Sunday’s Wisdom #144: Monsters Fight Monsters Too

“What was done to me was monstrous.”

“And they created a monster.”

– V and Evey Hammond, V for Vendetta

The above quote is between the movie’s central protagonists, so if anyone’s supposed to be good in this story, it’s them, right? They’re both outstanding victims of an oppressive, lying, murdering regime, one that only achieved power by making people so afraid that they submitted. Evey hasn’t hurt anyone, outside one unfortunate detective she maced in V’s defense, and V has almost exclusively confined the list of people he’s hurt to an identical list of those who are most guilty for a long line of atrocities. And yet, V has also cut down men who were just doing their job to protect the public. He has even tortured Evey, the closest person he has to a friend, hurting her terribly in both her body and her mind. Whatever his reasons, and whatever the benefits of his actions, V is anything but innocent.

V’s enemies may be monsters, but so is he.

I usually try to keep politics of all sorts off my blog, simply because it’s not what I intend to address. But, this last week, I have seen a disheartening amount of division within my country. People, generally good people, people who I consider friends, have practically been spitting acid in every direction. Of course we all see ourselves as the heroes of the story, but it’s disquieting how easily we dismiss others as purely villains. I can’t help but think that, yes, someone bad, who was part of a group of bad people, did something bad, and someone got hurt, but that doesn’t automatically legitimize that one man’s enemies as heroes.

Another man’s evil does not make you good.

I’ve said that before, and I’ve been repeating it a lot this last week. If I hadn’t already said it, I’d likely be saying it this week, but as I have, I address something else.

Every single villain in history did what they did for a reason. Every single monstrous act was done for a cause. Every liar, every thief, every vandal, every rapist, every murderer, and every other foul specimen of humanity you can name, each and every one has had an excuse. If they could justify, rationalize, or otherwise explain their choices, they would never have made them. And isn’t it funny? Every one of them shifts blame away from themselves somehow, most typically onto their victims.

Everything from a common mugging (“they had it coming, they can spare it, they haven’t had it as bad as men, they deserve it”) to a heinous rape (“she wanted it, she was begging for it with her body and the way she dresses, she needed to be put in her place, she deserved it”) to the freaking Holocaust and beyond (“they’re only Jews, they’re rich because they’re thieves and traitors, they deserve it”), it’s somehow always someone else’s fault when a man chooses to become a monster.

It’s always because of what was done to them, as if that makes them less guilty of what they’ve done.

Now, I believe in mercy. I believe in redemption and forgiveness. I believe in understanding. But I also believe in personal responsibility.

A man is defined by what he does and why he really does it, not the excuses he gives for it. He is defined by himself, not his enemy. His standing as “good” or “evil” rests with him, not his enemy’s standing.

Stalin was not good just because he opposed Hitler, though many people thought Hitler was good because he posed a threat to Stalin.

One person’s monstrosity does not make their opponent somehow innocent by default.

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TV Review: Heroes Reborn

I reviewed Heroes, and I followed Heroes Reborn on my weekly lineup during its brief run, but I never really reviewed the latter show as a whole. I think it’s time I fixed that!

Heroes Reborn is the continuation, and conclusion, of the Heroes saga, so a science fiction story following normal people with superpowers. It follows multiple protagonists through interweaving plots all centered around an impending doomsday event. The crux of the conflict is between the heroes who want to save the world on one side, and on the other, an evil corporation that wants to save only themselves, and, also, use the world’s ending to recreate human civilization in their own image. This, while the heroes are simultaneously dealing with a society that fears and hates them, and also with their own personal issues, most of them just wanting to fit in and lead normal lives. There’s action, adventure, drama, suspense, humor, and more.

It does get a little campy at times, and for wrapping up so many endings from the previous series, it stumbles a little with it’s own conclusion. By that, I mean that so many characters are brought back and their fates are sealed, we know the end of their story. Not all of them, mind you, but several of them. Yet, the first show did choose a very good moment to end on, as it did with nearly every season, and the story could have ended there. Reborn, by contrast, wrapped everything up just in time to declare that things weren’t over yet, cutting the tied-off threads loose again. It basically ends with an enticement for more, and it’s unlikely to ever deliver.

That said, I generally like the show. In particular, I like how it tells a single story. It may have many moving parts in many places, but it’s not episodic, and it’s not rambling without direction. It’s focused. It has a concrete goal. It has somewhere to go and knows how to get there, and whatever twists and turns and scenic routes it needs to take to get there, it drives straight for its destination as effectively as possible. The result is a gripping tale that delivers an apocalyptic climax, as opposed to the struggling, semi-coherent plot of its predecessor.

I also love the characters. The next generation of heroes is so innocent. It’s a powerful contrast against the heavy guilt, petty selfishness, or flat-out craziness of the people they encounter, let alone the cunning and guile of scheming masterminds. Heck, even other heroes, the elder generation, are burdened with the weight a desperate struggle, a fight that claims many of their lives, with the fate of humanity at stake. And yet, far from being weakened by their innocence, the younger heroes are strengthened by how they choose to hold to it and save the world. They may be young, but they are warriors. They are heroes.

This is probably the shortest review I’ll ever write, but it’s a pretty short series, and one that succeeds the previous show, so there’s not much to say without spoiling it. (which, technically, I did plenty of when I was commenting on it every week…)

I enjoyed Heroes Reborn, flaws notwithstanding. It may be the best part of the entire franchise, and I do wish that they could have continued it somehow. But, alas, it seems that shall not be the case.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Plus.

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Concerning Netflix and Online Streaming Services: Houston, Do We Have a Problem?

It occurs to me, it is somewhat ironic to post this just one day before Netflix publishes Marvel’s latest addition to their cinematic universe, The Defenders. (you may expect a review forthcoming!) But what can I say? I get thoughts, and I write them, and I publish. And, in a strange way, perhaps it’s appropriate or even poetic to time this with the release of such an anticipated title.

In short: I am starting to wonder about the future of Netflix, and of online streaming in general. I see some indicators which make me worry about the medium as a whole and, even more, what our experience with it as consumers will be.

Obviously, I need to back up a bit and cover some ground here, to explain my concerns.

The internet is, at its root, just a medium for exchanging information, of every variety. Anything you can name, you can probably find it on the internet. Part of this is, quite simply, how freely information can flow when distance is no barrier. YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, these are international phenomena when it comes to sharing information freely. The success of Amazon is due entirely to how it facilitates an exchange of money for a wide variety of goods. It made all the sense in the world for someone to get the idea of assembling a digital library of movies and television shows, everything from beloved classics to the latest hits, and granting access to the whole of it in exchange for a monthly fee.

I don’t know if Netflix was the first to do that, but they’re certainly the most famous for it. They are to online streaming what Blockbuster was to video rentals not so long ago. Unfortunately for Blockbuster, they failed to adapt at a critical juncture and the company went under. And unfortunately for Netflix, they may well go the same way.

That might be a bold statement, but it was once unbelievable for Blockbuster and a number of other businesses to shut down. Any business, any of them, can go under. In the case of Netflix, I can see a number of troubles they’ve been having, are having, or are soon to have, and they come for two particular reasons: increased competition and some ill-advised business decisions.

Or perhaps it should be just one reason, some ill-advised business decisions right when competition is increasing so much.

Either way.

Netflix, you might want to open your ears.

Going over the business decisions, with two or three brief examples:

1) Netflix was rather famous when it increased its rates. If memory serves correctly, they basically took their service, which allowed for either streaming or DVD rental of any title in their library, and divided it. They began charging for online streaming or physical rentals separately, each at the same price as before. In effect, to get the same service, customers now had to pay double the price. Though it may have remained less expensive than other options, customers were none too pleased.

It might have made more sense for Netflix to instead offer three options: one for renting, one for streaming, and a third which combined them, not double the price of the first two options. Then customers who only wanted one option or the other could choose, and those who wanted both would have paid more, yes, but would have felt less cheated by it. In this way, Netflix could have raised profits while losing fewer paying customers.

2) Netflix is also bungling their approach to anime distribution. This link here goes into the details of that and how they can address it, but the summary is: they need to adapt their approach.

People may like binging their shows, but they also like watching them while they come out, week after week. Releasing an anime title when its already ended is a sure way to not keep customers’ attention, and thus their continuing support, because, hey, we’ve just barely finished watching it, and now there’s something new to watch, so why would we immediately go back and binge it?

If Netflix really wants to compete in the anime market, and make money at it, they need to do more than just release the titles all at once. They need to cater to what their customers want: to watch it as soon as possible.

3) This, I confess, is more due to the rumor mill than confirmed fact. If anyone has more information to either confirm or deny this, I would be most grateful. According to the rumor, Netflix has some outstanding debts weighing down on it. Call me an alarmist, but twenty billion owed is foreboding enough to make anyone question its future.

Now, one of those examples applies to Netflix internally, but two of those apply to the customers. Thing is, however Netflix has treated its customers, it’s the biggest name in online streaming services. So long as the pros outweigh the cons, they have nothing to worry about.

Which is why they should really be worried about offering a better product than the competition. Perhaps they actually realize this, as they have been trying new things. Anime, for instance. If they just alter their approach slightly, they could satisfy more of their customers. And, another great idea: creating their own exclusive content. Surely, something that phenomenal and revolutionary would guarantee their customers’ continued support, yes?

Except that the competition is doing the same.

“Trouble I sense, when copied your best idea is, by your competition.”

And there’s more competition than you might think. This article explains a few options, including some I didn’t think of. Myself, I thought of…

There’s Hulu, of course, probably the second most famous of online streaming websites. Like Netflix, they are a video-on-demand subscription service, with a library of movies and television shows. Basically, they offer a near-identical service, including exclusive content, and at a comparable, perhaps even lesser, cost.

There’s Amazon, which sells ownership of a digital copy of whatever title, that can be watched on their website, on an individual basis. There’s certainly appeal there, not paying for anything you might not be using at the time, but if one makes enough purchases, they might prefer the monthly subscription idea instead.

There’s even YouTube, with their YouTube Red service, creating original content exclusive to them.

Disney and DC are both launching their own streaming services, not only including classic content but also new content they’ll have exclusive rights to. Which, having these two launch their own services, and take titles away from Netflix, not good for Netflix.

Even Netflix’s anime library is threatened by competition with Crunchyroll and Funimation.

Heck, VidAngel, the controversial video filtering service, only fails to compete properly with Netflix just because they’re not in the same weight class as all the rest.

And the list just goes on and on, including iTunes, HBO, Crackle, M-Go, even Google. Everyone’s getting in on this, because there is money to be made.

Which brings me away from the troubles of Netflix specifically and towards my concerns for online streaming itself as a medium, the main thrust of which can be summed up in just one question:

How many competitors did I just mention who are, explicitly, creating their own content?

I think it was Netflix’s idea, or maybe not, but either way, a number of streaming services are creating original movies and television shows which they can exclusively control access to. It’s smart, perhaps, but not quite smart enough. I am the first to promote competition, as much as possible, but I think there’s something all of these studio executives are missing.

Pardon me for a small digression here.

“…or, you’re right, Jafar, I could get to the point…”

As we’ve been entering the ongoing age of the internet, we’ve been enjoying the benefits of online streaming over raw television, but now we’re starting to experience the real cost.

See, the TV, with cable or satellite or whatever, has offered us, for decades, a library that practically has no limit. We’ve been able to shift between genres, between networks, between sports, cartoons, love stories, nature shows, history networks, cooking programs, and whatever else, all with the press of a button.

That is very much part of how televisions became so prolific in the first place, because of the sheer volume and variety it offered. This is why it was profitable for studios to produce so many shows, and why it was profitable for companies to buy airtime for their commercials. Much as we all hate them, advertisements are how all the shows we know and love were paid for, which saved us having to pay for all of them on our own.

It was the great alignment of all the relevant powers that be that made television succeed, and that is why online streaming has been such a success thus far, because it reaped those benefits to share with us online. Netflix’s success has been due, in no small part, to how it collected diverse content for us to enjoy. It was even easier than changing channels, we could just search for anything we wanted to watch and watch it. It took the experience of watching television and brought it to the computer screen, where we could personalize it.

But now we have all these big names carving pieces of the internet out for themselves. As more and more studios create exclusive content, we can’t just change the channel to enjoy it all. It takes more than the push of a button, it takes an additional charge to our bank account. At a time when the economy, in every corner of the world, is seriously in trouble, that is less and less of a good idea. Force people to choose sides, and they may well side against you. If we have to choose between one studio or the other, eventually every studio will suffer for it, alongside their shrinking customer base.

Success was found on television because a multitude of studios were able to share the medium, instead of tearing it apart. If they mean to succeed in the long term online, I would highly recommend they find some way of duplicating that. If, for whatever reason, they don’t want to continue with Netflix, then they need to find some other way of sharing the medium again.

Myself, just spit-balling, I am imagining a service where the major studios themselves offer their content all in one place. Perhaps they bring in advertisements again, no more than one per interruption, or no more than fifteen seconds long if there are multiple commercials, but either way, they find a compromise which allows them to imitate the benefits of television and offer a lower price that customers are willing to pay for the collective library. Or maybe the provide an option where customers can select what content they are interested in paying for, either a higher price for everything, or a lower price for singular favorites to suit their needs, thus allowing the studios to control access to their exclusive content and keeping competition alive and well, while also avoiding a harmful demand that the customer choose between their content and that of other studios.

Anyway, I’m pretty much just rambling at this point, so I’ll end it here with a question:

What do you think? Am I crazy and worrying over nothing, or am I on to something here?

Just keep it civil! 😉

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Anime Review: Overlord

Overlord is mostly a fantasy action/adventure anime, but tilted on its head to tell the story from the villains’ perspective. It borrows just a little from the trope of a gamer getting stuck in a game that becomes real, but in a way that it hardly matters, so it’s pretty much just a fantasy turned upside-down.

The story centers around an undead lich, the last of a collection of “supreme beings” who formed a guild called Ains Ooal Gown. He takes that name for himself, casting aside his old name, and intends to conquer the fantasy world he finds himself in, using the army of minions left to his command. Part of this is a worldwide search for anyone else who might have been trapped in this world with him, but he also fully intends to rule the world and adorn the lair he and his former comrades made in all the riches of the world. Being the last of his kind, he is very lonely, and intends to make his conquest and the to-be-adorned lair a tribute to his old friends.

So, already we have a complete reversal of the usual narrative, following the side that has monsters and is set on world conquest. Many of the usual things are brought in and played with throughout the narrative. The band of adventurers, the great creature that rules the forest, the company of loyal soldiers and their noble captain, the villagers in need of help, the great theocracy that naturally, and automatically, will be the undead lord’s most dedicated enemy, secret orders, cults, thieves, insane murderers, etc. Each of these is brought in, with varying degrees of significance, and played with, sometimes for comedic effect, sometimes to get us on the Ains’ side as he takes on other villains, sometime to add meat to the bones of the overarching plot.

I can’t really go into specifics without spoiling things, so we’ll end the plot summary there. 😉

I largely enjoyed Overlord. Only the first season has come out thus far, and I eagerly await the second.

It’s a fun idea, telling this kind of story from the side of the lich, the monsters, the minions, the would-be conquerors. Take any story, in a book, a movie, a game, a television show, they’d be the villains, and they certainly are that here. They are ruthless and brutal and treacherous, the stuff of nightmares, they think little to nothing of human life at all, let alone the lives of the people in their way, and they are exceptionally powerful. Oh, and they mean to conquer the world. That’s a big one.

Whether or not they can conquer the world remains to be seen. If it were just a matter of their warriors’ individual battle strength, they could probably do so with relative ease, because, again, they are powerful. They absolutely exceed anything and everything humanity could throw at them. However, they have limited resources and only one lair to work with, and they can be matched, if rarely, so the odds could swing either way without warning, I’d say. That is both good and bad. In fact, I would say it’s Overlord‘s biggest weakness thus far.

For any conflict to be truly interesting, the two sides need to be somewhat comparable to each other. I say that knowing well the feeling of absolutely overwhelming the enemy – thank you, Starcraft – and as nice as it is to have an undisputed victory of your own, the most entertaining ones to watch are more evenly matched than that.

The first time Ains takes to the field, he absolutely overwhelms the enemy, and they weren’t exactly low on the pecking order of the world. That was fine, it established how powerful he is. The next few times are barely skirmishes by comparison. Towards the end, he not only defeats but actively mocks his enemy right up to the moment of his victory. At this point, while I liked seeing that particular enemy bite the dust, it was starting to get boring, seeing him dominate every fight. It isn’t until the last fight that we see him actually pushed towards his limits, though still not pushed all the way to them. That was easily the most entertaining battle yet in the series.

So, Ains is certainly powerful, but perhaps he’s a little too powerful for a lead character.

Not like we know any *other* lead characters who are so powerful and yet so boring.

As for the other characters, they look interesting, but we haven’t gotten to know them yet, not really. We’ve seen them, and we’ve seen some indications of what they can do, but there are over a dozen characters paraded in front of the camera from the start and it barely settles on any one of them for very long. We get a feel for some of them, but not much. Seriously, when one of them suddenly became a near-constant at Ains’ side, I didn’t even recognize who she was, because we’d barely seen her at all before that point.

On the other hand, there are some key moments. The camera doesn’t settle long on the other characters, but it makes those moments count. We see how they behave, how they think, how they interact, important choices they make, and, most of all, we see how they view Ains. That relationship is key to whatever happens as the story moves forward. It explains not only why they serve him, but also why that loyalty is reciprocated. Ains is pretty cold-blooded, but he looks after his own. Heck, even without really valuing the lives of others, he can still admire the people who try to be strong.

That sort of connection between Ains and others, that human-like element to him, is how the audience is able to connect with him and his minions. That, I think, is Overlord‘s best feature, showing the humanity, such as it is, within the monsters. That is what I like best, and what I found most interesting. The fights, of course, are nice, and well done. The setting is intriguing, the music is entrancing, and so on and so forth. But the characters are what draw me in, and I want to get to know them all better. I am interested in the end of this story because I am interested in them.

And that is why I look forward to the next season.

Basically: Overlord is an unusual take on the usual fantasy stories. It takes the characters we usually root against and makes them interesting. I think it could be improved, and it would have been better to just discard the idea of it being a game that became real, but I remain spellbound nonetheless.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Plus.

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TV Review: Legends of Tomorrow

If you begin watching Legends of Tomorrow without first watching Arrow and The Flash, it will make no sense whatsoever. The first two shows do a great deal to set up the third, including introduce and develop most of the heroes and villains. And if you don’t watch each season concurrently with the other two shows, you will still get lost more than once, and not only in the crossover episodes.

Legends may well be the epitome of the Arrowverse’s greatest flaw: the shows rely on each other far too much. This is why I am perfectly happy having the various properties of the Marvel Cinematic Universe exist largely independent of each other.

Outside that flaw, one must at least try to discuss the show on its own merits.

The premise of the show is, basically, there are terrible villains who either live very long or possess the power of time travel, and so combating them requires also traveling through time. To that end, a collection of heroes and antiheroes, the Legends, has been assembled to travel through Earth’s history and preserve it from those who would do serious harm. Unfortunately, they tend to mess things up themselves as frequently as they fix them, adding to their own workload. Their continued success and general survival is a testament to their skills.

From the beginning, I was impressed by how personal the Legends’ adventures were for them. Traveling across the world and across ages, it would be easy to lose any connection between the heroes and the circumstances they find themselves in. Yet, instead, they’re consistently finding themselves being pushed to the limit, driven by their emotions and convictions, and investing themselves into what’s happening immediately around them. The fate of the future is at stake, but that is only a reflection of what lies within the Legends’ hearts.

That said, the first season had terrible issues with how campy it was, not least of which was the villain of that season, Vandal Savage. This is one of the most formidable entities of the DC Comics’ universe, and one whose introduction into the Arrowverse required several superheroes working together to bring him down. But the Legends kept whipping him, and no matter how menacing he might be to most regular people, by the end, he just wasn’t so threatening anymore.

The second season was much better. They may have dredged up some villains we would have been happier to never see again, but the Legion of Doom was still a massive upgrade. For one thing, their menace and danger remained, and even increased, right up to the last moment of the climax. As such, they were perfect for, again, driving the Legends to the limit. And finally, it made for a heart-wrenching moment, for the outcome to come down to something so personal and powerful for one of our favorite characters in the Arrowverse. Excellently done.

Still, for being so personal, there’s a lot that happens “just because,” and that goes into how campy it is. The characters are entertaining, but what they’re doing isn’t always. And, like the rest of the Arrowverse, the couplings tend to “just happen,” and not all of them, or really many of them, are worth shipping. Actually, I think Legends has had only one coupling, incredibly brief, that I liked.

As the show has only been going for two seasons at this point, there’s not much else to say, really. I do like the characters, they are entertaining and appealing and funny. I like the action, usually, and the plots. And I absolutely love Caity Lotz as Sara Lance, the White Canary. But, still, it has a long way to go before it’s “great,” and I fear it will never be so as long as it relies so thoroughly on the rest of the Arrowverse to support it.

Rating: 7 stars out of 10.

Grade: C-Plus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #143: Our Heroes Are Just Like Us

“And he was born full grown with a sword in his hand and pissing fire.”
– The Maisterpeaker, The Wolf of the North
From The Wolf in the North series, by Duncan M. Hamilton

One thing I really like about this book is how the Maisterspeaker, as the narrator, interacts with his audience every so often.

This instance is right at the beginning of the story, the first “interruption,” when someone in his audience is confused. Who is this “Wulfric” person whose story apparently begins with being bullied and beaten up? Wulfric, he explains, is the man they know by another name, Ulfyr, a warrior of great renown. But someone pipes up that no one could beat Ulfyr in a fight, no one.

To which, the Maisterspeaker responds with this quote, to everyone’s amusement.

What I really like about this quote is how, by being so ridiculous and false, it exposes a simple, profound truth, one that we often forget: our heroes are not so different from us.

Every person, good or bad, begins life the same way. Every animal begins as an embryo, every plant begins as a seed. There is no magical thing that happens and – boom, whammo – there are the champions of humanity, just popping into existence fully ready and strong and wise and perfect and beautiful and never having tasted failure. That simply does not happen.

Every one of us begins the same way, and so we grow through similar experiences. Everyone knows failure. Everyone knows defeat. Everyone knows pain. There’s nothing “special” about our heroes, nothing that makes them magically different. What makes a hero a hero has nothing to do with being “special” or “better” or “perfect.” It is only a matter of choice.

You know what that means?

It means our heroes are just like us.

Meaning, we are just like our heroes.

We can be heroes every bit as much as them. We may or may not be the same type of hero, but, still, a hero nonetheless. All we need do is choose, and hold to that choice through thick and thin.

And what is the choice, you ask? To care. To do. To strive to be our best self. To give what is needed, when it’s needed.

Anyone can do that. Anyone. Even you. Even me.

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TV Review: Gotham

You never forget your first. I don’t know how many shows there are that deal with the early years of superheroes, but I am never going to escape thinking of them as another Smallville. Fortunately, the comparison is not always accurate.

Gotham is the story of how Bruce Wayne, the young boy whose parents were gunned down right in front of him, becomes Batman, the protector of his city and one of the most iconic superheroes ever. It also tells the story of Jim Gordon, the man who eventually becomes the city’s police commissioner and one of Batman’s most stalwart allies. Lastly, it tells the story of how Gotham, the city, became the way it is, filled with freaks and monsters and other villains.

I still remember watching the first episode. It was so very campy, wooden, and obvious, it very nearly lost me. And yet, I was just a little bit intrigued. It just barely fell short of annoying me too much, so I kept watching, and added it to my weekly lineup. It took a few episodes, but it grew on me, found its footing, and the quality of the show has been improving ever since. Seriously, comparing the show as it began to how it is now is incredible. It’s like that one time as a teen when you don’t see your friend all summer and then you meet them again and they’ve grown three feet in three months, obviously the same person, but whoa, they are not the same as they used to be!

Of course, in this case, I was able to watch Gotham “grow up” week after week, and I have enjoyed it.

Gotham‘s best strength is it’s characters. We can forgive a great deal, I have found, if we can love the characters enough. I think that might be why I made it past the first episode, because I liked them, and now I’ve seen them go through some incredible developments. Gordon, for instance, began as an idealistic cop who was willing to stand alone against everything wrong in the city, a zeal that eventually took him down a darker path, which he only recently came back from. Much like Batman, he is always facing his inner demons. Bullock was a beaten, defeated soul at the start, but his fire was rekindled, and he’s grown into a leader, and that’s even when he’s largely been Gordon’s sidekick. Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, has risen and fallen several times. Alfred hasn’t grown so much as he has endured for his young charge, Bruce. And, though Gordon has often been the lead of the show, it has continued to follow both Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle on their intertwined journeys towards becoming Batman and Catwoman, one of the most classic couplings in superhero history.

All that said, it shouldn’t need saying that what really carries the show is its plot. We love the characters, but we also love what they go through, and how they become who they’re eventually meant to become. The story is intricate and has so many threads to follow, yet they don’t get tangled up. It’s “rich,” not “overwhelming.” There’s action, intrigue, genuine suspense, triumph, and tragedy as the line between sanity and madness gets bent and blurred.

I also like how the show is always easing us into the more fantastic elements of things. Unlike other shows (cougharrowcough!) it doesn’t leave the realism behind. There are rules even when dealing with madness, and the mad science and supernatural elements so prevalent in the DC universe aren’t given free rein in Gotham. The envelope for suspension of disbelief is pushed, not destroyed.

Not to make the show sound “perfect,” though. It can get a little repetitive, as Gordon is always dealing with his inner darkness, the villains are always deposing each other, and Bruce, to be kept relevant, keeps getting kidnapped and keeps dealing with secret organizations.

I also dislike how so much of the show, in showing us how we get to the future, is inheriting everything from the past. Gordon defends Gotham like his father, Selina is a thief like her mother, the future Scarecrow gets it from his father, etc. It’s poetic, perhaps, but leaves little room for the characters’ own originality.

Heck, the more the series progresses, the less the idea of what becomes Batman originates with Bruce. It should be his idea, his desire, and his drive that creates the Batman. Instead, he gets more and more of it from others, starting with his father’s inspirational example but drawing from his enemies as well, what they do and what they want him to do. Yes, there’s someone evil out there who wants him to become Batman, an idea, I think, they have not entirely thought through.

Also, I know some people loved coupling Gordon up with Leslie Thompkins, but I was never a fan of it. I just couldn’t figure out that relationship, not where it came from, not how it worked.

Flaws notwithstanding, there is a reason I’ve kept Gotham on my weekly lineup. I like it, a lot. I enjoy the characters, the plots, the action, the intrigue. Three seasons done, and still it keeps getting better and better. Only time will tell if they can keep that up all the way to the end, and I’m looking forward to how the characters continue to develop. Gordon, especially, needs to become more restrained and lose that tendency he has to focus only on one thing, the matter at hand, if he’s to be a proper commissioner.

Rating: I give Gotham 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: solid A.

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Anime Review: Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet

Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is a science fiction anime that aired a few years ago, in 2013. The story is set in the far future and follows Ensign Ledo of the Galactic Alliance as fate plucks him from the midst of an unending interstellar war between humanity and monsters called Hideauze, and drops him onto planet Earth, the birthplace of humanity, which they left so long ago that they’ve forgotten where it is. He finds the planet not frozen over as the Alliance’s history states, but flooded over, a massive ocean without end and without land, and people living in old, rusted ships on the ocean’s surface. The fleet that takes him in is called Gargantia, and through his experiences involving said fleet, he comes to a new understanding of humanity.

I’ve mentioned this anime before, way back when I did the 30-Day Anime Challenge, especially regarding the robots, the mechs that play an integral role in the story. So, yes, I like it.

I like the mechs. I waxed eloquent about this before, so to just summarize: I like the variety of mechs, I like the texture they help give this world, and I especially like the role they play in the story. Unlike in other anime, the mechs here are important to the story without having the story revolve around them.

There are other world-building details that I am less satisfied with. In particular, the idea that the world managed to freeze over, and then thaw out, and now somehow there’s no dry land anywhere, yet people are still managing to survive in rusty, wrecked ships that they drag from the bottom of the ocean. Seriously, it really felt like a stretch to me, there’s no way an entire civilization could last very long like that.

“Storytelling Function: Optimal.”

I like the narrative, and how well it uses the three-act structure. The way it works is, basically, you set up the situation, then you throw in a complication. Then you deal with it, and there’s usually a small climax that ends the beginning, everything has been set up. The second act, roughly twice as long as the first, proceeds with further complications and tension, rising to a greater climax in the middle of the story. Then things descend into normalcy, until you throw in a curve ball, something from the first act returns, and there’s another climax, usually the reverse of the one preceding it. Then comes the third act, when the final conflict begins, often accompanied with grand reveals and moving action as the box shrinks around all our characters, and finally, the great climax of the entire story, followed by the descending action, the wrap-up, the end.

Spoiling as little of what happens as possible, I will say that Gargantia applies this to an unusual degree for an anime, and I was rather happy with myself for noticing. 🙂

There are things which could be improved, though. We had two episodes in a row, in the first half of the show, that are basically, “Ledo looking for something to do, and they’re having a party, and the girls are being dressed provocatively.” That last, actually, was a bit disconcerting. When it was just bikinis and other such swimsuits, it accomplished little besides fan service and begged the question of how these people, living such stark lives, were able to produce bikinis. It became rather disturbing, however, when they featured a trio of teenage girls, fourteen or fifteen years of age, belly dancing in outfits that could make a sultan’s harem blush, cheered on madly by a room full of older men. I know Japan has a very different perspective on legal ages, but some things are simply disconcerting, ya know?

I also felt a touch confused when they essentially had Ledo have a miniature breakdown in the final moments of the climax. He’s grown close to a particular girl, and now that he’s basically going kamikaze to save her, he’s wishing he could see her one more time… which he just barely did, like, two minutes ago. This may have been all the show’s creators could come up with to both accomplish the final moments they wanted and keep Ledo from dying, but it still felt forced.

…but I was so awesome for the rest of the series…

Most of all, I like the discussion of what humanity is, what it means. Ledo, especially, learns about this. First, he sees humans doing things so differently from what he is accustomed to, and begins to learn about living, rather than just survival. He learns about feeling as well as thinking. Then, when he is faced with what he has been taught is the sworn enemy of humanity, he learns that they are more alike than he ever knew. Finally, when faced with the old doctrine that he once served, he finds it lacking. The two sides of this war he’s been fighting in? One has shed a human form, perhaps, but the other, his old side, has forsaken what it means to be human, the compassion and commitment that humans have towards each other, becoming nothing more than an empty shell.

By contrast, Ledo begins the story behaving almost like a robot himself, and then he learns new convictions which make him more human. This clearly rubs off on his robot, too, whose final words and actions in the series display that even an empty robotic shell might carry a tiny spark of humanity within it.

There’s more, of course. There’s always more. The fights are intriguing and well done, the characters are lovable, there are cute critters and wondrous sights, there’s laughter and tears, and the animation is top notch, not to mention the music. But that, really, is what I like most about this anime: the mechs and the world-building they represent, the narrative structure, and the discussion of humanity. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s pretty darn good.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Minus.

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TV Review: The Flash

So there I was, reviewing Arrow, when I thought, “Eh, I might as well cover the rest of the Arrowverse at some point, too.” In which case, I might as well do them in order.

The Flash follows its titular hero, Barry Allen, after he’s struck by a special kind of lightning which gives him the power of super speed. He’s one of the world’s first super-people, or “metahumans,” and he dedicates his life to protecting others, most especially from the rampage of villainous metahumans. Aiding him in his quest are his friends at Star Labs, including Dr. Wells, Francisco Ramone, and Caitlyn Snow, as well as his adopted family, the Wests. The Wests took him in after his father was jailed for his mother’s murder, but Barry saw who really did it: a blur, a man surrounded by lightning. What Barry does not suspect is how close his true enemy really is to him.

As Arrow‘s little sibling, Flash is what turned one show into universe, and one can argue for and against the merits of that change till they’re blue in the face. The point is, it’s very difficult to discuss one show independently of the other, partially because they’ve always relied on each other so much, too much. Flash, however, has largely prospered from the connection, having never been anything else, while we saw what Arrow was before the rest of the Arrowverse came along. Flash has never stood alone. Which is unfortunate, because when it’s not interacting with Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, The Flash actually does fairly well on its own.

Yes, there are some legitimate flaws. Three seasons in a row, the overarching villain has been 1) a speedster faster than him and 2) someone surprisingly close to Barry. Three seasons in a row, Barry did something stupid that managed to transport them from one mess to another, and he’s beaten himself up about it and been made to face his demons. Three seasons in a row, most major decisions come from Barry’s encounter with the episode’s villain. Three seasons in a row, it’s been all about Barry and Iris getting together in spite of whatever other couplings and obstacles are in the way.

I mentioned how Arrow is too distracted by the spin-offs that comprise the Arrowverse, and The Flash is largely the source of that. The two shows were very different in the beginning, but Arrow became like its little sibling, and while The Flash was lighter and more fun, it imported the theme of heroes being consumed with guilt over their failings, their mistakes, and their inability to save everyone. Basically, the two shows became virtually identical mirror images of each other. And, of course, the endless crossovers don’t really do either show any favors.

The show is, quite simply, not perfect.

But it’s still plenty good.

People, including myself, are generally willing to forgive a lot if we actually like the characters. And we definitely like these characters. They can be idiots at times, but what really sells it, I think, is the emotional depth. Our heroes care very much for each other and the people around them, and they’re genuine friends to the end. That camaraderie opens the way for a very human connection of feeling with the audience. This last season, the third, was easily the best yet, because the story was pushing our heroes to the limit, straining the bonds between them that they fought to preserve, and the audience was right there with them.

Also concerning the characters is the continuing depths the show explores. Perhaps the best example of this is Harrison Wells, who is actually several people instead of just one, the explanation of which involves both time travel and alternate dimensions, but which comes out to there being several versions of one person, and Tom Cavanagh plays all of them brilliantly. In fact, the show is pretty adept at changing the characters, adding to them, developing them, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but always in a way that, within the rules of the Arrowverse, makes sense. Not least of these is how they react as several of them develop superpowers.

Speaking of which, it’s ironic how Arrow has the characters who don’t have superpowers, and lately they’ve just been bulldozing their way through their enemies, while The Flash has so many people with superpowers, yet they think and “mad science” their way out of trouble more often than not. The best fights, I’ve found, aren’t just just an exchange of blows, but a contest of cunning as well. In that, Barry and his team are surprisingly capable. Mind you, their mad science is more like magic than the superpowers are, but the point still stands.

Basically, for all its flaws, I find The Flash to be an entertaining story of lovable characters facing terrible tragedies together and thinking their way towards determined triumph. Oh, and for all the tragedy and heartbreak, the heroes are still plenty bright and funny.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Plus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom # 142: Loyalty

“No matter what will be ruined, we’d never sell out our friends!”
– Master Cat Viper, One Piece
Episode 767, “A Volatile Situation! The Dog and the Cat and the Samurai”

This quote comes from one of my most favorite moments in anime, and one of the most epic as well.

Going into the particulars of this scene and this quote would be both long, detailed, and filled with spoilers. Suffice to say, Master Cat Viper, as he’s called, knows exactly what he speaks of.

He is a leader among his people. They were recently attacked by an evil, amoral, destructive enemy. The conflict reduced their beloved city, a thousand years old, to rubble and ruin, and its conclusion would have resulted in most of their deaths if not for the intervention of fate and extremely good fortune. All of this was done because their enemy was searching for someone, a man, which the enemy believed to be among them. The people, every one, and especially their leaders constantly denied any knowledge of this, even at great personal cost and agony.

Here’s the amazing thing: he was there, and they knew it.

When this is revealed to the series’ main protagonists, they are struck dumb with awe and respect. Tears flow as they realize, every last man, woman, and child among these people had lied. They protected this man, their friend. Their ancient, beautiful city was ruined. They all almost died, and would have if not for the intervention of fate and really good fortune. And still, they held true.

When Master Cat Viper says these words, he’s not speaking metaphorically. He and his people have already put their bodies where their mouths are. They are nothing if not loyal.

As I think about this, I think about civilization. Some people say the foundation of human society is power, or knowledge, or law, or any number of things. I say that the true foundation of civilization is the ties that bind. Family, friendship, honor, loyalty, love, these are the virtues that make a people strong. Cast them aside, and you weaken not only yourself but all of humanity in turn.

Just think, if everyone in the world had such loyalty towards each other, would not the world be a better place?

I certainly know this: to see loyalty like this in others makes me want to be loyal to them, and woe to any who would do them harm.

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