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Analysis

The Highs and Lows of the Avatar Franchise

Julia

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Has this ever happened to you? You fall in love with a piece of media and are filled with the zeal of the converted. You want to tell the whole world about this awesome new thing that will surely change all their lives, so one brave friend takes you up on the offer, only to come back and say; “I don’t know dude, it was weird…”

“Oh no! You watched that one?”

You know, when you want to get them into Star Wars and they, bless them, decide to start at the beginning with Episode I? It’s something a friend shouldn’t let a friend do. When it comes to the Avatar franchise, the goal-posts are not set nearly so far apart as The Empire Strikes Back  and The Phantom Menace, but even so, there are moments that are certainly not the universe’s best foot forward.

In an attempt to be of constant service to our readers, I’ve compiled this short list of the highest and lowest points of quality in the Avatar franchise. Though, to be real, these two shows’ sub-basement is another show’s stratosphere. If this is a rabbit hole you think you may want to dive into, these points are something to keep in mind.

Water

While many shows take a while to gain their footing, Avatar: The Last Airbender started very strong and remained so for the whole first book. I could easily consider the two-part pilot “The Boy in the Iceberg/The Avatar Returns” as a high point, and almost all of the more episodic entries are invariably fun (who doesn’t love “The Fortune Teller”?) but the first book peaked with “The Storm”. Hell, many consider it to be the peak of the franchise.

“The Storm” is structured around establishing parallels between the protagonist and the antagonist (or is he!?) by using a, well, storm as a metaphor for the past they’re trying to escape from and atone for. Its tone is mature, yet more than accessible to the show’s target audience, who can probably all relate to the hurt of having people misunderstand their intentions.

There is an obvious contender for the low point of Water, though: “The Great Divide.” Truthfully, it isn’t bad so much as it’s a little generic and predictable. A newbie watching it might think the show was a little average, but I doubt it would turn them off. The only episode where I think that is a possible danger is “Bato of the Water Tribe.” This story contains a contrived problem that leads to an over-dramatic reaction by the characters, and is wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end.

Again, it’s not bad, bad. But this show can do so much better.

Earth

The second chapter of ATLA is probably my favourite. Mostly because of Toph, but also because this is where the show really begins to show how seriously it takes its young audience by offering a subtle and not at all overly simplified view of the consequence of war. Seriously, I’m still amazed at how they pulled this off.

The most exciting and emotionally intense moments of this book come in the final chapter “The Crossroads of Destiny”. I just cannot say enough good things about this episode. The animation, especially of the super-powered bending battles, is outstanding, the plot is tight and character-driven, and perfectly motivated, and just perfect. It ends with a tone that is sad, the darkest moment of this show certainly, but also hopeful for the future. I think I may take a break from writing to rewatch it.

Alright, I’m back…

It’s a literal struggle to find a low-point for Earth, but let’s be honest; “Avatar Day” was a bit weird. As much as I enjoy the sight of Sokka cosplaying as an Avatar-verse Sherlock Holmes, the whole thing is just…silly. These villagers really need to get over the whole Kyoshi thing. And find a less dumb legal system. The Wheel of Punishment is a great joke I guess, but you can skip this one and lose nothing.

Fire

Stuff’s got real!! The Gaang is in the territory of the enemy and they will need all of their skills and all of the relationships they’ve formed to prevail and save the world from the evil Fire Lord!

The main plot is masterful, with the heartbreaking false climax in “Day of the Black Sun” and the finale, which tied together many loose thread while still teasing the future of the franchise. But the last book also made time for several stand-alone episodes that focused on particular major characters and the progress of their own arcs.

“The Boiling Rock” two-parter is by far the best of the side trips, and for me has always been the most memorable part of the final book. It might not be comparable the the juggernaut of “Sozin’s Comet”, but what can be? The finale can be a little too intense for me sometimes, frankly. “The Boiling Rock” is just damn fun. Who doesn’t love a character driven prison break?

On the other hand, the two other side stories, “The Painted Lady” and “Sokka’s Master” feel a little less successful. They feel much more like jarring asides the the main plot— which is supposed to have an urgency to it, after all— and they both kind of strain suspension of disbelief. (Sokka made a katana in an afternoon? Seriously?) Neither are bad episodes, but they’re not representative of the quality of Book 3.

“The Blind Bandit” was awesome, though.

Air

New Avatar, and a whole new world to explore. The Legend of Korra couldn’t boast ATLA’s bump-free opening book, but I was sucked into Republic City the moment I saw it. Where the first series existed in a timeless world that emphasized the cyclical nature of time and eternity (though the analogy with Meiji-era Japan and the Qing Dynasty isn’t meaningless,) Korra’s world is dynamic and always looking for the next thing that will bring progress and change.

The world-building of Air is engaging enough to somewhat distract you from the half-baked nature of the Equalist plot and it’s attempt to comment on social inequality. (How was that issue magically solved by finding out Amon was a fraud again?). And the world building is best on display in the opener “Welcome to Republic City/Leaf in the Wind.”

It just looks amazing. The city is lived in and complicate, even if its government structure makes no sense. We feel exactly what Korra is feeling when she wants to bust out of her glorified prison and explore.

Speaking of Korra’s feelings… you know what never works? A freaking love triangle. Also bringing your plot with magical terrorists to a grinding halt so you can talk about sports for a whole episode. “The Spirit of Competition” is entertaining enough on its own, but taken in the context of the season, it’s a little infuriating. Still, I suppose it got real at the end, and then the plot finally kicked into high gear, so it’s not all a loss.

Spirits

Oh, Book 2 of Korra. This is one case where the highs and lows thing really does apply.

The high of this book is so high: “Beginnings” is one of my favourite hours of television. The animation is distractingly beautiful, I adore the percussive Chinese Opera inspired soundtrack, I am a sucker for wacky creation myths, and who could be sad to see lion turtles? The story of Raava and Vaatu added a good deal to the mythos of the Avatar-verse, and really put all of Korra’s actions throughout the series into perspective of the awesome scope it has.

14/10 would watch again.

The rest of Book 2, though…it’s mediocre. The main plot, the conflict between the southern and northern Water Tribes, makes no damn sense. Unalaaq is a boring villain, and poor Tenzin just spends the whole season failing at everything. And why is everyone blaming Korra for starting a war? Ugh! If I had to choose a lowest moment, it would probably be the 693th time Bolin’s clearly abusive relationship with Eska was played for laughs.

A few of the new characters, Bumi, Kya, and Varrick especially, are a light in the dark, and “Beginnings” means you can’t just skip the book, so… we have to suffer through this one, I guess.

Change

Book 3 is pretty much perfect. To be brutally honest, if the show had ended after Book 2, The Legend of Korra wouldn’t ever be anything particularly special. Passable, sure, but it would leave few people as puddles of feels all over the floor. Then Change came along and there we were. I still may not be over it.

For a high point I was torn between my eventual choice and “The Metal Clan,” because the introduction of the Beifong extended family was just a seminal moment for the show. In the end, however, “Long Live the Earth Queen” is a better microcosm for the whole book. Not only is the title almost cruelly macabre, given the events of the episode, but those very events also let us know that this will be a show that pulls no punches with its audience, even if the writers really broke out the thesaurus to avoid using the word “kill”.

There’s also the airship that launched this site’s favourite ship, and Mako and Bolin just bro-ing it up in jail. What a wonderful episode.

This season is so great that I can’t think of an episode to be less than in love with. The only thing I could find to complain about what the voice actor who voiced the main antagonist. I’m sure Henry Rollins is the most wonderful guy in the world, but he plays Zaheer in a way that never lets you forget that it’s an aging punk rocker standing inside of a booth with headphones on reading off of a piece of paper.

It doesn’t break the book, not even close, but I do wince every so slightly every time he speaks.

Balance

Book 4 was clearly rushed and took many risks, but the end results are so emotionally impactful that it’s hard to even see the flaws in the story. (What flaws, anyway?) In this book, Korra heals from trauma (and it takes her longer than two days,) Mako gets a new boyfriend, and Zhu Li gets to tell Varrick to stick it.

The high point could be anything, but my favourite is “Operation Beifong”. I just love this crazy family. I love Suyin and her self-centred myopia. I love Huan and his banana statue. I love how Bataar Sr. does not care about gender roles. I love how much they love each other. This episode is their time to shine. The story is fun, the emotional beats work, and the fight scenes continue to knock my socks off.

Then there is “Remembrances”. Which is not bad. It’s little other than clips of really good episodes, after all. But a clip show is never going to be the most impressive thing ever, and only one of the three framing devices was even a little bit interesting. Not that I don’t appreciate Asami giving Korra a hot beverage… There are perfectly understandable reasons that this episode ended up the way it did, but you can only judge what you see on the screen.

***

And so there is the best and the worst. If you disagree, or have your own thoughts on the ups and downs of the franchise, head over to The Fandomentals forum.


Images courtesy of Nickelodeon

Julia is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals with far too many hobbies and complex emotions. She may or may not be an actual Martell.

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Analysis

Netflix’s The Meyerowitz Stories Looks Deep Into Dysfunctional Artist Families

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Review and Theme Analysis for The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected

“We all have this gap between who we are and who we think we are, between who we are and the dream of who we might be, who we want to be,” said Noah Baumbach concerning his new Netflix original film: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). In it, Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) explores the dysfunctions of an aging family unit as they try desperately to work through their grievances with the past, and with one another.

The setting, the story, even the title itself, which sounds like something off of a Sufjan Stevens record, is both swallowed up by and pays homage to its postmodern, “Art House” culture. The movie is as advertised: selected snippets of the Meyerowitz family and their dysfunctional relationships. It certainly doesn’t abide by any sort of Hero’s Journey formula, but make no mistake, these selected stories are not chosen at random with an attempt to pretentiously or absurdly confuse their audience. These stories, centered around the children of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), are all part of a single, congruent narrative that beautifully weaves together powerful themes of regret, bitterness, longing, and neglect.

Danny Meyerowitz Was Trying to Park

Newly separated from his wife, Danny Meyerowitz (played by Adam Sandler) is driving he and his daughter Eliza (Grace van Patten) to his father Harold’s house in Manhattan. (I’d call it an apartment personally, but then I’ve never owned a place in Manhattan, so…) They are having dinner as a family before Eliza heads off to Bard College as a freshman, where her grandfather taught art for more than thirty years.

The relationship between Danny and Eliza is some of the sweetest, most authentic father-daughter on-screen chemistry I’ve seen in a long time. Between their pithy banter while Sandler searches for parking, screaming at other New York drivers that dare get in his way, to their lovely harmonies when they sing together on the family piano, we are given a plethora of special moments between these two characters. The “conversations between generations” is something (I’m told) Baumbach excels at in his films, and though I’m not too familiar with his body of work, The Meyerowitz Stories is more than enough proof of his prowess.

The Meyerowitz family is very artistic. This tradition is carried on down the family. Harold had a successful career as a visual artist, but is hung up on the fact that his friend LJ (Judd Hirsch) has achieved far more fame and admiration that he ever could. Danny, on top of dealing with a fresh separation, turns out to have been an unemployed musician for quite some time. Apparently he never did anything with his talents except write a few charming songs to be played on the family piano. Eliza is now continuing the hereditary niche by way of directing and starring in overtly ridiculous, pornographic Art House films.

“Have you thought about getting a job?…I think you’d feel better about yourself. Have you thought about playing music again?”

Resentment and neglect start to rear their heads when they go to LJ’s showing, and Harold gets his face pressed up against the glass to the life he should have had. He’s snubbed by all the high-society folk as though he were a commoner! But seriously, being ignored amongst your peers is a very hurtful thing. Resentment from Danny for years and years of neglect also bubble to the surface and the night goes awry.

Danny: I’d like to come if that’s alright. It would be a real treat for me.

Harold: I think they’re filled up…L J’s getting me a special spot.

Though it’s like pulling emotionally distant teeth, Danny is eventually allowed to attend the fancy gala with his father. Even on such a celebratory occasion though—complete with a wonderful cameo of one of my favorite actresses—the Meyerowitz boys can’t seem to let their resentment toward life go, and the evening is ruined.

“What a life that LJ leads!” Dad, we were literally just at the same party he was.

Matt’s Story: Go Forth and Multiply…

Harold is currently remarried to his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who is a chronic drinker. And although she seems to share in a loving relationship with Harold, she feels understandably distant from the rest of the extended family, who we are then introduced to.

Enter Harold’s other son Matt (Ben Stiller) from his first marriage. Matt is a successful architect visiting from LA for some meetings, including a delightful luncheon segment with his stubbornly pretentious father to talk about selling his estate. As they wander around a New York City Neighborhood in search of a restaurant that’s ‘up to Harold’s standards,’ we start to see why Matt chose to live across the country.

“I’ll have the steak and the Market salad. We don’t have a ton of time so if you could bring everything at once…”

It’s hinted that Matt’s mother was the love of Harold’s life, and Matt, who is a symbol of that love, was showered with a lot of unwanted attention and pressure growing up. Apparently, even being the favorite child of a successful artist puts a lot on a kid. Nothing comes without cost.

“I got your focus and that fucked me up in a whole other way… It doesn’t matter that I make money, because you don’t respect what I do.”

Scenes between characters, whether it’s parents, siblings, half-siblings, step-parents, or a combination, all feel very scattered and emotionally vacant, but it’s by design. They only have distant memories and vague connections to one another as they must suddenly navigate their way through understanding that their father may not have long to live.

Artists and The Berkshires

Early in the film we are given some exposition. A: Harold is being asked to present art at Bard for a faculty alumni showing. B: Harold suffered a blow to the head on a trail in the Berkshires. Wouldn’t you know it, these two plots intersect when Harold is forced to miss his art showing after suffering severe head trauma from the injury. The aging patriarch is rushed to a hospital in Pittsfield (the very hospital I was born in, actually). It was admittedly challenging to be even slightly objective during this segment as the estranged half-siblings and step-mothers and granddaughters all frantically rush to their summer home in order to be with Harold. They all feared the worst.

I’ve resisted the urge for the most part in this review, but I’d like to delve into why this film struck such a chord with me. Half of it takes place in my home of the Berkshires, where artists have the potential to learn, grow, and thrive with their craft. It’s not filmed on location here or anything, which is actually fine for us Shirefolk because we don’t like our peace disturbed. But see, this film bothered to actually take the time to acknowledge the Berkshire’s contribution to the arts by bringing the characters there in a script all about the art world.

Now, speaking of the film’s theme of resentment, there happens to be an undercurrent of cultural unrest and resentment in the Berkshires. When wealthy New Yorkers buy up summer homes in prime locations up here, it throws the housing market out of whack (i.e., the Meyerowitz family). What used to be a thriving agricultural area and industrial center has now, in many places, either fallen into decline or become a seasonal getaway for exorbitantly wealthy New Yorkers. Putting it simply, it’s hard to have a house in the Berkshires if you work in the Berkshires. Cultural gentrification, if you will.

But on the other hand, many of these wealthy people are generous donors to the arts, which I am heavily involved in. They stimulate local businesses, keep theaters alive with their patronage, and have a general love and appreciation for conserving the culture and natural beauty of the region. To me, (and others, I’d imagine) seeing aspects of your home depicted on film is very special when done well.

Normally I cringe when films try to namedrop my region in order to gain generic culture points, but Meyerowitz Stories does more than that. On a humanistic and personal level, it spoke volumes that it understood “City folk” aren’t just here to clog up our hiking trails. They come here to enjoy the pleasures of art, escape the grind, and sometimes, sadly, to say goodbye to their loved ones. The regional issues are of course more complex than I’m letting on and shouldn’t be simply dismissed because of an Art House film, but it was hard to ignore the sentiment of van Patten’s performance as she wept at her grandfather’s bedside.

Also, they name-dropped my favorite pizza place. Why am I such a sucker?

Jean’s Story

Yes, there is also a third child. Jean is technically present throughout the entirety of the film, but she is purposefully sidelined for almost all of the dramatic moments, which parallels her struggle as the most neglected child. Soft-spoken and reserved, her story in the film comes towards the end of the second act.

When Harold’s friend Paul comes to visit him in the hospital, Jean bolts into the woods. She recalls a summer vacation when she was in an outdoor shower and this Paul character was watching her and masturbating. She told her father, but he was complacent. She describes the incident in the same monotone, nostalgic way that she remembers watching Three’s Company, taking a ferry to the house from the other side of the island (because nobody would pick her up), and swimming in the ocean. It’s quite tragic.

Her father’s neglect has probably thrown her into countless traumatic experiences, as well as given Jean the most reason to resent him, and resent the rest of the Meyerowitz clan for that matter. But she has chosen to be resilient and forgive rather than focus on all her painful memories.

“Because I’m a decent person. Even though he never took care of us, it’s what you do. Besides, I like hanging out with you guys.”

Her brothers, feeling very protective of their sister, consider the best course of action to take against an 80-year-old man who once exposed himself to their sister. The revenge, though farcical and fun to watch, is definitely considered an instance of “misplaced do-goodery.” Jean is not happy. Jean did not ask them to take vengeance on an old man with dementia who has come to say goodbye to an old friend.

“I’m glad you guys feel better, unfortunately I’m still fucked up.”

The emotional abandonment of the siblings is paralleled in the hospital when every time they feel comfortable and trusting of a medical professional, that professional disappears. Pam the nurse was around when Harold seemed to be doing fine, then when his situation worsens, and a new male nurse takes over. He bares the brunt of their confusion and frustration as they’re handed pamphlets about grief. Likewise, when Dr. Soni carefully outlines the plan to induce Harold into a coma, which offers some measure of relief to the three children, Soni immediately tells them that she’s going to be in China for three weeks. Any chance of having stability during their time at the hospital will be slim to none, because, well, that’s how hospitals work.

Matthew: It doesn’t feel fair, Dr. Soni. That you can just live your life normally while our dad is lying here.

Dr. Soni: Maybe it isn’t.

I Love you, I Forgive You, Forgive Me, Thank You, Goodbye…

The film plays with this interesting cutting technique where various scenes reach a character’s moment of emotional explosion, and then they hard cut it to the next scene. It’s a subtle touch to let the audience know how typical it is for these characters to throw their inhibitions to the wind and scream out in frustration. After an explosive argument between Matt and Danny ends in violence (again the cut is made right as the scene reaches fisticuffs), Matt stands before the art patrons at his father’s showing with a bloody nose, ready to give a speech about his father’s accomplishments. But it turns into an emotionally charged farce as he starts to work out all of his childhood issues into the microphone. What he would give for a chance to make things right…

The last theme with Harold’s children, a theme that has been fomenting under the surface and is brought to the forefront by Jean, is forgiveness. It’s the thing that all three of them have been working towards their whole life. The thing they most struggle with. Baumbach has created a cast of raw, troubled, yet deeply sympathetic characters. The subtlety of the emotion behind dialogue combined with myriad amounts of little character quirks that each actor brings to each role is worth the watch on its own merit.

Overall, this is a brilliantly layered, touching family film. And not “family film” in the sense that you can put your kids in front of it and space out for a couple hours. But rather, that in that we all deal with our own versions of “fucked up family drama,” and it’s refreshing when artists hit that nail right on the head. I’m not as familiar with Baumbach’s other films, but I can safely say that he’s just found an unabashed fan in me. I look forward to diving deeper into his body of work.


Images courtesy of Netflix

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Analysis

Let’s Talk About Supergirl

Megan

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Kara Danvers in episode 3x01.
Spoilers for Supergirl Season 3, including future episodes

After a widely criticized Season 2, Supergirl is back and—here’s hoping—better than before.

But, well, it is still Supergirl, and it is still on The CW. So let’s talk about it: the good, the bad, and the potential.

Sanvers

Sanvers is the elephant in the room: after it was announced at the end of last season that Floriana Lima would be leaving the show to pursue other opportunities, the future of the much-lauded couple was uncertain at best.

And now we know: they are breaking up, separating because Alex wants children and Maggie does not. This was something that had been in the rumor-mill for some time.

In a world that already pressures women to want children, and in a world that still very much considers the heteronormative nuclear family the norm, it is more than a little off-putting to insert that dynamic into what has otherwise been a very supportive, healthy relationship between two women. When Alex sees Ruby again in episode 3.02, she is obviously taken by the idea of having a child of her own; why, though, was this never discussed earlier?

Maggie and Alex’s relationship moved quickly, yes, but also successfully. Transitioning so abruptly from a place of deep mutual understanding to butting heads on such a fundamental part of a relationship feels unrealistic at best, and damaging to the wonderful relationship they had spent an entire season building at worst.

The U-Haul stereotype already exists; making it seem like moving quickly means not actually knowing your partner is an unnecessary step. And that is something worth recognizing, especially given how much praise and attention the writers give Sanvers. Just because they did well for a while does not mean they can never be criticized. In fact, they have set the bar high, and we should continue to push for healthy, good representation.

Kara

While Alex is struggling with her relationship, Kara is mourning her lack of one.

Only again, it’s not necessary. Season 3 takes place six months after Season 2, and Kara dated Mon-El for all of a couple of months. And for someone who has lost so much—an entire family, an entire planet—her insistence on letting go of Kara Danvers because of Mon-El just does not read as emotionally authentic.

That said, I am glad they are exploring her pain. I am glad she is allowed to cry, and yell, and break. Kara is so happy and upbeat, partially because it is the only way for her to survive. Once the darkness creeps in, it takes over. If Mon-El is the vehicle used to explore this side of her, then at least it is being explored, and at least she is being allowed to process and grow from her grief.

The first issue, of course, is that Mon-El is not gone forever. He will be returning, married. This show loves drama more than anything, and his eventual, dramatic return is rife with dramatic potential.

So why use him as a source of development if, in a matter of weeks, he will return to once again be a source of regression? It feels as though the answer is simply that the writers, showrunners, and network want Mon-El to remain a fundamental part of the show, despite his overwhelmingly negative critical reception.

In all, I want Kara to grow. I want her to confront her fears as she did in 3.02; I want her to cry. But she can do that without the constant weight of Mon-El hanging over her. Not on her own, necessarily: let her rely on Alex, as she has been. Let her confide in Lena, who obviously wants to be a part of Kara’s life. Let her move on.

Mon-El

Ah, Mon-El. To paraphrase some Terminator movie, “He’ll be back.” And so will Saturn Girl, who is rumored to be his wife.

When he got sent off in his pod of destiny, we all knew—tragically—that he would return. But to have him return married is a move only The CW would make. We know little of how that storyline will play out: some think that his marriage to Saturn Girl is doomed, and he and Kara will end up together once more. Some think this is a gradual way of writing him off the show by drumming up excitement for a future Legion show.

Whatever the case may be, it is a symptom of a larger problem.

Every series regular is either in a relationship, has had relationship drama, or is currently being touted as one half of a new, potential relationship. And for what?

The Relationship Problem

There is nothing wrong with having strong friendships. There is nothing wrong with creating drama through inter-character tension outside of the confines of a traditional romantic relationship.

And if your first thought in response to that is “there’s nothing wrong with relationships either,” then I want you to think about why.

Because yes: on a surface level, you are more than correct. But Supergirl is no longer about Supergirl. Relationships should built up the characters in them. Instead, the relationships in Supergirl fill in for the lack of actual, well-crafted storylines.

There is a tendency in television to write relationships that have no justification. While friendships are built upon something, whether it be family or common interest, relationships, it seems, are built out of narrative closeness—that is, they are in a lot of scenes together, so maybe they should be together.

At the end of the day, relationships do not excuse otherwise bad writing. In fact, they often amplify it.

With Floriana leaving, it is more evident than ever that the Supergirl writers do not know how to handle healthy couples. With Mon-El returning and Kara remaining broken-hearted, it is clear that all drama must come back to romance eventually. And with every character being romantically involved or potentially romantically involved, they narrow their focus from a show about Kara Danvers, a woman who lost her world and still managed to stand tall and strong as an inspirational hero, to a show about a group of friends that cannot manage functional relationships.

That is not a good message to send, and it is not the show we signed up for.

The Solution

All this is disappointing. When Supergirl moved to The CW, it fell quickly into the CW model of show: pair everyone up, split them up, re-pair, repeat.

But it is not the end of Supergirl, nor will it be the end of my connection with it. The past two episodes have already dived deeper into Kara and her connections with her friends than most of Season 2 did. With Sam and Ruby on the show and Lena involved with CatCo, the plot seems likely to be as female-centric as some of the best moments of Season 1.

Kara and Alex hug.

(Source: Tumblr)

And I have no doubt that the changes are in part due to the collective of voices speaking out against Season 2. I have no doubt that the opinions of critics and fans have prompted development, and I have no doubt that they can continue to do so.

In all, let’s talk about Supergirl, and let’s keep talking about it. Let’s make it clear that we love Kara, and Alex, and James. Let’s make it clear why we are here: for a superhero, and for her friends. Because that is the only way things can change.


Images courtesy of The CW.

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Analysis

Love Conquers All in Valerian

Angelina

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I was hesitant to talk about Valerian, really. I was hesitant because it is always hard to talk about things we love that others despise. Especially when those others are critics. But none the less I feel compelled to speak, because, well, I feel it is needed to discuss things I saw there.

Many people talk about how Valerian is high on visuals but low on everything else. My idea is, maybe this film, just as another good film generally despised by critics (The Last Action Hero), is misunderstood. It is judged not by those rules its creator followed. Like, when I read about how the film is unjust to its protagonist, or when it is judged as a part of a franchise.

Valerian, that Han Solo-esque James Bond-like comics hero with his sexy action girl sidekick, is just an excuse to talk about the real main character. The one we see from the very beginning.

Alpha — Humanity — is the Movie’s Protagonist

The movie starts with a documentary footage that almost seamlessly transforms into a surrealistic futurism fantasy. Fantasy, centered around the main theme of the film: love. It may sound tired and worn out, but it is not; we are accustomed to “love” meaning something that is between sexes, generally between different sexes. Luc Besson takes great labor to show us “love” is something between people — or peoples.

When we see Alpha’s creation, we see it created from tolerance, from desire to understand each other, from acceptance and good faith. In other words, Alpha is a love child — because what are those, if not facets of love? And we see humanity as the main creator of Alpha. Something like a heart of this space station. Because certainly the humanity expressed its best qualities during its creation.

But then… then something happens. Alpha’s heart is infected, we hear, but we don’t yet understand that it is just what happened. The heart, the humanity, was infected. It was poisoned. Which really needed investigation and needed a cure. Humanity needed to find its best again.

And Who Is Our Antagonist?

Well, if the humanity is the protagonist, then who is the antagonist? My answer may seem strange: humanity is, as well. It is not a conflict between species or a battle between nations.  What the movie depicts is an inner conflict, where our hero has to fight itself to find out its true nature.

All those people — Lauraline, General Octo-bar, Commander Filitt, even Jolly the Pimp — represent different sides of humanity. In between them stands Valerian, that modern not very deep-thinking, not very far-seeing every man; a man chosen by chance rather than his glorious exploits.

He has to face a person he could have once become: Commander Filitt. This man is evil, yes, but he is a special kind of evil. He became such not as a result of his troubled past, nor out of some inborn sadistic predisposition. No. He became evil out of neglect and lack of will.

I frequently see that he is criticized as bland and not interesting antagonist, but I can’t really see why. He seems like a pretty new and interesting type of character to me. When did we ever see a person who committed a full-scale genocide as a side-effect of completely different war effort? Filitt doesn’t like to think much. He has a chance for success, which he takes it without any second thought. After all, dead aliens tell no tales, so why bother?

And then he has to face consequences of his actions. He has to face the fact that people he murdered were, well, just that: the people, who could think and could speak. The fact no one would overlook, and the fact that will cost humanity its honorable place between nations.

Actually, he has lots of ways to react. He could’ve stepped forward and taken full responsibility for his actions to absolve his nation of the accusation for the military crime it didn’t even know about in the first place. But that guy lacks will, and he just continues on his once chosen course: eliminate.

Why Do We Need Valerian?

And here our title hero enters the scene — our second title hero (the first being Alpha). One who has to grow up, to choose, and to learn separating good from evil. One who has to become something that is not another Filitt.

Valerian is prone to the same course of mind; he doesn’t like second thoughts, he doesn’t like responsibility, and he doesn’t like even making amends. He is a total dick towards his best friend/girlfriend and doesn’t even see and understand what he does wrong. Because he follows rules, doesn’t he?

He always follows those unwritten but well-known rules of conduct modern young men follow. He is entitled, because that’s fine in this list; he is not openly vile, because it’s not appropriate in this list. He acts instead of thinking. That’s why I believe him when he talks about his military decorations; he is a good soldier, a well-honed instrument, and nothing more.

I can’t pretend I was not wounded by the whole Bubble segment, mind you. Using female (and female-coded) characters to further male character arcs is intolerable, really. But still I can appreciate the moral and the meaning of that sequence. Our every man hero has to learn what it is to feel for someone.

I loved the Aesop of the Red Light District episode. That was a short parable about what is not love. Lewdness is not, and using other people is not. Forcing others to do anything is not. Valerian sees himself as a heroic liberator, but he, just like Filitt not long ago (though on a lesser scale) has to face consequences of his illusions.

Irreparable consequences. Like the death of a innocent person who has already suffered far too much.

Here, facing his utter defeat, he starts his way back to real manhood. Because he chooses to feel remorse and place the blame where it belongs: on himself.

alpha

Those who can love

Pearls

The Pearls represent the ideal the humanity may aspire to, the ideal it once lost. Alpha was built on that ideal: learn from each race, join forces, create, and give something back for what you took. They are not (thankfully) any new rendition of the old noble savage trope. They may look like Na’vi, but they are totally different from them. Because the Na’vi are perfect as they are. They don’t need to change; all they need is to eliminate those close-minded humans from their natural paradise.

Pearls, on the other hand, were just a people, and not very advanced at that. They had their simple life on their home planet, and they had to learn for decades to become our ideal. The thing is, you need not to be perfect noble idyllic savage to deserve life. All you have to be is simply alive. That’s all. Genocide is a grave crime not because of special-ness of the victim; it is a great crime because that is in its nature. Murdering a person is a crime, regardless of that person’s morality, after all.

Pearls represent the ideal in other very important aspect: they can love. They can feel for others. They can forgive, even while they are not able to forget. And they can be grateful, even to those who represent the doom which once fell on them.

And To Conclude

In the end, mind you, we are left hanging. Yes, we are given a small Easter egg, sending us to the Fifth Element, but the humanity would still be banished from Alpha for Filitt’s crimes. And this is important, too. Because consequences, and because responsibility. And because the humanity has to learn much before it reaches again the heights of its morality — the love that gave life to Alpha.

I loved this movie, yet I cried in the end,because now we live in a world, where such a scenario (a genocide committed as a side-effect, and no one even noticing that side-effect) is no longer unbelievably fictitious. In a world where taking responsibility is out of fashion and feeling remorse is considered a bit odd.

“Love conquers all” may be outdated saying, but now that we float towards more and more grimdark, I think, it is worth remembering. As George Martin said when he visited St Petersburg, maybe the cyberpunk was more correct in predicting the future, but theirs is not a future one wants to visit or dream of.

Me, I don’t want to visit a future full of shit, too. But I can’t ignore the bad sides of our life. What Valerian gave me was both the hope those bad sides will be overcome as well as the acknowledgement they exist. A perfect mix, for me.


Images courtesy of Fundamental Films

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