre has.

What are the weaknesses of a parody? Probably the biggest is the basic investment parody expects its audience to have in the parent genre. A high fantasy parody expects us to understand the idea of rings of power or halflings and be ready to be entertained by them, it’s not going to delve too deeply into those concepts it’s going to be contorting them into new and weird shapes in an attempt to make us laugh.

On top of that, parody is a very loud and bombastic genre, very easily coming off as without reverence for the parent genre it is based on. And in some cases that’s true. A genre can suddenly skyrocket to popularity and detractors of the genre will try and show what’s wrong with it by using a parody – an attempt that pretty much always fails. Other times a creator’s idea of what would make a good parody doesn’t resonate with large chunks of a genre’s audience and the parody’s creator winds up loosing a lot of the audience he should be catering most too.

What are the strengths of a parody? As I said in the above point about lampshading, a good-natured attitude towards apparent absurdity is by no means a bad thing and parodies are very good at showing us how to maintain that. Also, the freakish gambit pileups that are often at the heart of parodies can be incredible showcases for creativity and fresh ideas, something genres can come up short on over time.

Most of all, parodies remind creators not to take themselves too seriously. Yes, being a creator is serious business. It’s very hard work most all of the time. It can be very easy to loose sight of the obligations creators have to their audiences, to loose touch with a spirit of fun that can make even the hardest messages more palatable. By bringing everyone, audience and creator, back in contact with that spirit the parody can do it’s parent genre a great service.