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The Ambiguity Of Anti-Heroes And How To Make Sense Of Them (According To Overly Sarcastic Productions)

Certain concepts easy to discuss, but poorly defined. You could get 100 people in a room, get them talking about art for hours on end, and at no point will anyone have a clear definition of what constitutes art. For some, it’s a beautiful painting by a long-dead artist. For others, it’s a banana taped to the wall.

The conflict occurs when discussing anti-heroes. I know because I’ve discussed them before. I’m guilty of throwing that label around and attaching it to certain characters. However, despite having a definition, the concept is still poorly defined. It’s so poor, in fact, that you can argue that almost any character with the “hero” is also an anti-hero to some extent.

Like art, it’s one of those things we think we know when we see. Given the sheer volume of superhero comics I’ve read over the years, I like to think I can point out and define an anti-hero better than most. Even with that experience, I doubt my standards are flawless. In fact, I’m fairly certain most peoples’ standards are ridiculously flawed.

I say this because I recently came across a new video by Overly Sarcastic Productions, a wonderful YouTube channel that I would highly recommend for all aspiring writers. Whether you’re writing adventure, sci-fi, or erotica romance, this channel offers invaluable advice and lessons.

My favorite part of the channel is its ongoing series, Trope Talk. It covers a wide range of writing topics, from paragons and pure evil villains to romantic sub-plots and reformed villains. Recently, it tackled the concept of anti-heroes in a comprehensive, colorful way. What made it even more compelling, in my opinion, are the characters it singled out to make the most important points.

There’s a lot I could say about it. Rather than spoil it, I strongly encourage everyone to watch the video. If you think it’s wrong on some areas or missed something, then please make your case in the comments. As both a comic fan and an aspiring writer, I’m always happy to discuss such topics.

If nothing else, I hope that video convinced you to go watch “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Seriously, even if you’re not a Star Wars fan and utterly despised the sequel trilogy, go check it out. It may not have Baby Yoda, but it has plenty to offer, both for anti-heroes and so many other wonderful things.

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Filed under media issues, superhero comics, superhero movies, video games, Villains Journey

Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and the MCU’s Romance Problem

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Trying to find flaws in the Marvel Cinematic Universe these days is like trying to find a flaw in Mr. Rogers. It’s pretty much impossible, unless you’re willing to be exceedingly petty. Even the most ardent critic can’t deny the success of this now iconic cinematic universe. Such a franchise doesn’t make over $7 billion at the box office by having many egregious flaws.

That said, the MCU is not without its shortcomings and I’m not just talking about underperforming outliers like “The Incredible Hulk” or outright failures like “Inhumans.” One such shortcoming, which I feel has not had sufficient scrutiny, has to do with romance in the MCU. As someone who is a lifelong comic book fan and an admitted romantic, this stands out to me more than most.

It only became more apparent with the upcoming a TV series starring Vision and the Scarlet Witch on the Disney+ streaming service. The romance fan and the comic book fan in me initially liked that idea because Vision and the Scarlet Witch are one of the Avenger’s most endearing and colorful romances in the comics. This is definitely one of those relationships that can carry an entire show.

However, given that this takes place in the MCU, the concept is already on a shaky foundation. While the events of “Avengers: Infinity War” established that these two characters are romantically involved, there’s little in terms of how that relationship developed. As a result, the tragedy that played out in the Battle of Wakanda had little dramatic weight.

It’s one of the few glaring flaws in an otherwise stellar narrative. However, the lack of romantic depth between Vision and the Scarlet Witch is only the most obvious symptom of a much larger problem that has been unfolding in the MCU since the days of “Iron Man” and “Thor.”

Some parts of that problem are pure logistics. Building a cinematic universe on the scale of the MCU requires a lot of moving parts and, as a result, romance was often a secondary concern. Kevin Feige and the creative minds at Marvel Studios opted to prioritize other aspects of character development. Given the MCU’s unprecedented winning streak, it’s safe to say those priorities were well-placed.

It’s only recently that the lack of emphasis on romance has caught up to the MCU. From having Thor break up with Jane Foster prior to “Thor Ragnarok” to horribly mismatched romance between Hulk and Black Widow, there’s a glaring absence of successful, well-developed romances in the MCU.

Even the successful romances, namely Tony Stark and Pepper Pots or Ant Man and Wasp, had much of that success unfold off-screen. At most, a movie would show them getting together or enduring a major conflict, but there would rarely be any moments that fleshed out the romance in a meaningful way. Every bit of development only centered around defeating a villain, which is good catalyst for romance, but not much else.

Now, we’re getting an entire show about a couple who were on opposite sides of the conflict in “Captain America: Civil War” and inexplicably together in “Avengers: Infinity War.” In terms of meaningful romance, this is not a trivial oversight. If someone didn’t know their romantic history in the comics, then they would be understandably confused as to why they ended up together.

Not seen here is ANY hint that these two have been flirting.

It’s the same problem that the original “X-Men” movies made when developing the horribly flawed love triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine. The narrative in the movies relied too heavily on assuming peoples’ knowledge of the source material in lieu of providing an understandably reason as to why this romance is occurring. Again, that’s not a trivial oversight.

How is anyone who only saw “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War” supposed to buy into the relationship between Vision and the Scarlet Witch? The movies only establish that they’re together. They don’t establish why, how, or what they went through in establishing their relationship. Everyone is just left to assume, which is rarely a good strategy for developing meaningful romance.

Even if the relationship between Vision and the Scarlet Witch were entirely platonic, it would still be quite a stretch to believe that they have a genuinely intimate connection. It’s possible that the upcoming show will help develop that connection, but there’s no getting around how underdeveloped it has been to this point.

The same could be said for other relationships throughout the MCU. Some are so underdeveloped that when intimate moments do occur, they rarely have much impact. Captain America’s relationship with Peggy Carter in his first movie probably had the best foundation, of all the MCU romances, but that only made him kissing her niece, Sharon, feel downright wrong. Haley Atwell herself has said as such.

Romance, even among fictional characters, requires some level of chemistry to go along with the narrative. While that can be difficult to fit into a single movie, it’s not impossible. Movies like “Man of Steel” and the first “Spider-Man” movie were able to establish the necessary chemistry with only a handful of scenes. Such scenes have been absent or underdeveloped in the MCU.

Ironically, the most fleshed out romance in the MCU is between Starlord and Gamora, two characters who aren’t an endearing love story in the comics. I would even argue that the scene in which Starlord sacrifices himself to save Gamora in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie shows more romantic depth than any other MCU movie to date.

It didn’t take much to show that Starlord and Gamora have chemistry. From their first interactions to the many challenges they overcame over the course of two movies, they developed a powerful connection that just isn’t there for Vision and the Scarlet Witch. That connection is part of what made the events between them in “Avengers: Infinity War” so heart-wrenching.

That same sentiment just wasn’t there with Vision. We knew from the events of two previous movies that Starlord genuinely loved Gamora. We understood how strong it was by the time Thanos entered the picture. There’s none of that present with Vision and the Scarlet Witch. When they face a similar situation, it just doesn’t have the same impact.

It probably helps that Guardians of the Galaxy was a relatively obscure series before the first movie and has little history of iconic romances compared to the Avengers. However, it does show that the MCU is capable of meaningful romance. It just seems incapable of applying it to the more notable couples from the comics.

While such flaws haven’t stopped the MCU from succeeding on so many other levels, it still ensures that Vision and the Scarlet Witch have an uphill battle in terms of proving their romance is more than an assumed contrivance. It’s certainly not impossible, but there’s a lot to develop in terms of chemistry and depth.

Given on how “Avengers Endgame” played out, it may not matter how poorly past romances have been handled. However, the impact it has had in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies shows that there is a place for romance in the MCU. Perhaps Vision and the Scarlet Witch can be part of that with the upcoming show, but it has lot to overcome before it can be the iconic romance that the MCU needs.

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Filed under Marvel, romance, superhero comics, superhero movies, television

How “Bojack Horseman” Offers A (Refreshingly) Balanced Take On Addiction

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People are complicated. Every person deals with their own set of complications. Some are more serious than others. A person who suffers from crippling addiction doesn’t face the same challenges as someone who has an extreme fear of clowns. Both require different approaches to deal with it and not every person is going to handle it the same way.

I suspect that most people would agree with everything I just stated. Most have probably endured their share of possible complications or dealt with someone who has. It’s one of those basic, but understated facts of life. However, when it comes to complicated problems like addiction and depression, popular media tends to do a lousy job of portraying those problems.

It’s not just that issues like addiction, drug abuse, or depression are overly simplified. The characters involved rarely reflect the complexities surrounding this issue. Look a most TV shows, movies, or books and you tend to get a stripped-down version of these issues. It usually plays out like this.

A character starts the story happy and healthy, but vulnerable and foolish.

Said character makes a few bad choices that triggers the problem.

That character goes through upheavals, losses, and setbacks.

The character hits rock bottom, realizes they have a problem, and decides to get help.

Whatever help they get magically works, the character’s issue is solved, and the credits roll to some upbeat song meant to sell the soundtrack.

I understand most people don’t expect the complex struggles of real people to be boiled down into a half-hour TV show or a two-hour movie. To some extent, these stories sell the fantasy that difficult problems have simple solutions. It’s comforting, but it can be dangerous to those who need help that doesn’t involve magical solutions that leave time for commercial breaks.

Very few TV shows or movies have the time to get into all the nuance surrounding these issues, especially for problems such as addiction. More than any other issue, TV and movies tend to get the nature of addiction very wrong. Addiction, itself, is already subject to all sorts of myths and misunderstandings. That’s even more troubling in the middle of a serious opioid epidemic.

For that very reason, it’s genuinely refreshing to see a popular TV show handle the subject in a more balanced manner. Even if that show involves anthropomorphic horse men that sound like Will Arnett, a little balance goes a long way, especially when dealing with real issues that impact real people.

That show, of course, is “Bojack Horseman.” It’s a show I’ve mentioned and praised before for how it confronts the myth of happy endings. It’s also a show that sets itself apart by lampooning and deconstructing the world of celebrities, happiness, politics, popular culture, and injustice. The fact the show can do this while also being funny, entertaining, and genuine is a testament to the show’s quality and brilliance.

I’ve been following this show since it aired. I’ve watched it grow through several seasons, following a unique path to acclaim and success. I was among those disappointed to hear that the show will be ending after Season 6. I don’t know if there will ever be another show that tackled so many sensitive issues in such a balanced way, but that makes it’s handling of addiction in Season 6 even more impressive.

Since the show’s first season, addiction has been both a common theme and a volatile catalyst. In fact, the very first scene of the first episode makes clear that Bojack has a drinking problem. It’s not subtle in the slightest. When he’s not melting down or mentally torturing himself, he’s drinking heavily or ingesting copious amounts of drugs.

Sometimes, he’s downright creative with drug use.

Throughout the course of the show, this has caused more than a few problems to say the least. People have died. Hearts of been broken. Souls have been crushed, regardless of whether you’re a man, woman, or horseman. These moments have helped give the show a level of dramatic impact that few others have matched.

It has also portrayed addiction with more tact, nuance, and understanding than any show I’ve seen to date. If you or anyone you know have dealt with addiction, then this show “Bojack Horseman” offers a compelling message that’s worth heeding.

Bojack’s addiction issues started off simple, but over the course of five seasons, it has become clear that there’s much more to his self-destructive behavior. It’s not just that he’s a celebrity and celebrities tend to get away with more than most, which the show touches on in some hilariously memorable moments. His life, his upbringing, and his choices have created a complex web of influences that fuel his addiction.

It’s not just that he’s depressed.

It’s not just that his parents were neglectful, hateful, and downright cruel.

It’s not just that he betrayed his best friend, who helped make him a success.

It’s not just that he slept with his best friend’s girlfriend.

There are many other gross misdeeds I could list. A lot happens over course of five seasons and it gets very dark. However, the show never attempts to pin Bojack’s problems with addiction on a singular cause. In Season 6, he attempts to finally confront those problems, but doing so doesn’t mean finding simple solutions. In fact, the solutions are prone to complications of their own.

The first three episodes of Season 6 has Bojack doing something important in the context of treating addiction. It has him look at his life, as a whole, and not just focus on the triggers that inspire his self-destructive behavior. Like addicts in the real world, Bojack learns that there’s no one thing that caused his problems. It’s not a single choice, either. Unlike the light-hearted show that made him famous, life is more complicated than that.

In some respects, drinking gave him the comfort and warmth that his parents never gave him. In others, it allowed him to overcome crippling social anxieties, which only got elevated when he became a celebrity. It wasn’t just that he was dependent on the alcohol to give him a quick dopamine hit to his brain. He came to rely on it, so much so that it incurred more and more complications.

Another part of what makes this portrayal feel balanced is that Bojack’s addictions are never framed as the sole source of his problems. Some of his most regrettable choices in the show happened without the aid of alcohol or drugs. He can’t use addiction as an excuse. Even though he tried to in earlier seasons, he’s not making those same excuses in Season 6.

It’s not a smooth process. Few plots in “Bojack Horseman” play out that way. Bojack struggles with his treatment, which is a novel concept for most shows that tackle the issue. Even when he’s not drinking, it still haunts him. That’s another thing addicts in TV shows rarely show. Once they get treatment, it becomes an afterthought. In real life, treating addiction is an ongoing struggle and always will be.

That’s a tough message for any show to depict, let alone one that needs to resolve things within 22 minutes or 26 episodes. On top of that, the act of not resolving serious issues, such as addiction, means the show can’t have a happy ending. That’s something most shows avoid, but “Bojack Horseman” is different.

On multiple occasions, the show points out how flawed the idea of happy endings are, often in depressing ways. At the same time, though, this is necessary context with which to frame addiction. For someone who has as many issues as Bojack, a happy ending just wouldn’t make sense.

It won’t end like this. It just won’t.

He can’t just come to a profound realization in the backdrop of sad music and suddenly be cured. His story and his struggles keep unfolding. Like real addiction, confronting and treating it is a complicated process that can often last a lifetime. It’s frustrating and depressing, but that’s the nature of life and “Bojack Horseman” doesn’t run from that.

With the second part of Season 6 scheduled for release in January, 2020, the end of “Bojack Horseman” is near. What this means for Bojack, his addiction, and the consequences of his choices remains to be seen. No matter how it ends, the show has achieved a great deal by daring to confront the complications of life that most avoid.

The fact this show can achieve this through a cartoon horse voiced by Will Arnett is an even greater accomplishment. While most people will never be able to relate to a half-man/half-horse former sitcom star, they might be able to relate to his struggles with addiction. Sometimes, being able to deal with things in a quirky, animated show helps make those things less daunting in the real world.

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What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

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If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

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Filed under human nature, philosophy, psychology, Villains Journey

Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Joel From “The Last Of Us”

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For the past few years, it has become a popular pasttime to label certain elements of popular culture as toxic or “problematic.” Take any character, song, plot, role, or trope from any brand of media. Apply an excessive amount of scrutiny, distorting it as much as necessary along the way. In the end, some people will find a way to make it offensive.

It’s through that process that shows like “Seinfeld” can be called racist. Movies like “Crocodile Dundee” can be called culturally insensitive. Movies like “Big” can be called creepy. Even classic video games like “Mario” and “Zelda” can be considered sexist. Scrutinize it enough and everything becomes racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and culturally insensitive.

I find that whole process to be an exercise in trolling that does more to spark outrage than it does meaningful discussion. It’s the same process that created the idea of “toxic masculinity,” a concept I’ve gone out of my way to deconstruct on more than one occasion.

I don’t want to bemoan all the flaws and frustrations that occur when regressive attitudes mix with regressive agendas. There’s enough debate, discussion, and outright shouting going on in that field as it stands. Instead, I want to shift the tone of the conversation by going to the opposite end of the spectrum.

By that, I mean I’m going to do the opposite of highlighting something that some may find “problematic.” Instead, I’m going to cite something that I think is inherently positive from which we can learn. In fact, I’m going to try and coin a new phrase that’s more uplifting than some of the other buzzwords used by the regressive crowd.

I call it “noble masculinity.” It’s the idea that there are noble, admirable traits in male characters that are worth celebrating in the context of a larger story. Having talked so much about toxic masculinity and why I think it’s such a flawed concept, I feel it’s only fitting that I attempt to counter it with something more positive.

I know it’s popular to criticize and complain about male behaviors these days and, as a man, I don’t deny that we can do some foolish things. However, men are also capable of incredible acts of virtue. Those traits deserve more attention, if only to remind everyone that men can be more than outrage fodder.

There are a lot fictional male characters from movies, TV shows, video games, and comics that I could cite who embody positive masculine traits. Characters like Superman, John McClane, and even James Bond come to mind, although I’m sure there are some who would disagree with the last one.

However, in this initial exercise of exploring noble masculinity, I want to cite a lesser-known male character from popular, critically acclaimed video game that some have called the most riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic of the console generation. That game is called “The Last of Us” and the source of the noble masculinity comes from Joel, the grizzled, yet vulnerable male protagonist of the story.

For those who haven’t played “The Last of Us” or just don’t play video games in general, Joel may initially come off as a mix of old cowboy tropes and John McClane rip-offs. However, by following his story, he reveals a level of depth that includes instances of noble masculinity that men and women alike can appreciate.

Joel’s story is not built on prophecies, superhuman abilities, or dumb luck. As a character and a person, Joel is largely defined by a grit that’s uniquely masculine in many ways. At the beginning of the game, he’s not looking to become part of some larger struggle. He’s just a single dad, trying to make a living and provide for his daughter, Sarah. In world full of dim-witted father figures, it’s pretty refreshing.

Then, within the first 10 minutes of the game, Joel suffers the greatest loss any parent can endure. He tries to protect his daughter from first stages of a full-blown apocalypse, but ultimately fails. He ends up watching his daughter die in his arms. It’s a very emotional moment, one in which Joel’s pain is palpable.

That defining moment establishes Joel as a man who fights to protect those he loves, but is all too human and very much at the mercy of forces beyond his control. There’s only so much that he do when the world around him is falling apart. No amount of anger, lament, or sorrow can change that. He, as a man and a survivor of this apocalypse, has to find a way to cope.

While his coping skills aren’t perfect, as evidenced in many powerful scenes throughout the game, Joel’s grief helps drive him. It also lays the foundation for the emotional development he undergoes after he meets Ellie, his young female co-protagonist who becomes a critical part of the gameplay and the story.

I could probably write another article about Ellie and why she’s one of the most compelling female characters in modern video games, but in the context of noble masculinity, she’s very much a catalyst for Joel’s emotional journey. Her own story is remarkable, but her influence on Joel is where she really shines.

It’s not a case of a knight rescuing a princess or a female character trying too hard to be an equal to her male compatriots. In fact, Joel’s first impression of Ellie isn’t a good one. She comes off as an irritable brat with a bad attitude. Essentially, she’s the kind of immature teenager that guys like Joel go out of their way to avoid.

However, their stories soon become intertwined. They end up having to work together, rely on each other, and fight for one another in order to survive a post-apocalyptic world that has been destroyed by zombies, toxic fungus, and military-enforced curfews. Before long, they establish a bond that brings out the best and worst of both characters.

For Joel, the best is reflected in those same paternal instincts that caused him so much pain and sorrow at the beginning. He comes to see Ellie as a surrogate daughter, of sorts. At times, he resists that and even gets upset when the idea is thrown in his face. In the end, though, he doesn’t avoid it.

As a result, Joel’s story embodies more than the love a father has for his child. It also reveals how willing a man is to form a bond with a total stranger, who is not even that nice to him in the beginning, and tries to protect them with that same paternal dedication. It doesn’t happen all at once. He even resists it at times. He still embraces it and all the tribulations that come with it.

That, more than anything, is the most important element of noble masculinity that Joel embodies. He’s not Superman, nor does he pretend to be. He’s also very aware of his own shortcomings, saying at one point that he trusts others more than he trusts himself. Most men are reluctant to acknowledge such insecurity, let alone reveal it. Joel doesn’t hide from it. If anything, he channels it.

It’s something that resonates with Ellie too. Throughout the game, she has opportunities to cut ties with him and go along with someone who might be better-equipped to help her. However, she choses to stay with Joel. Just as he comes to see her as a daughter, she comes to see him as a father.

The fact that he and Ellie go through this journey in the midst of an ongoing apocalypse makes their bond that much more powerful. It also requires that Joel push himself harder and confront the limitations that kept him from saving his daughter. Being a father made for great sorrow in the past, but it also made him stronger and more determined in the future.

That’s not to say that Joel doesn’t have his low points. There are moments where Joel does not come off as noble. Some even argue that his decisions towards the end of the game undermines his nobility. I would argue that it actually reinforces it.

When the world is already in the middle of an apocalypse and people are willing to sacrifice innocence for what they think is the greater good, then that’s when traits of noble masculinity become most critical. That’s when a father’s willingness to protect his child should be at its strongest.

That dedication still comes at a price. With a sequel in “The Last Of Us Part II” already in the works, it’s likely that Joel will continue to pay a price for his choices, however noble they might be. The fact that he still makes those choices and is willing to accept the risks reflects the challenges and strength that come with masculine drive.

Joel is probably not the greatest example of noble masculinity in all of fiction, but I would argue that his is the most relatable. He’s not perfect, nor does he pretend to be. He doesn’t have any capabilities that are impossible for other men to achieve. He’s a man who was utterly destroyed when he lost his daughter, but didn’t run from the chance to be a father again and to a total stranger, no less.

Flaws and shortcomings aside, I still contend that the noble masculinity that Joel shows throughout “The Last of Us” are far greater than any of the “toxic” traits that others may cite. In playing the game, it’s hard not to empathize with him or his journey, especially if you’re a parent. In appreciating his strengths, though, it shows that there is room for a brand of masculinity that anyone of any gender can admire.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, sex in media, video games

Romance And Tragedy Done Right (In An X-men Comic)

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When it comes to two genres that are often associated with one another, romance and tragedy are the literary equivalent of peanut butter and jelly. When you think of one, it’s not long before you associate it with another. Romance without tragedy is like fries without ketchup. Both are still good on their own, but it’s only when they’re together that they maximize their potential.

In that same spirit that the likes of Shakespeare and “Titanic,” superheroes often follow that narrative, but with more spectacle than old playwrights and even James Cameron could ever imagine. Being such a huge fan of superhero movies and comic books, I’m more familiar with their take on romance and tragedy than most aspiring erotica/romance writers.

As such, when an amazing, uncanny, astonishing, or whatever other adjective that a comic book puts before their title tells a story that truly embodies those ideas, I take notice. Seeing as how I’m also an unapologetic romance fan on top of being a comic book fan, those kinds of stories resonate especially well for me. They don’t come around too often, but when they do, they’re worth appreciating.

This particular story involves the X-men, which should surprise nobody who has followed this blog over the past couple years. It also involves the romance/tragedy of Cyclops and Jean Grey, which should also not surprise anyone. I’ve mentioned them before when talking about balanced romances and insufferable love triangles. This might end up being the most heart-wrenching, albeit for all the right reasons.

The name of the story is called Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey by Matthew Rosenberg. Now, if you don’t want to be spoiled, I strongly encourage everyone to read it. Either buy it at a comic shop or buy the digital version. Even if you’re not a comic book fan, it’s a great story that will still evoke all the right emotions.

That’s because this story does something that’s very rare and very difficult to do. It’s something that everyone form Shakespeare to Tolken to Stan “The Man” Lee struggled with at some point in their creative endeavors. It gets the balance between romance and tragedy right. It gets it so right, in fact, that I intend to judge all future romance/tragedies by this comic. That includes any I write.

To understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to understand the context of the story and why it had such a powerful impact. To do that, it’s necessary to point out the circumstances of this story. When it was announced last year, it’s stated goal was to bring Jean Grey back from the dead. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with comics knows that’s not all that groundbreaking.

Superheroes have been dying and coming back to life for decades. While “The Death of Superman” might have been the most high-profile, the initial death of Jean Grey in the original Phoenix Saga is probably the most iconic. That story established Jean Grey as a character who would be defined by death, rebirth, and everything in between. That’s part of the reason it’s the foundation of the “X-men: Dark Phoenix” movie.

That original story had a lot of romantic elements in it, but it was largely defined by its tragic ending. In that original story, Jean Grey willingly sacrificed herself in front of Cyclops and her friends to stop herself from becoming corrupted by the cosmic power of the Phoenix Force.

It was a truly gut-wrenching moment. It’s because of that moment, though, that it’s often singled out as one of the best X-men stories of all time. It was the culmination of Jean Grey’s struggle to deal with the immense power with which she’d been imbued. Moreover, she reached out to that power in order to do the impossible to protect those she loved, even if it corrupted her.

That’s an important detail to note because that’s a theme that would go onto play out on many occasions for Jean, eventually culminating in her second death in 2004. Her constant struggle to manage the immense power granted by the Phoenix Force and the corruption that often came with it is one of the primary driving forces behind Jean’s character. It’s also a big part of her appeal.

Rosenberg uses those same themes, as well as the immense power afforded by the Phoenix Force, to build the tragedy and romance that plays out in Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. It’s a story that has more drama going for it than most because, despite the presence of time travelers, Jean Grey has been dead since 2004. Her coming back after such a long absence is a big deal for X-men fans and for her character.

The challenge Rosenberg faced was making that resurrection feel more compelling than overdue in an era where dead characters come back all the time. On top of that, Jean’s association with a cosmic force known for death and resurrection means her character basically has a built-in cheat code for bringing her back. How can that be so compelling, let alone raise the bar for romance and tragedy?

This is where the spoilers come in so again, please take the time to read the comic if you can. That’s because the way Jean comes back in this story has less to do with tragedy and more to do with agency. Way back in the original Phoenix Saga, Jean reached out to Phoenix Force in an act to save her friends. It was a choice of desperation.

Well, since that fateful choice, the Phoenix Force has been like a clingy ex, wanting desperately to stay bonded to her, even thought it often corrupts her. I’ve argued before how the context of that corruption might be more complicated than it seems, but on the basis of history alone, Jean Grey has many reasons to regret that choice.

The Phoenix only gives her another in this series. After having bonded with plenty of other hosts since her death, it goes to great lengths to bond with Jean again. It goes so far as to resurrect both her and everyone she ever cared about, creating this own little world in which Jean never experiences the many tragedies that befell her. It’s like the Matrix, but with a volatile cosmic bird running the show.

 

As part of that fantasy world, Jean Grey’s long-time love, Cyclops, is alive and well. That’s critical because, at least for the time being, he’s also dead. The Phoenix Force basically gives her everything to be happy, content, and loved. Keep in mind, though, it’s not doing this out of pure altruism. It wants to bond with Jean again. That’s the goal and the fantasy world is just a means to an end.

That makes the tragedy inevitable. As is often the case with fantasy worlds, even those created by a cosmic power, they tend to crumble under the harsh weight of reality. The way in which this happens is best revealed through the story. However, the part of the story that really balances out that tragedy occurs in the final issue.

In that issue, the fantasy world crumbles, thanks largely to the efforts of Jean’s fellow X-men. Naturally, the Phoenix Force fights this and tries to tempt Jean into bonding with it again, saying its power can give her everything she desires. It can even bring back those she loves.

As part of a last-ditch effort, it demonstrates this by bringing Cyclops back to life. He’s not a clone. He’s not a time traveler. He’s not some illusion either. He’s the real, flesh-and-blood Cyclops, complete with the thoughts, feelings, and passions of the man she married.

It’s a dick move on the part of the Phoenix Force, to say the least. It’s also the moment where the romance balances the tragedy in an important way. That’s because in that moment, Jean makes another fateful choice, one every bit as dire as the one she made in the original Phoenix Saga. This time, though, she lays her heart on the line, knowing damn well it’ll be broken.

Rather than just reject this tactic as another attempt by the Phoenix to lure her in, she embraces it for a brief moment. In that moment, she gets to say goodbye to her husband. She and Cyclops even go out of their way to make clear how much they love each other, both in life and in death. Even if you’re not a big romance fan, this is a moment of pure, unadulterated heart.

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We still know the tragedy is coming. We know it’s a moment that’s going to end with tears and sorrow. Anyone that ever had to read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school English class knows it’s coming and is might think they’re numb to it, especially if they flunked the test.

That’s why it was so important for the story to reaffirm that sentiment. Rosenberg did something critical when he had Cyclops and Jean Grey remind each other just how deep their love went. He gave even greater weight to the loss.

At least with “Romeo and Juliet,” the characters involved had just met. They barely knew each other. Cyclops and Jean Grey’s love story spans 50 years of X-men comics, complete with weddings, clones,  and raising a child together in the future. To know the extent of their love is to know just how much that tragedy hurts.

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That, more than anything, is what puts Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey in a league of its own in terms of romance and tragedy. Instead of the tragedy defining the romance, it’s the other way around. It’s the romance that gives that tragedy such immense weight.

In too many stories, both in comics and in other mediums, tragedy relies too heavily on its own weight to make an impact. Making a love story dependent on that tragedy gives the impression that the love needed it in order to have depth. That’s why, when the tragedy eventually occurs, it doesn’t always hit all the emotional chords.

Rosenberg left no emotional chords unstruck with this story. It’s because Jean shared that special moment with the man she loved that her decision to reject the Phoenix Force carries so much weight. That decision comes with so much pain, anguish, and sorrow. It’s one thing to just depict it. It’s quite another to truly convey it.

That’s what truly makes Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey so special. It conveys both the breadth of the romance and the extent of the tragedy. Moreover, it does that in a way where one complements the other. For a romance built heavily around two characters operating as equals, I can’t think of anything more fitting.

Again, if you’re fan of romance, tragedy, or both, check out Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. Even if you hate comics and the X-men, this one will evoke all the right emotions. You’ll shed tears of sorrow and joy at the same time. It’ll feel so weird, but so right.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Marriage and Relationships, X-men