Review posts

Review: Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1

(Picture: Netflix)

Daredevil is one of those comicbook assets that I’m personally quite attached to. I collected the comics for a while, and I used to write in and run RP games around the character. As a result, I’m fairly familiar with the comic canon and always a little nervous when it is adapted to screen.

So, when I approached the Netflix incarnation of the franchise, I was trepidatious, but hopeful. (I am always hopeful that someone will do these characters and franchises justice.) And I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.

Spoilers follow! For both the Netflix show and the comics. You have been warned.

Broad Strokes

Let’s start with the easy stuff. As a show, I think Netflix’s Daredevil did a good job in building the world, shaping the season, and giving us well-drawn characters to empathise with. It’s a fun ride, and they managed to build in far more elements from the comics than I had expected they would be able (or want) to.

Overall, I enjoyed it. A strong 4/5 from me.

It would have been 5/5, but there were a few key divergences from the canon that hurt the show in my opinion. Or at the very least, could have been better.

What they did right

Firstly, let’s acknowledge the stuff they did that worked, and worked well.

The plotting and pacing are great. On that level, they put the season together well, with the initial setup and the building towards the climax at the end. Very easy to watch, it carried me along to the end before I realised.

Matt is pretty much who I recognise from the comics. He’s not ginger enough, but the aesthetics are less important than his attitude. Yes, he can be self-involved and a bit of a dick, but that’s Matt Murdock.

I like that they didn’t shy away from his flaws, or the unhealthy dichotomy in the lawyer that needs to go punch people in the head at night. He’s a troubled boy, at war with himself as well as his frustration with the world around him and a legal system that can’t protect those who truly need it. The show acknowledges his Catholic leanings without making it glaringly central, and focusses more on Matt’s struggle with the morality of vigilantism and, ultimately, killing people.

This is key to many of Daredevil’s comicbook stories: his staunch opposition to killing and what that means. This first season focusses on him trying to make that decision for himself, which I like because it’s so fundamental to who Daredevil is as a vigilante and hero (like DC’s Batman). It’s great that they chose to make it so central. This arc is has some of the weaker areas of the season for me, though – more on this later.

They pitched Matt against his foil perfectly. Their Foggy Nelson is wonderful, lovable, capable, and often exasperated with his best friend. If you’re not annoyed at Matt on Foggy’s behalf, they’ve done something wrong, and they didn’t here.

Foggy is, in many ways, the heart of the show (while Matt is more of the fist-flailing tantrum), and he’s a very necessary grounding element, both for Matt and the show as a whole. He’s a voice of reason when Matt is getting lost in his own problems, and a reminder of what’s really important. In this season, he keeps both Matt and the story on track.

Without a good Foggy, any Daredevil story is going to be overly whiny and self-indulgent, and Matt will in all likelihood disappear up his own asshole. Matt’s friendship with Foggy is one of his biggest redeeming features. I’m so happy that they got this right in the show.

Netflix also did a great job with their Kingpin. I was dubious that they would find someone with the physical presence and sensitive acting chops to pull him off, but they hit the nail right on the head. I’ll be honest: I usually dislike Vincent D’onofrio’s acting work, but he was a great choice for Wilsin Fisk, and I was pleasantly surprised.

I was also (pleasantly) surprised by how much of Fisk’s backstory they put into the show, and how sympathetic it was. Netflix didn’t feel the need to make Fisk an evil man who is evil because evil. They made him a product of his background, experiences, and his own choices, and the show doesn’t get judgemental with artistic finger-shaking. It just shows the story of a man and how he ended up as the Kingpin of crime in NYC.

The show also isn’t afraid to let us see his softer side, the cracks in his armour, and the sweet man he can be under the right circumstances. In the comics, Vanessa is his wonderfully adored wife; here, she serves the same purpose as his girlfriend. We get to see them meet and court and fall in love, and she gives us a window into the parts of Fisk that he doesn’t let the world see.

Okay, she also encourages and supports him in some of his worst deeds, but if she couldn’t accept the man capable – and inclined – to reduce someone to bloody death with his own fists, she wouldn’t be a good partner for him. This is no love story where she makes him a better person; this is a love story where she makes him a better Wilsin Fisk. I love that they didn’t shy away from that, and that the love story in itself is quite beautiful and sweet. Other shows would feel the need to moralise about it and twist the relationship into something dark and sinful, but that doesn’t happen here, and it’s honestly a refreshing change.

Another character that appears in all his unflattering glory is Stick. I was curious to see if they’d include him and how, and was pleased to see that Netflix doesn’t shy away from just how much of an asshole Stick is. For all that he’s fighting on the ‘good’ side of a ninja clan war, he’s a terrible person and he damages every young person he comes into contact with in fairly fundamental ways (in the comics, he’s responsible for training and then emotionally damaging both Matt and Elektra, more so in the latter case – but more on that when I get to reviewing Season 2 of the show).

In the Netflix show, his relationship with Matt is strained and somewhat contentious, and I like how complicated it is. Stick was Matt’s teacher and walked away from the kid, and so there is a lot of mixed feelings going on there. However, they added a father-figure element that felt out of place to me, and that spoiled what was otherwise a fairly faithful presentation of how Matt learned to kick ass and got so messed up in the head. More on this below.

Deliciously geeky nods

Marvel has such a rich, much-written-in world to pull from, and I loved the smaller elements that appeared in the show. Turk is as annoying and useless as I would expect. I loved Melvin Potter’s appearance and role in the season (though I’m still hoping he makes Gladiator’s Costume Shop a thing!). Claire Temple was an interesting (and welcome) addition, a Night Nurse reference that seems to be threading through all of the Netflix shows so far.

Matt’s initial costume was a curious call-back to the first, hurried costume he used in flashbacks in the comics, when he tried to save Elektra at college. (That’s the only similar version to that costume in the comics that I can recall offhand.) I love that he develops towards the traditional dark/red Daredevil costume through the season in a logical and sensible way, including the way he doesn’t use (and isn’t called by) the name ‘Daredevil’ explicitly (as far as I could spot, he’s only referred to as the ‘Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ in the show).

Other familiar features include Josie’s Bar, though I was disappointed that Matt and Foggy would ever deign to drink there, and not once did Daredevil throw someone through the front window. If Josie isn’t complaining about having to replace her window because Daredevil came looking for some scumbag and got into a fight, you’re not doing it right. Sorry, Netflix!

Changes they made

It’s natural that, with any adaptation, there are differences from the original. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t.

For example, Karen Page is a lot less annoying and way more interesting in the Netflix show than she ever was in the comics. I like that she gets to have a personality and an arc all her own, and has some things happen to her that ripple through into the next season (more on that in a separate review).

Karen Page is one of my least favourite characters in the Daredevil comics, so it was nice to see her updated and made somewhat palatable. She’s still fairly whiny and annoying in places (and one of the weaker elements of the show), but a distinct improvement on the original.

That said, I was puzzled over why both Foggy and Matt were looking like romantic options for her, and why she kept getting moon-eyed over Matt when they had no real connection or chemistry. The relationships felt forced to me, partly because Matt isn’t presented as the casual dater/hook-up artist that he is in the comics and partly because they barely spend any real time together, and it all seems like more complication than he needs at that time. (Plus there’s the whole, more believable relationship plot with Claire Temple.)

I got the feeling that the only reason Matt and Karen were together by the end of the season is that someone felt the need to tick that box to match comic canon. (The relationship’s path in season 2 bears this out; it fizzles because there’s simply nothing there, and neither of them seem to really care about it.)

Another change they made was to make Ben Urich black. The only reason I’m mentioning it is because they made it work for the character (and others are likely to comment on it), and it’s the type of change I welcome. He is still the respected veteran reporter that doesn’t put up with anyone getting in his way, but at heart a good, moral person who does the right thing.

It was a shame that they had to move him to a different paper, most likely because the Daily Bugle and J. Jonah Jameson are tied up with the rights to Spider-Man. Without Jameson to shout at him, I felt Ben’s story lacked something; part of Ben’s charm is how well he handles Jameson’s unreasonable bluster (mostly by completely ignoring it, without being rude), and how much he knows that Jameson needs him way more than he needs Jameson. He’s not nasty about it, but he doesn’t let Jameson get in his way, either.

I was disappointed about the end of Ben’s story in this season of the show. On one hand, it’s brave of the show’s makers to kill off such a key character in this part of the MCU. On the other, they’ve cut off so many future avenues and plot lines. It makes me sad that we’ll never see Ben and Jessica Jones trolling J Jonah Jameson like they did in Alias. Or that Ben will never become the holder of Manhattan’s heroes’ secret identities. He’s another very grounding character, and I think his influence will be missed.

Central changes

Some of the most obvious and telling changes they made in the Netflix show were to Matt’s backstory, relating to the death of his father and his training with Stick. It’s a collection of fairly small changes, but the more I think about it, the larger the implications are (as a writer, I’m often considering the impacts of events on characters, so this sort of thing stands out to me).

In the Netflix show, Matt’s father is shot after refusing to throw a boxing match when the kid is pretty young (12/13?). Matt hears the shot and somehow knows who the victim is (I’m not sure how). The shooter gets away, though the cops know who it is (which leads into a plot point in season 2).

After this, Matt is picked up by Stick and is trained in fighting and using his altered/heightened senses. However, Matt starts to think of Stick as a father figure, so Stick abandons him and disappears, after telling him off for getting too emotionally attached. After this, he winds up in the care of nuns at an orphanage.

So, we have a boy tragically losing his father, and left with a pile of daddy issues in relation to Stick. Pretty simple and straightforward: Matt learns nothing through this except that getting emotionally involved is bad, and possibly some daddy and abandonment issues.

In the comics, it’s more complex than that (at least, in the comics that I’ve read; it’s entirely possible that Marvel have several versions of his backstory, as that’s not unusual). Battlin’ Jack Murdock is killed for the same reason – refusing to throw a fight – but he’s beaten to death (not shot) and Matt overhears the whole thing. He’s able to identify the handful of guys responsible.

Before this, a short time after he was blinded, Stick found him and started to train him in secret. He taught a kid how to make sense of the world without his eyes, through his newly heightened senses, how to look after himself, and how to fight. He was tough and cruel, but he was also a teacher.

He had two simple rules: Matt wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about the training – not even his father – and he must never use his abilities in front of anyone without explicit permission from Stick.

So, when his father is killed, Matt knows how to use his heightened senses and can not only identify who was involved, but track them down. Maddened with grief, he chases them down, one at a time, and beats the crap out of them. When he gets to the last one, however, word has got around about what he’s doing and the guy is expecting him. The guy is terrified, and winds up having a heart attack and dying right in front of Matt. Matt doesn’t kill him, but he does cause the man’s death.

Stick learns of the kid’s grief-addled rampage and that Matt broke his second rule: he didn’t have permission to go beating people up. So, Stick leaves, without an explanation or single word to the kid.

In a single night, young Matt loses his father and his mentor, the only two people he really has in his life. He has just accidentally killed someone, and most likely feels that Stick’s abandonment is at least part punishment for that. He then winds up in a Catholic orphanage with the nuns.

As you can see, the changes in themselves are fairly minor. However, the original version gives us a fairly good setup for who Matt is going to be: the focus on fisticuffs; his willingness to go vigilante in search of justice; his willingness to break the rules; and his aversion to killing.

The TV show version gives us none of that, and it’s particularly a shame in light of Matt’s personal story through this first season: whether he should kill or not. He’s trying to decide what kind of vigilante he will be. His aversion to killing doesn’t seem to have any real basis, except a natural tendency, and while that’s not unreasonable or impossible, it feels thin. We see him battle against only a personal moral preference, rather than a horrible personal experience that reinforced and solidified his moral preference. To me, the latter would have been more powerful, with higher personal stakes for Matt because it challenges something he promised himself many years ago. It would have made it a tougher decision as the situation with the Kingpin forced him further and further towards believing the only solution was to kill the criminal.

(Season 2 also undercut this whole plotline by having a flashback in which he has the opportunity to take his revenge on the man who shot his father. So, he has faced this decision directly before, but we get none of it here in season 1, when it’s particularly relevant and personal. What the hell, Netflix?)

I think part of my frustration with this change is that I can’t fathom why the show-makers would bother. The original version would have supported and deepened the story they were telling, while the TV show version didn’t add anything of real value and weakened what it could have been.

The main differences we end up with are this weird daddy-issues relationship between Stick and Matt, and the unresolved murder of his father. The latter is addressed in season 2 (as mentioned above), but he could easily have faced the man who ordered the hit instead. The Matt/Stick relationship didn’t need messing with – the comics has the ‘you abandoned me when I needed you most’ aspect, so there’s plenty of tension between them to play with.

Missed opportunities like this frustrate me as a reader or watcher, because it could easily have been so much better. Changes like this smack of laziness or lack of insight, and it’s a real shame. Dammit, Netflix, you could have done better.


That all said, I think they did a great job overall. In the scheme of things, the small changes are still pretty small, and they did so much more right. The first season is a fun ride into the dark and difficult world Matt lives in, with a wonderful villain and a heap of tough choices, and I love it. Definitely recommend this one to watch!

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Adapting thoughts

YA adaptations ahoy!
(Picture: not mine)
(Disclaimer: I won’t be reviewing any of these)

We’re seeing a lot of adaptations, remakes, and updates to existing pieces of fiction coming through lately, particularly in the movies but also in TV shows like the Netflix Marvel ones. I’m finding that I want to review more and more adaptations, so I thought I’d spend a bit of time analysing and sharing my approach to reviewing/critiquing adaptations.

It can be difficult to judge a piece on its own merits when the original source looms particularly large. It’s especially complicated when different people have different ideas about what’s important in the source material, and what an adaptation ‘should’ do in order to be a ‘good adaptation’.

For me, it’s important to recognise that an adaptation will never be a carbon copy of the original. Text does not translate directly to screen, or to stage, in either direction or combination. Even text to audio can be tricky, depending on the text. Different media have different patterns, expectations, conventions, consumption requirements, and audiences. The experience is necessarily different, and so the presentation must be different.

So, when considering an adaptation, it’s not a question of ‘is it different from the original’, but ‘how is it different’ and ‘how much is it different’. From there, I consider whether I think it has strayed too far from the source, or if they’ve done a good job at translating it into a different medium.

A part of that, but also a crucial question in its own right as far as reviewing something goes, is asking whether the result is a good film/TV show/book, etc. An adaptation can be terrible in terms of staying true to its source but also a good movie, and the reverse is also true.

So how does an adaptation stay ‘true’ to its source, and at what point has it strayed too far? This is entirely subjective and difficult to define, but I’ll try to outline my personal approach. I do this to give my comments some context, and as I mentioned above, different people have different criteria when it comes to this sort of thing.

Some people will decry changes in character appearances, for example, because it doesn’t match their mental image of what a particular person should look like. This is less important to me. Aesthetics tend to be pretty far down on my list of things I care about, unless they’re an important part of the story or theme of the original piece, or form something important about a character.

To me, it’s the core of the original that’s important.

For characters, who they are on the inside and how they interact with the world around them – and influence the story they’re in – is more important than the details on the outside.

But what defines ‘inside’ and ‘outside isn’t simple, either. There are some characters to whom race is an important part of who that character is, while there are some who are not fundamentally defined by it. Sexuality is key to some characters but superfluous to others. Even single physical details can be important depending on the context they’re placed in, like being the only redhead in a sea of blondes, or unusually tall. The aspects that define the core of a character are entirely subjective and blanket statements simply don’t work here.

For example, in the 2003 Daredevil movie, I liked the casting Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin because he had the physical presence and gravitas of the comicbook character, and altering his racial background didn’t change where he had come from as a character (a poor kid from a rough neighbourhood, who fought his way up to affluence and power). The details and nuances might be different, but the larger strokes were the same. Others made objections about the race-flipping, from what I can tell only on the basis that ‘Wilson Fisk wasn’t black’, without any notion given of why it was important that he was white.

For other aspects of the story, such as setting and plot, how important it is that they’re done according to the original depends on how important they are to the story. Many stories have been adapted to different settings, times, and even genres, and yet still work as faithful adaptations.

Bride and Prejudice is one of my favourite Pride and Prejudice adaptations, because the story, the social aspects, and the interpersonal relationships work well when transposed into a contemporary Indian setting. The Bollywood flavour to it is a heap of fun, too. Similarly, Shakespeare can work well when transposed into contemporary settings, like in 10 Things I Hate About You, even though it might be missing the expected Shakespearean language and flavour.

It’s hard to say what I would consider to be the ‘core’ of the story, because it so much depends on the story. In most cases, it’s the character journeys: how they relate to each other, what they learn, and who they end up being when it’s all done (as in the adaptations mentioned above). In many, it’s the theme or message driving the story. This often interacts with the character journeys, so they can go hand-in-hand, but that isn’t always the case; the same message given in different ways can still be a good adaptation.

For example, Disney’s 1989 The Little Mermaid is one of the worst adaptations I have ever seen. As a movie, it’s delightful and the songs are catchy, and it’s totally adorable. However, as an adaptation, it misses the mark by a country mile. Sure, the characters are basically the same, the setting is familiar, and the basic plot follows the original (until the ending), but the movie gets all the important stuff wrong.

It not only didn’t deliver the message of the original, it actually gave the complete opposite message. It also invented an antagonist that was never in the original, but this is most likely driven by the writers missing the original’s intention. (The sea witch is in the original, but not as an antagonist.)

In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the only antagonist in the story is Ariel herself. She changes herself to try to win a man, and it’s her own foolishness in thinking that this will work that is her downfall. All of Ariel’s machinations fail because the prince is actually a good person and stays true to the person he’s in love with and engaged to (specifically: someone not Ariel). The story is a tragedy, even though Ariel redeems herself at the end by choosing responsibility rather than rage or selfishness. She has to accept personal responsibility for her situation and the damage she has caused to the people around her, and that sacrificing herself for the good of others is the only right, moral choice left to her, because of her own choices.

Disney, on the other hand, would have us believe that if you change everything about yourself, and lie to and manipulate a man, then girls, you’ll get him. Isn’t that great?

Truthfully, I wish that Disney had stayed away from The Little Mermaid. It was never going to do the original justice, because they don’t make tragic stories and had to have a happy ending in which the girl and boy hook up.

Another way that adaptations can fail to live up to the original is by over-simplifying them. Too often, I see remakes or reworks of a story that fail to grasp the complexities of the original, distracted by pretty aspects like aesthetics, shiny aspects like technology, or racy elements like sex and explosions. This usually results in a shallower story, and often lacks the heart that drew people to the original.

The Little Mermaid is an example of this, turning a story of self-discovery and moral evolution into a simple love story (with pretty songs).

Another example is the remake of Total Recall. In the 1990 original, they packed in a whole heap of uncertainty and layers of mind-fuck, so that you were never quite sure what was real and what had been implanted in the main character’s memory. The 2012 remake lost sight of this, erased most of the ambiguity (they make a couple of half-hearted attempts to confuse the main character, but it fails to reach the audience), and simplified the story by making it blindingly obvious what was real and what wasn’t. A thought-provoking movie was turned into an entertaining action movie, far shallower than the original. More impressive than that: they made an Arnold Swarzenegger movie look wildly intelligent.

I’ve seen comments in response to this issue along the lines of ‘but this is a new vision and the artist might have been trying to say something different’. To me, that smacks of laziness; if an artist wants to say something different to the original, why not just make something new? Why twist someone else’s work for their own purposes? It feels dishonest to me, unless the point is subversion or parody (but this is seldom the case).

Again, it’s not as simple as that. There are always exceptions and grey areas. Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird for example: an iconic film with themes of prejudice and racism at its core. If someone remade it to focus on disability instead of racism, would that work? I think it could, and there’s a level at which it can call back to the original to reinforce the theme of prejudice and its consequences. What if it was remade to remove the prejudice angle, and it became a more straightforward courtroom drama? At that point, I would be asking why they called it To Kill a Mockingbird, and didn’t simply make an original movie.

Wearing a ballgown doesn’t make you a princess unless you’re trying to be a princess regardless of the dress.

Because changes are inevitable in an adaptation, I think it’s important to consider why changes have been made (not just looking at what has been changed). Creators are always making choices, and it’s worth trying to understand those choices before deciding whether they were done well or not. Sometimes it’s the needs of the medium; some conventions or mechanisms simply don’t work well when translated to another medium. Sometimes it’s an update caused by a change in the times, such as the minefield that is turning comics that were created in a more racist and sexist age into a modern movie (Doctor Strange, I’m looking at you).

There are so many reasons why a change might be made – some of which we can only guess at from this side of the screen/page – that it’s hard to be more specific than that. I try to consider it, untangle it, and go from there.

As always, it’s easy to criticise and point fingers and say negative things. It’s easy to pick holes. I prefer to take a step further and examine why I feel negatively about something, how the makers got to that place, and what they might have done to do it better. Sure, an adaptation of a novel into a movie isn’t going to cover deep backstory on your favourite side character, and it’s going to gloss over a whole heap of stuff, because movies don’t have the time or narrative breadth to do everything a novel can. So, for me, the question is: did they keep the important stuff and do the story justice? If it was me, what would I have done differently to make it better?

I think it’s easy to assume that the original is best, too, and that’s simply not always the case. It’s possible to improve on the source: for example, I haven’t heard a single person say that the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies weren’t improved by skipping the Tom Bombadil section of the book. Different doesn’t always mean bad.

The last thing I want to add about adaptations is that it’s easy to be blinded by the original and forget to judge the piece as a piece in its own right. Sometimes, choices are made because that’s what makes a better movie. Sometimes, choices need to be viewed as a whole, because while the makers might have strayed from the original, they made a good movie or TV show out of it, and that’s worth recognising. Game of Thrones is probably a good example: both books and show are good, though they differ in many ways and are diverging (I haven’t read the books yet, so am running on feedback from others on those!).

In many ways, a piece can be diminished by its connection to an original source; it might do better if judged on its own. Like the 2004 King Arthur movie, which works fine as a generic, gritty ancient war movie, but suffers (badly) by claiming to be anything to do with King Arthur and real history.

Reviewing adaptations is a minefield. I shall endeavour to consider them from all of the above angles, for those pieces where I am familiar with the original. You can probably tell that I can be opinionated, but I try to also be fair and even-handed.

Strap in, friends. There’s more to come.

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Review: The Heroine of the World by Tanith Lee

As a young reader, I loved Tanith Lee’s stories. I had come across her Unicorn series, which was strange and different, and quite beautiful in its own way. Her writing intrigued me.

Recently, I came across one of her adult fantasy books (that is, a book that wasn’t YA, not a raunchy-adult book), and wanted to see what it was like. I’ve heard lots of good stuff about her other work. I was curious about how different her writing was for different age ranges, and wanted to enjoy another intriguing story by her.

As it turned out, quite different. Here’s what I found.

In a nutshell

The Heroine of the World is the story of Aradia (or Ara, or several other derivations she has through the novel). A fortune teller prophesies that she will be a heroine of the world, setting her up for a great and important future. She lives through several wars, changes sides a few times, and winds up being a pawn of those in power in several different situations.

This is a story with huge potential: a rich, interesting world with politics and wars going on, and a skilful writer at the helm. Sadly, it doesn’t live up to that potential.

Star rating: 2/5


I’m going to be blunt: this is a book that doesn’t deliver on its promises. From the blurb on the back of the book and the enigmatic prophecy in the story, the reader is led to believe that Ara is important to the fate of nations, an element that can swing battles – wars, even – in and out of one’s favour, someone who can influence kings and princes.

None of this happens in the book. When reading it, I kept waiting for the ‘real’ plot to start, for Ara to move from being a young girl lost in wartorn circumstances and start being the heroine of the story (of any story). It didn’t come to pass. A lot of this is due to her character, her agency, and how it was presented and developed, so will be covered in the next section.

She does become a pawn in various power plays, but only in distant and circumstantial ways. She saves the life of a soldier who eventually helps to win a war, but this is an accidental outcome that she doesn’t discover until after it’s all done. She helps another man get into power by entering into a paper marriage, after which she promptly leaves and has nothing further to do with it. She doesn’t return to witness his rise to power, and hears about it only through the grapevine from a great distance.

At the same time, she can be a great hindrance to those around her. She ruins reputations and undermines plans, again completely by accident. She causes just as many problems as she helps solve; probably more. All of it without any agency or purpose whatsoever: she ricochets around the world like a pinball, rebounding off obstacles and careening through gates.

She isn’t what I would call a ‘heroine’ by any stretch (protagonist, yes, but that isn’t the same as being the heroine of a story) and her ‘world’-level influence is questionable. There’s as much argument for her being a villain as there is a heroine, given the outcome of her presence in most circumstances.

I was also expecting a fantasy book, but again, that wasn’t what was delivered. There is plenty of opportunity for magic and fantastical elements, but it never quite got there. (More on this in the writing section.) It is a different world with different geography, but it felt like it could have been set in medieval Europe with a few name changes (and no other changes) and the story would have spun out the same.


Ara is the crux of the book and, ultimately, its downfall for me. We see the whole story through her eyes (it’s written in first person POV), which nails us to her empty little head.

When I say ’empty’, I mean that we don’t get to see much of a character in there. The book begins when she’s 13 and her home country is invaded. She’s moved to where she will be out of the way, the city is occupied, her family all wind up dead, and she has no clue at all about what’s going on. That’s realistic for a 13-year-old (being bewildered by politics and ‘adult stuff’), but she also has no curiosity about what’s going on. She makes no attempt to gain an understanding about what’s happening in the world outside the house she’s living in, and in fact actively avoids doing so, despite being aware that it directly influences her own fate.

This, right here, is a symptom of what annoyed me so much when reading this book. I’ve seen some reviews of the book lauding it as an example of how the world happens to someone, not the other way around, and how much it sucks to be a female heroine in a fantasy novel. And while this may be true, that doesn’t make it fun to read, and this is hardly the only way to achieve those results.

A heroine to whom the world happened, who was a pawn in a game bigger than she could grasp, who was constantly disadvantaged by being female, could have also been many other things. Ara failed to be anything but those things. She’s a pale stereotype of all the ways being a female in a patriarchal society sucks, who is defined by her weaknesses, ignorance and failings, with nothing to redeem her.

She never attempts to understand the political and social tides that toss her around. She knows as much as she’s forced to know (by absolutely necessity or because it’s unavoidable). She doesn’t ever draw any real opinions about what’s going on outside of her own skin (and very few about what’s going on inside, too). Throughout the story, she’s a doll moving with the tide.

She doesn’t have any real goals, until partway through the book when she decides that seeing a certain man (Thenser) again is what she wants. She is largely passive, accepting the positions she is put in by whatever man has possession of her at the time, and making whatever choices are expected of her. She spends most of her time waiting for her man to come to her, not the other way around.

To be fair to little Ara, the only times she is proactive or tries to pursue her own desires, she’s punished for it. The most extreme example is when she tries to join her beloved (Thenser, whom she is not even certain actually loves her), attempts to travel across an island being invaded, is (predictably) robbed, nearly raped (again), and winds up in prison, destined to be executed.

It doesn’t help that she’s a stupid (and I mean that in the literal ‘not-smart’ sense), self-involved little girl who never grows into anything more. This is another part of the novel that is frustrating for me: she has no character arc. The story takes her from age 13 to 17, and while she gains some new experiences, skills, and information, she doesn’t grow as a person. The only real change is that she’s fixated on a man she believes she’s in love with; Thenser the only thing outside of herself that she has any interest in.

Her reaction to extreme situations is also frustrating, especially as a reader. Ara often winds up near battles or in volatile, dangerous situations, where she must act. These could have been her opportunity to be proactive, to find that strength that she otherwise lacks, and even be an avenue for growth. Instead, every single time she’s under threat, she becomes distant from the situation. Emotionally and mentally, explicitly stated in the narrative, she checks out and avoids engaging with what’s going on. The first couple of times would be understandable – she’s a young girl who has never encountered real violence before – but this happens every time. She doesn’t learn, change, or grow. She doesn’t learn how to cope under those circumstances. Her escapes are either reflex or luck, like the time she accidentally killed a man trying to rape her because she had no idea she was holding a blade.

It might be realistic, but that doesn’t make it something I want to read, and it doesn’t make her a heroine. I kept waiting for her to find some strength in herself; the one time it almost happens is when yet another man is trying to rape her and she winds up hitting him over the head with something heavy. She almost redeemed herself there, but the internal monologue that went with it completely undercut any sense of strength or growth in her, and the next time she was faced with a threatening situation, she went all distant and useless again.

I kept hoping to see her grow into a heroine, into a glimpse of the adult she would eventually become, but I was denied. The truth is that I can’t think of a single heroic thing she does through the whole story.

The only thing that comes close is that she saves the life of a man she knows by crossing his name off an execution list. He (Thenser) goes on to be important in the wars that are raging, and later she grows fixated on him and winds up building her life around him. Is that her heroic moment? Enabling the story’s true hero to live?

This happens fairly early in the story, and I hoped that it was a glimpse of the heroine she would become. For the first time, she showed a glimpse of a desire to help someone who was not herself, and risked herself to do it. She seemed to want to do the right thing, to fight the killing around her in a way she could achieve.

Sadly, that’s the only time she shows even a glimmer of that sort of thing. It’s as if she ticked a box and moved on, back into utter self-involvement. Or, possibly, she spends so long obsessing over whether she’ll get caught that I think she was too scared to risk it again. Even though absolutely no consequences came of it for her.

For a story called The Heroine of the World, our protagonist is utterly reliant on men. For everything. She is constantly being saved by one, or waiting for one to rescue her. When she doesn’t need saving, she’s relying on men to feed and clothe her, guide her, teach her, house her, transport her to someplace safe, tell her what to do. (There’s a brief respite where she’s mentored by a woman, but even then it’s so she can learn how to be around – and catch – men, because Ara can’t learn anything unless someone is purposefully teaching it to her.) What she gives them in return is sex. Even when she saves Thenser, her one moment of risk for another person, she’s only successful because she uses her vagina to distract the man who might catch her (she’s 14 years old at this point in the story). And yet she fails to have any real sexual awareness and doesn’t even manage to become a vixen, using sex to manipulate men. She has not a single feminine wile that she’s able to use.

The sexual politics in the book are realistic and brutal, and those likely to be sensitive to that sort of issue should be warned. Ara starts a sexual relationship with an adult man at age 14, and he is an acknowledged paedophile in the story. There are rapes and attempted rapes throughout the story, including what’s probably best classified as consensual rape (she’s too passive to say ‘no’ but also does not say ‘yes’).

What about other characters in the book? Honestly, a lot of them are more interesting, but pall because we only see them through Ara’s self-involved eyes. She has no curiosity and no insight, which doesn’t really help illuminate those around her for a reader.

One example of this is poor Thenser, the one character in the book who pops up throughout. He meets Ara as a child, then later as a more developed teenager, and eventually becomes her lover. (The paedophilic vibes in this book are squirmingly obvious.)

The ‘romance’ between Ara and Thenser is strange at best. It’s obvious how Ara convinces herself that she’s in love with him (this is exactly how it feels to me – she talks herself into it), but I am utterly bewildered by Thenser’s attitude towards her. He seems to vary between bewildered, put-upon, tolerant, and exasperated, and yet he keeps coming back to her.

She’s a complication and a thorn in his side at many turns; she’s a childish and costly burden to him at others. This is an adult man who is actively involved in the powerplays and wars being waged around them, who is a key player in many senses, putting up with a girl trying to have a teenage romance. He never finds out that she saved his life way back near the start of their story (she never bothers to tell him), so what reason does he have to have affection for her or continue to look after her? It seems a lot like obligation coupled with heaps of mind-blowing sex, which doesn’t really balance out just how much trouble she causes for him through the story.

There’s also a suggestion that his affection is linked to the fact that she looks like her (adult) aunt, whom he tried and failed to screw early in the story (before the aunt died). Not exactly a healthy place for this relationship to be built from.

Why, Thenser, why? Apart from putting up with Ara, he’s the best candidate for a hero this story has. He’s the only redeeming thing about her, and she’s the thing that brings him down (repeatedly).

I want to grab both of them and shake them hard. Ultimately, though, Ara feels like a heap of missed opportunities, representing all the worst stereotypes of useless teenage girls.


There is one reason this is not a one-star review: the writing in this novel is glorious. It is rich and skilful, winding in beautiful imagery and metaphor that carries us along. The language is simply gorgeous (and probably the only reason I made it to the end of the book). Lee’s descriptions are works of art.

This is the type of language that deserves to be studied in English Literature classes. Truly beautiful, clever, poetic prose.

It is such a shame that she didn’t do something better with it!

The writing leans heavily on metaphors, mixing up the description with fantastical elements so much that a lot of the novel takes on a dreamlike quality. Sadly, this is also what makes the fantasy/magical side of the story not work.

There are moments when I suspect we’re supposed to assume that something magical or goddess-driven is happening, but because even mundane scenery is given high-blown, mystical imagery, it comes off as just another clever metaphor. There’s no differentiation between what we’re supposed to take as literal description and what’s colourful metaphor. Ara is so ignorant and easily bewildered by ordinary things, it’s hard to tell if she is being affected by something mystical, or just having a turn because she’s a bit flighty in the head.

It’s possible that Lee has done this on purpose. It’s possible that she’s making a point here; after all, in a fantasy world, magic is not fantastical or out of the ordinary. As a reader, though, there is no real differentiation between what we consider to be ordinary and what we would recognise as not of our world.

Definitely language and imagery worth revelling, though, whichever way you want to read its metaphors.

Would I recommend it?

No. I found the novel extremely frustrating and I dislike books that don’t deliver on their promises. Subverting them is fine, surprising me is fine, but simply failing is different. This book fails in almost every way that matters to me.

A waste of wonderful writing.

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Review: I Stopped Time by Jane Davis

I Stopped Time by Jane Davis

I Stopped Time
by Jane Davis

I got this book as a gift from my parents, who met the author in a bookstore and got her to sign it for me. I love books, so it was a great gift, even though I don’t usually read this sort of thing. My go-to genres for fiction are usually scifi, fantasy, or paranormal, while this is more ‘straight’ fiction, with a realistic historical element. I have been trying to read wider than my usual go-tos lately, so I thought I’d give I Stopped Time a go.

I was pleasantly surprised, enough that I was moved to write a review about it. So here you go! Enjoy.

In a nutshell

I Stopped Time is the story of Lottie and her son James. As a young woman, Lottie left her husband and baby son, and James never knew his mother. After Lottie dies at the ripe old age of 108, she leaves James her photography collection, which documents her life. Through these photographs, James has the chance to find out who his mother really was and why she left him.

Star rating: 4/5


I’m not going to give too much away here, except to say that the book is nicely paced and carries you along right to the end. It moves between the early years of Lottie’s life in turn-of-the-century Brighton and WWI London, and the elderly years of James’s life in 2008. It has some ups and downs, and it’s more about the characters discovering themselves than it is a romance or about falling in love with someone else.

The book manages to hold a few surprises and unknowns, despite the time disparity. We may already know that Lottie lives to 108, but how she gets there is still a discovery for the reader. I suppose it helps that it’s a discovery for her son, too.

On a logistical note, the chapters are all clearly marked so you know who is talking and where and when you are. I’ve seen so many questions from writers about how to handle multiple first-person POVs: this is an example of how to do it well. It’s easy for readers to follow, which is really the key when doing this sort of thing.

The only thing I would note about the plot is that Lottie’s story is heavily weighted towards the start of her life. We don’t get much of what happened to her after she left James and his father, and I definitely wanted to know more about it. We do get the most important parts shown to us; I guess I just wanted more!


This is a very character-driven piece, and Davis writes them well. Lottie is a realistic girl and becomes a realistic woman: flawed, immature, maturing, headstrong, uncertain, ignorant, smart, and learning. She feels like a person who might have existed in the world, rather than an idealised version of a woman, or a flat caricature.

She has some of the deep-seated misperceptions about herself that many women have but that you seldom see in fiction: for example, how she has no idea about how to judge her own appearance in terms of beauty, the idle rich confuse her, and she has complicated feelings about sex that evolve in an understandable way through the story. She also has a curious attitude towards duty and happiness: it forces her to leave her family and makes sure she stays gone, but not, perhaps, in the way you would expect. Her love of photography, and in particular how she photographs nude women, is interesting and nuanced.

Her story has an authentic feel to it that I love.

Likewise, James feels like a whole person, though he’s less accessible than Lottie. He starts the book very closed off, and as the story progresses, he slowly opens up: first, with the young woman who is helping him to analyse and understand his mother’s photographs, and through her and her own struggles with family, he opens up towards his now-deceased mother.

His story is more subtle than Lottie’s. He has to work past his resentment and bewilderment towards a mother who abandoned him; in that way, this 80-something man is still a little boy, wanting to know why his mother didn’t love him enough. This creeps out through the narrative in understated ways; some of James’s story is in what he avoids saying or admitting.

His journey is one of my favourite things about the book, especially the note that it ends on. I won’t say what it is, except that the final image of the book is perfectly crafted and entirely appropriate for the story being told. Beautifully done.

Other than the two main characters, there are plenty of rich people populating the story, from lovable Alfie to photography student Jenny. It’s hard not to fall in love with each of them. (Alfie still breaks my heart.)


It’s hard to know what to say about the writing: it was very clean and fairly invisible. I mean this in a good way: the writing didn’t get in the way of the story; it simply carried me along on a smooth ride. The language was lovely and the descriptions were evocative. Lottie’s story felt authentic for its period, and James’s felt like it was in a contemporary English village (which it was).

I don’t have anything particular to point out about the writing here except for the ending: as I mentioned above, the book ends on a wonderful image. It doesn’t bother to flourish or trail off into the distance; it just ends at a good and appropriate stopping-place, and leaves you with a good taste in your mind.

Would I recommend it?

Absolutely. It’s nicely written, a touching story, and a pleasant way to spend a few hours. I will warn that those with softer shells will likely cry in a couple of places. It’s worth it, so give it a go.

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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Trusting monsters

Lullaby make Hulk sleepy (Picture: not mine)

Lullaby make Hulk sleepy
(Picture: not mine)

[Contains spoilers for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron]

I’ve babbled at length about Natasha, sterilisation, and monster-hood. Now I’d like to turn my attention to the other side of that almost-relationship: Bruce Banner and his struggles with ‘the other guy’.

One element that I think Avengers 2 handled poorly is the Hulk’s departure. To be clear: I have no objections to him leaving; it’s how it was shown in the movie that fell down for me. (Maybe there are some deleted scenes that go into it more; it’s too early to say!)

This is another one of those things that you have to watch for clues about, and try not to blink or you’ll miss it (much of the character work is like that in Age of Ultron). The clues are there, but they rely on being familiar with the other MCU movies and take a bit of piecing together. Personally, I think we (the audience) are being asked to work harder than we should have to to understand why Bruce left.

Ultimately, in my opinion, it comes down to trust. To understand why, you have to understand the thing that is most important to Bruce: control. Specifically, control over himself. At the end of The Incredible Hulk, we see (Edward Norton’s) Bruce learning how to bring the Hulk out on purpose through training and meditation. In The Avengers, (Mark Ruffalo’s) Bruce makes a kind of peace with that part of himself and reveals that he can be in control of when the Hulk comes out – and that he’s willing to do it when necessary.

In Avengers 2, Bruce has been working to extend his control with Natasha and her ‘lullaby’. She helps him to put the Hulk away; shutting down that part of himself that he still resents and dislikes, though he’s willing to use it when the team needs him to.

Still, he’s reluctant to try for anything like an adult relationship or a normal life. He doesn’t think he’s able to have those things with the monster inside him. He takes a lot of convincing, and it’s no accident that Natasha – the one person who can consistently put the Hulk back in his box and give Bruce back to himself – is the person he might have this life with.

Eventually, he comes around. In one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moments, he says yes to her. They might not be running off and abandoning the mission like she suggested, mostly because they’re in the middle of a fight at the time, but it’s definitely on the cards. He says yes.

Unfortunately, his way of saying ‘yes’ is to tell her that he won’t change into ‘the other guy’ (“I have a compelling reason not to.”). Natasha’s response isn’t to tell him that they have a ‘code green’ or ask him to change just this one last time because they need the other guy: she pushes him off a ledge and forces the Hulk out.

That, I believe, is the moment she loses Bruce. He said no to the change and she ignored his choice. She disregarded his consent, took away his control, and betrayed his trust. The one person who is supposed to put the monster away proved herself willing to force it out, too.

We don’t really get any explanation of that. The Hulk is angry when he appears, but he’s always angry, and he’s quick to rush off into the battle at hand. He doesn’t take it out on Natasha (she’s standing right there) and doesn’t seem any different towards her. He looks out for her during the battle and makes sure she’s safe. And then he leaves.

Curiously, now that I think about it, he’s still in the Hulk form when he steals the plane and disappears. Is leaving something that the Hulk and Bruce agree on? Did she hurt them both with a single move?

I would have liked some clue in the movie about why Bruce left. No-one seems to have an explanation, not even Natasha. As the group’s chief manipulator (she charms the Hulk and manipulates Loki, for goodness’ sake), I would have expected her to have some understanding of the situation. Yet all we see is her staring off into space. Is she trying to figure it all out, or wondering how she could be such a huge idiot, or wondering if she’s destined to die alone for all she’s done? We’re not given any clues (that I could see), except that she’s clearly deeply affected by Bruce’s departure.

That’s the only way I can make this make sense. One small push shattered their relationship. One brief moment of pragmatism spoiled a romance. All of it very much in-character for each of those involved.

I just wish that we didn’t have to fill in the gaps ourselves.

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Defining monsters

Natasha and Bruce (Picture not mine)

Natasha and Bruce
(Picture not mine)

[Contains spoilers for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron]

There are a few things in the criticism of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron that surprised me. A couple of them are related to the Natasha-Bruce dynamic, so I thought I’d write up some thoughts.

First up, let’s talk about the controversy around the ‘should we date’ conversation between Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner in the Avengers 2 movie. I thought it was a nicely-pitched dialogue in a movie that didn’t have much room for character development or exploration. Other opinions vary widely.

When I come across heated debate that surprises me, I tend to get introspective, turning the opinions inside and around me over like rocks. Did I miss something? (I’ve only seen the movie once, so entirely possible.) Did I misinterpret or misunderstand what happened? These are the things I ask myself.

For those who haven’t seen any of the discussions about this yet and who are wondering what I’m babbling on about, here’s a quick rundown: in the scene, Natasha talks about how the Red Room made her into a killer, and how part of the process was a ‘graduation ceremony’ that sterilises the candidates, and how she’s a monster.

The criticism (that I have seen) about it revolves around the assumptions that the movie is saying that infertile women are monsters. I’m paraphrasing and extrapolating a lot here: please don’t shoot me.

I don’t think this assumption holds water. But before I get into how I read the scene and the intent of both the character in revealing this information and the writers who wrote it into the movie, I have to point out that part of size of this particular issue is that Natasha is the one of only two major female characters in the movie. Until this movie, she was the only female ‘superhero’ in the franchise (Pepper Potts and Peggy Carter are awesome but included as love interests; you have to go to the Agent Carter series to see Peggy being a true heroine).

Natasha has had a lens of representing women focussed on her, and I don’t think that’s fair. She’s one character, not every-woman, so it’s fallacious to lump generalised assumptions on her. For her to be a ‘realistic’ character, she has to have her own personality, history, failings, strengths, and goals. She can’t represent every woman everywhere – and I believe she shouldn’t. So using one small part of her character makeup to make statements about how it reflects on women in general is specious at best.

The movie’s makers are partly to blame for this generalised approach by having so few women in the cast. The only other one we really get to see in Avengers 2 is Wanda Maximov, and while she has a character arc in the movie, we really don’t get a lot of her. Certainly, not as much as Natasha. Maria Hill is present and functioning, but she has yet to have anything like a story or a character arc in anything I’ve seen (I’m behind on Agents of Shield, so I can’t comment on what season 2 might have wrought for her).

If they gave us more diversity in the MCU in general and the Avengers in particular, it would help dilute the strength of issues like this. I hope, at least. So get on it, Marvel people! Hurry up with Captain Marvel and add more to the list (I’d love to see a Spider-Woman turn up).

With that in mind, my first point has to be: you can’t generalise from one character to a whole gender and make a ‘statement’ out of it. Stop it.

Also, when it comes to making statements about genders from an issue like sterilisation, in this case I have to point out that there was no indication that the Red Room only sterilised girls. I’m fuzzy on the (comic) canon and the movie showed only fractured flashbacks, but do we have any evidence that the Red Room only trained female assassins? I think the comic version was girls-only, but the MCU changes stuff so I try not to make assumptions. If it was girls-only, was there a boys’ version somewhere? (It makes sense that there would be.) If both genders were being trained, how do we know that the girls were treated any differently to the boys? Natasha uses the term ‘sterilisation’, which gives us nothing to make gender-based assumptions on.

(Who knows, maybe we’ll get that Black Widow movie they’ve been teasing us with and find out for sure. But from the Avengers 2 movie alone? There’s just not enough there to make that assumption.)

Also, the assumption that sterilisation is worse for a woman than a man is sexist in itself and I don’t hold with that. Some men are deeply driven to be fathers. Some women hate the idea of having children. It’s all perfectly natural and valid.

So, let’s take the gender-based pouting off the table.

What about the assertions that the movie is presenting sterilisation as a way to make a monster? I’d like to break this down a little.

First of all, let’s assume that that is the statement (I’m not saying that it is; bear with me here). Consider the source: what Natasha tells us is that the sterilisation is done because the Red Room believes it makes them more effective agents. The Red Room believes this: the people who are shown training children in ballet and marksmanship, and, in one tiny flashback, telling a little girl she must kill someone. These are the same people who trained Natasha, turned her into a killer and made her do awful things to get ‘red in her ledger’. They’re the bad guys of Natasha’s story.

So, a group we’re supposed to view as ‘evil’ (or at least ‘bad’) believe that sterilising kids is a good thing to do. Personally, I don’t tend to put a lot of stock in a judgement that the bad guy spouts, and it’s very seldom the point that the movie is making or promoting.

Moving a little further along this particular thought pattern, let’s recall that the Red Room lost Natasha to the other side (where she’s now working towards redemption). So, despite the many varied ways they tried to screw up a child’s moral compass, Natasha is proof that they failed. That means that their training failed, including the sterilisation (which was a means, not an end), and that the Red Room’s assumptions about sterilisation were wrong.

Consider, also, the nuances of how Natasha speaks about her ‘graduation’. She says that she has come to peace with it, but it’s pretty clear that it’s still something she struggles with (she’s almost in tears at this point). It was done to reduce the potential distractions for the agents and, while on a practical level this might be true, it clearly wasn’t that successful.

The fact that she struggles with it shows that she didn’t lose that particular part of who she is (beyond the physical capability to bear children). Whether or not you believe it makes her less feminine, the sterilisation cut off a life choice for her but not her maternal urges. The way she is around Hawkeye’s children and how they react to her are shown pretty clearly to us.

I think I’d be more disturbed by the whole thing if she was okay with it.

Next, it’s worth looking at why she mentioned it at all. Bruce is telling her that he can’t be in a relationship because he can’t give her what he thinks she wants and needs: children. Her response is to tell him ‘it’s okay, I can’t have them either’. Her point is that they’re more alike than he can see. They both want essentially the same thing and have similar limitations.

Natasha is more willing to take the relationship further, however. She’s trying to convince Bruce to run away with her, abandoning the Avengers and everything that’s currently going down (pesky robots). She wants to make a life with him, without the team and the science and the missions. She is, basically, suggesting that they do exactly what sterilisation was supposed to stop her from wanting to do (being distracted by emotions in the middle of a mission). This is another sign that the Red Room’s tactics failed.

What about the monster part, I hear you ask? Didn’t she equate sterilisation to being made into a monster? No, not directly. She tells Bruce about the Red Room’s graduation ceremony and how it was designed to make her a better killer, a more efficient agent. The end is what makes her a monster, the fact that she was a killer, not necessarily that particular means.

Killing makes her a monster, not the sterilisation. It’s a pretty fuzzy speech and could have been better structured, but from the phrasing and delivery, I didn’t take away the meaning that sterilisation = disgusting monster. Natasha is far more complicated and conflicted than that, and it’s pretty clear that her main problem with herself is the violence that she has committed.

As far as her inability to have children goes, she isn’t brought low by it (as some critics would bemoan). Yes, it’s tough for her to talk about, but it hasn’t broken her. She’s pursuing a family anyway, involved with Clint’s children, and chasing a romance without fretting about it. She’s still kick ass and one of the most powerful Avengers (in terms of end results, at least). For me, it’s something that humanises her; it doesn’t reduce her, and I can appreciate that the movie didn’t shy away from a tricky topic.

Here’s the TL:DR version:

  • Let’s not read too much into the opinions of bad guys
  • Sterilisation failed to have the intended effect
  • Natasha doesn’t let it get in the way of being who she wants to be – or who she wants to be with
  • She hates herself for killing people.

Personally, I think it’s great to have a prominent character like Natasha dealing with an issue like this. In my eyes, it makes her more human, not less. (I have a fondness for extraordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, as well as vice versa.)

Coming up soon: Trusting Monsters (aka why did Bruce leave?)

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Riding the Fury Road

Tom Hardy as Max (Picture from Business Insider)

Tom Hardy as Max
(Picture from Business Insider)

I don’t often see movies as soon as they’re released. I usually prefer to wait until the cinema is a bit less crowded, which takes a few weeks, depending on the movie. I’m fine with that! I’m seldom impatient about these things.

With Mad Max: Fury Road, however, I felt the need to see it sooner rather than later. The amount of internet chatter is was generating was both eye-roll-worthy and intriguing, and I knew I’d get spoiled if I waited too long. I hate spoilers. I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, plus the trailers looked pretty kick-ass. The only solution was to go see it.

[Spoilers ahead, people. You have been warned.]

I loved it. The movie was pretty much everything it promised to be: lots of cars, huge chases, explosions, dust, dystopia, leather, and chains. It felt like a Mad Max movie on a fundamental level that is hard to describe. It was grotesque and violent, and weird, and kick-ass, and weirdly hopeful.

They had the balls to make Max more broken than usual, suffering from PTSD at inconvenient times and stumbling through the first half of the movie. He doesn’t speak much, which is something that critics* have complained about, but I don’t remember him speaking much in the first trilogy either. (It has been a while since I’ve seen the old Max movies, but I’m sure he was never a chatty character.)

His personal story is almost subsumed by what is happening around him and the situations he is thrown into; as lead characters go, he’s not one with a lot of agency. He reacts, he works to get himself out of where he is, and he helps those he feels some empathy with along the way because he can’t quite seem to help himself. This also gels with what I remember from those original movies, particularly the third one (who can forget Tina Turner and her iconic chainmail dress; not that he helped her, I just wanted to point it out).

He does have something of a personal journey, though, if you look beyond the explosions and spiky cars. He speaks more towards the end, and one of the more notable times is when he decides to take a more proactive step to help the group he is/was travelling with, by giving them advice about where to go next. He seems to make a kind of peace with his ghosts. At the end, he does something that I don’t think he has done since the first movie: he tells someone his name, and it’s important to him that that someone hears him and knows him. He feels like a less broken character than he was when we started, though he’s still a lone wolf road warrior (I don’t want to give too much away).

It seems to be something of a pattern in things I’ve watched lately: subtle character arcs that you kinda have to be paying attention to spot. Easy to miss in an action movie with a lot of other stuff going on. I love watching the little nuances in character actions and reactions, and I try to pick up on this stuff. Watch closely, people: it’s worth it.

But Max isn’t the brunt of critics’ complaints about Fury Road. He’s a feature of them (he’s the main character and he barely speaks!), as is ‘how dare they abuse a piece of American culture this way’ (which I find hilarious, because it’s an Australian film series currently featuring actors and creators from all over the world). No, the biggest complaint about the movie is what boils down to ‘omg, you got icky girl stuff on my manly action movie‘ (I’m paraphrasing all the ‘you tricked me into watching a feminist movie’ and ‘why girls why’ whining).

In the purest sense of the term, this is a feminist movie, in that women are shown driving, fighting, dying, and kicking ass right alongside the men. Women save other women, and some men. A woman saves Max (and he later saves her right back). Women fight for their own freedom from being sex slaves.

George Miller, director of the franchise, told reporters at Cannes that to rescue the five wives: “I needed a warrior. But it couldn’t be a man taking five wives from another man. That’s an entirely different story. So everything grew out of that.” (Via The Mary Sue.) This explains so much.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa (Picture via wikia)

Charlize Theron as Furiosa
(Picture via wikia)

The warrior he’s talking about is Imperator Furiosa, played by the ever-awesome Charlize Theron.

Not only does Furiosa have the gall to be a woman, she’s also handicapped (handi-capable? disabled? partially limbed? what’s the PC term these days? wait, no, I don’t care) because she’s missing half an arm. I can’t help but be reminded of Max’s damaged knee that means he has to wear a brace so he can walk properly: the brace is present in the movie but they don’t make a thing of it at all. Furiosa does quite well without a fleshy left hand, thank you very much, and she’s certainly not less capable because of it.

Despite the presence of boobies on her body, she commands respect from the men in her convoy, drives the entire movie forward, and proves herself a capable sniper, driver, and hand-to-stump fighter (she goes head-to-head with Max without her scary-looking metal prosthetic hand and holds her own). She’s a great character, fleshed out with a backstory and personality, and she’s not afraid to stand up and demand the respect she deserves. She kicks ass and gets where she’s going (which in a chase movie is something of an achievement on its own).

She’s not alone in the fierce female ranks, either. The five wives she’s rescuing (from sex-slavery to a grotesque being that it’s best not to contemplate too deeply) are all somewhat soft, but they still pick up guns and other assorted weapons to defend themselves, stand watch, and generally help in the whole endeavour. They are brave and determined, and not one of them whines about needing the protection of a man.

Then there’s the all-female clan that Furiosa is from: tough opposition for anyone in the Mad max world, even though some of them are ageing. They’re survivors, perfectly capable of holding their own, and not above using men’s weaknesses against them.

It’s not just the characters in the movie that do it, though: there are many other ways in which Fury Road is an equalist movie (or feminist, but go with ‘equalist’ if the ‘f’ word is too loaded for you). For example, it starts off with the wives already having been freed; the women are doing their kick-ass thing and Max pretty much blunders into their flight, through no will or action of his own. If you’re interested in more of the movie’s feminist aspects, Tansy Rayner Roberts has done an interesting analysis.

So I can see why the movie is called a feminist masterpiece. I can see why the whiny man-babies are pouting. See it anyway!

From a writer’s perspective, there are many wonderful things about this movie. It turns a lot of standard writing advice on its head, but it does it well – which is the key if you’re going to break rules. Chuck Wendig gives a detailed rundown of just how this movie blows apart the rules, in his usual entertaining, profanity-laden manner.

I think there’s a lot we can all learn from this movie, particularly as writers and artists. Part of what makes it work so well is just how hellishly entertaining it is – it’s a great example of the place I try to hit with my own work, mixing up entertainment and art. Perhaps one day I’ll do a more detailed analysis of the movie from this perspective, most likely after it is released on disc.

So there you go! Like I said: see it. They’ve already announced there will be a sequel, and Tom Hardy has confirmed that he’s signed up for three more movies. Personally, I’m looking forward to them already, whether or not Furiosa is involved.

* By ‘critics’, I mean people who have criticised the movie, not ‘film critics’, who are their own breed.

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Review: Judge Dredd (1995) vs Dredd (2012)

Judge Dredd (1995) Sylvester Stallone

Judge Dredd (1995)
Sylvester Stallone

Remakes seem very in fashion in recent years, and Dredd is but one of many. As is usual for me, I only tend to write reviews when I feel I have something particular to say about a piece of fiction (whether it is on screen or page).

I was late to the Dredd train, sadly missing it on the big screen and only picking it up when I saw it randomly on sale in the store. Once I got it home, I thought I’d amuse myself by watching the previous incarnation of the character on screen – Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone as the titular character – followed by the newer movie. It turned out to be an interesting contrast; they are very different movies.

(Note: I don’t read the 2000 AD comics that the character of Dredd is originally from, so won’t compare to the original source much. I’ll stick to what I know of the comics – the broad strokes – and leave the details to those who know more about that side of things than me.)

Honestly, the two movies are so different that it is hard to compare them. I enjoyed them both a lot, but for very different reasons. Could I pick a favourite? Probably not!

When I think about comparing these two movies, I have to say that it’s easier to say what was the same than what was different. The main character – the inimical and intimidating Judge Dredd – is there, his uniform and equipment are similar, it’s set in a city of the same name, and there’s an important relationship with a female Judge in it. Beyond those things, however, they are almost completely different.

Dredd (2012) Karl Urban

Dredd (2012)
Karl Urban

Let’s start with the big picture. They are both action flicks, but where Judge Dredd injects humour to lighten the load, Dredd is quite prepared to makes friends with the bloody dark and take you down into it. The 1995 movie is much more what I tend to refer to as an action romp, the kind you go into knowing you’re going to be entertained and probably grinning half the time. The 2012 movie, however, doesn’t pretend to be anything as light as entertainment: it’s gritty, violent, and doesn’t shy away from the downright nastiness and ruthlessness of the world the Dredd is trying to police.

Personally, I don’t see either of these things as more or less than the other: the movies have very different tones and seem to have set out to be very different beasts.

The plot of the movies couldn’t be more different, too. The scope is vastly different (and here I’m going to get very spoilery – you have been warned).

In Judge Dredd, the plot is so broad that it threatens the stability and order of the entire city/metropolis/megapolis (it’s the size of a small country), with world-shaping ramifications. There are secrets and twists in the plot, peeling back layers of conspiracy to reveal villains in places they’re not supposed to be. It also delves deeply into the main character’s background, raising (and answering) fundamental questions about who Dredd is and where he came from.

Dredd himself goes on a sweeping character arc, as he has to deal with being stripped of his Judge-ship (yes, that is a word, shh) and exiled from the city he dedicated his life to protecting and serving. He also has to deal with the ramifications of the revelations about his origin, a close personal betrayal, and the unbending of the stick up his ass. Long story short: he’s a changed character by the end of the movie.

Dredd, on the other hand, has a much narrower focus. We’re shown the situation in Mega-City through the lens of a single residential building. Granted, it’s a huge building, but almost the entire movie occurs within its walls. The villain is known from the start, there aren’t any real surprises as far as motives go (only a pretty minor betrayal, shown as an instance of corruption), and the plot is much more of a straight line compared to Judge Dredd‘s squiggling journey.

Dredd is a concentrated look at what daily life is like for these Judges, and shows just how dangerous and almost futile their position is. It doesn’t have anything like the breadth of vision of the earlier movie, and it doesn’t seem to need it.

With such a focussed plot, Karl Urban’s character journey can’t go anywhere near the heights and troughs that Stalone’s Dredd did. Instead, it’s quite the opposite: Urban’s Dredd is pretty much the same man walking out of the movie as he was going in. You don’t learn much about him or his background; you learn about what a badass he is and he has a shift of opinion about the rookie he’s mentoring through the war zone they’re trapped in, but that’s about it.

Normally, this would bother me (the lack of character arc is a big problem for me in Kill Bill). In this case, though, it doesn’t. It fits the movie, and it fits the kind of character that Dredd is. Anderson, Dredd’s rookie companion, goes through a metamorphosis and she has a distinct character arc, so the movie isn’t devoid of growth. It’s through the lens of her that we see into Dredd and it’s because of her that he shows some loosening of his grimness at the end.

For me, Dredd felt like the pilot to a new TV series. And let me tell you, I’d watch the shit out of that show. The movie was a slice of life, a glimpse into a huge world with a lot of scope and story just waiting for someone to film and give us. Don’t get me wrong: it was a complete story in itself, but I was definitely left with an enthusiasm for more.

Judge Dredd was definitely a movie in scope and story. The story packed in there was enough for a TV show to spend a season or two unpeeling for us. It didn’t leave a lot of room for more to follow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just different.

Earlier, I mentioned that both movies involve a relationship with a female Judge. Even this manages to be a difference between the movies.

In Judge Dredd, that relationship winds up becoming romantic (at the very, very end). The woman in question, Hershey, is a fully-qualified and battle-proven Judge, very much on a par with Dredd. It works because of the journey that Dredd has gone through by that point, both in himself and with Hershey.

In Dredd, the female Judge is the rookie he’s escorting for her first day on the streets (Anderson). The dynamic between them is quite different to that between other-Dredd and Hershey: here, he’s in the role of mentor, superior to Anderson, and she is established early on as a sub-par Judge recruit, promoted to the streets on the merits of the psychic abilities she has. Through the movie, Dredd moves from dark pessimism about her ability to survive the day to grudging respect, but at no point does it sniff anywhere near romance (or lust).

I found the lack of romance a relief. The default behaviour of movies to demand a romantic plot is tiresome, particularly action movies where the hero has to get the girl as if he needs that to be truly manly. Sometimes it fits the feel and plot of the movie, sometimes it’s a natural outcome for the characters, and that’s all good. But too often, it is shoehorned in as an afterthought. It wouldn’t have fit in Dredd for many reasons, and they didn’t force it. I applaud this decision. (I had the same reaction to the end of Pacific Rim for the same reason.)

I suppose you can’t talk about Judge Dredd and not mention the helmet. I remember when the 1995 movie came out, and the outcry from comic fans because Stalone removes the iconic helmet (and he’s without it for a lengthy swathe of the story). Apparently, this Does Not Happen Ever in the comics. I’m sure the fans were greatly relieved that Urban didn’t remove the helmet once, not even a glimpse of the man beneath the mantle of Judge beyond his constantly down-turned mouth.

It’s a big metaphor about the character of Dredd and what the movies did with him, but I’ve already talked about the respective character arcs, so I won’t hammer it again. You get the idea.

I guess I should talk about the cinematography of the movies, too. I’m no film technician or expert, so this will be brief, but even my amateur eyes noticed a few things worth mentioning.

In Judge Dredd, the breadth of the story is such that the visuals and aesthetic have a wide range, from scifi city and hover-bikes, to desert and dust, to rusted chains and a hovel in a cave. It’s pretty standard 90s scifi fare.

In Dredd, the focus is much narrower but that doesn’t make the visuals any less stunning. In fact, the aesthetic of the movie seems more crafted for the world it’s depicting and does a lot more work than the visuals in the 1995 movie.

It feels like they worked even harder to make the most of what was a fairly limited canvas, and you definitely get the gritty, grubby, hard atmosphere that is life in Mega-City. In comparison, the slow motion glimpses of the Slo-Mo drugged state are oddly terrifying and beautiful, diamonds against a dirty backdrop. Which is, of course, why that drug is so popular.

I find it curious that the same source material has produced such different movies. I haven’t even got to mention the comedic element that Rob Schneider brought to Judge Dredd, or the darkness of Lena Headey (of Game of Thrones fame) as Ma Ma in Dredd.

Even after all this consideration, I can’t pick a favourite from the two; it comes down to what mood I’m in. I still hope that they make a sequel to Dredd, though. I think there’s more (darkness and) fun to be had there.

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Review: Tomb Raider

The latest Tomb Raider game.

The latest Tomb Raider game.

I don’t often feel moved enough to do a review, especially when it’s a computer game. However, with this one, I feel compelled to record my reactions.

I don’t talk about it much on this blog, but those who know me know I’m a bit of a gamer. I love computer games and I freely admit that I’m not that good at them. I’ll never be one of those gamers who wins at competitions; honestly, I’m pleased when I find a game I can finish before I reach the limit of my skill or frustration tolerance. I don’t like PvP because I’m terrible at it and getting your ass kicked repeatedly sucks. Reflex or twitch-gaming isn’t something I excel at.

The games I like are usually RPGs of some kind, and I’m attracted by good stories and characters. Pretty graphics and the ability to kill the shit out of things are good too, but that’s not usually all I’m looking for in a game (only usually, because sometimes just running around and killing things is exactly what I’m looking for).

I have played (and finished! Go me!) a couple of the Tomb Raider games before: Legend and Underworld. They’re probably at the limit of my twitch-gaming ability, but I do enjoy making Lara Croft do cool shit and shooting tigers in the face. But let’s face it: the stories are okay and the characters are pretty static. Lara doesn’t tend to grow much through those games, if at all, despite the personal nature of the mysteries she unravels.

So when a new Tomb Raider game was announced that was going to go back and look at how Lara became the capable, kickass woman you flip, tumble, and fight through the games, my ears pricked up. An actual character development story? The writer in me brightened. Of course, knowing how these things usually go, my excitement was reserved until there was some proof that the promises had been fulfilled (I’m a poor, jaded thing).

I didn’t get the game as soon as it came out (I actually didn’t wind up buying it until about a month ago, when it was a reasonable price), but I did keep an ear out for the reactions to it. What I heard was disappointing: a lot of whining about the sexual politics of the game and how dare they put a suggested rape in. The objections centred around the suggestion that, in order for Lara to become the strong, confident woman we know from the other games, rape had to be threatened, as if there was no other way to get the same result.

Considering the historical sexualisation and objectification of Lara (let’s face it, she’s famous for the skin-tight outfits, short-shorts, and pneumatic boobs as well as (possibly more than?) for being kickass), this wasn’t a good sign. My enthusiasm was dented. But not enough to reduce my willingness to give the game a go. If nothing else, I was pretty sure there would be acrobatics and shooting things, and I was curious from a writing point of view just how well they really did with the character side of things.

My opinion of the game in summary: those who criticised the game based on the facet mentioned above focussed on one moment in a pretty long game. Out of context, yes, it can look skeevy. However, those reactionary statements don’t do the game justice. There is a lot to enjoy about the game, and the character stuff is well done. It has to be some of the best character development I’ve seen in a game.

(I’m going to get pretty spoilery from here on in; if you don’t want to know how the story goes, look away now! Go play the game instead.)

First, let’s get this out of the way: the thing I like least about the game is the name. There’s no subtitle or post-colon-term to distinguish it from the rest of the franchise, so I wind up referring to it as ‘the latest Tomb Raider game’. I get that it’s a bit of a reboot, but come on, guys. You could have called it Origins (oops, Dragon Age did that), or Zero (wait, Resident Evil used that one), or Beginnings, or Genesis, or something. But no, all we get is ‘Tomb Raider’. Confusing. I’ll be calling it ‘TR’ from here on in. Okay, everyone with me? Good.

This whole game is really about Lara Croft becoming a bunch of things. The promo material will tell you ‘a survivor is born’, and that’s true, but that’s not all. Also, there are many ways to be a survivor (some of which we see in the game) and Lara has her own, specific kind of evolution.

She starts out as a young woman fresh out of college (I think at one point it pins her at 21 years old), embarking on her first archaeological expedition and taking her first tentative steps in her father’s shadow. She has a bunch of people around her, each with their own stories and reasons for being there. But let’s focus on Lara for now.

So the ship bearing the expedition party crashes in a storm and Lara is thrown ashore with her crew and friends, and a bunch of hostile island inhabitants. Cue the start of a (literal) fight for survival, liberally sprinkled with superstition and something freaky going on with the weather.


The new-look Lara. Gotta say, I like it.

The new-look Lara. Gotta say, I like it.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Lara is still gorgeous, but she’s not the sleek, slinky, curvy ass-kicker we know from the other Tomb Raider games. She only has one outfit and it’s the one she washed up in. She gets increasing beat up, scratched, bloodied, and muddied through the game, and her poor vest suffers, Die Hard-style, until it’s a torn, stained mess at the end. (Luckily, she’s wearing something underneath, so her modesty is maintained.) Her hair isn’t all neat and sleek, and she winds up taping her pants together (you don’t actually see her doing this, but her outfit gains bindings of tape or string or bandages as you move through the game and she gets more beat-up). When she crawls through bloodied channels, she comes out covered in yucky red stuff. When she walks through the rain, she winds up a bit cleaner.

I have to say, her outfit isn’t the most flattering, certainly compared to other incarnations of Lara in the franchise. But she looks like a real girl. Her boobs are reasonably proportioned, which is always a good start. And she’s still nicely put-together; she’s a more realistic attractive woman than before. I’d love to know where she got the bottomless pockets, though; where does she keep all that equipment she’s not using? In which crevice does she put her shotgun? (I love that particular game mechanic.)

It’s also worth pointing out how well the movement was done in this game. All of it was motion-captured from the actress who voices Lara and it shows: the way she moves is smooth and plausible, and nicely done. The actress’s movements are graceful and neat but not fluffy or girly, with the right amount of femininity, all of which fit Lara and the things she has to do.

The other parts in the game were also motion-captured, so they’re likewise pretty slick. I appreciate good animation and graphics. Good job.


From the outset, Lara is set out as a sensible, capable person. Her mentor, Roth, is an adventurer and we learn early on that they’ve climbed mountains together before. He taught her how to hunt with a bow, start fires, and other general ‘survival’-type stuff. So her base skills of shooting things with bows, climbing rock faces and being physically capable are established and explained early on. This stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere, which is a tick in the ‘good’ column for me.

She doesn’t know everything, though, and Lara gets help from others over the radio through the game. The tech guy from the ship’s crew helps her set up a beacon at one point, telling her what she needs to do. Roth also gives her instructions and encouragement over the radiowaves, particularly in the beginning sections when she needs it most. She has realistic gaps in her knowledge, doubts herself, needs encouragement and support, and so her abilities made sense to me. So often in these types of games, these kinds of thing can come out of nowhere and you just have to accept them. I like that that’s not the case here.

The one thing that jarred with me was the upgrading of her equipment. Lara adapts her own weapons, which seems a bit of a specialist thing to do, like extending mags and adding extra capabilities. Some of it was clearly ‘let’s tape a grenade launcher to the rifle and now BLOW STUFF UP’, and I’m pretty sure even I could figure out how to do that, but other types of upgrades started to strain the believability somewhat. On the other hand, blowing stuff up is awesome fun, so I’m willing to let it go, and as she had to collect ‘salvage’ to make the upgrades, I can accept it as a game mechanic.


Again, very well established in the game as part of her background. A cinematic shows us that she has driven this expedition and it’s her information that has led the ship and its merry band of explorers to the home of an ancient (creepy) queen. She’s confident and competent in this area already, and clearly knows her stuff. She doesn’t particularly grow here, though there’s plenty of lore for her to pick up and learn as she runs around the island.

However, her attitude towards archaeology and what it actually means to her, her father, and the world does change through the game, as she becomes a:


If you’ve played the Tomb Raider games at all, you’ll know that supernatural stuff is real and active in the world. There’s power and truth in those old legends, and worlds beyond the one we walk in. But once upon a time, all of that was just stories and superstition to Lara. Until she gets to this island.

It’s a long and fairly subtle journey for her, going from academic and sceptic to archaeological believer of legends. More than that: it’s realistic. I buy her gradual realisation that the storms really are keeping people on the island, even though she doesn’t understand the power controlling it (it could be mechanical, right? Or something?). The facts support it. I like that she doesn’t automatically assume it has an extraordinary explanation, or that the Sun Queen is somehow responsible. It has to be proven to her.

Belief doesn’t come easily or simply to Lara, and that fits her personality, too. It’s not until after she sees the Sun Queen’s spirit with her own eyes that she accepts what has truly been going on on the island (though she starts having suspicions before this). She doesn’t come to terms with it all until she reflects on it in the closing cinematic, and this is where we see this part of the Lara we know sliding into place: legends are real and archaeology has a lot more at stake than mere academic interest. It’s a big change for her and how she views the world, one she hasn’t truly come to grips with, and I believe it. That’s why it’s well done.

Killer / Warrior

The bow: Lara's favourite weapon and tool.

The bow: Lara’s favourite weapon and tool.

In computer/video games, bad guys (human or otherwise) tend to get killed off with abandon (and sometimes very thin excuses). They’re shooting at you, so you shoot at them, it’s all good. Very few games that I’ve come across delve into the character impact of all of these killings, but TR is one of them, and it’s a refreshing change. Lara’s first kill isn’t off-hand, it isn’t brushed past, and it isn’t done casually at all. It’s a Thing, which is as it should be.

This is where the aforementioned threatened rape comes in. But let’s put it in context. (Here, I’m getting incredibly spoilery.)

By this point, Lara has survived a shipwreck, woken up hanging from the ceiling in a creepy cave with lots of dead people and candles around, escaped, found and lost her friends a couple of times, and she has now been captured by the freaky islanders again. She has her hands tied behind her back, and the leader of this group of freaky islanders orders the shooting of Lara and another couple of crewmembers from her ship. Those crewmembers are shot in cold blood right in front of her. She has an opportunity to escape, so she takes it, running and sneaking through the camp with her arms still bound. The island men are looking for her. She can’t move well or fast, and she can’t use any tools; all she can do is move and hide.

She’s spotted. A man drags her out of her hiding place and pushes her against a wall. Hands distinctly wander. He tells her she’s going to die. Lara struggles and tries to fight back, and they both end up on the ground. She manages to scramble away and break the bonds around her wrists, allowing her to grab the gun the man just dropped, and he’s coming at her again, so she fires… and he’s dead. And then she collapses to her knees and freaks out, because there’s a dead man and she made him that way.

So, is it the wandering hands that made her stand up and kill him? Was it the threat of rape that tipped her over the edge? I don’t think so. It contributed, yes, but either way, she knew she was going to die horribly. He was going to do awful things to her that would kill her. It was survival and instinct, and shooting him was a natural response.

The threat also fit the situation. These island men were all wrecked there, and they are all men; there aren’t any women among their ranks and that’s probably something to do with their habit of sacrificing them in an attempt to get off the island. Does that mean that all men are rapists if put in this milieu? No, that’s naive, but it does mean that rape is more likely. It’s a brutal and violent society. It’s also something that a man might do to threaten a woman, whether he meant to follow through or not. This is exactly the type of threat that could be expected in that situation.

Also, it’s one moment in a struggle, one I wouldn’t have given so much attention to if it hadn’t been for the histrionics I’d seen in the reviews and reactions (some of which I believe were in response to the pre-release promo, without actually seeing the game itself). If you fail to help Lara fight free, the man strangles her; there’s no follow-through on the threat (I know because I failed this bit the first time through, whoops).

Through the whole sequence, I love Lara’s reactions, because they seem like a real person’s reactions to this type of situation. She defends herself; and she was no cowering creature before then, either, so it’s not like it was a huge change in character. She loses her shit when she sees what she’s done, despite the fact that she’s still in the middle of a camp crawling with men just like the one lying in front of her, all of whom are looking for her. Killing is a big thing and it takes her time and emotional strength to pull herself together enough to fight her way out of the camp, but she does it (killing more in the process, but the emotional damage is already done). Later, she stumbles over admitting the killing to Roth, still shocked by what she has done and coming to terms with it.

The rest of the game is rife with weapons, killing, and bad guys falling by the wayside, but I think the character side was nicely done. It’s perhaps a little too easy to fall into the rhythm of the violence, and she doesn’t have emotional reactions to it repeatedly (which is a relief, because that would get annoying). At the same time, she grows numb through much of the game, doing what she knows she has to, running and jumping and fighting, swimming through pools of blood, climbing over mounds of body parts (I’m not kidding), fighting a guy who seems to be too huge to be real, battling mysterious ‘oni’ and suspected undeads, going up against the ghost of a dead queen… yeah, Lara has a lot of traumatic stuff to deal with. She freaks out occasionally. Her hands shake. And then she deals with it and moves on, focussing on her goal. She does whatever unpleasantness she has to to get herself and her people off the island, because she led them there and it’s her responsibility to get them safely home.


The tagline that the game lives up to.

The tagline that the game lives up to.

It’s all of these things that make Lara from the inexperienced, shocked woman who washed up on a beach into the survivor who is strong enough to pull herself and her friends out of a hellish situation. The whole game is her evolution, far more than that one moment when she was caught with her hands tied behind her back. The rescues that come for them are thwarted, but she pushes on, determined to find an answer. She loses friends along the way – painfully – and the losses she suffers all spur her on to save those she has left. She takes control of her actions and she takes responsibility to fix whatever is happening, to save the people she loves and led there. She becomes capable of rescuing herself and her friends.

I think this game achieved exactly what it set out to do: it explains how Lara became the woman we moved around in the previous Tomb Raider games.  Better yet: it promises that future TR games will continue on this new deeper, more character-focussed vein. A glimpse around opinions on the subject suggest that Crystal Dynamics intend to do this, carrying Lara’s story through into a rebooted storyline. Darker and grittier than before, with deeper, more complex characters, all of which I thoroughly approve of. Personally, I can’t wait to find out where they take it next.

Other Characters

Lara’s not the only character in the game, so let’s look briefly at the other members of the game’s cast. Lara comes with several friends and crewmembers, all of whom have pretty well-defined personalities. They’re all quite distinct from one another (apart from the generic crewmembers who are killed close to the beginning of the game).

They don’t all like or obey Lara; she’s not the boss in this expedition and she has to earn their respect. No-one follows her blindly and some refuse to follow her at all, for reasons that are explained in the game’s story. The ship’s mechanic, Reyes, gives Lara a particularly hard time, which is in line with her personality and the inter-personal clashes between the two of them.

Through the various game zones, we find bits of the crew’s stories (though how their letters and journals got all over the island is a mystery to me). We’re allowed glimpses into their backgrounds and motivations. We get to read an apology to a far-away daughter, and a slide into dangerous delusion. It’s not often that I’ll take the time to read content like this, but I enjoyed it in this game. The voiceovers probably helped!

We’re encouraged to care about these characters, so much so that it’s upsetting when they die (I won’t say who!). I didn’t particularly like all of the characters who were alive at the end, but at the same time, I liked that it wasn’t only my favourites who survived. Sometimes, puppies die to drive the story forward, and that only works if we care about them.


This is a review of a game, so I should touch on this. I liked the interface and the controls (I play these types of games on the XBox 360, so it’s a controller for me). I was able to pull off the required manoeuvres without too much trouble or repetition, which is always a plus for me, despite some of them being pretty complex.

The combat was pretty good; I usually play this kind of game on Easy for the first run-through, because I don’t like being shot in the back of the head repeatedly (like I said earlier, I’m not the most skilled gamer), but it was a fun challenge. There are stealth options as well as ‘blast the crap out of it with a shotgun’ options, so you can choose the tactics that work best for you and the situation. There was plenty of ammunition lying around, too, so you’re not really in danger of running out completely (something which some games use to create a false sense of difficulty, I find). There’s usually enough for at least one of your weapons to fire, and if you need a particular weapon to progress (like blasting a door open with the aforementioned shotgun), there’s always ammo available at that point so you aren’t held up or stuck because you used all your shells in that last fight.

There is a lack of the big, complex puzzles that are a staple of the Tomb Raider franchise. Personally, I didn’t miss them too much. The zones and optional tombs contain small puzzles, and I was inordinately pleased with myself when I managed to figure them out all on my own (without looking up the solutions, which I’ll do if I’m getting too frustrated with a problem that has an unobvious solution or no way to figure it out beyond trial and error). That probably says more about me than the game.

The other thing that is missing from TR is Croft Manor, which is an explorable area that gives you bonuses in the other games. I don’t miss it, and it wouldn’t have made sense in the context of TR, which is entirely set on a single island. So I’m glad they cut it out of there. Instead, you’re able to go back through all the areas on the island to pick up collectables that you couldn’t access or missed previously (which unlocks bonuses). If you have a completist urge (like me), this is a welcome thing, though the ‘fast travel between campfires’ mechanism is a bit weird (it’s not exactly realistic, where most of the game seems to be striving for realism). I’ll live with the weirdness, though; it’s better than running back through the maps.


Do I really need to write this bit? I’m pretty sure you know what I’m going to say here by now. I enjoyed the game. The story was well-constructed and the character work was wonderful. It’s refreshing to see a strong woman explained in a way that doesn’t make her deeply damaged, a bitch, an ice queen, or a whore. It’s nice to see Lara less shiny and sexualised, and I like the grittier, harsher edge to the game (compared to other games in the franchise).

There’s a brilliant contrast built into the game. At the beginning, Lara looks at herself in the mirror of her cabin, just before the ship is wrecked. Much later, you take her back to the (ruined) ship, and she catches sight of herself in that same mirror. The difference in her appearance speaks volumes, and the story of the game is captured in that look.

Bravo. I’d like to see more games like TR, please.

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Review: Sucker Punch

I’ve toyed with writing a review for this movie since the first time I saw it. A lot has been said about it before, and while I don’t read reviews as a rule, I’ve heard many conflicting things from friends, the internet, and random other media. Most of those things were negative. I can’t help but wonder what movie they were watching.

I bought Sucker Punch out of idle curiosity and because it was cheap. The movie is so unlike what I had heard that I feel like I’ve got a review worth writing. And, hopefully, reading.

There will be lots of spoilers. Be warned!

Let’s start with the criticism I had heard of it, if only because it made Sucker Punch such a pleasant surprise for me. In a nutshell, the objections I had heard said that it was gratuitous and cheap, and it was little more than an excuse to dress pretty girls up in sexy clothing and run around trying to be kick-ass.

My response to that is that those critics didn’t understand what the movie was about. Yes, there are pretty girls in it, and they do kick ass in many awesome ways, but it is far from gratuitous or cheap. I’ll come back to the sexy clothing later.

This movie is smart. The smallest thing can have meaning. You have to pay attention if you want to pick up all the clues, and some of them will only make sense in hindsight. This isn’t some gaudy, smack-em-up movie you can watch with your brain switched off; it’s a lot more than that.

The Story

The movie starts with a sequence reminiscent of the beginning of Pixar’s Up. No dialogue, just action telling us the protagonist’s backstory leading up to her incarceration in a mental institution, overlaid by a beautiful rendition of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. (The music is important in the movie, and beautifully done. I love soundtracks and this one is rapidly becoming one of my favourites.) It works wonderfully; I approve of sequences that work without dialogue, where skilful acting and cinematography can carry the story without words.

Then we are in the bleak world off the insane asylum. The setting is 1950s, when these establishments were still a viable place to dump troublesome young girls. Babydoll, our protagonist, has just accidentally killed her sister while trying to protect her from a lecherous step-father. He has bribed an orderly to get a rush lobotomy done on her, so that she can’t tell anyone what really happened.

Babydoll has one week before the doctor arrives at the asylum to perform the procedure. One week to escape. This story is about her fight for freedom, and though it doesn’t end as she had hoped, she is satisfied with how it all turns out. She achieves her own kind of freedom – one of spirit rather than body. She grows beyond herself and achieves a kind of redemption for the mistake that put her there.

She also pulls four other girls into her escape attempt and infects them with a desire for freedom. Babydoll is joined by the defensive Sweetpea, her little sister Rocket, the mis-named Blondie, and resourceful pilot Amber.

Alternate Realities

There are three different levels of reality in the movie, each more fantasized and abstract than the last. They are full of representation and meaning; they are metaphors and allegories. They build out the story in pieces, layer upon layer. In that way, it is like Inception, but without the plotholes (I may expand on that in a review of Inception one of these days, if I ever take the time to see it again).

The first level is reality: Babydoll’s grief, her mistake, and her incarceration in the asylum. The impending lobotomy. It is bleak and hard and painful.

The second layer is a brothel, where the girls dance for and ‘entertain’ the customers. It is colourful and glitzy in places, and in others the veil between it and the asylum is very thin.

In the brothel, the girls are objectified and abused. The escape plan is formulated and enacted at this level, rebelling against this world (as well as the asylum reality beneath it). It is a dressed-up prison from which the girls have to gain their freedom.

I find it interesting that Babydoll chooses a brothel as an abstract for the asylum. The sexual aspect of this world may not be entirely metaphorical (towards the end, the asylum orderlies say that they won’t ‘hurt these girls any more’, suggesting that they have been abusing them in some way, most likely sexually). What is clear is that the brothel world is better than reality, and that speaks volumes about just how awful the asylum was for these girls.

One of the main plot points is that the girls have to dance seductively for the clients. Surprisingly, we don’t ever see any of these dances; the closest we get is a glimpse of Sweetpea rehearsing, and her dance is graceful rather than provocative. In fact, she tells Babydoll off for writhing and moaning (in a dance that is not shown), because Sweetpea doesn’t like that kind of thing. A gratuitous movie would have shown us any or all of these things.

Babydoll’s dances are where the third level of reality/fantasy comes in. When she dances, she goes to a place in her head where nothing else can touch her. She steps into another world and experiences a story. I suspect that professional dancers will be familiar with this concept!

The movie takes us into those internal worlds with her and we never actually see her dance. That is one of the best choices the movie makes, in my opinion. We don’t need to see the dance (the reactions of other characters tell us all we need to know about it, and seeing them would have been gratuitous and unnecessary), and I love that the moviemakers made the choice not to show them. What we do see is much more important.

Each dance takes us into a different world, depending on what Babydoll needs to do most at the time. The first one is about summoning her courage and weapons to start to fight back against where she is; it’s the start of her journey to freedom. She has to learn how to fight and realise that she is capable of it. At the end, she is equipped with resolve: her most important weapon of all.

In the second world, we see all five girls working together for the first time. Here, they have to learn to act as a team and trust each other to retrieve an item they need in order to escape. The third and fourth dances enact further parts of the plan, each one different, each one changing the girls as they work towards their goal.

The Fantasies

Let me say up front that the four fantasy worlds are beautifully put together. They are creative and convincing, and worked seamlessly into the narrative so that they don’t jar at all, despite being wildly unlike the brothel that we have just stepped out of. The soundtrack shines through and around these scenes, smoothing off the edges and helping to stitch the movie together.

These worlds are, I think, the parts of the movie that have seen the most criticism. This is where the girls kick ass; this is where they take hold of their courage and their power; and this is where they are their most impressive. They set out on a mission and they take on anything in their way without hesitation (even when that ‘thing’ is a huge, fire-breathing dragon).

In their minds, they can have swords and guns, and they can hack down their enemies. All of their enemies are carefully and pointedly not humans: they are demons, or clockwork zombies, or orcs, or robots. Therefore, the girls never turn to actual killing, not even in their fantasies; this is about will and courage, not brutality. In reality, these girls are powerless and trapped, but this is a journey and standing up to enemies on the inside is the first step. Each piece builds towards a greater whole.

And do they dress sexy to do it? Mostly, yes, though not overly so. They’re not gratuitously running around in skimpy outfits – they are, for the most part, sensibly dressed and modestly covered up. Babydoll is the exception, with her fondness for the schoolgirl outfit, but the others are more practical.

Let’s not forget that this is a fantasy world, and, more importantly, this is the girls’ fantasy. What girl would dress herself up in ugly clothing and ratty hair in her own fantasy? Girls like to feel pretty and sexy, so it’s no surprise that they’re dressed up, with make up on and their hair done. They don’t look like whores; they look like girls who know how to look after themselves. (Even in the brothel, they’re dressed like dancers rather than hookers or strippers.)

The costumes reflect their personalities as well. It’s no accident that Sweetpea’s outfits get more armoured as the story progresses: she is the protective older sister, always defending Rocket when the younger girl gets herself in trouble. Babydoll’s schoolgirl outfit is an expression of her personality, too, rather than something imposed upon her.

The Heroines

The movie opens with a voice-over (before the silent sequence) that talks about angels. There is, at that point, no clue about who that voice-over might be from, or who the angels she’s talking about are.

The voice-over doesn’t return until the end of the movie, and it’s not until then that we find out who the movie was really about. Only one of the five girls completes the journey to freedom and makes it out of the asylum, and it’s not the one the viewer might expect.

I like that Babydoll doesn’t get to walk off into the sunset. She gets a brighter, sadder end to her story, but it’s one she’s content with. It’s the price she’s willing to pay. In a single week, she has not forgiven herself for killing her sister, but she has gained a kind of redemption by helping someone more worthy to become free. She’s a heroine, even though the story isn’t entirely about her.

When I picked up Sucker Punch, I wasn’t expecting an intelligent movie. I wasn’t even expecting a good movie. What I found was a smart, slick, beautiful tale with stunning visuals and an outstanding soundtrack. I thoroughly enjoyed watching (and re-watching) it. I recommend that you give it a try; maybe you’ll be surprised, too.

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