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Analysis

Playing the Villain in The Last of Us

Brion

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(This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and some pretty violent images)

It was around the time I had finished burning unarmed doctors to death without hesitation. These two people were of no threat to me. I could have very easily run past them without consequence. This idea never occurred to me until after they were dead. As I ran out of the room, I realized at last the implications of what I had just done and I was forced to call my morality into question.

Video games are the most exciting story-telling medium because of their ability to involve the player. While a book, movie or TV show must needs keep you at arm’s length, a game invites you to be an active part in its story. You become far more likely to emphasize with the protagonist because you, in a sense, are the protagonist.

Best of all is when a video game can make you complicit. This is something The Last of Us accomplishes ruthlessly. This game leads you down the garden path with its familiar tropes and trappings, only to pull the rug from beneath your feet. It was a shock to discover that I was not the hero. It was even more shocking that it took me burning two unarmed doctors to death before I figured that out.

I always said mushrooms were bad for you…

A Dying Species

The bulk of The Last of Us takes place twenty years after society collapsed. Infectious fungal spores began turning people into monstrous ‘clickers’, zombies in all but name. Military forces control the last few cities standing, and a rebellion against their authoritarian rule is being fought by a group called the Fireflies.

So far, so generic. The setting of The Last of Us is hardly unique, mainly serving as a backdrop for the story to take place. The story needed an apocalypse, so the writer’s cooked up an apocalypse. The important point to take away is that humanity is on its last legs and no salvation is in sight.

Enter Ellie (Ashley Johnson). A teenager born into this hellish world, she discovers that she alone is immune to the infection. Fate makes it so an ageing smuggler named Joel (Troy Baker) is tasked with taking her across the country. There they hope to find a group of medically proficient Fireflies who will create a vaccine based on Ellie’s immunity.

Everything is set up for a very typical kind of story. Brave white man is tasked with defending a young girl, finding redemption and ultimately saving the world. Everyone has seen a dozen movies like this and played a dozen games with exactly this set-up. One assumes Joel must be the hero. After all, he is going to save the world, right?

Dead Kids

(I promise this is my last subheading featuring a variation on the word ‘death’).

Before we get to meet Ellie, we spend a good ninety minutes in Joel’s company. It is through his eyes we see the collapse of society in 2013. It is through his eyes we first experience the hellish existence that is 2033. He proves himself cynical, ferocious and utterly determined to survive. Notice that these descriptions do not exactly make Joel sound like much of a hero. One would probably figure out where this was going much sooner if his daughter did not immediately die.

Joel’s daughter Sarah is killed on the night of the outbreak in 2013. Ironically, she is not killed by a clicker, but rather by a young soldier ordered to enforce a quarantine. This is part of a recurring theme that it is humans who are the most terrifying monsters of all (a theme reinforced, accidentally or not, by humans being much harder to fight than clickers). It is a pretty sophomoric point, but important for where Joel’s story will go.

Sarah’s death is absolutely heart-breaking. The player is tasked with protecting her from the very outset, only to have control ripped away from them at the most crucial moment. Never again, we are asked to vow to ourselves. Never again will we let our virtual daughter die. By the time we meet Ellie we are fully prepared to do anything to keep her from harm.

Which leads me to a very important point, one that serves as the crux of my interpretation of both this game and (weirdly enough) Life is Strange: Being prepared to do literally anything to protect the people you love is the sign of a bad person.

Horrible, gut-wrenching, tragic. In no way justifies Joel’s actions.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

Before I go any further, I need to talk about a certain issue that plagues a lot of video game story-telling. Ludonarrative dissonance is a term in reference to a conflict between gameplay and story-telling. If you were playing a game where the main character is established as being a pacifist, but you end up spending the bulk of the game running around murdering people, you would be experiencing some ludonarrative dissonance.

One game series commonly held up as an example is Uncharted, which is also a product of Naughty Dog, the same developer who made The Last of Us. Its main character, Nathan Drake, is supposed to be a lovable wise-cracking rogue. He is essentially presented as what would happen if you cast Nathan Fillion as Indiana Jones.

And in Uncharted 2, the best game in the series, he kills 1,000 people. Remorselessly.

There is no good explanation for this in-universe. There is no suggestion that Drake is secretly a monstrous killing machine. We are clearly supposed to think of him as an easy-going hero, yet he murders so very many people without a second thought. The only possible explanation is that the Drake of the story and the Drake of the gameplay are two different people, the purest example of ludonarrative dissonance.

When Naughty Dog began to make The Last of Us, I suspect this criticism of Uncharted was fresh in their minds. I think they intended to do the opposite of what they had done in the past. The Joel of the story and the Joel of the gameplay are the same person. Once you accept that idea, a whole new perspective on the game begins coming to light.

Last Man Standing

How exactly did Joel survive the apocalypse for twenty years? No one ever expressly states it, but the implication that he has a very shady past by the time he meets Ellie is hammered home repeatedly.

For example, after Joel and Ellie are ambushed while driving, Ellie asks him how he knew the supposedly injured man begging for help was actually faking so that he and his group could steal their car. Joel’s answer?

Joel: “I’ve been on both sides.”

Lovely implications there. Now how about this exchange between his younger brother Tommy and him about their time together surviving in a big city.

Tommy: “I got nothing but nightmares from those years.”

Joel: “You survived because of me.”

Tommy: “It wasn’t worth it.”

 Or this one with his smuggling partner Tess (and possible lover) about their history when she sees a possibility for redemption.

Tess: “Guess what, we’re shitty people Joel, it’s been that way for a long time.”

Joel: “No, we are survivors.”

Survival is Joel’s main priority. Survival is the be all and end all. It is the cause he falls back on when questioned about his actions. It is his sole justification for his frequently horrifying actions. This is where the absence of ludonarrative dissonance really starts to hammer the horror home. Every time Joel mercilessly beats someone to death, the game is not pretending he is a charming rogue. Rather, it is clearly demonstrating what form ‘surviving’ has taken for Joel.

Joel has some interesting opinions on the virtues of child soldiers.

David

After an horrific injury puts Joel out of commission, Ellie briefly becomes the player character. While hunting a deer she crosses paths with David (Nolan North). He offers to provide her with the anti-biotics she needs to safe Joel’s life. He comes across as a reasonable person, charming even, a small bastion of decency in a nightmarish world. David and Ellie even prove to be as good a fighting team as her and Joel.

However, is slowly transpires that David is perhaps the worst person who has ever existed. He is literally all the worst things a person can be: A murderer, a pedophile, a cannibal and a rapist. This is a man who ultimately prioritizes stalking Ellie with a hunting knife rather than escaping the building they are in as it slowly burns to the ground.

Okay, so David is the worst. Why am I bothering to bring him up? Again, I want to reinforce how charming he initially appears to be. That the very worst human being in the game initially appears to be the nicest. The lesson here is clear; Ellie was taken in by a man who claimed to have her best interests at heart and was ultimately forced to kill him with his own knife.

Which serves to make us wonder whether or not there are any other violent men around who claim to have Ellie’s best interest at heart. David is not a foil to Joel, but rather a slightly darker reflection of him. Ironically enough, while Joel is a better person than David, he will end up committing a worse act than anything David could ever have comprehended.

Finally it is time to talk about the doctors I murdered.

“Son, the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world there was only one of him.”

Worth It

Ellie: “After all we’ve been through.

Everything that I’ve done.

It can’t be for nothing.”

Joel has killed a lot of people. He has engaged in some very questionable actions to survive. He even resorted to torturing David’s men while trying to find Ellie. It is no accident that David’s men end up fleeing from him when they see him coming. To them he is a crazy men determined to kill them all. Are they wrong?

The only possible justification for any of this (and I am not saying I agree, I am just saying it is the only argument that I will not dismiss outright) is that Joel had to do these things because he is trying to save the world. Everything he did was to protect Ellie so that they could reach the Fireflies and a vaccine could be created. Surely we must forgive Joel his violence if the result is the salvation of humanity?

The above quote suggests that is Ellie’s view on the whole thing. The idea that they are going to save the world is the only thing that keeps her going after her traumatic ordeal with David. Reaching the end of this journey will make the entire thing worth it.

And they do finally make it to the Fireflies. And Ellie’s immunity really can be turned into a vaccine. Hurray and huzzah, the world has been saved! There is just one small problem. The fungus that turns people into clickers grows on the brain. To extract the cure will mean cutting open Ellie’s brain.

Ellie has to die for the world to be saved.

Literally Anything

Joel begins the game by losing a daughter. He spends the majority of the game slowly coming to think of Ellie as his daughter. He has gone to extremes to protect her from harm. Joel has decided, just like the player did as he cradled Sarah’s corpse in his arms, that he would do literally anything to protect the one he loves most.

In this case, that means dooming the entire human race. And Joel does not even blink.

As Joel tortures a Firefly soldier for information, consider how many times he has relied on torture in the past. As Joel relentlessly slaughters every last Firefly in his way, consider that maybe David’s men were right to flee from this crazed murderer. As Joel stabs a doctor with his own scalpel, consider that he has just murdered someone who was essentially humanities last hope.

I did not consider any of this on my first play through. Too caught up in the moment perhaps, too determined to finish the game, too desperate to save Ellie. I turned to the two unarmed doctors cowering in the corner and lit them on fire with my flamethrower. I did not even blink. In that moment, I had become Joel.

Afterwards, as I watched Joel execute an unarmed black woman, I felt hollow. All sense of achievement was gone. Joel had doomed humanity and I had helped him do it. Worst of all, I had wanted him to do it. I prioritised protecting Ellie over everything else. I felt like a monster.

The game was not finished with me yet.

This Doctor was going to save the world. Just saying.

The Lie

The final scene begins with us once again controlling Ellie. Given that we do nothing but walk for a couple minutes and climb a ledge, why does the game bother giving us back control? The aim is to imply distance in the relationship between Joel and Ellie, a distance that Joel is solely responsible for creating.

See, Joel did not tell Ellie what really happened at the hospital. Instead, he told her that there were dozens more people immune like her, that a cure was impossible and that there was no point in sticking around. He does mention the massacre he precipitated. He lies to her, and she knows that’s what he is doing.

So as we walk in Ellie shoes, we feel uncomfortable in Joel’s presence for the first time. He starts talking about how he and Sarah used to take hikes, just like he and Ellie are doing at that moment. He says that Sarah and Ellie would have been great friends had they ever met. Joel has very clearly decided Ellie is the replacement daughter that the world owes him and he is doing very little to hide that fact.

Ellie tries to explain what their journey has done to her, and Joel talks about the only thing he knows how to talk about.

Joel: “I’ve struggled for a long time with surviving. No matter what… you keep finding something to fight for. Now, I know that’s not what you want to hear right now, but it’s…”

Ellie: “Swear to me. Swear to me that everything you said about the fireflies is true.”

Joel: “I Swear.”

Ellie: [after a long pause] “Okay.”

 When given a last chance to come clean, Joel chooses to lie. Ellie knows he’s lying, knows she’s trapped with this murderous lunatic who has doomed the entire species. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be evident now.

Joel was not the hero of this story. He was the villain.

Intent & Interpretations

On the other hand, I might be wrong.

No one ever says that in a critique, do they? Look, I am pretty sure my interpretation of the game is solid, though I acknowledge I might be overlooking or underplaying some details. When I worry that I might be wrong, my concern is that Naughty Dog did not intend to tell the story that I think they ultimately ended up telling.

My motivation to write this whole thing was the announcement of The Last of Us Part II, a direct sequel to the game that will once again star Ellie and Joel. Straight away this was cause for concern, given that both of their stories have already definitely and definitively ended. Even worse is the implication of the trailer that the sequel will be about Ellie seeking revenge for something. I hope they surprise me, but right now it feels like we will get one of those by the numbers sequels that mainly serves to cheapen the memory of the original.

It is entirely possible that the writers of this game intended for Joel to be an anti-hero. These are the same developers who accidentally made Nathan Drake a mass murderer after all. If that was their intent, then the visual of a white man executing a black woman takes on a whole host of horrible implications. I can only hope they intended said visual to inspire horror, rather than some kind of triumph.

Maybe I just want to believe that they were trying to tell a complicated story that played with player character bias. I do believe that was the intent, but the sheer amount of people who view the game so very differently to me gives me reason for concern.

Look at this camera angle and tell me Joel is supposed to be the hero, I dare you.

Conclusion

The Last of Us is not a perfect game (ironically Naughty Dog have struck perfection once before, with Crash Team Racing, the best game ever made). A perfect game is not a term I use lightly; Silent Hill 2 and Undertale are perhaps the only others I would bestow the accolade upon.

Despite all the accolades it received upon release (not to mention my fondness for it), this is not a particularly ground-breaking game either. Its gameplay is a very strong version of an unoriginal third-person template. It avoids experimentalism at every turn. It does still star an angry white man who kills lots of people.

However, a work of art can be both flawed and perfunctory, yet still reach classic status. The Last of Us tells a simple story very, very well. Its pacing is almost without comparison. Its emotional moments hit hard.

Running beneath it all is a very subtle critique of the often casual relationship between video games and violence. This critique is masked by a trope enforced expectation that protecting Ellie will be Joel’s redemption. We are trained to expect Joel to get better as the story progresses. Instead fate putting him into a parental situation again marks the last break in his psyche.

Joel wakes up in 2033 a bad man and finishes the game a violent lunatic. Too often we are allowed to act like lunatics and still see ourselves as the hero. There is an absence of triumph in The Last of Us. There never was an opportunity to save the day, because we were never this story’s hero. Instead, we were trapped playing the villain.


All images courtesy of Naughty Dog.

Analysis

Are We Ready to Admit that Thor: Ragnarok was a Hot Mess?

Kylie

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I didn’t watch Thor: Ragnarok in theaters. Actually, I hadn’t seen anything post-Ultron and was fine being free of the MCU for a few years. Then Black Panther came along and I found it so compelling that it washed away any Marvel fatigue I had been feeling. When the opportunity arose to watch the third Thor movie on an airplane, I hit the play button with genuine excitement.

Going into this, I had heard almost all positive things. I knew there were some similarities to Black Panther in the central themes, I knew Jeremiah gave it a glowing review, and I knew it was supposed to be exceedingly funny.

I was also no stranger to the Thor standalones. I felt his introductory movie was a bit silly, but did what it could with a superhero that well…lends himself to silliness. It’s a Norse god in a contemporary setting, after all. The result was a slightly boisterous fish-out-of-water tale with compact development and a pretty solid foundation on which we could understand his character. Thor 2: Dark World was absolutely odious as an artform, but I loved it anyway, much for the same reason Attack of the Clones is my favorite prequel. It was ironic enjoyment, but if you can’t be enthused by Natalie Portman running around in squeaky rainboots with her Science Machine™, then I can’t help you. Plus, it was Thorested Development.

Was I expecting some gaps in my knowledge given me sleeping on Civil Wars? Yes. Granted, those same gaps existed for Black Panther, and shockingly I was still able to fully understand his father’s death, as well as what Agent Ross meant to T’Challa and what their relationship was like. But I promise, I turned on Thor 3 with all the right intentions, and what I consider to be fairly measured expectations.

I turned it off wondering if I had a fundamental misunderstanding about the concept of a movie.

Two Plots, No Payoff

If I had watched Thor: Ragnarok on VHS in the 90s, I probably would have begun to wonder if someone taped over the entire middle portion with a completely different Thor film. Because it’s not just that there were two major plot threads, it’s that there were two different tones. Hell, there were almost two different genres when you get down to it.

The first is what I have to assume is the “main plot,” since it’s what the movie sets up in the first acts, and closes in the third. This is the story about Asgard’s legacy and reckoning against the threat of Hela, the Goddess of Death.

Thor is told by some demon guy that his dad isn’t at home anymore, so he goes back to Asgard find Loki pretending to be Odin. Then a random wizard tells them both that their dad is in Norway (yes, I know it’s Doctor Strange, but I’m talking about this movie on its own merits). They go there, but Odin is all sad and about to die, which means that his true heir—his firstborn daughter Hela—will escape from the prison he set up for her. You see, she’s the Goddess of Death and had been the leader of Asgard’s armies for Odin when he apparently conquered the Nine Realms, but she became too ambitious for his taste. What, a tenth was a bridge too far for Daddy Imperialist?

Whatever, he dies.

Thor and Loki go to confront the now-released Hela, she breaks Thor’s hammer, they get chased off, she takes over Asgard with the intention of more conquering, most people think she sucks so she raises dead zombies and a giant wolf to fight for her instead, and then Thor and some random friends come back to fight her again. He realizes he can only save his people, but he can’t save Asgard itself from Hela since she’s too powerful. He evacuates everyone, mainly with Heimdall and Loki’s help. Hela stabs Thor’s eye out and Thor levels up his lightning powers, but it’s still not enough to do anything about her, so he summons that demon guy from the beginning to have him destroy Hela…and all of Asgard. But it’s fine; he’s the King because Asgard is a people and not a place. Odin even pops in a vision at some point to tell him that.

This is a fine story. There’s things in it that could be explored, especially Thor reconciling with Odin’s savage, imperialistic legacy. It’s a bit hamstrung by Odin himself pooping out of the narrative entirely after dropping the plot bomb into Thor’s lap (seriously, am I alone in thinking this is one of the least effective death scenes in movie history? Certainly in MCU history?), and it’s a bit formulaic in the sense that the “bad guy” is more the concept of implacable evil.

I personally struggle with the messaging and execution of it. It’s not that coming to terms with the fallibility of your Kingly father and his decisions made while ruling your country is a weak narrative choice. That, you know, was the entirety of Black Panther, and what made it significant was the way in which T’Challa defined his duty on the throne in a way that made sense for himself and the changed context of the world. It was a meaningful shedding of idealization while coming into his own as a ruler.

This movie should have been that for Thor, but his realization about “Asgard is a people” was just sort of beamed into his head by Odin. Literally, Hela was choking him out, and he flashes to a vision of Odin telling him what to think of Asgard as well as his own powers. 

Then, what does that say if it’s Odin’s words Thor’s living by? That he does still respect this guy and want to follow in his footsteps, despite learning that he was a literal conqueror? That even asshole imperialists can have some good points? (Why does this keep happening?) Or was that Odin coming to the realization when he came to Thor, and he had reached this epiphany off-screen in the afterlife? It was like, “Oh hey I didn’t need to do all that conquering, because my duty was to my people and not the glory of this place.” 

It didn’t even seem like Thor came to the conclusion that destroying physical Asgard was a necessary thing given the place’s legacy and bloody history—just given the situation and how there was some lady with a dead army they couldn’t beat. It was a decision made in the heat of battle when the day was lost, but now he’s got his eyepatch and his people and a spaceship, so he’s ready to fill Odin’s shoes. You know…the shoes that we learned shouldn’t have been worn in the first place. Because imperialism. 

Also the requisite, “crazy over-ambitious woman couldn’t listen to her father when to chill with all the killing” complaint. Cate Blanchett saves it a little, but it’s there.

So yes, for all the weighty subjects floated in this plotline, none of them were actually given significant narrative weight, or exploration, or anything really. I suppose Hela’s claim to the throne and history with Asgard made her more of a meaningful threat; she was a monster of Asgard’s making, not to yet again call back to the film that pulled off all these concepts with actual dexterity and significance. But even with that, she was just evil. She didn’t have any nuanced points, or any compelling reason for anyone to follow her. Just that Odin had once been cool with her, but that stopped.

There was also nothing remotely familial or personal about her dynamic with Thor or Loki since she didn’t actually know them or seem to care about their general existence, and her abilities were never well-conveyed to even give the fight might grounding. We may as well have had Mjolnir shooting through multiple portals again.

That’s not to say these things couldn’t have been done or executed well. This was a long movie and whole lot of time to flesh out Hela’s relationship to our protagonist, or Thor’s relationship to his conception of governance and his home, or the Asgardian commoner point of view, or even to seed the demon guy that eventually brought the cataclysm just a wee bit better than the opening joke did.

No, it was far better we spent it with Thor rolling his eyes and debating the semantics of “crown”

It’s just that instead, the movie spent the bulk of its time seemingly uninterested in the main plot. Because there was ~junk planet antics~ to be had.

And yup, there’s plotline #2: Thor is in yet another wacky weekend adventure that he has to get out of! Which I don’t hate as a concept. I will happily pop some corn kernels and plop down with either of the Thor standalones, because they’re somewhat doofy fun. Just don’t stick me in the middle of this thing after setting up something rather serious and weighty. (And maybe don’t set up that serious, weighty thing by having a wizard warp two main characters to Norway.)

As a brief, brief summary, after Hela throws Thor and Loki out of Asgard, he finds himself alone on a junk planet called Sakaar. He’s captured by some lush played by Tessa Thompson who just so happens to be a former Valkyrie, a member of an Asgardian all-female elite warrior group that had fought Hela before her imprisonment. She sells him to Jeff Goldblum, who rules (?) Sakaar. So Thor is enslaved, literally has a controlling device thing in his neck, and is forced to fight in a gladiator ring. The ultimate Sakaar champion he goes up against is…the Hulk, who has somewhat-permanently hulked out. They fight and Jeff Goldblum cheats to let the Hulk win, which isn’t really worth talking about, though it takes up about ten minutes of screentime so it must be important to someone. Oh, and Loki’s there and Jeff Goldblum’s friend because it’s working to his favor at the moment.

After the fight, Thor quasi-escapes to the ship the Hulk arrived on, there’s some recording of Natasha on it that de-Hulks Bruce Banner. At some point Loki forces Valkyrie to see a vision of her past trauma (her fellow soldiers dying to Hela) so she decides she wants to help Thor get back to Asgard, and then everyone escapes Sakaar by inciting a slave uprising and stealing one of Jeff Goldblum’s ships.

I have spent longer than I care to admit trying to figure out how this possibly relates to the rest of the movie. And I should note, Sakaar takes up well over half the runtime, so it’s not like it can be dismissed as this ancillary plot cul de sac necessity to get Thor and Bruce to run into one another. Like, this had to have meant something, right? Was Jeff Goldblum meant to be contrasted with Odin? Was this system of injustice that Thor witnessed supposed to be the reason why he summoned the destruction of Asgard in the end, and the writers simply never felt the need to explicate this in any way?

I can’t get there. Even the very minor twist of “Loki almost betrayed Thor at the end of the Sakaar sequence, but then comes back and saves Asgard” did not need to be rooted in this setting, nor was it even particularly necessary to the overall story or relationship of the brothers. Thor caught onto Loki at the beginning of the movie when he called him out as fake!Odin—we can see he already learned from Dark World. Loki is the God of Mischief, but that doesn’t mean his usage should be God of False Narrative Conflict In A Desperate Attempt To Inject Last Minute Tension. Because that’s a mouth full.

Maybe it’s my own problem that I was waiting to get back to the plot of the movie during every Sakaar scene instead of realizing this is the plot now. It’s just that normally when movies have a lengthy and pointless side-mission, especially one that cannibalizes this percentage of the runtime, they’re not viewed particularly favorably.

But hey, at least Thor wasn’t learning about systemic injustice and the strength of compassion on a casino planet that tied immaculately into the thematic thrust; that would have ruined everything.

Character Arrested Development

I couldn’t help myself with The Last Jedi fandom dialogue shade. But I do think that’s actually somewhat relevant here. Because I don’t really care that ~not enough happened~ overall or that Finn and Rose had a “pointless” (it was really more fruitless, and that was the point) side-mission. What I cared about was that what happened on our screen worked together towards a meaning, and that characters grew as a result of them. The Last Jedi may not have thought through implications perfectly, or executed things in as refreshing or satisfying a way as possible, but it’s exceedingly hard to argue anything was ancillary given how every single damned character had pretty tight and clear growth.

Thor: Ragnarok had barely anything.

If I could be really generous with Thor himself, he accepted the leadership of Asgard in a way he rejected it from the first movie. But also, his dad’s dead, so necessity makes for strange kings, you know? There’s also nothing that occurs within this movie that particularly leads to him wanting to take on that mantle. At best, it’s that he learns his power isn’t derived from his hammer, but controlled through it, though he learns that through Divine Daddy Almost-Death Vision. So he kind of starts off thinking he’s this awesome lightning god, and ends the movie thinking the same thing, but for slightly different reasons and with means that might look different in a fight.

I mean, I guess leveling up is technically character growth…

There’s also Thor abandoning Asgard, but nothing to indicate it has anything to do with him being upset about Odin’s imperialist rule. If that was meant to be the framing, there’s just nothing that occurs onscreen to back it up. Loki complains that Hela is growing stronger every minute she’s in Asgard and Thor repeats Divine Daddy Vision point #2 as justification. Hell, when Hela and Thor meet for their final fight, Thor quotes Odin while sitting on his throne.

It should be noted that Divine Daddy Vision was the final push Thor needs to overcome the antagonist.

Odin (still in Norway, or King’s Cross Station, or something): Asgard is not a place. Never was. This could be Asgard. Asgard is where our people stand. Even now, right now, those people need your help.

Thor: I’m not as strong as you.

Odin: No… You’re stronger.

Does Thor seem like someone who’s having trouble reconciling his father’s legacy, or is it someone who’s still taking advice from the guy, but oh yeah that murdery spree he went on a while ago was unfortunate? And again, what Thor says about Asgard’s destruction has diddly squat to do with its legacy:

“Surtur destroys Asgard, he destroys Hela, so that our people may live. But we need to let him finish the job…”

I had to look up what the prophecy specifically was, since it was told to us by Surtur (the demon) in a very jokey early sequence that Thor didn’t even bother taking seriously, so why were we supposed to have? It’s just that Surtur will lay waste to Thor’s home. No motivation or anything.

My point is, Thor doesn’t really come to any realization about himself, or Asgard, or even Odin. He learns things, he likes Odin’s pithy governance lesson, but he doesn’t contextualize anything for himself or really grow because of it. He just figures out battle odds and gets a haircut. That’s his arc.

There’s the vague character growth that Thor doesn’t let Loki trick him again, again, again, so I can give him that. I don’t believe this is the context it needed to happen in, or that Thor’s way of exposing Loki at the start would have been too little to that thread, but okay. That continued.

Meanwhile, Loki has absolutely become the Game of Thrones Littlefinger of this universe. He instills chaos in his own plans for chaos’s sake (that is his thing), and how convenient that it lines up to plot demands. Thor kind of calls out this character stagnation to him, ironically ignoring his own:

“Oh, dear brother, you’re becoming predictable. I trust you, you betray me. Round and round in circles we go. See, Loki, life is about… It’s about growth. It’s about change. But you seem to just wanna stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief, but you could be more.”

So I guess it’s a sign of growth that Loki does go back and try to save Asgard with Thor. Even in the very end, Thor mentions how he believes Loki’s presence to be a trick, but Loki is actually there, physically. Maybe he’s…“not so bad.”

Hero shot!

It’s just, this guy’s scripting has been all over the place, and there’s no particular reason to believe his decision is the sign of any lasting change. He teamed up with the prisoners to get out of Sakaar in what’s most easily read as self-preservation, and even when he returned to Asgard, he was calling himself the “savior” and trying to milk his contribution. Maybe, just maybe Loki grew in this movie for the sole reason that he got sad when Thor called him the “God of Mischief.” Because that’s all that would have spurred this. Not the stakes of the situation, not Loki’s own guilt over Odin’s death, and not even Loki wishing he could rectify his poor public image on Asgard. Just, his brother is very disappointed in him.

Yeah, that could be an arc. Though I can’t call it one that’s particularly well-done.

The one that is executed best is probably Valkyrie’s. She’s hiding from her past, clearly both traumatized and guilty over how the fight with Hela turned out. It’s strongly implied someone took a mortal wound for her (no clue how she got away herself), and she’s now got this despicable job where she’s miserable and drinking herself into a stupor. Thor himself showing up clearly affects her and makes her squirm, but it’s not until Loki forces her to relive that trauma that she has a full change of heart.

“Look, I’ve spent years in a haze, trying to forget my past. Sakaar seemed like the best place to drink and forget, and to die one day.

…But I don’t wanna forget. I can’t turn away anymore, so if I’m gonna die, well, it may as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag.”

This tracks just fine. Loki’s memory home video powers are convenient, but definitely within the framework, and it makes sense that thinking back to that could instill some sense of duty, or passion in her, especially given that Thor is literally trying to get back to Asgard to save it.

The only issue with this is that it’s completely disconnected from the thematic thrust. This was actually pointed out to me as an anonymous message on social media (I may have been ranting), but doesn’t her arc do the opposite of what this movie purports to do with Asgard and its legacy? She’s been a slaver for years, which isn’t even given the space to be hand-waved—it’s just not addressed. Then she gets all back in touch with being a Valkyrie, and re-donning that great Asgardian armor, and having a resurgence of love for her home where she can talk about how much she hates the prophecy about its destruction and everything.

This is fine in its own right, but didn’t we just find out Asgard has been an imperialist superpower? It’s good that someone with clear PTSD is trying to sort through her trauma and reclaim a sense of identity that she’s tried to dismiss for years, but it simply doesn’t fit with what we learned about Odin, which is what calls forth this entire conflict. If it were some more abstract external threat to Asgard, then sure a kind of “I’ll fight until it’s rubble” attitude would have some impact. But Asgard was built on a whole lot of blood and Odin was an active revisionist who covered up artwork depicting that. It’s an odd choice for her, let’s just leave it at that.

I’m trying to think if anyone else grew through the course of this movie. Heimdall stays as prescient and morally upright as ever. Bruce Banner gets de-Hulked, which is important to the MCU I’m sure, but it’s via a recording of someone not in this film, based on a relationship not in this film, so it’s kind of hard to argue there’s an arc here. It’s more that we learn how the Hulk is comfortable spending his free time. And truthfully without having seen Civil War, I can’t tell you whether his sacrificing of Banner to free the Hulk at the end was character growth, or just situational necessity again.

I guess Skurge has a character arc. He goes from being self-preservationist to finally hitting a breaking point with Hela and sacrificing himself for Asgard. Frankly he’s a delight any time he’s on the screen, so even though it’s admittedly thin and formulaic, I’ll give that all the points.

Really, what my main issue comes down to is that it’s blindingly obvious what character these stakes should have instilled growth in, and that’s Odin. Except he’s dead, so he never has to reconcile with anything. Hela has no relationship to Thor or Loki (she doesn’t even know about them), but she does to Odin, and frankly as the dude that imprisoned her, he’s kind of the one that should be going face-to-face in some capacity. What makes a family drama compelling is the fact that the family has a history together, after all.

Now, in Black Panther it was T’Chaka’s crappy decision that sort of “created” Killmonger, a decision that T’Challa hates and feels is wrong at his core, and cannot rest until it is righted. So it was the protagonist’s father’s actions that created the situation with a family member he didn’t know at all. It worked in that movie, so why not here?

Well, probably because Thor didn’t really react to learning that Odin had conquered the other realms. So it just made an already emptyish dynamic between Hela and Thor feel even weaker, since the one thin thread that connected them—Odin and their feelings about him—were only half-explored. Hela felt rejected by Odin and pissed off about that, while Thor felt…not as powerful as him? Happy to quote him?

Maybe I’d have fewer issues if Odin hadn’t just been like, “I’m in Norway now, so that means I’m dying. Bye and have fun with your sister you never knew about!” It’s just that his death was so unceremonious, that the mess of his damn making felt out of the blue and sort of incidental. Then, we cut back and forth from the Goddess of Death taking over Asgard to Thor trying to ignore how big the Hulk’s penis is. Seriously.

And that brings us to our final problem.

That’s not how jokes work

Humor is subjective. Napoleon Dynamite is so hideously unfunny to me that it used to make me angry.

I will say right now that I don’t know if it was the plane flight, I don’t know if it was my mood, or I don’t know if it’s the underlying type of comedy here, but I did not once crack a smile at Jeff Goldblum in this movie. I’ve liked him as a comedian before, and I’m sure I will again. I did not like him here.

I also did not enjoy Valkyrie’s played-for-laughs alcoholism. That trope is pretty grating to me at this point, and even though they kind of painted it as tragic, they also…didn’t. She was quirky and fun because she could down a bottle before Thor finished talking, and when Thor actually suggested drinking heavily might be bad for her, we were supposed to laugh at her telling him she wasn’t going to stop. It’s nothing against Tessa Thompson’s performance, who frankly stole every scene she was in. But that’s just how I reacted to the character.

I did massively like Taika Waititi as Korg, Karl Urban’s Skurge was wonderful (especially opposite to Kate Blanchett chewing the scenery), and there were times that Thor and the Hulk’s back and forths were amusing. So it’s not like I found nothing funny here. But to be sure, a lot of the comedic thrust didn’t land for me, and if it had, maybe I’d have a very different reaction to this film.

That said, the humor of this movie is really the best praise I hear about it. I’m just not entirely sure why that’s a good thing. I’m all for a boisterous, fun Thor romp, but if that’s what this was supposed to be, then why the hell even introduce Odin’s imperialism in it? Why have Thor’s best friends murdered here?

Levity can be powerful in dramas. There were jokes in Black Panther, not to beat this already dead horse, but it didn’t make for a full tonal clash. When M’Baku said his people are vegetarian, it was a great way to cut the tension of the moment and further characterize him. However, we never cut back and forth from Killmonger murdering Andy Serkis to T’Challa doing something ~wacky~. The more jovial scenes, like Shuri’s lab, were before the plot really picked up, and the humor that took place during serious scenes (the car chase, for instance) was sparing.

The stakes of Thor: Ragnarok are literally the destruction of the world. And also the destruction of Asgard’s connection to the other realms. The central conflict is born out of an imperfect, revisionist colonist ruler who is the protagonist’s dad. How are we supposed to be treating this with any kind of seriousness when the own narrative can’t even manage to give as much focus on Asgardians fleeing to their Helm’s Deep as it does to Thor’s haircut?

All the humor (or attempted humor in my case) managed to do was heavily undercut the dramatic tension. Even if I had been in stitches during Sakaar, it wouldn’t have helped me get more engaged with the central conflict. It just might have made my flight go faster. And if the central conflict was not as interesting to the writers as the jokes, then fine, maybe this isn’t the movie for that. But for god’s sake, don’t float that giant imperialism matzo ball if you’re not going to be able to actually do anything with it. Was it just there for color? Odin’s not perfect, ya know…now here’s the Hulk!

Stuff Happens, Don’t Question It!

It’s no secret if you’ve read any of my previous articles that I’m not the best at enjoying fun, colorful action sequences for the sake of fun, colorful action sequences. That is, unless I know it is pure silliness, like with Thor: Dark World. It’s ironic enjoyment, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less real. If I had gone in with that attitude for Thor: Ragnarok, I think I would have liked the ride.

But frankly, that’s not the attitude anyone seems to be holding about this movie. Maybe it was the counterweight to Civil War that the MCU needed, maybe if I had watched it before Black Panther I’d have a more favorable view…maybe it’s that elevated an experience in theaters. For me, I can only see two half-completed scripts stitched together, resulting in a whole that’s weaker than the sum of its parts. It’s fine to celebrate it as a joyous romp for those that felt joy and romped, but I can’t call it a good movie. A good viewing experience maybe, but not a good narrative.

In other words, it’s a Thor movie. Wow. I guess maybe my expectations had been too high.


Images courtesy of Marvel

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Analysis

Fandom Meme Disease, and What Should We Do With It?

Angelina

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A fandom meme disease is this thing that happens when creators absorb fandom-born memes and integrate them into their work.

(And so, first things first: sorry that for the duration of this article I’ll use “meme” as if this were a legit term.  It is controversial to say the least, but it is shorter to say “meme” than “any idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”.)

I’m not implying that the creators who do this are somehow bad, or that fandom is somehow bad. Moreover, I don’t believe that fandom-creator interaction is bad. What is bad, then? Let me explain how I see it.

Fandom Meme Creation

Any given fandom is, in my opinion, born when some people contact any given media and start using it as a source of inspiration. Not just a purely artistic inspiration; people may be inspired to write meta-analysis, or to engage in discussions, or to wage a flame war against opponents. All this is normal human reaction on something inspirational. Even flame wars are somewhat natural (still wicked, though; human nature can be wicked, too).

And while acting on their inspiration, people deconstruct the original source and use its metaphorical bricks to build their own work, be it a meta, a fic or an art. The result may be perfectly in line with the original, but usually it is not. It resembles the original, that’s true—but as it went through processing in one’s creative imagination it came out a bit different. Thus, fandom meme is born.

There are millions of those floating on the Internet’s vast expanses. Some of them are soon forgotten even by those who first gave life to them. Some are more resilient than others, so they spread and multiply their kind. Those memes become known as fanon. Other fandom memes stay in this gray area between a headcanon and “this weird idea I share with some friends”. Still, all those are memes.

But I digress.

 How The Internet Changed Things

Nowadays the creators have a unique opportunity to exchange views with the fandom. Not that it was not possible before; the letters existed, the fanmail was a really important thing, and the conventions started long before the advent of Internet, but still the scale was different.
What’s more important, the speed was different.
Back then the creator had to wait for quite a time to get a sufficient amount of feedback from, well, fandom. Now a minute past the release there is a ton of articles, metas, fanart, fanfiction—etc. There is fanart and fanfiction about characters who are announced only/had a brief screen moment in trailers or even teasers. There are metas about them, too!

And all this is actually great. But any great thing has a flip side.

In this case, it is this little fact that on average, an interested person is much more exposed to fandom memes than to canon memes. Because the original version is a meme, too—but a meme that is spread and multiplied on much lower rate than fandom memes are. And the thing with memes is, more exposure usually means more absorption.

The sad truth is, creators are interested persons, too.

When Creators Absorb Fandom Memes

Basically what happens is, being constantly exposed to very bustling fandom life, the creators not only have an influence on it, but are influenced by it. This influence may be different.

While there are certainly those who treat fandom memes as a discussion point only, they are not the only ones. Some creators consciously decide to follow a fanon as a means of pandering to their fandom. Other creators use their work to basically say “your fanon is wrong, don’t follow it”. And then there are some creators who genuinely absorb the meme and spread it in good faith. The latter thing is especially typical for multi-author franchises.

Thus it happens that when a next installment is out, it suffers from fandom meme disease.

What Is Not a Fandom Meme Disease?

  • FlanderizationIt shares one notable similarity with fandom meme disease—namely the fact that a character or event becomes increasingly simplified and defined by their/its most obvious trait, and it happens as the franchise or series progresses. But the difference is that the fandom has no part in this creative decision, just some lazy writing. FMD is not a sign of deterioration—it can happen with something that is otherwise pretty good and very much alive and thriving—while Flanderization is usually a red flag signalling that this media is dying.
  • Retcon. It is, again, very similar to FMD in effect (something or someone is no more the one it once was) and timing (also occurs with some new installment), but the key difference is, retcon acknowledges that something has in fact changed, it just asks us to pretend it hasn’t. FMD doesn’t acknowledge any change and acts as if things were always this way.
  • Any other case of real or perceived OOC. It can be a case of fandom meme disease only if the sudden shift in the original is consistent with the fanon or directly opposes it, but contradicts the earlier version.

Notable Victims

fandom meme disease

Not pictired: a badass warrior who overthrew a whole patriarchal system to learn how to fight

Yeah. I really hate what the otherwise pretty good Legend of Korra did with Katara. A decent half of her personality suddenly disappeared in the thin air, leaving us with the fanon Mommy Healer Katara whose only life goal is to care for her child-husband Aang and bear children for him. Sure, that was a widespread enough idea (and pretty sexist, too), but did the creators forget that they themselves wrote her as very proactive and never content with staying away from action?

Not pictured: a traumatised child-soldier, deeply anxious about her underperformance in all things “feminine”, haunted by things she had to do yet always caring and empathetic towards others

I had a tough time picking a poster person for the very…peculiar way in which Game of Thrones treats George R. R. Martin’s characters. The problem is, only some of them suffer from FMD; others are rewritten to fit into D&D’s own narrative.

The thing with Arya (and Sansa; and Sandor) is that sometimes it is not hard to point directly towards those fan discussions that were a basis for the creative decisions turning the original character into something very, very different.

If I could pick an event to illustrate the FMD…Game of Thrones would never disappoint! Do you remember that Robert’s Rebellion was built on lies? That’s the most blatant case of FMD I’ve ever met. It is ripped from fanfiction and wishful-thinking style metas and even the idea that Robert’s Rebellion is all about Rhaegar and Lyanna is pure fandom meme!

fandom meme disease

Not pictured: a tormented soul, devoid of all emotion due to being consumed by Dark Side, a sorry creature that is ever a puppet of his masters

See, this one is tricky. FMD mostly tortured Vader back in the old EU, but I think Kieron Gillen’s comics are not free from its fair share of Over Powerful Unstoppable Cool Awesome Guy Vader We All Adore. He has his good moments when he actually catches the other part of being a Sith, but mostly it is right here. This Vader is really cool, he is fun to watch, he is wisecracking, he is never truly challenged and never has to doubt himself. He beat the ancient dark Jedi without breaking a sweat, for good’s sake. That’s really too much.

The ultimate Manly Man of the franchise—though of course Rogue One gave us an even more blatant example of purest fanon possible on big screen.

And There Are More

I didn’t want to use Hermione Granger from Cursed Child because it may cause misunderstanding, but what about the movies? What about Princess Leia and her sorry fate throughout the old EU? What about loads of characters I don’t know, but you certainly do?

And what about sexism that is suspiciously ever present in any case of fandom meme disease?

Girls and women are pigeonholed by their tomboyish/feminine attitude, with tomboys stripped off all feminine traits, while girly girls devoid of all courage, right to be angry and right to be rational, as those things are associated with masculinity.

All the while “cool” male characters are carefully stripped off any sign of human nature, emotion or just simply weakness. Tell me it happens by pure chance.

So… What Can We Do?

We can talk about it. Raise awareness. Point out the bad tendency of sexist fanons to creep on big screen and on book and comic book pages.

If this exists, it can be beaten, after all.


Images courtesy of HBO, Viacom, Disney

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Gaming

Keeping Kosher In Monster Hunter World

David

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Monster Hunter World is the best selling game in its series, with over 7.5 million units shipped. There are many reasons for this: The game is more accessible for new players, it’s not just on a handheld console anymore, there was actually some marketing push for this game…the list goes on.

However, I personally think one of the reasons the game is so popular is its food eating cutscenes. Before you go on a hunt, you can eat a meal at a canteen that gives you buffs. You’re also treated to an adorable and very tasty looking cutscene of the Palicoes (a cat like race that helps you hunt monsters) making your meal. The details are so lavish and the end product looks so good I couldn’t help thinking about it off and on for weeks. And one question that kept recurring was, “Would any of this food be Kosher?”

Kosher foods, for those of you who may not know, are foods that conform to the Jewish kashrut (dietary law). The word treif describes any food that does not abide by this law. Determining what foods are Kosher or not can get complicated since different groups of animals have different rules. At its most basic though, there are three groups of animals: land, flying, and fish (invertebrates as a rule are treif). Conveniently enough, most monsters in Monster Hunter World could fit under the same categories. We’ll go through each category and examine a few monsters from the game to decide if any (or all) of them can be Kosher.

Before we begin though, I’d like to give major props to one of our editors, Gretchen. Before I wrote this article, I knew next to nothing about what makes a food Kosher or not. Gretchen not only educated me, but did a lot of the heavy lifting, and for that I am grateful.

By Land

The first monster up for discussion is called Uragaan. Uragaan lives mostly in volcanic regions and is identifiable its large chin, its shiny, lustrous golden hide, and the spikes along its back. It consumes mostly bedrock and those large spikes on its back are actually crystals. It produces a sticky, tar like substance on its stomach, which it uses to attach explosive rocks to itself as a means of defense. If someone were to knock down or kill Uragaan, they’d be able to mine the vast mineral wealth on it’s back…but they wouldn’t be able to eat it, as Uragaan isn’t Kosher.

Not Kosher

In order for a land animal to be Kosher, it has to meet three basic requirements. First, it can not be a carnivore or a scavenger. It can not eat meat. Second, it must have a split hoof. Horses aren’t Kosher, but animals like cattle and sheep are. Finally, the animal must chew its cud. Pigs have split hooves, but they don’t chew their cud and thus are not Kosher. Uragaan meets the first rule, but fails with the second and third. As such, Uragaan can never be Kosher.

The next monster up is Kirin. Kirin resembles a unicorn or (more accurately) a Chinese Qilin. It has a single large horn growing out of its head, with a white mane and tail that seem to stand on end from static electricity. It’s body appears to have fur, but those actually are scales. Kirin also seems to crackle with electricity as it walks. Looking at the picture we can see clearly that it has a split hoof. The game doesn’t tell us what it eats or if it chews its cud, but if we extrapolate what it looks like and compare to say, an antelope or a deer (both of which are Kosher) we can safely assume that Kirin is Kosher as well, right? Wrong.

Also Not Kosher

Kirin fails to be Kosher not by the quality of the animal, but by the quality of its behavior. You see, Kirin belongs to a group of monsters called Elder Dragons and these monsters, in addition to being tougher the ordinary monsters, are immune to traps and tranqs unlike other monsters. This presents a problem, as in order for meat be Kosher, the butchering must happen in one swift action using a sharp knife. Shooting the creature with an automatic repeating crossbow is not the way to do it. Kirin, unfortunately, is not Kosher for this reason.

We come now to the last land based monster in this article: The Kelbi. Kelbi, unlike the monsters mentioned thus far, are not aggressive. They are small, and the males are usually green in color while the females and juveniles are blue. Males also have large, prominent horns while female horns are smaller. In-game, Kelbi horns are medicinal, and players make potions out of them. I’m also happy to report that Kelbi might be our first (possibly) Kosher monster.

Kosher! (maybe)

Like Kirin, Kelbi has a split hoof. We also know that Kelbi are herbivores, but it is unknown whether or not Kelbi chew their cud. Extrapolating and comparing them to real world deer and goats though, we can have more confidence that Kelbi are, in fact, Kosher.

By Air

Now we will discuss birds. According to Jewish tradition, animals that fly and are not insects are birds. Thus animals such as bats are ‘birds’ in regards to Kosher rules. The rules for birds themselves are fairly simple. They can’t be predatory or scavengers. This rule immediately rules out the next monster on the list: Rathalos.

Not Kosher

Rathalos is known as the “King of the Sky” and is the male counterpart to Rathian, another flying monster.  Rathalos are bipedal wyverns, primarily red in color, with sharp, poisonous claws that they use to hunt with. In addition to that, they have a flame sac that they use to produce flaming projectiles from, and their long thick tail has a club at the end of it. But as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, no birds of prey can be Kosher.

The next monster on the list is one of the oddest in the game. Pukei-Pukei resembles at first glance a giant chameleon with frog like eyes, wings, and green scales covering its body everywhere except around its wings and neck, where it has feathers. The Pukei-Pukei is an herbivore and it will eat poisonous plants so it can produce a poison to defend itself. Despite all of these peculiar traits, Pukei-Pukei appears to be Kosher.

Kosher! (Surprisingly!)

I was surprised to hear Gretchen tell me this, as I thought there would be no way a monster as weird as Pukei-Pukei could be considered Kosher. But as she laid the case out it began to make more sense. Despite some reptilian traits, Pukei-Pukei has more avian traits, and that classifies it as a creature of the air under the kashrut. As a creature of the air, it has to meat a few specifications. It does not scavenge like a vulture, nor does it hunt like a bird of prey. Thus, Pukei-Pukei meets the requirements.

And By Sea

There aren’t very many sea monsters in Monster Hunter World sadly. Only one of them really seems like it would count. And this one is Jyuratodus. Jyuratodus resembles nothing more than a bipedal coelacanth fish. It has two dorsal fins, two pectoral fins, two pelvic fins, and a long, thick tail that it can use to defend itself. It also covers itself in mud and other ooze, to act as another layer of defense and to possibly keep its gills and scales damp. Fortunately for us, practically the only water based monster in this game is also Kosher.

Kosher, and think of all the sushi.

For a sea animal to be considered Kosher, it must have fins and scales that can be removed. This generally means that the stereotypical fish is allowed, but not animals such as eel, lobster, squid or crab. Jyuratodus, despite its size and aggression does have fins and scales and would be Kosher.

The Hunt Goes On…

So what are we left with from this list? Two monsters that could be considered Kosher, three that are not, and one that might be, if it chews cud. And this is only a small sample of the monsters in the game. Not only that, but Capcom has plans to release more monsters as free DLC over the upcoming months. When the PC version of the game is out, I might revisit this article and expand on it. Until then though, happy hunting and bon appétit!


Images Courtesy of Capcom

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