9 Reasons Avengers: Age of Ultron Smashes Avengers

AvengersA movie as big as Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t be adequately recapped in a single, puny post! This first post in a 3-part series will look at why I think Age of Ultron is better than the first Avengers. The second post will discuss why Avengers is still the king. And in the last post, I’ll rank Avengers: Age of Ultron alongside the rest of the MCU films.

It goes without saying that the following will be infested with spoilers.

These are in no particular order. Let’s get to it.

1. That First Act

Age of Ultron’s first act is just about perfect. I love how it starts in media res (e.g. in the middle of things), with the Avengers already assembled. The Avengers have been systematically shutting down Hydra bases, and now they’ve come to the last one. It’s a neat way of indicating that they have been assembling for some time, outside the bounds of the movies, and in that way, the world feels more real and lived-in. And it’s a rather symbolic closing of the door on old antagonists. This movie is about new and greater threats.

Hydra never has a chance. When asked about stopping the attack, one of Hydra’s bosses even says, somewhat incredulously: “It’s the Avengers.” The scene firmly reestablishes that the Avengers are truly Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The team has grown stronger and tighter since the end of the first Avengers film. It’s almost unfathomable how any force could stand against them. Story-wise, the bar has been set pretty damn high for Ultron.

Iron ManAs a spectacle, this scene fires on all cylinders. Each character gets their chance to shine, though in my opinion Captain America takes the cake with that motorcycle throw (more on the general awesomeness of Captain America later).

After the dust settles, we return to Avengers tower for a proper revel. And as much as I loved that first action scene, this quiet follow-up might be my favorite scene of the entire movie. Seeing the Avengers let down their hair and unwind with a few drinks feels almost voyeuristic. We’re getting the rare glimpse of these heroes just being people. And there are so many hilarious moments! Stark and Thor comparing girlfriends; Rhodey failing to impress the Avengers with his story, then killing it with the ‘normals'; and, of course, the team trying to lift Thor’s hammer: the look on Thor’s face when Cap budges the hammer, and the relieved laugh when Cap gives up.

Ultron emerges, stumbling in from the dark, literally cobbled together from scrap parts. Despite his dilapidated appearance, there is real menace in his shuffling, stooped posture. All at once, the air goes screaming out of the balloon: the party is over. Ultron’s introduction puts a bow on the movie’s perfect first act.

2. The Laughs

The Marvel movies have always had a rich, gooey ribbon of comedy running through them. Until Age of Ultron, the first Avengers movie was the funniest, primarily on the strength of Hulk’s sucker punch of Thor and his later mishandling of Loki. They are funny scenes even now, but they seem woefully insubstantial next to the laughs Avengers 2 dishes up.

Laughs pop-up with such regularity and in the most unexpected places that I’m positive I missed jokes the first time. Ultron is funny too, which makes sense given Tony is essentially his father. But the real surprise is the comedic stylings of Thor. Chris Hemsworth steals scenes with a single look, to the point that my eyes were drawn to Thor any time he was on screen.

There’s really no two ways about it: Avengers 2 is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s far funnier than it’s predecessor.

3. James Spader as Ultron

James Spader was an inspired choice to play Ultron. His voice exudes a sense of superiority and menace that is just perfect. I loved him on The Office as Robert California: his scenes always felt charged with an uncomfortable sort of energy, like he existed on a higher plane of existence from the other characters and he exposed their inadequacies by merely being around them.

Ultron

Spader humanizes Ultron. The confusion and rage in the scene with the weapons dealer is so real, so human, that you can’t help but almost pity Ultron to some degree.

Make no mistake, Loki is still Marvel’s premier villain. But for bat-shit craziness and the threat he poses all on his own, without an extraterrestrial army backing his play, Ultron is a force to be reckoned with.

4. Hawkeye

It should be said: I am not much of a Hawkeye fan. He’s a soldier who for some crazy reason uses a bow and arrow, which really strains any sense of credibility: in what modern military outfit would that really happen? Not to mention, the guy has no business hanging with these guys, super soldiers and mech-suited billionaires and demi-gods. I was totally fine when Hawkeye went on loaner as Loki’s lickspittle last time around. Even after recovering from Loki’s mind games, Hawkeye possessed all the emotion of a doorknob. He just was not that interesting.

But Joss Whedon won me over to Hawkeye’s side this time, and probably not for the reason you think. I came to love Hawkeye because he was funny. The injection of humor humanized him and gave him a personality. And his sarcasm brought a sense of normalcy to the ensuing craziness (most notably with his fourth-dimension-shattering heart-to-heart with the Scarlet Witch). Hawkeye has always been quick with his bow, but this time around he’s even faster with the quips. And it was so great how he kept the Scarlet Witch out of his head!

Coming into the movie, I was convinced someone would die and thought it would be Hawkeye, and I was cool with that. But a strange thing happened: with signs increasingly suggesting Hawkeye wasn’t long for this world, I started dreading his death. I’d come to like the character and didn’t want him to go.

I do still think it’s a bit ridiculous that he survived Ultron’s hordes, but I’m not disappointed that he did.

5. Hulkbuster (aka Veronica)

HulkbusterSo, yeah. Iron Man and the Hulk throw down and it is glorious. I love that the suit is deployed via satellite and remains a kind of floating supply depot to replace parts eventually wrecked by the Hulk. It shows a level of planning on Stark’s part that is both smart and cool, but also kind of chilling: he and Banner are buds, but he has this panic button he can hit if his pal greens-out? How does Banner feel about this? Did he know about Veronica?

The fight itself is incredibly well done, with both heroes getting their shots in. What’s especially cool is Iron Man’s approach. There’s just no way he’s winning that fight, and he knows it. His focus is to give the Hulk a nice shiny target to entice him away from the civilians. Then he’s just hanging on, buying time.

I really hope there will be some kind fall-out from all the destruction they visited on the city, maybe something that pays-off during Civil War.

6. Black Widow

I’ve loved Black Widow from the start, especially Whedon’s take on her. Unlike Hawkeye, it somehow doesn’t matter that she is a ‘normal’. She’s a smart, tough character, fully capable on her own, and she doesn’t get upstaged by the other characters. During Cap’s fight with Ultron, I was seriously pumped when Widow dropped out of the jet on her bike to come help out.

I know some have complained, but I didn’t have any issue with the Banner/Widow romance. It felt real to me, and was a nice contrast to their relationship from last time, when she was deathly scared of the Hulk. I don’t know if it’s the Beauty & Beast motif, but the scenes where she soothes the Hulk and gets him to revert back to Banner were emotionally powerful. There’s a nice little reversal when she makes him Hulk-out at the end, but its also a betrayal of his trust. On some level, he’ll always be the big green guy to her, and he knows it. That realization, as much as anything else, dooms the relationship.

My favorite Widow moment though was the peek into how she came to be the Black Widow. To this point, we’ve been left to wonder about her backstory with only the faintest clues to go on. But here, for the first time, the curtain is pulled back and we get her origin story. It’s powerful and sad, and it completely informs the present day character.

My only real disappointment: I’m still bummed we aren’t getting a standalone Black Widow film. :(

7. Captain America Kicks Butt

There is an interesting, evolutionary sort of thing happening with Captain America. Each movie, he increasingly becomes more awesome. I don’t know how else to say it. In First Avenger, his initial solo flick, Captain America isn’t all that super, honestly. Yes, he’s obviously strong, and he has the shield, but there were never any real moments of impressive physicality. This carried over into the first Avengers movie. Next to Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man, Captain America was just sort of average.

The tide changed with the Winter Soldier. Between the initial boat scene and that amazing elevator fight, we finally see Captain America as a physical beast. Avengers 2 keeps this momentum going and even further ups the ante. The motorcycle-throw is an early standout, but seeing Cap go mano a mano with Ultron and completely hold his own? Yes, please. Probably not coincidentally, that truck chase / Ultron vs Cap fight was my favorite action scene. Very tense!

Captain America

Iron Man still feels like the overall star of the show, but Captain America has seriously narrowed the gap. In the first Avengers movie, it felt like the team followed his lead because he was Captain America and he’s supposed to lead the Avengers. Now it feels natural, something he’s earned.

8. Banner and the Hulk

There is a scene midway through the movie that continues to haunt me even a week later. It’s when the Avengers confront Ultron in Africa. Things quickly escalate, and we cut to Banner in the jet, asking if it’s a code green (love that, btw) and getting no response. And then he emerges from the jet to find the twins waiting. It’s just a quick shot but he seems so vulnerable and alone at that moment. It’s almost heart-wrenching.

Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Banner is so nuanced that his body language speaks as loudly as his words. Even the Hulk’s facial expressions are powerful: the dawning realization as he awakes from Scarlet Witch’s mind-trip and sees what he hath wrought; the sadness as he hangs-up on Black Widow and settles in for the long, lonely flight.

In the first Avengers flick, the Hulk was mostly a giant rage monster. What makes the Hulk so interesting is not the monster itself but the tortured man underneath all that green, and Age of Ultron does a great job of giving us a glimpse.

9. The End Game

Initiating an extinction level event by dropping a city from the sky? That is a really cool idea, and much more interesting than invasion by a group of faceless aliens. It also presents an arresting tableau upon which the final matter could be decided.

Alas, the climax didn’t quite rise to the level of the spectacle itself, but you’ll have to tune in to part 2 for reasons why.

Continued in Part 2

What did you like about Avengers: Age of Ultron? Comment and let me know! And come back in a few days to find out why Avengers is the Mightiest of the Two Films.

Posted in movies Tagged with:

Five Campaign Lessons from the Hobbit Films

My article for the new D&D magazine EN5IDER is up as a free sample to entice lovers of dungeons, dragons, hobbits, and roleplaying. Have a look, would you kindly? Did I mention it’s FREE?

(It’s a link, click for the rest)
Patreon article

Posted in tabletop rpg, writing

The Sound of Silence

I recently updated to WordPress 4.1. Or, rather, I tried to update. WordPress choked midway into the process, face purpling and clawing at its own throat. Parametics were late to arrive on the scene, leaving my site without a discernable pulse and capable of serving nothing but 404 errors all the livelong day.

This past weekend I was finally able to rub a few hours together and from that friction, viola, I managed to breathe life back into my site. It’s a bit monsterous at the moment, misshapen and grouchy. But there is brain activity once again.

I will probably be updating the theme at some point in the near future. An adventure for another day.

Posted in life

New Words Coming Soon

A few RPG-related writings of mine will soon be out in the wild!

First, my story ‘The Forgotten’ will be featured in the upcoming Pathfinder Chronicler anthology. I wrote the story back in 2011 for a Pathfinder fiction contest, placing 2nd. The book will feature horror and mythic stores set in the world of Golarion. It will be out in time for PaizoCon 2015, and shortly thereafter as a PDF on the Paizo store. Check-out the amazing cover (click for full-size)!

Pathfinder Anthology Volume IV cover

I also have an article appearing in the new D&D 5th edition magazine EN5IDER. The article takes five lessons from the Hobbit films (good and bad) and gives examples of how you can apply them to your own RPG campaign. I’ll post again when the first issue goes up. Here’s a peek at the magazine. The second screenshot, the one with the awesome dragon art, is my article! 😀

Posted in writing

My Favorite Movies of 2014

The last entry in my series looking back at my favorite stuff from 2014… I’ve tackled books and video games, and today is movies!

Biggest Disappointments

Before we dive into the stuff I loved, let me spill some pixels on the stuff that left me a bit cold.

Spider-Man 2

I probably should’ve seen this coming. I like Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man – he fits the wise-cracking side of the web-slinger better than Tobey McGuire ever did – but the movie on the whole is a turd. There are too many plots and here we go again with 3 villains (really, why did they need to bother bringing in the Rhino?). Spider-Man was my favorite superhero growing up but I can’t really say that any more, and movies like this are a big reason why. Not Spidey’s fault, but his fingerprints are on the knife.

Mockingjay: Part 1

After the action-laced previews, I expected something a bit more… actiony. What we get instead is all setup. Yeah, this is Part 1, but Harry Potter 7A did a much better job. We spend the bulk of this movie watching Katniss make a commercial. It’s all propaganda and counter-propaganda, literally he-said versus she-said. And that’s all fine and interesting, but I was expected something else. Nowhere close to the quality of Catching Fire.

22 Jump Street

I kinda expected this wouldn’t be more then the customary cash-in sequel, but even so, the freshness and fun of 21 Jump Street had me hoping for more. Not awful, but not that funny, which is fairly damning praise for a comedy.

The Hobbits (yes, all of them)

The-HobbitPeter Jackson, what have you done to my precious? You took a wonderful book and bloated it with ancillary material and crap you straight made-up, all in the name of stretching the thin novel into 3 long movies because money. Worst of all, you took a big dump on the redemption of Thorin by watering it down into a dwarfo-a-orco battle with meaningless stakes.

One thing that can be said: Jackson still knows how to shoot a battle scene. Too bad we don’t care about the principles, or why they’re there (aside from Bilbo, thanks Martin Freeman!). There are some stellar, soaring scenes in these movies (riddles in the dark, Smaug, the dwarves singing The Misty Mountains Cold), but they are weighted down with all this excess baggage. Looking forward to buying the trilogy and recutting it into the 3-hour movie it should’ve been in the first place, absent Legolas, forbidden dwarf-on-elf love affairs, and albino orcs.

My Favorite Flicks of 2014

10) Rush

I have no interest in either NASCAR or F1 racing, but this drama about two F1 racing car drivers in the 70’s got me. One of those ‘based on a true story’ movies that made me go out and research the real thing. The postscript at the film’s end recapping the following years is both inevitable and incredibly sad.

9) The Lego Movie

I went into this expecting just another kid’s movie but was pleasantly surprised. Fun in the purest sense. As a father with toys of his own, the meta-story of Mr. Business hit close to home.

the_lego_movie

8) Non Stop

Intense thriller that keeps you guessing the entire time. The only thing keeping this movie from moving up my list: the villain and his lame motives.

7) Lone Survivor

The war scenes are right up there with Saving Private Ryan. There isn’t much of a let-up once  the bullets start flying. Intense. The screenwriters try to work in some character development in the movie’s quiet moments, but it isn’t super effective. When the good guys inevitably start falling off one-by-one (not a spoiler, look at the movie’s title), you don’t really care. Which is horrible considering this is based on a true story. The gut-punch comes at the end, when you see pictures of who these guys really were.

6) Mud

Maybe my True Detective buzz hadn’t worn off, but McConaughey is simply magnetic in this flick about a drifter with unknown motives who enlists a pair of young boys to help him reunite with an old love. Intense coming of age story and effective character drama.

edgeoftomorrow5) The Edge of Tomorrow

I went in expecting a sci-fi movie with Tom Cruise, mech suits, and aliens. I got that, and a whole lot of laughs. The humor comes in spades, is fitting, and well-earned. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, playing something like Groundhog’s Day crossed with The Matrix. Flawless film, up til the final 15 minutes when a nonsensical ending ruins an otherwise perfect movie.

4) Big Hero 6

My favorite animated movie since Wreck-It Ralph, and possibly my favorite animated flick of all-time, right up there with The Incredibles, Toy Story, and Up. Bay Max is the heart of the movie, endearing and irresistible, like Wall-E but better. The villain is menacing, with true motivations. Dark at times and light at others, funny and packed with action. Can’t wait to see this again.

3) Guardians of the Galaxy

I suspect this movie would be higher on my list if not for a sub-optimal initial (and only, to this point) viewing. The theater was packed and the sound was low, which meant I missed a bunch of punchlines. Otherwise, this may have been my #1 movie. It checks all my boxes: lovable scoundrels, Star Wars-esque dogfights, three-dimensional superheroes, laughs and lots of action.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-milano

Chris Pratt kills it as Star-Lord, and Rocket Raccoon is pretty B.A. But much like Bay Max, the simple-minded Groot is the heart of the film. And the movie has heart in spades: I choked up at least twice. The biggest surprise though is Drax the Destroyer. Hilarious.

The soundtrack has to be mentioned too. Simply perfect. I went out and got it!

2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Now this is a Captain America movie! There’s so much I love about this movie: simple things like him keeping a list of things he missed and should check-out; how he continually laps a fellow jogger during the initial credits; visiting the museum to see his old (and, presumably, dead) friends.

The action is on-point. There are so many amazing set pieces. I love the raid on the freighter: when Captain hits in this movie, dudes feel it, going flying in all directions. That elevator scene, and his subsequent escape. The Nick Fury ambush – I love that Fury got to be something other than a cloaked figure in this movie.

The relationship with Black Widow was deftly done. Although you know there’s nothing going on there, their chemistry leaves you to wonder, ‘what if’? It’s an effective pairing.

There is cloak & dagger stuff, but it’s JV level. It’s no surprise to anyone who the villain is when he’s unveiled. But that doesn’t lessen the fun. I’m anxious to see what happens next, in Avengers 2, now that SHIELD is no more. Hail Hydra!

1) Days of Future Past

In the 90’s, I used to love watching the X-Men cartoon. A big part of that was the Sentinels: giant purple robots that hunted mutants. So I was beyond my mind to find out we were finally getting Sentinels in an X-Men movie, and they don’t disappoint at all. These Sentinels are to be feared, and against them the X-Men stand no chance.

The time-travel device is used effectively to unite the casts of the older X-Men flicks with that of First Class, giving us Wolverine side-by-side with the younger versions of Magneto & Professor X. I love the 70’s vibe, the fact that Charles is a drug-addled loser, that Mystique is out doing dirt. Quicksilver gets little better than a cameo but has the movie’s best scene. And Magneto – you so want him to be a good guy, but he’s uncompromising. Even when working with Charles & Logan, you know he’s just playing for time.

x-men-days-futureIn the final act, the movie does a great job of cutting between the X-Men’s heroic last stand in the future, while Wolverine & Co. fight in the past for the future. And when that future is saved, we see the sins of X:3 undone, as Jean Grey and Cyclops walk the halls of the mansion again. My only question: does that mean Wolverine still has the lame bone claws, being that he never fell into the clutches of Stryker?

 

Honorable Mention

These are movies I really enjoyed, but they weren’t quite good enough to make my top movies, or something held them back.

Bad Words

Hilarious at times but sobering at others. Makes the most of a ridiculous premise.

Chef

Fun little indie flick. Funny moments and generally a cute little movie. The father-son relationship is the heart of the story, and it works.

snowpiercerSnowpiercer

Super interesting premise and world-building. Great visceral action. But there is a ribbon of trippyness running through the film which is glaring and unwelcome when it pops up (Tilda Swinton).

Posted in movies

My Favorite Video Games of 2014

Continuing what will be a 3-part series, here are the video games I loved the best this year. Come back tomorrow to see my favorite movies of 2014. And if you missed it, here’s my favorite books I read this year!

Biggest Disappointment

Before I talk about all the good, I must address a game that had been hyped above all others and utterly failed to come close to what was promised.

Destiny

As a longtime Halo fan, I was massively pumped to play Bungie’s newest IP. The art and atmosphere is top-notch, the shooting mechanics shine, the levels are massive, and the soundtrack thrums. Alas, Bungie neglected to provide anything approaching a story. The overarching overtures are amateurish at best, involving humanity’s concerted push against the various forces of – wait for it – The Darkness. Yes, capitalized. And, yes, it’s as cheesy as it sounds.

Such a lame meta-story might’ve been okay if the in-mission stories hummed like Halo of old. But instead, every mission involves you escorting your personal drone/bot (voiced by a half-awake Peter Dinklage) to a place on the map, initiating some sequence, and then fighting off enemies. Every. Single. Time.

DestinyThere isn’t even an end to the ‘story’. The only indictator that you’ve completed the campaign is a final cutscene that holds no meaning because you are not invested in any outcome. They give so little consideration to the story that you don’t even get an achievement for beating the game. That has to be some kind of first.

Destiny is not about the last bastion of humanity in some dark future. Instead, it’s a soulless grind to level-up characters and gear in a never-ending arms race that serves no purpose. Everything in the game is built in service to the grind. The story was but an offering to that foul altar, a mewing lamb brought to slaughter.

I bought Destiny at launch, something I rarely do because I have a healthy backlog of games. I doubt I will buy the eventual Destiny 2, at launch or otherwise.

My Favorite Games of 2014

These didn’t necessarily come out in 2014. I just played them this year. Presented in reverse order:

6) Lego Lord of the Rings

lego_lotrThe best Lord of the Rings video game since the Two Towers back on the PS2. An open world game coupled with the Lego series characteristic charm, and lovingly smothered with gooey LotR goodness.

 

5) The Witcher 2

A mature RPG with branching story lines, where the player is given agency over the story’s eventual outcome. The game’s systems have some clunkiness to them, and I never really bothered much with the whole alchemy piece unless forced by the narrative. The world offers an interesting take on fantasy cliches. Elves live in ghettos and racism is rampant. Geralt, the Witcher, is more anti than hero, and the player is given leeway to act accordingly. Looking forward to the Witcher 3, due out in 2015!

4) Wolfenstein The New Order

wolfensteinA FPS that refreshingly doesn’t try to be all things, but instead focuses solely on telling a rousing single player story in an alternate world where the Nazis won. Combat is smooth and satisfying, the story hits the right notes, and the level design allows for multiple problem-solving approaches.

3) Titanfall

The game I bought my Xbox One for (not really – I was waiting for a good deal and a free pack-in of Titanfall was enough to get my dollars). Like Destiny, the ‘campaign’ is wafer-thin. But unlike Destiny, Titanfall never promised a grand story. On offer is the next evolution of Call of Duty-type multiplayer gaming, and in that it is successful. The gunplay is as balanced as CoD, but the verticality of the level design, made possible by the player’s jump-jets, really put Titanfall in a class of its own. Wall-running never gets old. And then, of course, you have the Mechs. Piloting one of the colossal machines of war calls back to my time playing the MechWarrior tabletop RPG.

2) Skyrim (modded)

I bought Skyrim at launch for the 360 and spent something north of 100 hours exploring its varied nooks and crannies. I aided the rebellion, raided ancient crypts, and saved the world from destruction. I thought I’d seen everything Skyrim was capable of. And then I got it for the PC, loaded up a bunch of mods, and doused my hair in kerosene.
skyrim
Modded Skyrim bears the same genetic material as its vanilla console brethren, but they are distant cousins at best. They could marry and it would be kosher in all 50 states. It’s that level of separation that we’re talking about. My favorite mods introduce survival elements: simulating the danger and effects of hypothermia, or needing to eat and rest on a regular basis.

1) Shadow of Mordor

I said Lego Lord of the Rings is the best LotR video game in a long time, and that was true until this little precious came along. Liberally borrowing elements from the Assassin Creed’s and the Batman Arkham series, Shadow of Mordor hones these subsystems into a razor-edged blade. Shadow of Mordor is far more than a simple cut & paste exercise and a splash of Tolkien-flavored paint.

shadow_of_mordorWhere to start? The nemesis system, wherein dynamically-generated named NPCs challenge you on sight, is inspired. If an orc chief escapes (or defeats you in battle), he remembers you next time, and his dialog reflects the nature of your previous encounter. Enemies have strengths to avoid and fears to exploit, but here’s the cool part – you as the player can directly influence what those fears are. Early in my adventures in Mordor, I set a previously unnamed orc ablaze. He ran off screaming, only to return later as a chief with a mortal hatred of flames. It isn’t just that such moments are cool, it’s how smoothly they occur during gameplay, and how nimbly the game adjusts.

Combat is satisfying – the brutal executions never get old – and navigating the levels is a breeze. The game includes RPG-lite elements, allowing your PC to develop along skill trees and unlock new weapon abilities.

The open world environments are massive and filled with all manner of interesting things to see and do. And though Shadow of Mordor also inherits hunting for items in the open world, it is neither as annoying as in AC or as difficult as in Arkham. There aren’t nearly as many objects to locate, and each includes a bit of world-building, usually delivered via dialog. Finding the objects then is not only a way to clear icons from your screen, but also to fill in some of the player’s backstory.

I’m still working through the main story but am loving my time in Middle Earth, and it’s a no-brainer for my favorite game of 2014!

Honorable Mention

Games I only spent a few hours with as the year winded down.

Sunset Overdrive

Level navigation is smooth and responsive. Plays like Tony Hawk with cartoony over-the-top violence.

Dragon Age Inquisition

Addicting. I’ve only had it for a few days but it’s rarely seen the outside of my Xbox since.

Mass Effect 2

I know, I know. This game came out forty years ago (or so it seems).

The Wolf Among Us

Gripping in a way that the Walking Dead series of Telltale games never quite was for me.

Posted in video games

My Favorite Books of 2014

As the year draws to a close and we naturally turn reflective, I thought to share some of my favorite books I read in 2014. Come back tomorrow to see my favorite video games!

My Top 5 Books of 2014

Going in reverse order:

5) World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

I like zombies as much as the next guy, but I’m not crazy about them or anything. So I put-off reading this book for a while. The treatment here is presented as a faux documentary of sorts, a looking back on the war against the undead. Although told via loosely related flashbacks, sometimes years after the fact, the narrative carries a sense of urgency and solidity due to the superb execution. Riveting and real; don’t judge this book by its shallow and lame movie.

4) Numenera

Numenera Corebook

What is the core rolebook of a tabletop RPG doing here? The Numenera setting – Earth a billion years in the future, amid the detris of eight great civilizations that have risen and fallen – is evocative and outfit with all manner of hooks upon which to set one’s imagination. The numenera itself is a sort of nanotechnology, invisible and ever-present, and treated as something akin to magic by the peoples of earth. The setting and the system itself are nimble enough to handle everything from straight fantasy, supers, or horror.

3) No Country For Old Men

No Country for Old Men

McCarthy’s prose is admittedly not for everyone. His sentence structure alone may drive some mad (he’s especially fond of using long strings of run-on sentences joined by ‘and’). But the sparse prose gives room to the characters and their tragic yet engrossing tale. Spoiler: the death of one main character is made all the more shocking for the way it happens off-camera. I haven’t been this shocked and in denial since reading A Game of Thrones.

2) 11/22/63

11/22/63

I am a long-time King fan. His mastery of character is astounding. That said, his endings are often terrible because he doesn’t do any planning whatsoever, just letting the story go where it will. But here, King sticks the landing, concluding the tale in a satisfying way that is both logical and neatly addresses the pitfalls of time-travel stories. I came for the historical, looking-back what-if question of the JFK assassination, but I stayed for the main character and his impossible quest.

1) The Hobbit

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)

Yes, I had never read the Hobbit before, just as I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings. For shame, I know. What a refreshing surprise this book was, completely blowing the bloated Hobbit films out of the water. Bilbo is a convincing everyman hero. Thorin and his fall is majestic, tragic, and resonant. Absent is Legolas, dwarf-on-elf love affairs, the White Council vs Sauron, albino orcs: all the junk that makes the movies such bloated messes.

Posted in books Tagged with:

The Force Awakens Teaser: Impressions and Speculation

For the purposes of this, I’m going to assume you’ve already seen the trailer. I’m including it here for your benefit, in case you’ve somehow missed it, or want to see it again. Certainly not so I will watch it again. However could you think such a thing?

The trailer opens with a shot of Tatooine, a backwater world of little importance in the Galactic scheme yet a prominent feature in both previous trilogies. It looks to fill a similar role here. I’m not really complaining, I like Tatooine as much as the next guy, but it is weird, isn’t it, that they have an entire galaxy worth of venues to visit but continue to return to Tatooine? If there was a place with all the world’s best restaurants collected under one roof, would you continually leave to go to McDonalds? Tatooine has cool toys, for sure: Hutts and Mos Eisley and strange partially-buried dinosaur bones. But when your primary crop is moisture harvested from the air, you’ve got some serious problems to overcome as a tourist destination.

Tatooine is sparsely populated

But whatever: if JJ means to kick the sand off Harrison Ford’s flagging tires, I suppose I can’t fault him for playing the nostalgia card here. Tatooine goes hand-in-hand with Skywalkers, so as long as they’re around, Tatooine will be too. And, being fair, the brown dust ball has featured in the initial movie that kicked off the other trilogies, so there’s that symmetry to consider.

Hello, what have we here?

Boyega_Stormtrooper

I don’t think it discredits me as a man to admit I jumped a bit at Boyega’s sudden appearance. I did not see that coming somehow. Let’s move on.

Who is he? I don’t think he’s posing as a Stormtrooper, and Halloween was months ago, so that leaves only one option: Boyega is an Imperial. I love that the Empire is still around in this future. I’m hoping we get to see what it’s like for the faceless grunts inside the white armored suits, before Boyega’s eventual (inevitable?) defection to the Rebel / Republic side.

I love the panic on his face. Something is going down and he is not happy about it at all. Just barely audible in the background is the unmistakable sound of an Imperial probe droid. Is Boyega being hunted by his own forces? That might explain the look of terror. Or it could just be that he’s sweating profusely on a planet so arid it must harvest moisture from the air and he left his canteen back on the shuttle.

As for the actor himself: I’ve only seem him in the latest season of 24. It was a small role, but he didn’t fumble it. There is more emotion in these few seconds then we got out of Pinocchio Hayden Christensen through 2 entire movies, so we’re firmly in the credit column so far.

And yes, he’s black. Get over it people. If you want to hide your racism behind continuity, fine – I’ll play. The Empire phased out the use of clones long ago because copies of copies don’t make for effective soldiers. I haven’t read Star Wars EU stuff in a decade or more so I’m not 100% on the details, but there are no more clone soldiers and that is official.

Here we go again.

Soccer_Droid

What the hell is this? Did Lucas bust into Skywalker ranch and splice the video with some CGI foolishness? Like this? Good heavens.

The droid’s top is reminiscent of R2-D2. The body-ball makes sense for navigating Tatooine’s sand dunes, but I’d rather have spent these precious few seconds looking at the backside of a Dewback than yet another ‘cute’ character. Moving on…

Maybe it’s another drill.

Stormtroopers

Ho boy – this looks sweet! I love the gritty feel, the dark tone. Something is about to go down.

The new-look helmets are awesome. Not as fond of the new white-on-black blaster rifle, but whatevs. It’s encouraging to see that the galaxy has continued to evolve in the past 20 in-world years.

One of these dudes is too short to be a Stormtrooper. It’d be kinda amazing if Skywalker is chilling in that suit. More likely it’s Boyega.

Open the blast doors!

Stormtroopers_Dropship

Can’t really tell where they are going, but I don’t think it’s a social call. These boys are going into battle.

I’m reminded of Star Wars: Republic Commando, a FPS that came out way back when for the original Xbox. This shot has the same vibe I remember from that game, that sense of squad-based tension.

To this point, when I first watched the trailer, I was feeling cautiously pumped. It looked like a decent sci-fi movie, something akin to the Halo Forward Unto Dawn movie, but it didn’t feel like Star Wars yet. I see Stormtroopers and hear probe droids, and yes, that’s all for the good. But it is a knowing of the head, not the heart.

It sounds like she’s in trouble. I’d better play back the whole thing.

Padme_Look_Alike

I don’t know this actress from Sy Snootles, but I’ll say one thing about the casting: they did a damn good job. My very first, split-second thought when she popped on the screen was ‘Padme?’ She’s got the right look for the part of Leia’s daughter, assuming that is who she is meant to be.

Again, I am digging the tension in these scenes, the sense that something important is going on just off to the side.

Where are you taking this… thing?

Padme_Dumb_Speeder

This has got to be the most ridiculous speeder I’ve ever seen, if it is in fact meant to be a speeder. It looks neither slender nor fast. Maybe it’s some sort of farm equipment pressed into duty as a personal transport. I don’t know. Either way, it definitely looks goofy.

Cut the chatter, Red 2. Accelerate to attack speed.

Rebel_Pilot

Is this our new Wedge? I know nothing of the actor, but he looks suitably intense and focused.

Luke, at that speed do you think you’ll be able to pull out in time?

X-Wings

Holy wow.

Seeing the X-Wings skimming the water, S-foils firmly locked into attack position, is at once familiar and at the same time something we’ve never seen before. And then we get the sound, that familiar roar of the X-Wing’s engines. It’s amazing how much of the Star Wars experience is wrapped up in the sound design, but it’s there. Part of the failings of the prequels may have been that there was too few familiar things, including the sound. Well, besides the wretched script, wooden acting, and over-reliance on CGI madness.

This scene right here is when it really started to sink in. This is Star Wars, for real. The prequels were distant cousins at best. The first time watching the teaser, I may have started making fist pumping motions at this point, I can’t clearly recall as my brain kinda shut down.

Give yourself to the Dark Side.

Sith_Sword

A glimpse of the new Sith antagonist? Or merely his henchman?

His lightsaber sounds visceral, almost angry, in a way previous lightsabers haven’t. And the blade itself seems both thinner and more unstable than what we’ve seen in the past. Is this guy using really old tech, the lightsaber equivalent of Windows ’95? Or did he create his own weapon using half-understood designs? Regardless: I am intrigued. Yes please, can I have some more?

I’m a bit torn on the whole crossguard thing. On one hand, it’s kinda cool, and I could see how it would be functional. But I fear this is just another entry in the lightsaber arms-race, where the ante is continually bumped up until we are forced to confront the ridiculous. Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber was – and still is – amazing. But Grevious wielding 4 lightsabers? Not so much.

What we see here doesn’t quite look like a lightsaber so much as a glowing sword. Hopefully the guard is there for a good, functional, reason, and not just to make the poster art look cool. In JJ I trust.

She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.

Yeehaw

cue Star Wars theme

cue Millenium Falcon engine roar

cue lasers

cue scream of TIE fighters

cue tears

This shot, accompanied by the sudden swell of John William’s theme, is pure magic. Instantly I was transformed back into a grinning kid.

There is fluidity and grace in this shot, the likes of which we haven’t really seen in Star Wars before. Here is a use of CGI I can stand behind.

Falcon_TIEs

When I was a kid, it was the Millenium Falcon that my action figures boarded, racing from Imperial pursuit. And as a father, the Millenium Falcon was the first ship I bought my kid, right after he’d accumulated the principle characters. The importance of having her back in these movies can’t be understated. The Millenium Falcon is a character unto itself, and is core to Star Wars in the way that lightsabers and Jedi are.

I assume (and hope) that Han is in the pilot’s chair, with Chewbacca beside him.

Remember, the Force will be with you… always.

Logo

And… that’s it. Wow. Let’s run that back a few dozen times, eh?

I went in expecting something quite different, slow shots of the original characters in profile or something. This is much better. I actually don’t mind that we didn’t see Han or Luke or Leia. We got the Millenium Falcon!

Who’s the more foolish… the fool or the fool who follows him?

If you only came to recap the trailer, you can safely turn away now. From this point forward we enter the no-man’s land of speculation.

I’m going to spend the rest of this post considering the implications of the voice-over, which I’ve neglected to mention to this point. Here it is:

There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it?

The Dark Side. And the Light.

I think we can safely assume some things from both the title and this monologue. In the 20-some years between Episode VI and VII, Luke is the only Jedi (yes, I’m putting aside Leia). Sure, there will always be people with latent abilities: backwater mystics and inconsistent psychics and whathaveyou, people who unwittingly call upon the Force on occasion. But true Force users, being those that can command the Force at will, don’t exist. And then something awakens the Force, changing everything. (I hope that something is both cool and realistic, and not a Lost-style Smoke Monster without substance. Pun intended.)

I had kinda assumed Luke spent the last 20 years putting together a Jedi Academy, as the EU books explored. But maybe he couldn’t find enough sensitives to train. Being a Skywalker, Leia’s daughter, she of the slow speeder, would presumably have latent Force abilities, but maybe she takes after her father and doesn’t put stock in hokey religions. Wouldn’t that be a fun call-back, and a frustrating obstacle for Luke? I can just imagine the Galaxy’s lone Jedi Master puttering around in his old T-16 Skyhopper, waiting for the girl to change her mind, all the while heckled by the ghosts of Obi-Wan and Yoda.

The Dark Side monologue suggests we’re to see the sudden appearance of a lot of Force Sensitives. Which could explain that DYI-style Sith lightsaber. And it also highlights a potential danger: if a bunch of people suddenly manifest Force powers, it could quickly go sideways as emotions take over and people start behaving badly, like a Jedi version of puberty. The first season of Heroes explored this concept, as everyday people suddenly came into awesome powers. Some used them for good, many did not. It’s an interesting blueprint to follow, so long as they only watched the first season.

I’m kinda hoping they do away with the rule of two, but it’s a tricky balancing act. If the movie introduces too many Sith and Jedi, it risks watering the conflict down into a Geonosis arena stylized light show. Still, it might be cool to see a 3×3 lightsaber fight. Or maybe a 3-on-1 battle (hey, Luke has to go down somehow).

There is one last thing to say about the monologue: the speaker himself. Not so much the actor, though the revelation that the voice belongs to Andy Serkis, the mo-cap master behind Gollum, does imply something interesting about the character he’s playing. But what is truly interesting about the monologue is the implied context. Serkis speaks not as one newly awoken to the Force, but as one already aware of it. “But I thought all the Sith died out with Vader and the Emperor”, you say, before inquiring about a trip to Tosche Station to pickup some power converters. Perhaps not.

It’s possible that Serkis is only an old Sith holocron, a kind of ghost trapped in a glass house, but not only would that be a gross misuse of his physical talents, it just doesn’t make sense. A holocron is little more than an interactive recording, and has no more ability to sense the presence or absence of the Force than I do. Who is Serkis, then? Let me run back some tape from Episode III.

Palpatine: Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life… He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.

Now, old Palpy goes on to say that Plagueis was struck down in his sleep, and the implication is that Palpatine was the one swinging the sword. But what if Plagueis didn’t truly die? Maybe he just went away, becoming a Force ghost or something else, and has since been lying in wait for an explosion of Force energy into which he could tap to regain his form. The previous Sith regime (Palpatine and Vader) subscribed to the rule of two and snubbed out any other competition. And in all the Star Wars canon (that being the movies), only one person has ever been said to conquer death: Darth Plagueis.

Making Plagueis the baddie is a nice call-back to Episode III, and it immediately sets up a very dangerous antagonist for our heroes, one that will tax Luke and perhaps destroy him. How do you kill that which can’t be killed?

Maybe I’m diverting too far into crazy town. But I think this has a ring of possibility to it that can’t be easily denied.

There remains one other question, of course. To whom is the speaker speaking? An apprentice? Luke? There are lots of interesting questions and theories to ponder, and we’ve a whole year in which to do so.

This teaser has awakened something in me, something so lost I’d neglected to note its absence. I’m excited beyond words for Star Wars again. I literally can’t find the words to express how excited I am. I’m even considering doing something I’ve not done in ~15 years: read a Star Wars novel. I’ve already picked one out: Darth Plagueis. It’s not canon, of course, but I look forward to reading it nonetheless.

May the Force be with you!

Posted in movies Tagged with:

Interview on New Writer Podcast

I had the pleasure of being interviewed on the New Writer Podcast last week. It was great fun!

Topics covered:

  • The Beyond the Gate Anthology
  • Writing in Engine World
  • Firefly / Serenity influences on my anthology story
  • Video Game RPGs: Final Fantasy, Skyrim
  • Worldbuilding by way of Tabletop RPGs
  • Tabletop RGPs: D&D, Numenera, Marvel Superheroes
  • Firefly (yes, again!)
  • Star Wars
  • Star Trek
  • The Indie Movement

Posted in writing Tagged with:

FREE Anthology of 23 Steampunk Fantasy Stories

Gate-draft9ABeyond the Gate features stories in a shared-story setting called Engine World, a place of clockwork spires and airships, of the fantastical in fellowship with the mundane, of impossible dreams made reality and nightmares unwittingly unleashed.

Get it for free* at Amazon, or any other major eBook marketplace!

To learn more about the project, check-out our site.

*Only the US amazon.com is free at the moment. If you don’t live in the US and would like a copy, drop me a note and I will send you one.

Posted in writing Tagged with: