The problem with the godless worship of fantasy traditions in Game of Thrones

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(Note: this article references sexual assault.)

(Another note: the reference to The Lord of The Rings in this article are about the BOOK, not the films.  The films portray characters radically differently.)

I just read an article about why Game of Thrones is now nearly unwatchable.  I never found the plots or writing terribly compelling.  The show hauled along based on fantastic acting and really great sets and wardrobe.  It’s nihilistic eye-candy masquerading as “smart” television.  Misery is too often substituted for good storytelling.

The thing is, fantasy stories tend to get hauled down into that muck, because they all loop back to a desire to keep replicating J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic dark medievalist fantasy setting in The Lord of the Rings.  The only “innovations” in this template are how many characters get killed, and now that women are involved, how many of them get raped.

The Lord of the Rings is far from a perfect book.  It’s slow, overly reliant on exposition, and a host to flat, wooden characters and a lot of ponderous Christian metaphor… that is to say that Christian metaphor is not inherently ponderous, but Aragorn prattling on about Kingsfoil is unnecessarily long.

The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is revered among fantasy writers, so few dare to disrupt its various core formulas to tell a better story.  Video games are much better at reassembling the component parts of Tolkien, but that’s thanks to Ed Greenwood’s detour through the Forgotten Realms.  Greenwood infused humour, colour, and a pantheon of gods into Tolkien’s staunchly monotheistic fantasy, and it was made more human in the process.

The Forgotten Realms also supported a gamified system that forced narrative cohesion.  In other words, because the entire idea is for a group of players to fight monsters together, it sidestepped the other major narrative pitfall that’s rooted in The Lord of the Rings — The “Shattering of the Fellowship” device.

The Fellowship of the Ring ends up splitting into two main groups: the group that stands with Aragorn to fight the war, and the smaller group that goes with Frodo to destroy the ring.  Tolkien’s status as the child of a Catholic convert is critical to understanding some of the content of The Lord of the Rings, because of the way Catholicism treats femininity as a passive, hidden power which is often treated as a vessel sacrificed to a male deity.

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There are no female members of the Fellowship, and the bearer of the feminine ring symbol is Frodo.  The Lord of the Rings is a story of a war won through the resurrection of a masculine symbol — the sword Narsil/Anduril — and the destruction of the feminine symbol, the One Ring.  The One Ring’s powers mimic the Western monotheistic view of the sacred feminine: a mysterious negative space which gains the ring bearer hidden knowledge at the expense of his rational faculties.  Exposure to the One Ring makes a person more emotional and dependent, which were both qualities associated with femininity in Tolkien’s time.  The One Ring is even associated with a hidden member of the Fellowship — Gollum — Gollum is the one who actually destroys the One Ring, sacrificing himself in the process, because Frodo can’t do it himself.  Frodo is a biblical passive hero in the tradition of Isaac and Moses.  These passive males transfer divinity through them to the people, but they don’t take active steps themselves.  Isaac is bound.  Moses is given the tablets with the Ten Commandments.  But Isaac is such a passive figure that his father’s slave needed to find him a wife, and Moses was such a poor speaker that his brother Aaron did his talking for him.  This is symbolized in The Lord of the Rings by Sam and Gollum doing the heavy lifting for Frodo, who, like Moses and Isaac, were weakened by the burden of inherent divinity, just as mothers are said to be.

The actual women of The Lord of The Rings are similarly passive figures gifted with innate power or wisdom… with the exception of one woman, Eowyn, who assumes the role of a man to fight in the war.  While many of us see Eowyn as pretty badass, Tolkien himself described Eowyn’s transformation as a tragedy.  In fact, he saw it as an inherent tragedy of war that women had to assume male roles.

So how does this impact Game of Thrones, but NOT the Forgotten Realms branch of fantasy that inspired video game RPGs?  While Ed Greenwood took the step of making the sacred feminine of Toril an active voice, George R. R. Martin stuck with the theme of war and the destruction of the feminine.  Accordingly, there’s a lot less rape in Faerun than there is in Westeros.

In both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, Fire is associated with the masculine — men “run hot”, women are a cooler force.  The other name for Aragorn’s sword “Anduril” is “The Flame of the West”.  This is likely because the Seraphim and the Rider on the White Horse who leads the armies of God in the Bible are flame bearers.

There is no definitive ice queen in The Lord of the Rings, in part because the book is inherently sexless.  But in the Game of Thrones, we of course have the icy Cersei Lannister, who is also sexually dysfunctional and cunning — emotionally more “like a man” than the “purer” female characters.   She is, of course, eventually subject to her own “slut walk of shame” as a form of politicized “atonement theatre” for her sexual misdeeds.

That sort of thing isn’t normalized in Faerun, because Greenwood and Gary Gygax hard wired gender equality into the game system and game world.  Essentially, in Dungeon and Dragons, women are equal participants, not some embodiment of the sacred or profane feminine.  In The Lord of the Rings, there is no profane feminine, and in Game of Thrones, nothing is sacred and no woman is inviolate; women are rendered impure even by their own periods.  Both of these omissions are weaknesses that The Forgotten Realms do not share.

tyrionBecause relegating women to passive or perverse forces in fantasy creates weak points, Game of Thrones has fractured now that its characters are scattered.  Martin and the show’s writers fractured a Fellowship that never existed.  Without the Christian symbolism allowing the narrative to thin out without shattering, Game of Thrones has scattered into a collection of parts with little significance.  The Frodo of the show, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t feminized.  He’s a “half man”, but still a man — bearded, sexual, and capable of violence.  The feminine in Game of Thrones is symbolized by menstruation, manipulations, and rapes, not rings, leaves, light and shadow.

These are legitimate artistic choices on HBO’s part, but it’s left Game of Thrones without symbolism tying the narrative together the way Frodo’s ring and Aragorn’s sword stopped Tolkien’s epic from flying apart.  The lack of a yin and yang in Game of Thrones implies that George Martin borrowed the R. R. from J. R. R. Tolkien without really understanding what pulled the masterpiece out of Tolkien’s flaws.  Game of Thrones lacks the spark of the divine that allowed The Lord of the Rings to become greater than the sum of its parts.

Don’t freak out, atheists, I’m referring to divinity as a narrative device here, not a literal god.  Divinity in fiction is the theme or narrative glue that makes the plot points resonate, and Game of Thrones says little beyond “people, when given power, are terrible to each other”.  It’s fictionalized historical treatise, not an allegory of an idea.

Where The Forgotten Realms took Tolkien and added girls and jokes, A Song of Ice and Fire took Tolkien and removed the mythic and sacred.  Therefore, there’s nothing left when innocence and people die, because Game of Thrones fails its saving throw against fatalism.

(EDIT: I removed the marijuana joke because it offended some people and I determined it was an unnecessary distraction that had nothing to do with the main point.  Typos also corrected.)

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Midnight Special Spoiler Free Review

Midnight Special

You probably haven’t heard of Midnight Special.  And that’s okay.  If you’re a fan of comic books or 1980s science fiction films, you will.  I first became aware of it because of a random TV commercial that ran during NCIS.  Yes, I liked this movie so much, I just admitted to watching NCIS.

Midnight Special stars Michael Shannon as Roy Tomlin, a simple Southern father with a very exceptional kid.  The kid is so exceptional that Shannon’s character has to kidnap him away from a religious cult, to get him to a specific destination for reasons unknown at the start of the story.  I say “story” with purpose.  Midnight Special is not a film you see for the visual effects or the water cooler cred.  It’s a film you see to go on a journey.  It makes you believe.

Belief is the central theme of Midnight Special.  It is, essentially, a film about the agnostic condition for belief: if physical evidence of a higher power is presented, an agnostic will believe.  Now some would claim that this is, in fact, not belief at all.  Belief is what occurs in the absence of facts.  Midnight Special defies this simple binary.  The characters are all given an element of proof that something beyond the mundane is happening, but they all contextualize it differently.  They are presented with proof of things beyond their ken, but what that means is up to both the characters and the audience to decipher.

Accordingly, Midnight Special doesn’t hold the audience’s hand.  It presents its narrative in simple, stark, bare bones terms, and expects that the audience will pick up little things here and there without having the dots deliberately connected.  Therefore, the interpretation of the events of the film will be different for everyone.  My personal takeaway was a combination of ancient astronaut theory, quantum entanglement, and ET the Extra-Terrestrial.   Your interpretation will be different, because it’s all about what you believe happened, not an objective canon.

After the churn of “be all things to all people” superhero films, Midnight Special is a glorious breath of fresh air. All the performances are excellent, with an eerily profound performance by eleven year-old Jaeden Lieberher being a standout.  Joel Edgerton also turns in a meaningful everyman performance as Lucas, the closest thing the film has to a skeptic.  But it’s Michael Shannon who carries the film, as a tired, overwhelmed, terrified father on the edge who can’t show the son he loves more than anything any of those emotions.  He steps into the shoes of a father whose child is beyond his understanding, but who is still a child, reading comic books by flashlight under a bedsheet.  He’s the parent ever nerd wishes they had.

Fatherly love is often shown as a miserable, distant task, but many of Midnight Special‘s pivotal moments take place with father and son locked in tight embraces.  It’s a metaphor for parenting in the digital age, when you have to let your child find their own way in a world beyond your experience, and hope love is enough.  Possibly the most masterful moment in a film full of wonders is the ending, which is satisfying without being syrupy.  Again, however, the message of that ending is found in what the audience infers in the wordless expressions and gestures the actors exchange.  Those silences are where Midnight Special finds the transcendence that only the most lovingly crafted films manage.

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Five Ways Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Would Be a Better Movie If It Were More Like A Game

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice appears to be a financial success and a critical disaster. Fans are divided, the critics hated it, but it made a ton of money anyway. This begs the question: how much better would it have done had it been less flawed?

A video game would never have been allowed to have been as sloppy as the Batman v Superman film. Games get a bad rep, but they pose greater design challenges than films. If Zack Snyder had thought more like a game developer, Batman v Superman wouldn’t have been the confused, bloated, humorless wreck that has become Hollywood’s biggest nerd tax. Here are five things game design could have taught the kind of, sort of, kick off to the Justice League.

(Some spoilers ahead)

1 – If you design an asset or a mechanic, use it more than once, and be consistent.

So many expensive toys were designed for Batman v Superman that only got used for a single scene. This ultimately feels unsatisfying, since the film careens wildly between ideas without ever settling on one. The human brain doesn’t like useless information, and a lot of stuff happens in Batman v Superman that never gets applied again later. We know from game design principles that if something doesn’t feel meaningful, it’s going to frustrate the people paying to be entertained by it.

A video game can’t get away with the ever-changing rules regarding kryptonite that have plagued modern Superman films. Superman Returns was mocked for having Brandon Routh’s Superman lift an entire island of kryptonite, but Batman v Superman similarly plays fast and loose with kryptonite’s effects. In one scene, even the dust makes Supes instantly weak and in pain. He can’t fish the kryptonite-tipped spear out of fifteen feet of water without being overcome. But only moments later, he’s flying through the air with the damned thing, stabbing Doomsday for all he’s worth. He even gives it an extra shove after he’s mortally wounded.

In any game setting, that would be considered power gaming, and that’s bad form.

It was also a missed opportunity to show Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman as that DC Trinity. Doomsday being slain by a weapon made by Batman, designed for Superman, and wielded by Wonder Woman would have woven the characters together doing what they do best: fighting. Even the spear’s design seems most naturally connected to the Amazon. Why the hell did Batman make a spear? It’s an unwieldy, low-tech weapon when kryptonite shards fired from some distance would make greater tactical sense — which is exactly how it was handled in the comics.

In a video game, the film’s approach would be considered bad gameplay design all around.

2 – Limit the moments where the action doesn’t dominate

In a video game, this focuses on cut scenes, but in Batman v Superman, it’s about the sheer number of moments in the film that have nothing to do with Batman fighting Superman. We don’t care about congressional hearings in a movie that promises one superhero punching another superhero in the face. We definitely don’t want to see lectures on fascism when we’ve paid to see two superpowered meatheads spar. Character motivations are important, but there are ways of including them that are incorporated into someone making something explode. Action genre products are called Action for a reason.

Batman and Superman glower at each other plenty for the first half of the film, but their first opportunity to go toe to toe on the docks ends up as nothing more than the two heroes growling bad dialogue as they stand so still they look like their game glitched.

3 – Effective tutorials are essential

A film’s first scenes are essentially their tutorial levels. They should give the viewer some key information that’s going to come in handy later. Batman v Superman sacrifices its early moments to force film audiences to watch Batman’s parents die AGAIN.  There are other things a non-comics-reading audience should have gotten much more exposure to before they had to apply it to the action, like what Wonder Woman’s bracelets and lasso do, and that Wonder Woman’s abilities essentially come from magic so Kryptonians are vulnerable to them. My brother-in-law is originally not from North America, and he had no idea that Wonder Woman had a magic lasso, so the best fight in the whole movie left him kinda confused. My sister, on the other hand, had not seen Man of Steel, so she didn’t understand why Kevin Costner suddenly appeared in a scene with Superman.

And the Flash warning to Batman is a totally random WTF moment without knowledge of Flashpoint, a Flash story arc that’s already being retold with much more skill on the Flash TV show.

Similarly, the film introduces Doomsday, a critical Superman villain, with very little explanation.  This minimizes the threat Doomsday posed. Doomsday’s original origin is a complicated one, and the whole point of the character was to create something that could offer Superman raw physical challenge. Superman fans knew why Doomsday’s arrival on screen was inherently ominous – he’s the character that killed Superman in the comics — but no one else knew why it was important, so the outcome of that fight confused most of the theatre I was in, which brings me to my next point.

4 – Main character deaths should matter.

Fail states are important parts of a video game. They have their origins in the arcade era, when exhausting your lives meant you had to put more money in the machine. Now that game consoles are the dominant way people play games, savvy game designers have gotten creative regarding how to handle playable character deaths.  Death and permadeath, for instance, are different things in gaming.

The death of Superman near the end of the film was so disingenuous, and the prolonged twin funeral scenes so drawn out, that it felt like an over-long load screen. My gamer brain was imagining a respawn timer counting down to when the audience could collectively get back in the game. Then I heard the woman sitting next to me say “He’s not dead”.

Of course he’s not dead! So why pretend that he is?! Stop making copies of The Empire Strikes Back, film directors! The equivalent of Han Solo doesn’t have to end a second film in carbonite.

5 – You can only make one game at a time.

We know what happens when an action adventure game suddenly drops in Real Time Strategy elements: bloated disasters like Brütal Legend. Batman v Superman meets a similar fate for identical structural reasons: it tries to be too many things at once. Elements from the comics pulled from The Dark Knight Returns, The Death of Superman, A Death in the Family and The New 52, as well as some moments cribbed from the Injustice video game, are all mashed together in one film, even though any one of those arcs has enough content for a solid movie on its own. The resulting script was morbidly obese.

But the overkill goes deeper than that. I never thought I’d see Arkham City Batman and Lego Batman on the same screen, but Batman’s power armor look is so evocative of the kid-friendly Lego brand that I giggled despite myself through that thoroughly boring fight.

The problem with that suit design is that upon seeing the film I promptly warned my friends with kids that the suit is a lie: it’s not a kid-appropriate movie. It’s too bleak, too cynical, too angry, and too slow. Making a film kids will enjoy isn’t just about bloodless battles. It’s about telling a story a kid can understand.

Any film involving Superman should be kid friendly: a failure to understand that is a failure to understand the appeal of Superman.  As bleak as the latter Harry Potter films were, even they understood that you can’t off the hero.

The full title of the film: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, indicates the split personality that drives the film into narrative psychosis. On one hand, it’s supposed to be a long-awaited big screen clash between DC’s two most popular characters. But it’s also expected to serve as a backdoor pilot for the Justice League. The result is a crappy Lex Luthor who would have made a great Riddler and a series of Diana Prince/Bruce Wayne scenes that are interchangeable with the dynamic of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. The movie never finds its feet… because it’s a centipede.

Games have to manage their budgets more wisely, and playtesting would have caught these mistakes.

So perhaps we should stop sneering at movies that remind us of video games, and realize that video games have many things to teach action films.

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