Into the Spiderverse – Focus Please

Sometimes a movie comes along that is such an achievement in one area that it overwhelms any and all shortcomings it might have in other areas. Such a film is Into the Spiderverse.

Let me come out and say it right away, the animation of this movie is so far beyond anything else an American digital studio has achieved that it needs to be taught in animation schools. Practically every frame of it is perfect and it’s many stylistic choices, such as visualizing sound effects and internal monologues as a comic book might, enhance its charm rather than distracting from it. If visual appeal were all that counted this would truly be the greatest Spiderman tale ever to grace the silver screen. Alas, while film is a visual medium it is still a storytelling medium and by that measure Into the Spiderverse doesn’t quite stack up.

The fact is, the movie has too many plot threads and doesn’t quite weave them together into a web the way it would like. Spiderverse looks like a simple passing the torch movie at first glance. Peter Parker is Spiderman but he gets killed in a battle with the Kingpin. He passes the necessary information to defeat the Kingpin to a graffiti artist by the name of Miles Morales, who just so happens to have been bitten by a radioactive spider – just like Peter – and tasks Miles with stopping the Kingpin before things get worse. The problem is Miles has no idea how to do that or what kinds of things will be getting worse.

Things get weirder when Miles meets a much older version of Peter Parker with a slightly different hair color who has retired from Spiderman life and turns out to be from an alternate dimension. Miles enlists alternate Peter for help, although after hearing his backstory he’s not entirely sure this is the best source of advice he could find. Still beggars can’t be choosers and the two set off to foil the Kingpin. It turns out the villain is building an interdimensional bridge and the two have to close it. To do that they wind up enlisting the help of Spider Gwen, Spider Noir, Spider Ham and Cyber Spider, four other alternate dimension people who also got bitten by radioactive spiders and have their own backstories.

Oh, and Miles’ uncle? Who taught him how to paint and is also secretly a supervillain and thus on the outs with his brother, Miles’ dad who is a cop? Turns out he’s working for the Kingpin and that makes things even more complicated. Miles also needs to understand his powers and adjust to a new school and generally try and fit in to teen life.

Follow all that?

No, you probably didn’t. The movie doesn’t help matters either, moving at a breakneck pace and rarely stopping to explore anything with any depth. To be fair to the film, the classic Spiderman themes of power, responsibility and family, embodied in Miles, and his father and uncle, get a good amount of time and development. These parts of the story are deep and leave an emotional impression. But the rest of it gets less development and often comes off as rushed or flat. In particular, the alternate Peter is rushed and the other Spiders are flat, one note characters. And as a group the Spiders are kind of muddled, sharing one basic backstory and very similar powersets. The film comes off as very, very unfocused.

And it’s the worst kind of unfocused. There’s nothing wrong with any of the ideas Spiderverse offers. It just can’t stop and develop many of them enough for them to feel important. And those ideas it does develop are strong enough to tell me that if it had focused on two or three of its ideas it would have been great instead of just good. Honestly, I’d have rather had a movie with Miles, the Alternate Spiderman and the Kingpin with just Miles’ uncle as an employee rather than the much more overstuffed film that’s on offer. Into the Spiderverse wants too much of a good thing and, much like the DCEU that tried to cram years of franchise building into a few films, it winds up a worse product than it could have been as a result.

Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it and enjoy it. It’s good execution on great themes and it is a joy to behold. It’s just not everything it could have been – or the greatest film outing for Spiderman.

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Things Fall Apart – Strangely

It is almost universally acknowledged that Stranger Things Season 3 is better than Season 2, and marks a return to form.

Yes, I am here to contradict that narrative.

As a story Stranger Things 3 is pretty enjoyable. It has great character moments, a lot of fun nostalgia and some killer special effects. But – and this is a big caveat – as a sequel to the previous seasons it falls very short. Yes, even as a sequel to Season 2. I’m going to assume you’ve watched the franchise and just hit the points that don’t add up to me or we’ll be here all day. Maybe someday someone will write a book breaking down the franchise, along with its plots, characters and themes. Today isn’t that day (although I may be that person). For now, let’s look at the massive holes ST3 has left in the fabric of the narrative and ask ourselves… can we really call this an improvement?

Start with the most important plot element in Season 3 – Starcourt Mall. This mall is built, is open for business and is reshaping the local economy within a year of the events of Season 2. How?

Furthermore, Russians (!) have tunneled out miles – yes miles – of underground pathways, along with a control bunker, storage rooms and living spaces for who knows how many of their personnel, and done something with all of that dirt, and they’ve done it without anyone in Hawkins noticing. The huge influx of staff is mysterious as well – I’d estimate the Russians have at least thirty, maybe as many as fifty people down in that complex. How were they smuggled into the country? Sure, they could have gotten to Hawkins as part of a work crew building the mall they’re hiding under but… seriously, it wasn’t that easy to get a Russian national into the country undetected during the Cold War.

And speaking of Russian nationals, what is with the Russian knockoff of the Terminator? I understand the joke – he’s not-Ahnold – but we watch him get hit, kicked and shot without showing any sign of pain or weakness. How is that possible?

Look, I get it. Stranger Things is a franchise about monsters from a parallel dimension. Why should I care?

I care because the entire cool factor of the franchise came from the fact that those monsters were invading a world exactly like ours. Arguably down to the U.S. government researching and producing people with psychic powers.

In ST1 and ST2 the world was painstakingly realistic, barring a few anachronisms that might annoy some 80s purists (I was very young then so I haven’t noticed any of these myself.) This enhanced the fantasy of watching people who were very much like us, as kids then and adults now, take on a creature beyond our wildest imaginations. (Well, maybe not if you’re H.R. Geiger). But adding all these questions about the Russians superhuman building, smuggling and bullet taking capacities ruins this illusion. Hawkins no longer exists in a world like ours except with monsters from the Upside Down, now it exists in a world with cartoony evil lairs under small Midwestern towns and humans who are almost as monstrous as the Demigorgon from Season 1.

It ruins so much of the show’s charm.

Worse, the franchise’s coolest concept in name, visual presentation and general execution was always the Upside Down and it’s entirely gone from this season. No one goes there save a few clairvoyance sequences with Eleven, we don’t learn any more about it and we don’t get new monsters. The Mind Flayer shows some new powers but remains basically the same as it was last season. We’re no closer to understanding why everyone is so obsessed with the Upside Down. We don’t even get any new people with psychic powers. I wasn’t a fan of Eleven’s side trip in Season 2 but at least it opened a door to new characters and powers. Too bad they’re not going to do anything with it.

The Upside Down and El’s psychic abilities is an incredibly intriguing mystery and it would have been nice to keep developing it but instead it felt like that entire part of the plot was in stasis for six hours while the cast obsessed about Russians. The Cold War is over, there’s not tension there, please put that story line to rest. The only interesting part about it was Alexei, the defector, and he’s dead.

There were other problems. The series on the whole felt less dark and oppressive, in spite of being more gory over all. We’ve already seen the Mind Flayer and, while it’s flesh shaping ways are new, in total the bodysnatcher routine was easy to spot. The people who were taken over by the Mind Flayer (other than Billy) turned into such laughable caricatures of their previous selves that I couldn’t take them seriously. And I struggled to take many of them seriously beforehand. It was very hard for the Flayer to present itself as a threat. The only time I felt legitimate tension in the story and feared for the cast was during the Sauna test. That’s about 10 minutes out of the total run time. Not really living up to the feel of the first two seasons.

Many of the characters – Hopper, Judy, Joyce and Mike are the biggest offenders – came off as more obnoxiously high strung than they have in the past. I was having a hard time mustering sympathy for their situations. And the “death” of Jim Hopper feels like a very transparent play on our emotions. I wasn’t born yesterday – I know he’s coming back next season and so do you. This was clearly just a way to encourage the cast to wander off to the four winds and make it easier to introduce new elements and drag the Russians back in next season. Because more Russians is exactly what I want from Stranger Things 4.

No, Stranger Things 3 is not a great return to the ways of the first season. It’s a decent shot at a different kind of a story in the franchise. But it’s undercut a lot of what made the show enjoyable at first and I’m not sure it brought enough to the table to counterbalance that. Will Seaons 4 fix that? Only time will tell.

Disney’s Mulan was Respectful to Chinese Culture

The Mouse is drunk on live action remakes. I don’t know why people keep going to watch them myself but it is what it is. If glitzy wannabe Broadway is your preference to the excellent hand drawn animation of the Disney golden age then by all means check it out, I’ll be happy to stay home. But I was pretty upset to hear my third favorite Disney film was undergoing major story changes to become more “respectful” to its native culture. As you’ve already guessed from the title, I’m talking about the upcoming remake of Mulan.

Now, all we’ve got to go on so far is a trailer and that’s not much. Especially if you compare the original trailer for Mulan to the end product. So 2020’s Mulan is by no means a ship that’s sailed. But I’m still pretty upset to hear about some of the changes, like cutting Mushu. He was a fun, memorable and quotable character. He gave a bit of recognizable American flavor to a film lacking many cultural touchstones for its primary audience, much like Timon in The Lion King.

But the charge in general really grated at me.

At its heart Mulan is a story about the foundational Confucian values, filial piety, humaneness and ritual. The first is at the heart of the story, because it is Mulan’s unshakable loyalty to her family that drives her to the heights of her achievements. Her father will go and fight – and given his age and injuries, certainly die. So Mulan takes his place. Everything that happens after hinges on her familial devotion.

Humaneness is demonstrated in a particularly Disney fashion, by having Mulan anthropomorphize and sympathize with her animal friends. This is a common Disney trope but it is always used to show a kindness and gentleness in leading ladies and it happens to synchronize perfectly with this Confucian value. Of course, humaneness also applies to how we deal with other people and in this Mulan is also exemplary, showing an insight and compassion for her fellow soldiers that could probably only be matched by the Emperor himself.

Finally, ritual is something Mulan engages in many times, from painting her face and going to the Matchmaker, to the relentless drilling of her military training. You can’t really get away from ritual in Chinese society so perhaps the film has too little of it but that’s hardly disrespectful it’s just one of the realities of storytelling.

Significantly, while Mulan embodies each of the Confucian values it’s also important to note that they are mirrored back to her as well. Her father won’t reveal her and bring her home because it will put her in more danger than letting her go. His loyalty to family surpasses his duty to Empire. Humaneness is also echoed by Mulan’s father and mother at first, by (oddly enough) Shan Yu when he tries to send her home and spare her death in war (this isn’t how conscripts worked back then), and finally by the Emperor of all China. And many of the rituals Mulan takes part in aren’t things you can do alone, she has to do them with others. So it’s not like these things are confined to her – they’re part of the warp and weft of the story.

But that story is a universal one. That’s part of what makes films like Aladdin and Mulan so brilliant. They’re totally understandable and relatable stories steeped in unfamiliar cultures. Mulan is a misfit who tries to do something big for someone she loves. She starts out with the odds stacked against her but a good training montage brings her in to step with the comrades who didn’t trust her and teaches her the ropes. She immediately goes out and realizes how far she’s still short of the mark and has to make it up on the spot. The final setback leaves her alone – now she has to be the hero when it’s hard. And she gets justice – she’s exposed as a liar. But she’s also seen for the fullness of her dedication and talent.

It’s hard to judge based on one trailer, as I said, but what I do see worries me. The original Mulan was as solid as it gets. This new version shows… troubling changes (beyond no Mushu). Mulan appears to already be proficient in martial arts, she seems to have something to prove in the army, she seems to chafe at the bonds of her family. The filial piety and humaneness of the original are nowhere in evidence. Ritual seems more a restraint than the lubrication of social life it should be. It’s only 90 seconds of a feature length movie. Not all of it may make the final cut.

But I’m deeply concerned that, much like the unfortunate Alita film from this year, the very real cultural respect the original Mulan film had at its heart has been pushed aside for the sake of modern, trendy shibboleths. And that would be truly ironic, since there’s nothing more disrespectful than stealing a few names and some clothing from one culture, draping them over your own ideas then selling it as authentic. The jury’s still out on this one… but I’m not optimistic.

UPDATE – Inbetween writing and publishing this (and boy am I have this problem a lot lately) new drama erupted around Liu Yifei, the actress playing Mulan in the upcoming live action version. These aspects don’t have any direct bearing on my points here about either version of the story. While I feel her remarks on Hong Kong were foolish and stupid that’s no reason to boycott the Mulan remake. Just don’t go see it because it looks lame. That’s the end of my remarks on that.

Hiatus

When I first concepted Pay the Piper late last year I had no idea how future events would play out (as is true of most of us). It seemed like a fairly harmless lark poking fun at Silicon Valley and reminding our Tech Overlords that they, too, are mortal. The irony of my writing it on The Internet (TM) was not lost on me, and I felt would show that my tongue is firmly in cheek. However, over the last six months I’ve watched a lot of public life erode. We actually seem to be slipping into dedicated opposing camps as time goes on and I’ve come to question whether the story I’m writing is truly helpful – to myself if nothing else – and whether I like where I had planned to go. For now, Pay the Piper is on hiatus as I evaluate what I should do with it. In the meantime, look forward to a return of essays, starting next week, for the near future.

 

– Nate

Pay the Piper – Chapter Eighteen

Previous Chapter

It turned out that Galaxy did, in fact, keep tabs on the Gifted they knew who had gone insane. It was just one of many services their mental health division provided to members, periodically sending someone without the Gift to visit the ill in their care facilities. It was a bit like the Red Cross but for crazy people. A very small, narrow group of crazy people.

There were very thorough records kept on each case and to my surprise they found fourteen cases in total where psychometrics known to be insane had recovered and left care. I’d thought that was impossible but apparently I was wrong. “It’s not common,” Mix said as he handed me the files on the people in question. “But it’s not unheard of either. It’s not something we tend to broadcast because people tend to get careless when dealing with potential mental health situations, thinking they’ll be one of the exceptions. Top minds have been trying to figure out what causes it but no luck so far.”

“If this can happen, why does everyone say it’s impossible?” I asked.

“Do they?” Mix countered. “Or do they just say no one they know has ever recovered? Those are two different things.”

They were, and he was right. It was still unsettling to know that something I’d taken for granted for so long was based on a totally erroneous understanding of what I’d been hearing. Still, I knew better now and there was all the information I’d needed with no fuss. It was almost too good to be true. Almost.

Fourteen names is still a lot of people and we needed to narrow it down. We started by eliminating anyone who didn’t specialize in psychological or neurological fields, as Vinny made it clear that was the secret sauce to making a therapy fugue work. That left us with five names. Two of them were active and accounted for already, it was possible they were involved in this case somehow but distance and timing made it unlikely – one was in the Arctic Circle, helping keep people sane, the other lived in Hawaii and hadn’t travelled enough to have offered the kind of hands on work necessary to program the software in a new type of fugue generator.

By the end of the first day we were down to only three names. It was almost too good to be true. Almost.

“Two of them recovered in the last six months,” Natalie said. “That puts them well inside the one year timeframe to work on the Backboard project. That just leaves us with one possibility.”

I was paging though the relevant files and handing the relevant pages to Hennesy. “But there’s a catch.”

“Of course there is,” Hennesy muttered. “It’d be too good to be true to just have the right guy drop into our laps, wouldn’t it?”

“None of these three have checked in with their handlers since the most recent two recovered,” I said, ignoring his griping. “Also, they’re all related. A father and his two daughters.”

“That can’t be a coincidence,” Hennesy said.

“We don’t think it is,” I said. “But we – meaning Galaxy in this case – apparently don’t track cases like theirs as a matter of course. I’ve reached out to Mix to see if the Constellations will order a check-in, but I don’t know how long that will take or even if they will agree to do it.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” Hennesy asked. “I thought Galaxy was offering us full cooperation in this case.”

“We’re offering all the investigative power we can muster,” I said. “But we’re still psychometrics. We value our privacy. I’d be hesitant to even ask for a check in if it wasn’t for how important this situation is.”

“Let’s hope your Constellations agree with you,” Hennesy grumbled. “I don’t want it to turn out I spent days chasing nothing.”

“Well, that’s one thing we can reassure you on,” I said. “I forgot to mention that all three of our missing psychometrics live in Arizona. The same state A.J. Jackson is from, and the same place where public filings show Project Backboard’s offices are.”

Hennesy eyed me for a moment then did a little psychometry of his own. “Let me guess. The Gifted who recovered first was the father, and you think he worked with Jackson to help his kids do the same.”

“It’s simple, straightforward and fits the facts,” I said.

“Nothing’s every that straightforward,” Hennesy said. “Let us put some feelers out on these people. We have connections Galaxy probably wouldn’t even think of.”

“You read my mind.”

Hennesy snorted and waved us out of his office.

“So are we waiting for results or does the Federal Government have somewhere else they’d like us to go today?” I asked as Natalie and I headed back towards her cubicle.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Honestly I think anything specific to your skillset got farmed out to others when you didn’t show up on time. So I guess we’re waiting. I don’t know if you need to stay here or not.”

“Mix will call for me here so I might as well stick around.” Honestly I was just as interested in hanging around because Natalie was here and I did kind of enjoy her company. Going back to the hotel meant being alone or possibly with Aurora and after they day before I wasn’t really prepared for either one. “Any idea what kinds of resources the FBI will put into finding Helio and his girls?”

“It’s not the highest priority we have right now,” Natalie replied. “And it’s in another jurisdiction so just how seriously they’ll take the request is anyone’s guess. But I’d say we’ll know by tomorrow, if not sooner. What about Galaxy?”

“Mix told me someone left to check on them pretty much while we were talking. I’m expecting him to call any minute.” I dragged a chair over from an empty cubicle and sat down, putting my feet up on the edge of Natalie’s empty trash can. “It’s kind of amazing to me that someone would agree to help make this kind of mess just to get two people out of a catatonic state.”

Natalie hesitated in the middle of logging into her work station for whatever job she had been about to start on. “Really?”

“Well, I mean, I don’t have kids, but…”

“Neither do I but I do have parents.” Natalie gave me an incredulous look. “Do psychometrics really never visit each other in the hospital?”

I shrugged, suddenly very uncomfortable. “I can’t speak for all of us. My parents weren’t Gifted, so they had no issue with it. I’m sure it varies from family to family.”

“Armor, crazy isn’t catching. It doesn’t work like that.”

Slow breath in, slow breath out. There were parts of my life that I knew didn’t make sense to those without the gift. “Natalie, I know you’re not trying to be deliberately provocative so I’ll give you a pass. But don’t presume to tell me what is and what isn’t the mechanics of our minds. I’m sure you never thought a man could turn catatonic from just touching a body either.”

“Armor, they were family. How could they stay away from each other?”

“It’s not a question of how they were related or how close they are to each other. It’s a question of whether or not there was anything they could do for each other. Staying clear headed when you’re surrounded by madness isn’t simple. That’s probably what drove him to trying a fugue state in the first place.” I shuddered a bit, trying not to let the helplessness of my last trip to fugue land get at me. It may have been meant as a way to treat the ill but the memory of being stuck in my own head with no way out still gave me fits. Maybe that was part of how the treatment was intended to work. “The point is if you’re not a trained psychologist with the Gift – or, apparently, a mad scientist – you can’t visit them safely. And I’m not sure getting around that justifies making war on the entirety of the California coastline. Natalie, twice as many people died in hospitals because of the power failures resulting from this mess as he saved using his miracle technology. Maybe lack of empathy is the chink in my armor but I just can’t make that balance out in my mind.”

Natalie just shook her head and went back to her computer, working at who knows what. Listening to her disapproval rattle around in her subconscious was not the change of pace I had hoped for.