The Dave Barry Effect

Ever read Dave Barry? He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning humor columnist who used to write for The Miami Herald and he’s hilarious. Seriously, if you’re not familiar with his work go read one of his books like Dave Barry Does Japan or Dave Barry Talks Back. Both of these are great examples of his work and relevant to what I want to talk about because today I want to talk about humor. And he’s gotten a Pulitzer with his humor so he must be good at it, y’know?

I’ve mentioned before that humor is mostly derived from timing and delivery, the biggest exception being humor based on the absurd. And the reason I mentioned Dave Barry is because comedie bizarre is his forte.

Before there was an Internet few writers interacted directly with their audience. But as a weekly humor columnist Dave Barry had a constant and gnawing need for material. At some point, presumably early on in his career, Barry started encouraging his readers to send him any and every weird headline they found in the news. This eventually resulted in his featuring stories like the exploding whale or the air dropped trout. Each and every time Barry would tell his audience about one of these ridiculous events he would assure us, emphatically, that he was not making them up.

Seriously, this was a running gag equaled only by the way Barry would suggest random phrases would make good names for a rock band.

But the point of this post is not to exposit about Barry’s style, it’s to talk about one work of his in particular. In 1999 Dave Barry published Big Trouble, a novel. I won’t go into everything the book is about because it’s got a lot of plot threads juggled in a lot of ways that are really kind of clever and build to a decent climax and a mildly interesting payoff. It’s an okay book, but not a great one. That could be forgiven but, as someone familiar with Barry’s style, I found it had one flaw that was totally unforgivable.

It wasn’t that funny.

Oh, it will make you smile. And you might chuckle at a line or two. But there’s nothing particularly laugh out loud, sticks in your mind for life funny in the book, at least not that I found.

You see, a writer’s ability to use the absurd in fiction is inherently bounded by the fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Just reporting verifiable facts and then commenting on them lets Barry and many modern imitators get away with talking about some really ridiculous stuff, writing fiction demands that the author produce scenarios that sound at least somewhat plausible to the average reader. Big Trouble, unfortunately, crosses the line of plausibility in search of laughs and that kind of undermines the story.

Let me see if I can explain this a little better. You may know about something absolutely crazy that happened to your friend when he was sixteen and on a road trip across the country to visit his grandmother but if you adapt it to be a part of a fictional story you’re telling people will most likely just roll their eyes and wonder how you expected them to believe it. That’s the problem Big Trouble feels like it has.

Or, in other words, Dave Barry’s absurdist humor worked because we knew he wasn’t making it up. When he published a book that went in the fiction section, explicitly telling us he was making it up now, he lost most of the power in one of his greatest humor weapons. Now Barry is still funny and a brilliant satirist. But in both Big Trouble and his second novel, Tricky Business, he tried to turn the satire he lavished on real life into the foundation for a story and it was found somewhat lacking. While it may sound like I’m being harsh with Barry’s books I do want to say that I still enjoy his writing. His first two novels just aren’t the greatest examples of it and I haven’t read any of his later fiction. Maybe one day when I have some more time on my hands.

In conclusion, absurdism may be the best foundation for written humor but it’s not a good foundation for fiction. So what do you do when you want to write humorous fiction?

Well, that’s a question for another time.

Writing Men: Loyalty

Because the examination of well written male characters is a thing.

We’re in the part of this series where we take the broad (very broad) framework of male thought and apply it to how well written male characters act. Sometimes we use well written male characters like Daniel Ocean or Dipper Pines and sometimes we look at broad patterns of behavior which is what we’re going to do this week. As you may have already guessed, this week we’re looking at loyalty.

Loyalty among men is a well known phenomenon, perhaps most commonly associated with the incredibly strong bond men in military units or, in some cases, police and firefighter stations form with one another. The hallmarks of male thought are all over these kinds of bonds: They form around a group of people with a very clear objective, a tendency to revolve around a clear set of rules for behavior and where a great deal of sacrifice is demanded of those who are involved.

The phenomenon of loyalty might be best thought of as an offshoot of compartmentalization. Having spent so much time around each other, sharing goals, axioms and sacrifices, the part of the mind men assign these relationships to grows so large and powerful it overwhelms other compartments and the man simply conforms to the goals and expectations of his loyalties whenever they assert themselves rather than rejecting them in situations where they do not apply. Another way to think of this is a breakdown of compartmentalization and this is where the storytelling aspects of loyalty really shine through.

If you remember back when I talked about compartmentalization I mentioned that men can interconnect things – they just frequently choose not to in order to be fully focused on the task at hand. And I also mentioned that this comes with strengths and weaknesses. My purpose is not to rehash that but rather to point out that the bonds of loyalty are one of the things that forces a man to interconnect situations he might otherwise not.

A perfect example comes from the recent TV series Gotham, when Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred finds one of his old army buddies coming to call. Normally Alfred wouldn’t dream of asking anything of his employer – it’s just not what butlers do – but in this situation he really wants to let his friend stay and Bruce picks up on that, inviting Alfred’s friend to do just that as a result of Bruce’s own loyalty to Alfred. This is a minor example, although it probably wouldn’t feel that way to someone in Alfred’s situation, but we see similar situations in real life all the time.

Men staying at work late at the expense of their families. Men running off from family activities because a friend is in trouble. Ditching work because a trusted friend from an old sports team or college group is in town.  These are the bonds of loyalty, pushing one set of priorities into the space another is supposed to occupy. Like pretty much everything we’ve looked at in this segment, loyalty is both a positive and a negative and can be used by an author to both instigate and settle conflict in convincing ways.

Loyalty’s ability to provoke conflict is pretty well known. We’ve all seen at least one or two cases where a person’s commitments have made unexpected demands on them, growing in ways they never anticipated and left them having to choose  loyalties to uphold and which they need to put aside. These stories emphasize the way loyalty demands sacrifice and commitment, things men prize but don’t always fully think through.

Another aspect of loyalty is how it can be tested. While this could be (and frequently is) done by introducing conflicting loyalties that is by no means the only way to do it. One notable way to test loyalty in narrative is to show someone else suffering a loss due to their loyalty, in the most extreme cases showing a trusted friend of the protagonist dying in service of a cause, and then allow the character to grapple with the insecurities such a thing can cause. Another is to place goals and axioms in conflict – in other words, demand a man do something they think unethical to achieve their ends while his sense of loyalty demands he do both. Both of these are situations rife with conflict that can be used to develop your character into a more relatable, fully bodied individual.

Loyalty is a concept that is out of vogue these days. It’s not only unhip, it’s usually considered kind of silly or outdated. But loyalty is also being created every day in school rooms, on game fields and in workplaces. Men have always and probably will always bond with those who share their goals and work towards them earnestly. If it’s your goal to form realistic and relatable male characters then loyalty better be on the list of issues you’re prepared to address. Doing otherwise is doing your story and characters a disservice.

 

The Reading List (Part One of ???)

A friend of mine (you know who you are) asked me to compile a list of books I’d recommend he read, as he’d never seen me with a book that looked boring. I’ve reviewed my share of books on this blog before but not all the ones I’d recommend reading. And many of the reviews are kind of far back. So I figured why not make a list of all the books/series I recommend reading and give a few sentences detailing why I recommend them. This could easily turn into a many-thousand word post so I’m going to limit myself to five books here and come back to this every so often – no fixed schedule just whenever it hits me. In no particular order here are five titles (most of which are the start of a series) that I’d recommend to someone looking for a good read for a week or weekend, along with a brief summary. If I’ve done a longer review of the book I’ll link to that as well.

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld 

Genre(s): Alternate History, Steampunk

Sequels? First in a trilogy

This book kicks of a fun series that perfectly shows how you can use tropes without slipping into cliches. It has both a plucky girl trying to get into a male dominated world and a sheltered young man thrust into the hard world to survive as best he can. It focuses on the beginnings of what we would consider the First World War through the eyes of two characters. One is Aleksander Ferdinand, fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who flees for his own safety after his father’s death evading the steam powered mecha of the Germans who would take him into custody for “safekeeping”. The other is Deryn Sharp, daughter of a British balloonist who dreams of joining the British Air Fleet, which is composed of flying whales.

If you aren’t hooked yet you have no soul.

Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch

Genre(s): Police Procedural, Urban Fantasy

Sequels? Four and counting

One night when London Police Constable Peter Grant is standing guard at a murder scene he’s approached by a witness who claims to have seen the murder. There’s a catch, of course: Peter’s witness is a ghost. With nothing save police training to fall back on Peter takes out his notebook and gets a statement. He just doesn’t know what to do with it.

Following this line of investigation eventually brings Peter to the attention of one Thomas Nightingale, Detective Chief Inspector in charge of The Folly and the Last True Wizard in England. (That last part isn’t an actual job title I just call him that.) Nightingale takes Peter under his wing and starts to teach him magic but Peter will need to learn quick – a string of grizzly murders is leaving mutilated corpses across the city and the killer is clearly using magic to do the deed. With nothing but a ghost and a dog for witnesses the two will have their work cut out for them to say the least.

Railsea, by China Meiville

Genre(s): Steampunk

Sequels? None

Humanity has become a ferromaritime species & the great trains ply the ground between the highlands. From exploratory trains to the great mole hunting engines, commerce & communication & indeed survival depend on the trains. There are relics, invaluable pieces of salvage dug out of the heart of the earth. But most of what was has been is forgotten, entombed with the dreadful man-eating moles & giant ants & humanity now lives on the surface of the planet & the surface only. To go down is to be eaten by the hunters in the deep & to climb up is to die in the poisoned skies.

But there are a few who look up at the clouded skies and the towering heights of the highlands & feel a restless stirring. Surely, they think, there’s something beyond it all. & they provision the train & they light the coal or the diesel & they depart for the farthest corners of the Railsea.

Nightlife, by Rob Thurman

Genre(s): Urban Fantasy

Sequels? Oh, yes

Caliban Leandros is a monster – he’s been told that since the day he was born and his mother named him for the monster in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Only his brother Nico believes he can be anything else and it will take all they can do to prove it because Cal’s relatives on his father’s side have come to call and they’re up to no good.

Call them Elves, Faire Folk, what have you (although they prefer Auphe), they used to be the dominant species on the planet, before humanity crept up and outbred them. Now they plan to get back on top and Cal was an integral piece of the plan. Except the brothers Leandros don’t intend to play along. And maybe, between Nico’s training, Cal’s gloomy disposition and the fast talking charm of the neighborhood used car salesman (seriously) they can dig themselves out of trouble before the nightlife claims them for good…

Hounded, by Kevin Hearne

Genre(s): Urban Fantasy

Sequels? First of the Iron Druid Chronicles

When you’re the last Druid on earth it pays to keep a low profile. This is hard to do in an age when Facebook has replaced magic books and dryads rarely come out of their trees anymore. So Atticus O’Sullivan poses as a peddler of medicinal teas and rare books, never mentioning that one of the rare teas halts aging when mixed with a little magic or that some of the old tomes he keeps in the store can actually teach you magic.

Needless to say the fancy slice-through-anything sword stays in the back room at all times.

And not just because it’s kind of out of place – a being so powerful some considered it a god wants that sword and Atticus is determined to keep it from him. But hey, he’s got a trusty wolfhound pal, an unstoppable sword, death incarnate and, best of all, a law firm staffed by werewolves (and one vampire) on his side. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Hopefully you can find something on this list that appeals to you. Happy reading!

Genrely Speaking: Fractured Fairytales

What’s the big deal? You just take a standard fairy tale and break it, right?

No, not exactly. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this, now would I?

Where the fairy tale is one of the oldest genres of literature in the world the fractured fairy tale is one of the newest, in many respects even newer than science fiction. Like it’s cousin the fairy tale it’s a characteristic genre. In fact, most things about the fractured fairy tale are based on the fairy tale but, at the same time, it’s not a metagenre in anything but the most literal meaning, in that it’s a genre that came after the fairy tale.

The genre was really codified by the segment of the same name on the animated TV show The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. In fact, if you want a perfect example of everything the genre is supposed to be you need look no further than that. But at the same time the genre has the potential to be more as seen by one of it’s classic works, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is probably the first fractured fairy fale. The typical hallmarks of this genre of literature include:

  1. Application of logic or modern thought to situations that are clearly not modern. This isn’t a fullblown endorsement of anachronism, although it can go that far, but rather a tendency to give characters in classic stories modern viewpoints to point out how silly those situations would appear to modern people who have never encountered a fairy tale before. This can be done for the purposes of deconstruction or just for laughs. Bonus points if there is at least one character who stubbornly clings to the mindsets of the period the story originally came from and points out why all the modern ideas aren’t making sense either.
  2. A stronger emphasis on character. This is the first principle taken so far it becomes a hallmark all its own. Basically, where a fairy tale presents us with a generic protagonist who is a blank slate for us to project ourselves onto a fractured fairy tale stuffs its main characters (and sometimes its entire cast) full of so many quirks it’s hard to believe there could be anyone in the world like them. Which is the point. The general competence of the Yank vs. the shortsightedness of King Arthur in Twain’s tale is a good example of this – although again, Rocky and Bullwinkle are rife with examples as well.
  3. Loads of humor, frequently in the form of satire. Where the normal fairy tale is told for the lesson a fractured fairy tale exists to help us smile at our foibles. Frequently the humor comes from the aforementioned use of modern perspectives in situations where they don’t always fit. See most of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Of course, Rocky and Bullwinkle was frequently lampooning modern political figures and its fractured fairy tales are no exception but they did it in a way that made the fairy tale conventions look silly at the same time they made their target look silly. But the most frequent target for a fractured fairy tale’s humor should be the fairy tale itself, with its characters running a close second.

What are the weaknesses of a fractured fairy tale? Like all genres that put humor front and center, your audience’s sense of humor is going to dictate a lot. Humor is harder to do in text than it is in live mediums or over recordings as a lot of it is timing and reaction, things the audience must provide in their own head in a written format. This is why fractured fairy tales rely so much on pointing out absurdities – the bizarre is one of the few forms of humor free of the confines of timing. But it’s also something of an acquired taste and one not everyone is going to have.

Also there’s the question of familiarity. Fractured fairy tales assume at least a passing knowledge of the source material, usually European folklore although more rarely folklore traditions from elsewhere in the world. No culture’s folklore is without aspects that look odd to the modern eyes but not everyone is familiar with world folklore – some people aren’t even familiar with their local folklore. That can also contribute to fractured fairy tales being a miss, rather than a hit.

What are the strengths of a fractured fairy tale? They say a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and if you’re looking to do satire then the whimsy and general absurdist humor of a fractured fairy tale can really help with that. Once again, look at Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of the reasons they got away with the satire in that show is how generally good natured all the humor in the show was. Yes, they were making some political points but not with any ill will at heart.

And when the audience is familiar with the source material it makes for a sort of instant investment for the audience. They know the story already so they’re predisposed to it, whether to like it because it’s a fresh take on a favorite or just looking forward to a good skewering of a story they found weak.

In all the fracture fairy tale is a great kind of yarn, a familiar story skewed just enough to put a smile on our face and make us think. It’s certainly not an easy genre to write in but it sure is a fun one to read or watch when it’s done right.

The Goliath Principle

When I broke down Age of Ultron two weeks ago my biggest problem with the film was how lackluster the villain was and my biggest problem with the villain was that he didn’t. Accomplish. Anything.

Way back when I was a little bitty boy (living in a box in the corner under the stairs in the basement of the house half a block down the street from Jerry’s Bait Shop) I took a course on screenwriting. One of the first things we discussed was setting up the conflict in your story and, given the love Hollywood has for David and Goliath stories, our professor chose the story of David and Goliath to illustrate the principle. In outlining a script the story one of the first beats we had was Goliath triumphing over his enemies – a concept we called Goliath moment or the Goliath principle.

Now one thing you don’t hear a whole lot about in writing these days is how to build good antagonists in general and good villains in particular (the two are not the same thing). So let’s do a little of that, shall we?

The purpose of Goliath moments are pretty simple: They build audience investment. While conflict is what drives a story and pacing is how fast you’re moving investment is a measure of how much your audience cares. Part of getting your audience invested depends on your protagonist – how sympathetic, relatable and believable they are. But part of audience investment is solidly in the antagonist’s camp. Once you have your audience connected to your protagonist you still need to make sure they feel your main character could legitimately have something bad happen to them. The more present and pressing the danger the more likely the audience is to become invested in it.

The easiest way to do that is to actually have the villain do something bad.

Now typically the bad thing is done to the protagonist but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s look at a few stories from pop culture, shall we? Star Wars: A New Hope sees the villains capturing one hero, Princess Leia, in the first five minutes of the film. Before we’re a half an hour into the film stormtroopers have murdered the protagonist’s entire known family. We know immediately that these are bad people.

Aladdin begins with Jafar discovering the Cave of Wonders and sending a hapless minion to his death inside. From Iago’s reaction it’s no surprise that the cave killed the man and Jafar doesn’t pause for a even a moment to contemplate the minion’s death. He just moves on to the next scheme. That’s cold.

Titan A.E. begins with the Drej blowing up Earth. And that’s terrible.

These are all examples of the villain in a position of power freely using it to commit acts of evil. In the case of the Empire and the Drej it’s the power to cause harm while in Jafar’s case it’s the power that comes from his knowledge and expertise with the occult combined with his willingness to use these dangerous forces.

Seeing the dangerous and frequently deadly results of a villain’s actions increases audience investment because audiences will begin to worry for the wellbeing of the protagonists you are encouraging them to sympathize and relate with. Note that you don’t necessarily have to have a protagonist established before throwing a villain out there, menacing innocents and burning countrysides. Star Wars let us see a Star Destroyer demolishing another ship before we met any of the movie’s protagonists. But the whole time Luke and company were running around on Tatooine we knew that there was a giant death triangle in space waiting to nab them if they ever got spaceborn – and then it turned out there were two of them!

You don’t have to put your Goliath out there from moment one, of course. The Lion King doesn’t show it’s villain’s teeth until the movie’s been running a while. Neither does your villain necessarily have to leave a path of destruction in Its wake to appear threatening. The agents chasing Trinity at the opening of the Matrix don’t kill or even catch her. Instead their ability to shrug off apparent death and hijack the bodies of innocent bystanders serves to impress the audience with how dangerous they are.

The main point of all of this is to make the audience fear what the villain(s) can do to the characters they sympathize with and care about. While it doesn’t have to happen in every film showing Goliath ascending at or near the beginning of your story is a great way to make sure your villain is a solid threat and make your story that much better. In fact, if you have a favorite villain the odds are the storytellers did just that.

Green and Yellow Morality

Those of you familiar with the TV Tropes morality pages probably know what Black and White, Gray on Grey and Blue and Orange Morality tropes are. There’s a lot to be said about them but that’s not what I want to do today. Rather, in the same vein, I want to talk about another fairly frequent morality trope I’ve noticed in fiction and we’re going to call it Green and Yellow Morality, or GYM for short. Some context.

The colors green and yellow identify two opposing groups of interplanetary soldiers in the DC Universe. One of these groups are the Green Lanterns. The name Green Lantern is an old one in comics, going back to the 40s, although the most commonly known Lantern, Hal Jordan, was introduced in the late 50s. Although it wasn’t a part of the original Lantern’s schtick; when Hal first received his ring and given the power of the Lantern Corps he was told that a central requirement was that he be fearless. Another was that he be honest but that’s not what’s important here – fearless. Focus on the fearless.

Many years later, after almost half a century of expanding lore and character development, the Green Lantern story would come to depict the Green Lantern’s fearlessness as an extension of their willpower. Will held fear, and many other emotions, in check and allowed the Lanterns to draw out the power of their rings and use it wisely.

Yellow, as most westerners already know, is a color usually associated with fear or, more specifically, cowardice. It’s also the color the writers chose for the Sinestro Corps, also known as the (surprise!) Yellow Lanterns, a group of spacefaring warriors led by a former Green Lantern who had embraced fear, at least as a weapon, and made rings that gathered it from others as a power source.

Where Green Lanterns tried to encourage strong wills making good decisions in all people Yellow Lanterns would terrorize others into letting them make all the decisions.

While it’s never expressly described as a moral system Green Lantern stories constantly imply that fear is a bad thing and willpower is the opposing good. For example, Hal is often at odds with Batman. Part of that is personalities but part of it is methodology – Batman frequently tries to terrify criminals out of their current lifestyles and that is anathema to Hal and the Green Lanterns. The Guardians of the Universe are often depicted as using their will to hold all emotion in check so as to make the clearest and best decisions but avoiding fear in particular. And the primary method to contain Parallax, an evil being that is fear incarnate, was to imprison it at the heart of the universe-spanning power source for the Green Lantern’s will channeling power rings.

Without ever using the terms “good” or “evil” the comics manage to create the idea that willpower and fear are opposing forces with moral implications. That brings us back to our focus today: Whenever a work of fiction takes attitudes or outlooks or emotions and assigns them moral qualities you have Green and Yellow Morality.

While I’ve chosen DC’s Green Lantern mythos to provide the name for this the trope happens more frequently than you might think and the most famous example isn’t in comic books. It’s Star Wars.

The dark side of the Force is created (or channeled?) by anger, fear and aggression while the light side advocates an almost ascetic state of calm and… well, the light side is actually never articulated as clearly as the dark side. It’s a “flow” I guess and it involves life somehow. Mostly it seems to be whatever isn’t anger, fear or aggression.

Now like all tropes, Green and Yellow Morality is a writer’s tool. There’s a lot of interesting stories to be told based on the conflict between differing mindsets, attitudes and personalities and Green and Yellow Morality can be used to spark those conflicts or just make sure they keep burning hot. They open up opportunities to show the humanity in characters as well.

Moral codes always come with the challenge of applying them to real world situations and the Green and Yellow is no exception. Green Lantern stories in particular have occasionally subverted the general tone of the series to show how Hal’s strong will can result in his making decisions without questioning them and get himself in trouble or put distance between him and people with less confidence. What he sees as his greatest virtues can also be vices. The struggle to properly apply virtue is a universal one.

In fact Sinestro was a Green Lantern who used his own fearlessness to create and stay on top of the Yellow Lanterns; in many ways completely inverting what it meant to be a Green Lantern entirely.

But attitudes or emotions as a moral code have critical failings as well. One critique Jedi philosophy gets a lot is that fear and anger are not negative in and of themselves – they are emotions that occur when something negative could happen or has happened around us. We are scared of getting hurt. We are angry after being hurt. The emotions serve as warnings of danger or prompt us to react to difficulty. Likewise, aggression is simply actively seeking to make something you want a reality.

If left unchecked emotions like fear or anger or attitudes like aggression can result in bad things. But the reality of human experience is that the clamping down on any of these things will create just as many problems as leaving them unchecked would. Frequently finding moral outcomes in situations fraught with strong emotions is less an exercise in drawing a spectrum from emotional response to totally controlled response and more an exercise in creating a Venn diagram of where emotion and self-control overlap and create good results. When both ends of your “moral spectrum” result in evil then it’s not really a spectrum, just a way of talking about what drives us.

What that means for writers seeking to use Green and Yellow Morality is pretty straightforward. Avoid the temptation to follow in Star Wars‘ footsteps and blatantly assign morality or immorality to specific emotions or attitudes. Instead, try and be more like the Green Lantern – let your leading characters strongly identify with the ends of the spectrum you want to build and then play up the strengths and shortcomings of each. Yes, some emotions and attitudes will lead to good outcomes more than others and there’s nothing wrong with showing that. But ultimately human emotions aren’t moral decisions, even if they are closely linked at times, and trying to write a story where they explicitly are moral will probably do more to undermine your story than help It.

Used with care Green and Yellow Morality is a great asset in focusing your story and setting the stage for conflict. Used carelessly and it just makes your story look slipshod.

Writer’s Analysis: Age of Ultron

So I’ve done something like this when I did midseason recaps – see Scorpion for an example – and I thought I’d try my hand at a detailed analysis of what I thought of a recent film as a piece of writing. Since the only recent film I’ve seen is The Avengers: Age of Ultron and since I’ve already spent six whole posts talking about the first Avengers movie (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) I figured Age of Ultron was a good place to start.

Three things before we start. First off, to discuss how something is written you need to look at the story as a whole or at least from the perspective of everything that’s available. Naturally this involves spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Second, this is not a review. My opinion of the movie is that it was good fun but had weaker writing than the previous movie. There. That’s my review. The rest of this is more an examination of what was going on in the film, writing wise.

Third, like midseason recaps the focus is on writing, not acting, effects or other matters. But I did have a few thoughts on that other stuff so let’s get that out of the way real quick, shall we?

Acting And Effects 

The acting in this film is fine. Really, in terms of quality, it’s right up there with The Avengers except Clark Gregg isn’t in it so it suffers slightly. (Yes, I’m that much of a fanboy.) There are a few newcomers to the cast, most notably Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, and they’re just as competent and fun to watch as the others.

The effects are pretty sweet too. In particular there are some amazing shots of the Iron Man suit in action, “Veronica”, or the Hulkbuster as it’s called in the comics, is a lot of fun to see in particular. My one problem is probably Ultron himself.

The decision to make Ultron a completely CG character feels like a mistake. Yes, the effect is impressive but he feels slightly inorganic in the rest of the world. Even the Iron Man suit is a practical effect half the time – usually the half when it’s in close proximity to other real parts of the set so it doesn’t look wonky. Only the Hulk has been CG the whole time he’s on screen and even then he’s not the Hulk the whole time. Ultron’s CG the whole time he’s on screen and the scenes where he needs to be a serious character suffer for it.

In short, Ultron seems slightly out of place every time we see him and that doesn’t help the film’s biggest weakness…

The Villain 

Ultron’s a wuss. Seriously, he never pulls even one win over the Avengers. At least Loki managed to blow up a SHIELD facility, steal critical supplies and raid the Helicarrier and escape virtually unchallenged, to say nothing of his subverting a couple of major SHIELD assets. Ultron doesn’t succeed at anything.

From the moment his shambling first attempt at a body crashes the Avengers’ party they pound him like a red-headed stepchild and send him packing. The one time the Avengers are put off balance it’s by Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, not Ultron himself and even in this moment of triumph we see Ultron’s avatar on the scene blown up by Iron Man. Yes, it’s true that Ultron is supposed to be a kind of hive mind, never truly in one place at one time, but he’s only shown behaving that way once or twice and he winds up locked in a single place at the end of the film with relative ease so even that aspect of Ultron lacks impact.

Ultron’s motivation is also very muddy. I know that he’s supposed to be like Hal 9000, a computer designed to look after people that winds up trying to wipe them out instead, but the problem is that’s a very overdone concept these days and the basic premise hasn’t aged well. When the original Age of Ultron story was written computers were an oddity, no one worked with them very often. But now, when a large portion of the population carries a fantastically powerful computer like a smart phone around in their back pocket people understand computers a lot better. One of the most basic things we know about them is that computers don’t work in the abstract, they are very literal.

Yes, I know there are people who believe strong AIs are just around the corner and continue to insist we’ll have computers thinking in the abstract in no time at all but for the moment that’s pure fantasy. A computer doesn’t think about its creators or what impacts it has on its environment or even how it might carry out their job in a more effective way. They do what they’re told and that’s pretty much it.

Ultron acts like a person with very un-programing like neurosis and obsessions and that’s what makes him so weak an AI character compared to, say, Baymax from Big Hero 6, an AI that acts much like Siri would if Siri were a medical tool that could walk about on its own. In other words, Baymax acts like the AI we are familiar with, Ultron decidedly does not. A person could make the logical jump Ultron did and it might be interesting to know why he or she did. A computer could not make the logical jump Ultron did and attempts to explain why a computer did are never given.

In short, Ultron needed much more build up in this movie, both in terms of his abilities and his motivations. Without it he just feels like a punching bag for the heroes to beat up.

The Plot 

The plot here is pretty run of the mill. The planet faces an extinction level event – a step up from simple invasion and subjugation – and the only people who can stop it are The Avengers. On the surface of it this story is simple, just like the story of the last film. But where the original used it’s simplicity to make room for more character arcs Age of Ultron crams the story full of weird plot elements and set-ups for future continuity. The result is the movie jumping about frantically from one plot point to another. We’ll go from suddenly being at Hawkeye’s house to at an Internet hub in Europe and then over to Seoul, South Korea. The film has definitely crossed a line from “moving briskly” into “choppy”. The plot is simple but it’s hard to follow and that’s definitely a strike against it.

Characters: Arcs and Moments 

The best part of Marvel’s The Avengers was undoubtedly the deft use of character arcs, the story somehow finding time to cram in one for each superhero and at least partial arcs for the “normal” shield agents. Ultron has two arcs, perhaps two and a half, one tracing an unfolding romantic relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff and one tracing the evolution of Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) from a well-intentioned extremist to a legitimate hero and the “perhaps a half” tracing Wanda’s twin brother Pietro (Quicksilver) as he makes the same journey. Quicksilver’s counts as differentish because he winds up dead, where Scarlet doesn’t.

Of these two and a half arcs, Banner and Nat’s comes off as the stronger and I’m not just saying that because I thought they’d make a good pair. Some people said the pairing seemed weird to them but, given that Banner saw through all of Romanoff’s verbal obfuscations when they first met and he deals with problems in ways she’s not used to I can see how she’d be attracted to him very easily. Romanoff brings the good doctor a sense of levity he’s been sorely missing for a while yet her inability to be honest with herself makes her vulnerable in ways Banner can’t really ignore so a mutual attraction isn’t surprising.

The fact that the relationship goes awry doesn’t make the story arc a bad one. I’m pretty sure the Hulk chose to walk (or rather fly) away from Romanoff because of the way she used the attraction between the two of them to get close to Banner and switch him for the Hulk. For once Banner didn’t see through Romanoff’s ruse because the feelings she has for him are real, not one of the masks she uses to get through life, but that actually makes the betrayal kind of worse. By using a real promise of a relationship to manipulate him Romanoff actually hurt Banner more than she ever could have with a lie. There’s still hope for these two, I think, but they needed some space after all that happened (and in a short amount of time!) so I think this ending is fair to them even if it’s not necessarily satisfying to viewers.

The flip side of the equation is that this entire story arc is crammed into maybe fifteen minutes of screen time. If you read any of my reviews of romance stories during February you know I like my romances to take their time unpacking the protagonists, showing the qualities they like about each other in action and showing how they are gradually starting to think of each other as long term parts of one another’s lives rather than just people they know. Age of Ultron flat out doesn’t do this. At all. The entire film is moving at a breakneck pace and that badly hurts what could have been a romance with a good premise and an interesting twist ending.

The twins have much the same problem. They just didn’t get enough screen time for me to really feel their journey. I’m not sure what they were originally expecting from Ultron, although it obviously wasn’t an attempt to wipe out humanity so I guess their changing sides makes a certain degree of sense. Their story just wasn’t very compelling. It did give Hawkeye a chance for some really great moments, though.

And that brings us to one of the best things Age of Ultron had that it’s predecessor didn’t: Character moments.

A character arc is a series of events with a beginning, middle and end that shows a character changing over time. A character moment is a scene where we get to know the history, motivation and personality of a character better. Age of Ultron is chock full of character moments, some of the best coming near the beginning when we see most of the Avengers and their supporting casts at a party celebrating the toppling of a major HYDRA facility. The Warmachine story, the attempts to lift Thor’s Hammer and the rest of the banter in this scene do a great job letting us see into the minds of the characters and how they work off of each other.

Scarlet Witch’s dream sequences are another good character moment – for Romanoff. We get a glance into her past, the suggestion that she’s probably from the same assassin school that produced Peggy Carter’s rival in this year’s Agent Carter miniseries but still don’t learn so much we aren’t intrigued by her mystery.

Other great character moments abound in the visit to Barton’s “safe house” and the way the various Avengers bounce off his family of entirely normal people.

For that matter, Clint “Hawkeye” Barton feels a lot like the main character of this movie with all the great character moments he has throughout. Between his family showing up, his successfully resisting Scarlet Witch’s mind control, the constant hinting that he’s about to get dead only to wind up still breathing at the end and the speech he gets to make at the end about what it takes to be an Avenger and we walk out feeling like we’ve learned more about him than anyone else. Since he’s had less screen time than any Avenger that didn’t debut in this film that’s nice to see.

Not that the other characters don’t have some development. We get to see Captain Rogers behaving as the actual leader of the group and he does so with a humility and good grace that lets him avoid all the terrible cliches that often accompany leaders who claim strong moral cores and instead lead by his own example as much as his fighting prowess or intellect.

Stark is his usual glib self and Fury puts in an appearance as the more laid back but still formidable former superspy he’s become after the dissolution of SHIELD. It’s a good movie for touching base with all our heroes even if only a handful of them undergo serious character growth.

And let me say that neither character arcs nor character moments are strictly superior to one another. Good stories can be entirely one or the other. But great stories have character moments synched with advancing character arcs – and Age of Ultron doesn’t have that. While it’s a matter of personal taste I tend to prefer character arcs to character moments so, while I like this aspect, it wasn’t as strong for me as the good arcs in the first film. The character moments are still well written, though.

The Vision and The Tower 

Okay, a special word about my two least favorite parts of this film.

While I feel the plot of the story is a little dated in it’s approach to Ultron that’s not what I feel it’s biggest weakness is. That would be the fact that, after failing to create a functioning AI with the Ultron project, Tony immediately turns around and tries to implant an AI claiming to be JARVIS into the body Ultron built in Seoul. Yes, I know Tony’s schtick is hubris. But seriously, it’s hard to believe he didn’t learn any caution after the first AI went rogue. He didn’t even test the program he found to make sure it wasn’t a part of Ultron masquerading as JARVIS. This is just dumb, and feels like a complete undoing of most of his character development in the franchise up until this point.

Tony Stark stopped building weapons and faced rogue weapons contractors because he’d learned to take a little responsibility for his actions. Tony’s creating Vision cuts against that. The same story ends could have been achieved simply by having JARVIS sneak past Ultron and into the Vision body on his own – JARVIS out coded Ultron once after all. Or, better yet, the Vision could have been activated by some other agency that found it after Tony attempted to disposed of it. Both of these would have let the Vision be around for future movies and the latter option would have kept Vision from being shoved into an already over full movie. Poor writing decisions all around.

Also, the Hulkbuster sequence is a great action set piece. But the ending? With a massive tower collapsing followed by grit covered survivors staring at it in shock? I’m not sure what that was supposed to say.

Was it a 9/11 reference? Then it was in poor taste. Doubly so for the slapstick way the scene ended.

Was it not a 9/11 reference? Then how did it get through the editing process? It was in poor taste and everyone who worked on this movie was blind.

Was there supposed to be some sort of moral to the imagery? If so, it was poorly communicated. And in poor taste.

Final Verdict 

So I watched this movie and came out of the theaters stoked. How could that be given all the griping I just did?

That’s easy. It is a fun movie.

The action is big and bombastic and, while it doesn’t have quite the insane physicality of a wuxia film or the grit of an 80s action film but it’s exactly what we’d expect of a modern action film, only more so. In particular, the gratuitous use of CG to create “look, it’s like a comic panel” moments on screen will make you giggle or cringe. Personally, I liked them.

Robert Downey Jr. Is back with his muttering and off kilter improv moments and they even manage to find new fish-out-of-water gags for Captain America. And there are superheroes doing superhero things, saving people and scaring them at the same time, using cool gadgets and pulling impossible stunts. When the movie is weak it’s weak but when it’s fun it has to be experienced to be believed.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is not the strongest movie in the MCU, it’s probably not even in the top three. But it is fun and exciting, to the point you can almost forgive it for poor writing (or, more likely, poor editing). I just wish it had better story writing to go with the spectacle and wit.