Avengers: Infinity War (Part I) Review w/ SPOILERS

posted in: Film/TV, Review, Writing | 1

This is your first and only warning that the following post contains SPOILERS for the latest MCU film, “Avengers: Infinity War (Part I)”.  If you haven’t seen it yet, run away!  Actually, go and see it and return.  That’s it.  Now let’s continue.I feel the need to point this out from the start because I’ve heard too many people make a minor complaint after seeing the movie.  This is part one of two.  Of course it ended the way it did!  There’s more coming next May.  Rest assured, you didn’t just watch half of your favorite heroes “mist” away forever (hint: just check Marvel’s film forecast for the next couple of years).

Rather than writing a long-winded re-cap and critique of the film, I want to focus on what made this film of great magnitude work in a somewhat up and down film franchise.  Not all MCU entries have been pristine (let’s be honest with ourselves).  For every “Captain America: Winter Soldier” (2016) or “Black Panther” (2018), there is a “Thor: Dark World” (2013) or “Iron Man 2” (2010).  Some are very good and some seem to have missed the mark wide left.  Many times (in my opinion; that’s all it is) the downfall or lacking element of these weaker films is the villain.  Go back to my post last year about antagonists to see what I look for in a believable and compelling villain:  http://adamhenderson.net/2017/02/08/vilest-villainy-vowed-to-venture/

“Avengers: Infinty War” is about Thanos.  Plain and simple.  It’s not about our huge lineup of heroes.  They are secondary.  What “A:IW” did and quite well was establish a villain we first got wind of in the post credit scene of the first “Avengers” (2012) film.  That means we’ve had six years of anticipation and minor mentions in the films leading up to the big showdown.

Who is Thanos?  We need to know this in order to feel the full weight of the character.  What drives this galactic entity to attack Earth?  Well we don’t really know until we step into this film, which starts with Thanos and his Black Order after they’ve attacked and killed half the people on Thor’s ship after the events of “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017).  We learn that Thanos has a tragic past, seeing over population destroy his home world of Titan.  From that, he has sought to bring balance to the universe by going from planet to planet, wiping out half of populations to establish peace.  This is his goal and if that was all it was, then I would say we are dealing with another one dimensional villain bent on destruction.

Nay nay!

Thankfully, this is not all there is to him.  In order to accomplish his goals of ushering in the same balance and peace to Earth, Thanos has to fight Earth’s mightiest warriors.  Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and so many of the heroes we’ve been introduced to and following since the first “Iron Man” (2008) film band together and take on Thanos, his Black Order, and lesser minions.  Thanos has faced defeat already and he knows he needs more to combat Earth’s heroes.  Enter the ultimate McGuffins of the MCU: the infinity stones.

To wield all the stones (space, time, reality, mind, soul, and power) and become truly invincible, he needs something to contain and harness each power.  That containment cannot be accomplished unless it be forged from a dying star, much like Thor’s hammer.  Hence, the Infinity Gauntlet was made and Thanos is able to place each collected stone in the gauntlet.  The film follows his collecting said stones and every time he manages to add one to the gauntlet, we feel the impending doom, hoping he fails.

Alas, he does not fail.  Thanos collects every stone but there is a cost and this is where the film convinced me and made me proud as a storyteller.  While most of the stones seem to be “easy” for him to gain, one in particular is not.  The soul stone has been elusive and hidden from everyone (even from us in the audience because there have been no clues as to its whereabouts).  One person does know however of its location and that would be Thanos’ adopted daughter, Gamora, who we were introduced to in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014).  Sent on a mission by Thanos to locate it, Gamora knows where it is and is forcibly persuaded to tell him the location.

Once there, Thanos learns he must trade a soul for a soul.  In the most poignant, humanizing scene I could have hoped for, Thanos tragically sacrifices the life of Gamora for the soul stone.  My heart twisted as I watched the pain and tears in Thanos as he did so.  There it is.  There is the moment I didn’t even know I wanted.  Give me an antagonist I can sympathize with and you’ve given me a character with depth.  Thanos pays the ultimate price and even confesses at the film’s ending that in order to accomplish his goal, it cost him everything, revealing that his love for Gamora was real.

So, yes.  Our heroes not only failed (another important part of this story because we need to see heroes fail in order to be reminded that they are not invincible) but they are greatly weakened and diminished as we see Thanos destroy half of the universe’s population with a snap (literally).  Remember, this is part one.  Part two should bring everything back around and I think I can most assuredly postulate that we will see the atrocity of Thanos’ actions against the universe be righted or at least partially restored.

In conclusion, “Avengers: Infinity War (Part I)” is about Thanos and his main conflict.  His rise and fall moves the story forward and we are treated to a villain I actually found myself liking as much as I liked the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”.  For different reasons, of course, but it’s all the same.  Give me an antagonist who is more than a surface-level psycho and I will be engrossed in the complexity of their conflict and goal.

Call to Action:  Seriously, I shouldn’t have to say go see it but if you did and didn’t notice this aspect of Thanos, I encourage you to go see it again.  Do not think of it as a movie about our heroes but about the tragic character that is bent on bringing balance to the universe, unaware that to do so will cost him everything.

Why I Watched IT

posted in: Film/TV, Review, Storytelling | 2

I will start by saying this is not an open endorsement to go and watch Stephen King’s “IT” in theaters.  Instead, I want to explain why I had the desire to watch it.I watched the 1990 miniseries (more like two made-for-tv movies to be honest) back when I was probably close to ten years old.  At the time, it was creepy and definitely had moments that scared me.  However, this was back in the time when tv would edit out a lot of mature things, which is no longer the case.  Nevertheless, the miniseries still had its moments.

The book of “IT” is extremely violent and has some very mature themes that could not be put on tv.  Looking back now, the miniseries has various levels of campiness and the acting is subpar save for Tim Curry’s performance as the iconic clown, Pennywise.  His performance has remained a staple of his career and also in the horror genre.

Twenty seven years later, we are introduced to the film adaption of the novel and it is more true to the book despite many liberties being taken.  The horror and gruesome imagery in the book translate to an R-rated film much easier and the director, Andy Muschietti, did not hold back.  Believe it or not there are scenes in the book that even by today’s standards could not be filmed and put on the screen.  I won’t go into the details but King introduced some troubling things and to this day people are not keen to (as well they shouldn’t).

Now, why did I want to watch this film?  I am in no real way a horror fan.  I have tons of memories of scouring the tv as a kid and finding horror movies (all edited for general viewing, of course) and daring to watch them even though I was not allowed to.  Why?  Mostly because I was curious.  I never had nightmares from doing this but those images do stick with you.  Part of me definitely did it to get the rush of adrenaline one gets but I’m not a junkie for that sort of thing.  I’m more a fan of suspense than horror.

For “IT”, my draw was partly due to nostalgia because I remembered the mini series and I also remember reading in-depth synopses of the novel (I never dared to read it) so I was curious as to how this film was going to turn out.  I paid close attention to the trailers and tv spots whenever they were released and watched them on YouTube and I even watched the breakdowns of these clips.  Again, all out of curiosity more than anything else.  After listening to reviews from multiple critics, I gauged their response to the film as well and the high regards for it tugged at my interest more.  If they had all said it was crap and not worth their time or money, then I’d probably be like, “Eh, maybe I won’t see it then.”  Alas, that was not the case.

When it came time to watch the film, I was apprehensive but knew plenty about the source material and even heard some spoilers that I felt prepared.  Hahaha, I know, I know.  Why watch it then?

I have to say the film is well made and the acting performances by the young actors are spot on great.  Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of Pennywise the Clown was different than Tim Curry’s previous portrayal and every bit intense and scary.  A very good job.  The creepiness factor is there throughout and at times so subtle that I only knew what to look for because of some of the reviews I listened to.  Some seemed specifically aimed at the theater goers.  Was it scary?  Yes and no.  Was it violent?  Yes and yes.  Was it worth my time?  I think so.

Let me explain why.  As I’ve done this whole writing thing, I’ve been drawn into storytelling no matter the medium.  Whether its movies, television, comics, video games, etc.  If there’s a great story with even better characters, I am interested.  It doesn’t matter the genre either.  I kind of equate my experience watching “IT” to my experience of playing “The Last of Us” which I reviewed in a prior blog post.  “The Last of Us” was an intense experience!  There are so many moments where the intensity of the environment and situation have my adrenaline up and flowing.  If you’ll recall, I loved the experience of the gameplay but even more so the characters of Joel and Ellie.

For “IT”, the kids make the movie.  Yes, Pennywise and all of his eerie creepiness are more spectacle than anything else because he’s a shape shifting other worldly entity of evil that feeds on the fear of children.  What they fear, he becomes, which as you can imagine produced some frightening things.

I think what draws myself and audiences to “IT” is essentially the kids and their banding together to beat this evil that adults cannot see or even sense.  And this threat is very real since we see at the beginning that it preys on children, feeding on them once their fear meets its needs.  There is a very real sense of danger to them and we cannot help but root for their survival and defeat of evil.

Call to Action: Don’t watch “IT” unless it’s your brand of entertainment.  I can honestly say that while I enjoyed the film for some reasons, I don’t feel the need to see it again.  One and done until the sequel comes out (yeah, I forgot to mention it’s a two-parter film as well).

Kill the Cliché, Twist the Trope: Magical MacGuffin

posted in: Fantasy, Writing | 2

There are conventions in fantasy literature that we know well, maybe to a lesser degree if you’re not an avid fan or reader, but you can recognize them with ease.  You can be reading/watching a story unfold, snap your fingers and say, “That’s so and so in this story…” or “I bet that’s what’s needed to solve…”  How?  Why?  Because you’ve seen it done so much, your brain does its magic and the dots are connected, always aware and finding the patterns.  These conventions that are easy to call are often clichés or tropes.

I relied too heavily on these clichés/tropes when I first dabbled in the genre and to be honest, it was good because it helped me understand and know what I wanted to avoid later in my journey as a writer.  For today’s post, I’m going to explore another one (don’t be surprised if this becomes a monthly post-type by the way).

The Magical MacGuffin.  What’s this?  Well, it’s the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, the Holy Grail pursued by Indiana Jones or King Arthur, and/or most recently, any of the Infinity Stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A MacGuffin in literary terms is a plot device pursued by the protagonist to form the basis of the plot.  Now, these devices don’t always have to be magical.  You could literally take any story (from a book, play, tv show or film) and find the MacGuffin.  It could be a goal, dream, desire, object, idea, etc.  All of these fill the role.  Honestly, I don’t have a problem with the device as a whole but in fantasy, it is (in my opinion) a cliché/trope worth avoiding.

In the second book I wrote (one that has been shelved for the time being), I actually tried to take this trope and twist it.  I asked the question, “What if the magical objects in the world suddenly quit working, forcing the societies that relied on them to deal with the resulting conflicts that would naturally ensue?”  A malfunction of the MacGuffin if you will.  Now, this is an idea worth exploring and I may still do it to a degree but on a lesser scale.  Maybe a standalone novel…  There are elements in that world that I created and quite like a lot and don’t completely want to abandon.  Hmmmmm…  Yep, you’ve read it here first.  I may have just realized I do in fact have another story to put in my queue!

Back to the topic.  I struggle to get behind the idea of a Magical MacGuffin because its played out in fantasy.  Tolkien did it the best with the One Ring.  We have a magical item that is in fact filled with the evil of the main antagonist who wants it back.  The goal of the protagonists is to take that item to the only place where it can be destroyed (which happens to be in the most dangerous place in Middle Earth) all the while having to avoid its influence and the desire of others who want to claim it for themselves.  It’s actually a very good device used by Tolkien and plays better in the story as an item to destroy rather than attain.  Kudos to the master!

What we see since then is a lot of stories that drive the plot forward with magical items being the end goal (a sword, crown, horn, bowl, knickknack or patty whack).  Once attained, it usually gives the hero the power to overcome the evil one.  There are usually obstacles that bring lessons learned and help the character grow but for me, both as a reader and writer, to form an entire plot on the magical device, just doesn’t hold my attention.  When looking for new books to read, I actually check to see if the synopsis includes a Magical MacGuffin.  If so, I set it aside.

Thankfully, there is a wave happening in fantasy literature that doesn’t rely on this particular device.  Maybe there are magical items in the world but they are not the bones to hold everything up.  In my Ravanguard series, there are things that could be considered magical but play no major significance to the overall conflict.  I do introduce something that may look the part in the early chapters but as you read, you realize I’ve twisted the expectation of the convention.  The story centers around the three main point of views and their inner struggles to cope with a world that is turned onto its side.  They must rely on themselves and those they trust in order to survive.

I should be clear and say I’m not opposed to a Magical MacGuffin entirely in a story so long as there is a twist or subversion.  Let there be a price to pay in order to use it.  The One Ring actually does this.  Using it makes the wielder dependent and a slave to it.  That’s good!  To compare, consider the Goblet of Fire in the fourth Harry Potter book.  It’s a magical item that is the goal to attain.  Why?  Harry has to because he’s in the contest but what else?  I won’t spoil the book or movie but at least there’s a twist at the end that does extend the overall saga as a whole.  This is also good!

Maybe you prefer this convention for whatever the reason.  Not a bad thing.  We’re just different and have different tastes, which is great, fine and dandy.  Hopefully, that won’t keep you from reading my books (Ha!).  Happy reading!

Call to Action: Do you prefer Magical MacGuffin’s in stories?  If so, share them with me!  I’m always curious to read other people’s preferences and opinions.  Are there any that have been twisted and subverted that you enjoyed?

Vilest Villainy Vowed to Venture

posted in: Writing | 0

(Alliteration is king.  I’m a big fan of the play on words and I hope you all enjoy them as much as I do.)

Villains.  The great antagonist exploration.  There’s a problem–or to say it better: a cliché–in fiction when it comes to the opposing force of the hero.  It’s more commonly found in epic fantasy but I’m sure it exists in other genres as well.  This cliché postulates that the villain/bad guy that brings forth the main conflict in the story is evil for the sake of evil.

Examples of this would be the White Witch (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Sauron (The Lord of the Rings), and in any other work that calls this force by any number of fear-inducing monikers (The Evil One, Chaos, Hades, etc.).

The problem with this practice (it’s not so commonly used today due to its overuse and relying on, hence becoming a cliché) is that it cheapens the story.  I struggled to understand this in the beginning because I was subjected to the ethereal essence of a dominating figure in the books I read.  This is probably my biggest gripe with fantasy nowadays (aside from the use of other clichés i.e., farm boy chosen one, damsel in distress, etc.).

How does this go away?  Well, for each writer, they have to write their own story.  My opinion won’t dictate a change across the board (I’m not that self-centered.  Remember, just a proud punk) but I can make sure I don’t fall into this myself.  For me, I look at antagonists who bleed and make choices based on beliefs/desires; those are the ones who better suit my stories.

There are many examples of this but one that I continually go to whenever I think of a truly terrifying antagonist is the Joker portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”.  The late Heath Ledger created a character–not just a villain–that was more than what we the audience expected.  I still remember sitting in that small theater in my hometown and processing what I had just watched while the credits climbed the screen.

Years later, I’ve come to think of antagonists in a very different light.  An all evil character that rests behind a wall until it can regain its form or strength is a distant threat.  Underlings are forced to bring minimal conflict to the hero until the “end” where the big bad is at full strength and the final battle takes place.  This usually involves the hero possessing some kind of knowledge, magic, or item that solely has the ability or helps to destroy the evil one.

We all know this story right?  It’s nothing new.  For me, it’s refreshing to come across an antagonist who subverts the expected.  Put me in the mind and position of an antagonist who can be crazy, self-centered and brutal but lead me through the pages in which I get a glimpse into their soul.  No one is evil for the sake of evil.  All figures in history we would label under that term became that way for a variety of reasons.

Choice is key.  An antagonist that makes choices based on their desires, needs and/or wants is far more compelling to me as a reader and writer.  It’s funny but I’m actually unhappy when I come across a villain that doesn’t meet this expectation.  I was very disappointed in Benedict Cumberbatch’s (come on, isn’t that just one of the funniest names to say out loud?!  Rolls off the tongue) portrayal as Khan in Star Trek.  I just wanted more.  Go watch No Country For Old Men and Skyfall and in those films you get amazing villains portrayed by the amazing Javier Bardem.

I know these are all film examples but I believe these are more accessible than throwing out names of literary villains that I’m not sure would be as well known.  Oh!  I thought of one.  Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes is a great literary (and film) example.  There you go, readers.  All of these are antagonists that are more than the great evil one.  They are flesh and blood.  These are the truly terrifying villains because I cannot determine what they want or will do to get their desires met.  Sauron?  Yeah, he wants to destroy everything that is good.  Sure, I’ll be rooting for the heroes to defeat him but you always knew where he was because he was trapped in his “cell” and I could not expect him to arrive at a moment’s notice.

I hope all this makes sense.  As always, this is my perspective and something I’ve learned for myself as a writer.  A truly terrifying antagonist is one who’s motives may not always be clear and their actions can surprise from one page to another.

Call to Action: Pretty simple one for today.  Watch the link provided to get a great list of villain clichés: