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Analysis

Valerian Doesn’t Acknowledge Its Own Protagonist

Corentin

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It’s been almost two months now since Luc Besson’s new movie came out and the reception to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has been mixed. Currently sitting at 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie isn’t near the poor ratings of the most recent The Mummy or The Emoji Movie, but a sci-fi movie by the director of The Fifth Element could have hoped for a better score.

Not that I disagree with it in any way. If anything, I personally didn’t enjoy this movie. Valerian is, if anything, an interesting movie, in its weird and clunky way. There is a logic to this movie and how it tries to resemble huge Hollywood Science-Fiction blockbusters, while also having its own style.

If you didn’t get it from those first paragraphs, I think it failed or, at least, that the result is extremely flawed. I want to examine how this movie tried to approach its story and characters, and how it didn’t succeed, starting today with only one element. But the most important according to this movie: its titular character.

See? They even put The Fifth Element on the poster!

Only looking at the left side for now

I’ll try to keep everything general, but spoiler alert for the entirety of Valerian and the city of a thousand planets.

What’s with this character?

To analyze a character, we should look at their whole story, their arc if they have one. What it brings to the overall movie and how their themes fit the whole picture. In the case of Valerian, let’s start with its introduction. From the first scenes with him, what are we supposed to know about him, and what kind of emotion is he supposed to make you feel?

The first two sequences of scenes in the movie aren’t dedicated to our main character at all. One of them centers around the creation of the “City of a Thousand Planets” from its debut as the ISS to what is known as Alpha. It’s a beautiful, simple sequence, that quickly establish the context and offers us a rare sight: a first contact of humans with aliens that goes pretty well. The second shows us a new species, living in harmony and joy on their world, before the apocalypse destroy their homes and their planet.

Only after that are we allowed our first look at our main character. We discover him on the beach, relaxing before a mission. Said mission will be the first true action scene of this movie. So, before it starts, the movie is going to dump some information on its viewer about the main characters. Here’s what we know of Valerian, from his dialogues with Laureline and with a superior.

  • Valerian is both a competent agent, and extremely confident in his capacities. He doesn’t seem to be taking this new mission seriously, only reading the assignment after they land. He makes it clear to Laureline that it’s not going to be a problem and reminds her that he has some kind of perfect memory.
  • Valerian is quite the ladies man, and he apparently keeps a playlist, which I’m going to assume are music he associates with every girl he’s ever been with. We briefly see one or two walls covered in pictures, all humans or humanoid corresponding to our beauty standard, so everything is fine on that end, don’t worry.
  • Similar to his over confidence, our main character doesn’t take things seriously in general, which seems to have impacted his relationship with his colleague, Laureline, who can’t trust him when he asks to marry her. (They’re not dating yet, so it’s probably wise of her)
First scene of Valerian in this movie

Ladies and Gentlemen, our heroes

From there, we already have a pretty good idea of the kind of character Valerian is. I have a feeling it wasn’t meant to be subtle; he’s a pretty straight-forward kind of guy. Valerian, in this movie, is a combination of two pretty common archetypes. First, there is the bad boy: old school, kind of dark, pretty boy, usually selfish or uncaring. He’s good with the ladies and never hesitates to use that skill. He’s supposed to be charming, witty, and a bit dismissive of everyone.

On the other end of the spectrum is what I call “The Asshole Protagonist,” an archetype that has become popular much more recently. Don’t worry, you know them. You’ve probably seen one in Iron Man or Iron Man but with magic, or in pretty much every “Sherlock Holmes”-styled character since House MD. It’s a character who knows what he’s doing, and is often the best at his job, or anybody’s job. However, his superior ability somehow prevented him from learning proper behavior and politeness, so he often acts like a dick to everyone, either voluntarily or not. You’ve probably heard of him as “The Sociopathic Protagonist” but let’s be real, they’re just assholes most of the time.

You probably heard of him

You may think Valerian isn’t the worst at that, and it’s true, but a lot of aspects in his characterization make me think the writer tried to give him that archetype. Namely his overconfidence about the success of his various missions and the fact that he keeps reminding us about his photographic memory. (A cheat code often used by this archetype.) Plus, keep in mind that later in the movie, at least two scenes clearly establish that Valerian is a very good agent, capable of destroying wave after wave of enemies without breaking a sweat.

The Bad Boy and the Asshole Protagonist are usually, like the average serial killer, white males between 25 and 40 years old. They are white because, you know, protagonist, and male because if they acted the same way as a female they’d be described as “Kind of a bossy bitch” (because sexism, yay). Valerian fits this description, although he looks young in this movie.

Both those archetypes are often played, especially in movies, with the idea of a redemption arc, or at least the character learning a lesson by the end. That’s also the case in this movie, as I’m going to detail later. But now that we have a pretty good idea of what this character is supposed to be, let’s see how it’s handled in this movie.

Introductions are important

I brushed over the first scenes with our protagonist quickly, and that’s not so much to make a point as it is because there isn’t a lot to say. In a movie like this, focusing heavily on the action and on its world’s beauty, it was vital to introduce the characters in a simple yet clear way. They aren’t meant to be deeply complicated human beings. Yet, they managed to hit a wall with Valerian.

You see, it’s hard for an audience to really feel sympathy for a guy who acts like an ass all the time. One of the first thing you want to show in a situation like this is how good he is at his job. Then, everyone can think, “Yeah, he’s an ass, but at least he’s doing good things.” It’s simple, but it works. We like Sherlock because despite being a dick, he solves crimes and, through that, can help a family. It’s even easier with House who literally saves lives while being an horrible human being.

For an action hero, seeing him in action is a great way to demonstrate his talent and therefore shut down criticism of his behavior after that. Or, if you want to push him toward his arc already, he can have some form of ironic comeuppance.

For example, a bomb with your name on it dropping next to your face

The first scene of Valerian is him relaxing. Then he gets ready for a mission in the laziest way possible, all while reminding everyone of how good he is. The movie had two options: either the first mission was a complete disaster, to set Valerian on the right path, or it was a resounding success, demonstrating the protagonist’s skills.

We had neither. Sure, the mission succeeded but not exactly with flying colors. The whole idea of this sequence was amazing, for sure, and Valerian demonstrated a talent for improvisation. But compared with two of the fight scenes Valerian takes part later in the movie? Not really impressive. Especially since this mission ends in the death of the crew that was supposed to work with our agents. (Something neither of the protagonists even acknowledge, by the way.)

Here, the movie hits its first dissonance. We’ve been told Valerian was good at his job, but what we saw was a butchered mission where he would have been killed without Laureline, and also managed to lose his team in the process. Something that could be framed as a lesson to him, a slap in the face he would have to recover from.

But no, the characters don’t think about it like that, and the movie doesn’t frame it like that. It’s a relative success for the character’s mission and, as such, a clear failure in the introduction of those characters. The movie took its time to create its universe and present it to us. This weird mission involving two different dimensions was meant to solidify it and show us what could be done with it. Unfortunately, it had been used only as that, and not an opportunity to establish characters.

Now, here’s where I have a problem. I can’t tell if this sequence was meant to not impact Valerian’s character, or if it was meant to be a failure for him and the movie just forgot to show us that. Considering how the movie treats Valerian’s arc, it could very well be both. In any case, from this very first mission and the scenes that precede it, the audience will likely come out with this conclusion about Valerian: he’s a pretentious prick that isn’t even that good at his job, and doesn’t even seem to realize it.

Not a good start.

On arcs and changes

Up until now, it wasn’t a great start, but it wasn’t a complete waste either. Valerian didn’t seem all that sympathetic, but maybe that was never the point. As the movie goes on though, it’s slowly apparent that the writers forgot another important part of their job: giving this character any kind of arc.

Now, I don’t want to say that giving characters an arc is an absolute and complete necessity in any given story or movie. But, in this case, it did seem necessary in order to make us appreciate this guy, since his introduction really didn’t do the job. Some may think that he did have an arc, and that’s thanks to one of the final scene of the movie, a scene that attempts to give depth to this character and his partner Laureline.

Quick summary: after many twists and turns of their story, Valerian and Laureline have finally uncovered the truth. The Obvious Bad Guy is a bad guy, and he hurt the Na’vi of this universe (The Pearls). Now, they have defeated him and got back the MacGuffin that the Na’vi wanted to retrieve. Laureline wants to give it to them, and suddenly Valerian refuse because it’s… government property?

The Na’Vi

This scene is where the movie completely crumbled to me. This is the textual definition of useless drama. Valerian suddenly caring that much about the hierarchy and the orders he was given come out of nowhere. At this point, it sounds like a cheap way to introduce a conversation between our protagonists just so Laureline can start talking about love and how important and beautiful and strong it is compared to any force in the universe.

Let’s be fair. Knowing this is coming, if you watch the movie again, you’ll start to notice that it doesn’t come entirely out of thin air. Valerian plays with his rank more than once, remind Laureline of her place by giving order to her. We never got the idea that he was that focused on military rules, but it’s not a complete stretch. However, it does seem strange from a guy who, at the start of the movie, didn’t seem that concerned with doing the job right.

Why would Valerian care if this thing gets resolved “by the rules” or not?

That’s where the few elements of characterization we had seen before come into conflict with what we currently see on our screen. Bad boys are, by sheer definition, not adept at following the rules. And Assholes Protagonists usually have no respect for hierarchy and rules, preferring to follow their own instincts to get the job done. To pretty much everyone, Valerian fits one or both of those categories. He should have just handed over the MacGuffin, no discussion needed.

If he had done that, though, we wouldn’t have had any big scenes for our romantic subplot. Because yeah, we have that, remember? Valerian keeps asking his partner to marry him. Well, this scene at the end is made for the romantic subplot to make at least some sense. We finally see Laureline telling this guy that he doesn’t believe in the power of love. The point is, there is some progress.

This clearly should have been the culmination of Valerian’s character arc, ending with him learning something about the world and how to interact with it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that he needs to respect others or “try to be nice” sometimes, or even act responsibly when on mission, no. It was believing in the power of love, something that wasn’t seeded in any way and that comes out as cliché and simplistic as possible.

This is the writers admitting they didn’t have any arc for this character and just dropped the “Power of Love” into this to pretend there was some resolution.

If we truly look at it, what we have at the start of the movie is an asshole who showed no respect to anyone and is pathetically trying to get a girl by screaming that “he changed and is different now” and by the end, he gets the girl…after she took some time to scream at him for being heartless or something? He doesn’t even really get her, I suppose because they want to keep this subplot rolling for the next parts of this great story.

Ultimately, it’s not a character arc. It’s not even a resolution to the romantic subplot either; it’s drama added to the final scene just so it wouldn’t be “that simple” and our characters can have a discussion about it, even if it sounds really stupid.

Acknowledging your protagonist’s personality

When I first wrote this, the last section was called “Punishment and reward” and I wanted to talk about the fact that Valerian’s behavior never got punished by the narrative. I planned on drawing comparisons to the other kinds of Asshole Protagonists that I used as examples earlier.

The thing is, most of them are usually rewarded by the narrative in some way, because they are protagonists. But still, they also get challenged in different ways.

See, Marvel movies have a lot of entitled white guys as protagonists; Captain America is an exception in this universe, not the rule. You probably saw people calling out Marvel for their jokes that deflate all tension in their movies, and I can understand that, but notice how half the jokes are played against the protagonist of the story. Whether it is Starlord desperately trying to get people to remember his name or Stephen Strange getting his ass kicked by magic right after being so smug about science.

Same with “Sherlock”-type characters. Only they aren’t so much mocked as they are challenged by the narrative and the other characters. Take House. In the first episode it’s clearly stated that he “rarely meets with patient” because he doesn’t believe they have anything interesting to say (to be short). What does he also do in the first episode? Meet the patient. It’s not stupid, nor is it a mistake of the writers. It’s them telling you that this story will be about challenging the worldview of this particular character, even if, as the protagonist, he will often end up on top.

Now, I don’t want to say those movies and TV shows are perfect in the treatment they inflict upon their characters for being assholes. But at least they acknowledge the issue and actually try to challenge them, even if they are only pretending to.

Here’s the thing though, to challenge your character, you first must acknowledge he has an issue. Basic really, but look back at Valerian with that fact in mind, and suddenly a lot starts to make sense.

Valerian, the character, is never challenged by anyone outside of Laureline. Nobody seem to acknowledge the fact that he kind of acts like a jerk. Laureline gives him shit for it, but for all we know, it could very well be because he keeps a playlist of all the girls he slept with, or because he doesn’t believe in the power of love. Either way, it’s related to the romantic subplot, not his behavior outside of it.

At no point in the movie is Valerian made fun of because he acts smug. At no point does anyone react to it, apart from Laureline and the occasional sighs from his superiors. (Among them, the bad guy, which doesn’t help.)

The real dissonance of this movie lies here, with Valerian’s characterization. Seeing how wonderful and detailed the ideas can be in this movie, it sounds weird that its protagonist’s personality never got looked at twice. For Valerian to have an arc or even a proper introduction, the movie would have to know what this character is and what it wants to do with it. Apparently, it does not.

Sheer chemistry.

This has tremendous effects on the feeling Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets creates in its viewer. Its main character seems to have been written with a specific personality, but in a movie that wasn’t meant to involve a character with such a personality. As a result, it’s difficult to watch this movie and truly consider it Valerian’s story, which is a problem since his name is in the title. (And unlike a certain Mad Max, we don’t have another character to label the protagonist.)

I talked about Valerian, the character, a lot more than I thought, so I’m going to get back to the movie next time. In the next article, I will compare it with another sci-fi movie, one beautiful and filled with ethereal aliens living in harmony with nature and one that got a much better reception than Valerian did.

Oh, and this one has Na’vi as well.


Images courtesy of EuropaCorp, Paramount Entertainment, Heel & Toe films, and Hartswood Films

Corentin is an engineer in Earth Sciences, which means he only has so much time spent not licking rocks to look at movies or books. He likes to try and understand them with his primitive brain, sometimes he writes about them.

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The Unattainable Beauties of BioWare

David

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Happy week after Valentine’s Day! For those of you in a relationship, I hope you were able to spend time with your loved ones and maybe have a little romance. For those of you who are single, I hope that it wasn’t a terribly bitter or frustrating day. In honor of both these states, I’m going to be writing about Bioware characters. But not romanceable characters, oh no. Enough ink has been spilled about them. No, today, we are going to be talking about the ones who for whatever reason are non-romanceable. In fact, it’s going to be a list of who I consider to be the best non-romanceable characters in Bioware games.

A few ground rules first though. First, this list is completely and totally subjective. If you feel like I’ve missed a character, let me know in the comments. Most of these characters are either from the Mass Effect Series or the Dragon Age series. Those are the games I know the best have have played the most. Finally, I’m only going to list five male and five female characters. I could go on all day if allowed.

So, with that out of the way, let’s start with the guys. And first on that list is…

Black Whirlwind

Right off the bat we get a character who seems to contraindicate my first two points. He’s from Jade Empire and isn’t normally the type of character I’d enjoy. But let me justify his place on my list. First off, he’s just a fun character. Pretty much his entire character is dedicated to fighting things with his axes, drinking, and drinking while fighting with his axes. Second of all, given what we do see of his backstory, he’s fairly sympathetic. He was abused by his father until he was finally to defend himself and killed his father, and then was tossed out by his mother. He fought in the arena until he thought he killed his brother. And finally, his voice. Victor Brandt voices him in the game, and that man could read from the stock exchange and make it sound like he was trying to seduce you.

Nathaniel Howe

I can understand why they chose not to have any love interests in Awakening. A lot of the companions are missable and even if they aren’t, there’s better than 50-50 odds that they would die at the end of the expansion. That doesn’t excuse them from making Nathaniel Howe though. He has a compelling and sympathetic backstory, an interesting perspective on the location and events, and a sardonic sense of humor that lets him either play the straight man or the funny man in conversations. And! He got an easter egg quest in Dragon Age 2. I just wish they had followed through and included him in Dragon Age Inquisition (and gave us the chance to smooch him.)

Teagan Guerrin

Bann Teagan gets a bit of a bad rap now, particularly after Trespasser. Time (and the switch to a new engine) were not kind to him, but I remember a different Teagan. A Teagan that stood up to Loghain. A Teagan that risked his life to defend Redcliffe, and then walked straight into a demon’s clutches to buy your party sometime. From a story perspective, having a female human warden marry (or at least be involved with) an up and coming Bann would make just as much sense politically as marrying her to the new king. And from a purely personal standpoint, I would have loved for him to respond to the “Who is dis women Tegan?” quote by saying “My future wife.”

Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau

Ever since Mass Effect 1, Joker’s presence at the front of the Normandy has been very welcome. Snarky, quick with a quip and a comment about any of your companions, the only fault I have with him was that he was far too quick to abandon the Alliance and hook up with a bunch of racist, human supremacist terrorists in Mass Effect 2. But the fact that he’s loyal specifically to Shepard always melts my heart. I was hoping that in Mass Effect 3 he finally would be a romance option, but alas he was infatuated with EDI. It took a great deal of self control not to sabotage that relationship.

Ser Barris

And here we come to my favorite non-romanceable male character: Ser Derin Barris of the Templar Order. Dude has it all. Good voice and one of the few male PoCs in the series. In addition, he’s everything that a Templar is supposed to be: brave, intelligent, loyal, and willing to defend the weak and the innocent. And yet, after the quest to recruit the Templars, you only see ever see him one more time. The cutscene where he is promoted to Knight-Commander. (A promotion he deserves.) I can only hope that he reappears in Dragon Age 4 as a full romanceable companion.

That covers my five favorite non-romanceable male characters. But what about the ladies? Let’s start with…

Gianna Parasini

Gianna Parasini was one of those characters I didn’t expect to find myself liking as much as I did. When you first meet her in Mass Effect 1, she’s working (undercover) for Novaria’s Internal Affairs. She quickly shows herself not to be completely amoral. Just overworked, overstressed, and tired of being a Yes-Woman to a corrupt executive. When you see her again in Mass Effect 2, she’s much less stressed, and much more willing to joke with Shepard.  She leaves far too soon, leaving a male Shepard with a kiss and a promise to see him around. A promise, unfortunately, left unfulfilled.

Dr. Karin Chakwas

Dr. Chakwas is an interesting addition to this list. She is much older then Shepard. She seems at first to be a poor match. But much like Joker, she offers Shepard a sense of continuity aboard the Normandy. She even mentions that as one of the reasons why she stays aboard the Normandy in all its various incarnations. And, unlike some returning squadmates or even Joker himself at times, her presence aboard the ship never seems forced. Of course Dr. Chakwas will be in the medical bay. Of course she’ll be happy to see you. And of course she’ll be waiting to share a drink with you.

Dr. Lexi T’Perro

Unlike Dr. Chakwas, Dr. Lexi doesn’t really provide much in the way of continuity between different versions of the ship. Instead, she almost provides a mirror for Ryder to see himself and his actions. When she’s first brought aboard as your team’s doctor, she’s nervous. And she channels this nervous energy into annoying practically everyone else on the ship. But as she gets more comfortable with the ship and how things work, she starts to relax a little. Not much, but a little. Add to that her backstory in addition to the fact that she seems to care for the team’s mental health as much as their physical health and you get a character who would be perfect to romance. Shame she’s not an option.

Emily Wong

Emily Wong is one of the most frustrating examples on this list. In Mass Effect 1, she filled the ‘plucky reporter’ archetype so well that I missed being able to speak with her or give her an interview in Mass Effect 2. As the release date for Mass Effect 3 drew closer and rumors of a romanceable reporter on board the Normandy began to swirl, I had hope that it would be Emily.  I was bitterly disappointed. The reporter character on the Normandy was quite weak compared to the strong impression Emily gave in Mass Effect 1. And Emily Wong herself? Unceremoniously killed off in a marketing ploy before the game was released. She deserved better.

Vivienne

Vivienne is a ‘love her or hate her’ type of character. As you can tell by her inclusion on this list, I am in the former camp. Aside from being one of the few women of color companions in the game, Vivienne brings to the table a unique perspective: A mage who fully supports a return to the Circles. Not only that, but she has clear, eloquent arguments to back her up. In addition to that, she has a very striking character design and a wonderful voice actress. Most important of all though is that if her approval of the Inquisitor is high, she seems to genuinely care about them and their well being. I just wish that she didn’t politely shoot you down every time you flirted with her.

So there you have it. My five favorite male and female non-romanceable NPCs from Bioware games. However, there is one person that I have thus far neglected to mention. Or rather, one group of people. That’s right, I’m talking about…

EVERY SINGLE DWARF FROM DRAGON AGE

In Dragon Age: Origins, it was just a bit of trivia. “Hey, did you know that you can’t romance Qunari and dwarf characters?” When Dragon Age 2 came out and we were introduced to Varric, it became a joke. But at least the dwarf fans could still console themselves by remembering that there hadn’t been any Qunari romanceable companions either. By the time of Dragon Age Inquisition and the introduction of Iron Bull and Lead Scout Lace Harding, it’s become one of my main problems with the series.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Why wouldn’t Bioware let us romance Scout Harding, or any other dwarf for that matter? Is it because the animation would look awkward? Too much work? In the end, I can only repeat the refrain so many others have, pining after characters who they couldn’t romance: “Maybe next game.”


Images courtesy of Bioware

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Analysis

Kingdom Come, Representation, And Layers Of Privilege

Barbara

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Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a brand new Czech video game that just came out last week. And ever since its development started, there has been one big controversy connected to it: its almost complete lack of characters of colour.

It isn’t exactly helped by the fact that the chief mind behind the game, Dan Vávra, is right-leaning, and also a bit of an asshole when it comes to responding to these complaints. He doesn’t go far for an insult and refuses to listen to any kind of criticism. Not exactly the kind of person that makes one want to defend him.

So…this is where this article should end, right? A jerk makes a racist game, news at seven.

Well. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Vávra isn’t the only person working in the development. And the most important thing to know about the game in this context is that it’s not a generalized medieval setting. Instead, it takes place in a particular set of villages and towns and the surrounding forests, villages, and towns that exist until today and that aren’t and never have been big or cosmopolitan in any way. A number of events in the game are based on historical events. It isn’t just a story, it the story of Česká Skalice just before the Hussite wars.

In this context, the usual arguments of “there were plenty of people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages” fall kind of flat. The usual argument of historicity that is pulled for this is frequently false because Western history is whitewashed and contained markedly more people of colour that we like to pretend. But it’s not always false. There actually were parts of the world where only white people lived. And not only are there no particular historical marks of black, brown or Asian people being present in the particular time and place where Kingdom Come takes place, it would also be very unlikely.

Honestly, the most likely place to find a person of colour in the time period would be Sigismund’s armies, and since those play more the role of the antagonist in the game, that’s not exactly ideal. So this is not, in fact, a case of ignoring the real historical presence of black and Middle-Eastern people.

Instead, the first question to ask here is: is it ever legitimate to create all-white media? If we’re depicting a situation where there realistically wouldn’t be any people of colour – not just history, there are still plenty of towns in the world a non-white person has never set foot in – is it all right to make it whiter than new house paint?

On the face of it, the answer should be yes. As long as we’re depicting an actual situation, we’re depicting. And yet. It may be “accurate,” but it might at the same time be unwise in the current climate, where every all-white piece of media contributes to a narrative that is far from inclusive to people of colour.

So the second question: does it even matter? That is, is historical realism such an important goal to achieve?

Most media that supposedly take place in the past play hard and fast with history to make things more convenient for the narrative, so why should the amount of diversity, of all things, be what is kept realistic? It shouldn’t, that is the answer. As long as other things are changed freely, the argument of historicity is irrelevant one way or another.

Kingdom Come, however, is a game that takes great care to be as realistic as possible. The most frequent complaint from players at the moment is the insane difficulty of lockpicking because that isn’t easy in real life either. So does this change anything? Is the argument of historicity valid in such a case? In other words, even in those media that do their best to stay historically faithful, is such an ambition a worthy goal? Is it more important to have something fit history perfectly than to provide representation?

Accusations of rewriting history would naturally follow a negative answer. First, it’s important to point out that it’s no more rewriting than the constant whitewashing, and with a much better intention. But it is true that with a game that boasts of its realism, it presents a problem. It would discredit their claims of historicity if they simply ignored these kinds of facts. You cannot painstakingly reconstruct medieval Skalice and then add random representation from all over the world without becoming a laughing stock. Not the least because this sort of rewriting of history would play down the racism of the past, and that is not an excuse we should be making for ourselves.

Unless we say that media has to abandon goals of high historical realism, then, we have to admit that in certain setting an all-white cast is appropriate. So that brings forth another question: is it legitimate to choose such settings?

And this brings us to the more complicated power dynamics at play when it comes to Kingdom Come.

As I’ve said, Kingdom Come is a Czech game, dealing with events from Czech history. My history. We, as a country, have always played the lovely game of being both oppressors (towards Slovaks, the Jewish and the Romani people, and even Germans after WWII) and oppressed (by the Austrian empire, Nazi Germany, USSR). In the global world of today, we’re far from being the ones in the most desperate situation, but we’re also hardly the top dogs. On the global scale, we’re a minority.

And both our history and our present are mostly white.

Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a good thing. I’m not saying it as a good thing. It massively contributes to the widespread xenophobia in the Czech Republic. But it is what it is. The fact remains that our by far biggest minority are the Romani people, who form about 3% of the population. So every time you tell a Czech story, it is going to be overwhelmingly white.

So should we be allowed to tell our own stories?

Kingdom Come, of course, is not made for the Czech market. It’s distributed globally, and it means it has a global effect, on people who know nothing of our particular context. As an all-white medieval game – which is all most people will take out of it – it perpetuates exactly the image of whitewashed history that we need to rid ourselves of. It becomes part of the problem.

So does this mean, then, that when we want global money, we have to change the image of our own history to avoid exacerbating the global problem of racism? That is problematic as well, especially as making the game for Czech audience only is not a real option. Our ten million people total don’t make for a big enough audience to pay for a game with this kind of budget. It’s another kind of disadvantage global minorities have. It shouldn’t be necessary to pay for it by adjusting our stories.

And even disregarding that, what if we want to show our stories and our world to the rest of the planet? What if we want to share ourselves? We should be able to do that.

Yet…what if what we want to share turns into a white fantasy in others’ hands?

It seems it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Who cares if we change the skin colour of some characters in the story? It’s still going to be a Czech story. But the problem is, it doesn’t quite work that way. After all, that is the “I don’t see colour” argument, only in reverse.

What I’m about to say will sound insanely racist to anyone from a more cosmopolitan country, but when I was little, I didn’t like watching Sesame Street because the multi-ethnic children there were making it so very foreign to me. I saw them and instantly knew it wasn’t my world. Outside of my travel abroad, I spoke to one non-white person total before adulthood. And I live in the capital, the most multicultural part of the country. Whatever it says about us, the truth is that if we populate historical Czech stories with black people, most Czechs will not regard it as their story.

But there is a reason I was specific in this last sentence. There are truly very few black people living in this country even now. You know who is living here, though? The aforementioned Romani. The presence of Romani people in the game would not make any Czech person feel like it was not our story. It would make them angry — because the racism the Romani face in the Czech Republic is something incredibly ugly — but it would not make the game feel foreign. The Romani minority has been here since the Middle Ages, and there are definitely historical records of them being here in large numbers shortly after Kingdom Come takes place. In fact, there are even complaints of there being “more and more” Romani people in our records because of course our racism would be traditional.

We don’t know, of course, if there were any Romani around Skalice, but it was a way to include people of colour that wouldn’t break with general Czech history. It wouldn’t have gone against our own understanding of who has lived here for a long time. And yet they were never mentioned in any of the diversity complaints I have seen. There are also Cumans included in the game, and no one seems to care much either. And that brings me to my last point.

Demanding diversity in Kingdom Come with a particular idea of diversity in mind, the idea that is based on the ethnic composition of the US, is not only American-centric but also offensive to the oppressed minorities of the Czech Republic.  And complaining about such lack of diversity truly does not come across in a way that would endear the author of the complaint to anyone Czech. Especially if the person complaining is white. If a person of colour is offended by so much mayo in their game and would like to feel represented, I can understand that.

But when a white privileged American talks about what sorts of representation a Czech game should contain – particularly with arguments like that Czechia is “just north of Italy” and Italy is by the sea so obviously there’d be plenty of people of colour in here, which is an actual argument someone presented – it suddenly gains whole another tone. Because whiteness is not the only privilege in the world, and while we certainly benefit from it, we do not benefit from the privilege of being American, and anyone from the US telling us how to tell our own stories without knowing anything about us is always, always going to ring a very uncomfortable bell with us.

So yes, making all-white games should be avoided when possible, because it reinforces an uncomfortable narrative. And representation is a good thing, especially representation of those who hardly ever find themselves on screen. Whenever at least a little possible, diversity should be supported. Warhorse Studios really should have included Romani people in their game, just as Czech filmmakers should try casting some in their films. But not all representation fits one muster and demanding medieval Skalice should look like medieval London only makes stories more identical to each other and less interesting. There is more than one kind of diversity.


Images courtesy of Warhorse Studios

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Analysis

Barbara Kean From Housewife to Mobster

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Gotham had a tall order ahead of it at its inception. It had to take some the most iconic characters from the comic page and meld them in a story that takes place before they were iconic. Any prequel adaptation has to grapple with this in one way or another. But Gotham had the unique challenge with Batman’s famous rouges. The origins of so many of his opponents are intertwined with his. Gotham would have to reinvent these characters and their origins. The series has made these characters its own by allowing their development to move away from their comic book counterparts. There is no character with which this is more prevalent in than Barbara Kean.

In the comics, she’s anything but a rival to Batman. She’s the wife of one of Bruce’s closest allies and the mother of one of his sidekicks.  Yet she herself plays but a small role in the narrative. Gotham’s Barbara Kean has made herself a part of the narrative in ways that have seem to have completely change the character we first meet. Gotham has taken a woman destined to be the mother and wife of heroes and made her one of the most prolific members of the Gotham City’s underworld.

We meet Barbara in the pilot engaged to James Gordon, the perfect place to lead to her becoming her comic book counterpart: married to James Gordon and the mother of his children. They’re in a good place in their relationship. As James finds himself confronted with the corruption of Gotham, Barbara becomes a pillar of support for him. She reaffirms his values when he doubts himself. But this can only last for so long. With James fighting against so much of the darkness in Gotham, it was only a matter of time before it got back to Barbara.

Even with the first bit of tension seeping into their relationship, Barbara’s still willing to stand by James. When she learns James’s life is at stake she goes to Carmine Falcone, the king of Gotham’s underground, to beg for his life. But after she’s terrorized by Falcone’s men, her own faith in James is shaken. She’s seen the true dangers in the mission he’s tasked himself with. She can’t share the burden he’s willing to take on.

At first, she falls back into old habits for the comfort and familiarity, drugs, and her ex-girlfriend, Renee Montoya. It doesn’t last with Montoya, and Barbara finds herself in a state of flux. During this time she meets Selina Kyle, who later becomes a close companion. She also meets Jason Skolimski. He becomes an inciting figure of change for her. A serial killer and psychopath, he takes Barbara captive and she almost doesn’t make it out alive.

Her time with him drives her to edge of sanity. Under his influence she kills her parents. She almost kills Lee Thompkins, James’s new girlfriend. The love she has for James becomes an obsession. It doesn’t end well for her with James stopping her. She’s arrested and sentenced to Arkham Asylum. But it ends up putting her in the perfect position for the next wave of her development.

Her stay in the Asylum is short lived. She’s broken out by Theo and Tabitha Galvan, the latter of whom she enters into a romantic relationship with.  It’s through them she’s truly indoctrinated to Gotham’s underground. Barbara’s sanity at this point is shaky at best. Having a girlfriend willing to kidnap her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend doesn’t help the situation either. Though even when the last remains of her sanity seem all but gone, the compassion she held for James still comes through. Her kidnapping attempt unravels and her escape ends with her falling out a second story window. Before that happens she helps James, giving him the information he needs to take down Theo.

After some time in a coma, she’s released back onto Gotham streets. Though her love for James still borders on unhealthy obsession her pursuits become more personally motivated. She opens a nightclub with Tabitha. It’s successful but she’s gunning for more, namely to get out from under Oswald Cobblepot’s thumb. She’s openly contentious of the Penguin when he all but runs Gotham at this point. Only a few people could have gotten away with this without fatal consequences.

She gathers some powerful allies with the intention of overthrowing Penguin. And it works. She becomes the queen of Gotham, taking over the city’s underground. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived reign when conflict brews among the very allies who helped her take down Penguin, and she ends up dead.

In the true fashion of comic books and their adaptations, Barbara doesn’t say dead for long. After she’s brought back to life she returns ready to take on the city again. Reaching out to Selina and Tabitha, they work together running a weapons racket to rebuild their status. Death seems to have tamed Barbara, she’s more rational with her return. She’s even willing to work under Penguin. If only for a short time until a better opportunity presents itself for her, Tabitha and Selina.

At this point, I think it’s important to note Barbara could have easily fallen into the old stereotypes of the ‘crazy bisexual ex-lover’ or even the ‘villainous queer’. But similar to the way the Carmilla series defies its negative tropes, Gotham’s exploration of these narrative tropes doesn’t feel like it steers into the negative aspects. Gotham also avoids these tropes in a way few other series could. The villains make up a huge portion of series. They are the lungs that breathe life into the series. As much as this series is about Bruce and James growing into the heroes we know they’ll become, it’s also about watching the other characters grow into the villains we know they’ll become.

Barbara earns her place among the villainous elite in Gotham. She’s gone from a mild-mannered Gotham socialite to one of its most conniving criminals.

She’s still a woman capable of deeply caring for someone. But now her way of showing she cares for someone involves fewer words of empathy and more shooting their enemies in the head. She learnt to thrive in a city where so few can even survive. She adapted in ways that not even James has been able to. Her place in the story going forward is still uncertain. The possibility of her and James come back to each other is small but stranger things have happened in this city. Though at this point it seems more likely one of the many colourful adversaries Bruce will face when he truly dons the cowl.

Regardless of where she’s going, watching her get where she is has been a wild and entertaining ride.


Images courtesy of Fox 

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