Category: Reviews (page 1 of 62)

The Lessons Within “The Last Jedi”

Be advised: there will be spoilers in this treatise. I can’t discuss what I want to discuss without getting into detail about the plot and the arcs of the film’s characters. Fairly be ye warned.

Before I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I heard about all of the negative takes on it, all of the review-bombing, all of the neckbeard hatred getting spewed all over the Internet. It made me more than a little angry; the troglodytes and trolls who march to the drum of GamerGate and the myth of misandry and the Nazi party simply can’t take a hint, which is frustrating. I resolved to avoid spoilers as much as possible before I finally saw the film.

And now that I have, the vile vitriol of these chuckleheads is just downright amusing to me.

The whole point of The Last Jedi is that we need to let go of our pasts. In order to truly move forward, to be better versions of ourselves, we have to do away with preconceived expectations and deal with the now, in order to build a better future for ourselves and those we love. Above all, we have to learn from our mistakes.

And everybody in The Last Jedi makes mistakes.

Courtesy Lucasfilm

Let’s not mince words, here. The mistakes made by Poe get a lot of people killed. From the very beginning, Poe’s “take the fight to the enemy” attitude costs the Resistance the bulk of their fighting forces. He goes one step further when he disobeys Admiral Holdo’s orders to support her and hold their course. She knows Poe is reckless, that his macho never-say-die swagger and desperate plans are an unknown factor she cannot trust. And that lack of trust got under Poe’s skin so much that he sent Finn and Rose on a wildly dangerous mission and lead a mutiny against Holdo’s command. Poe made his mark in our lives, and in the life of Finn, by being an ace pilot and a bit of a maverick; it is these aspects he must face and overcome in order to grow. He — and we — erroneously believe that those things are always good things, when the reality is that it pays to dial back the recklessness and seat-of-the-pants ‘handsome rogue’ routine when other people are counting on you. That sort of thing, in times of crisis, can be downright toxic or even deadly.

Finn makes plenty of missteps in his own story. He is “a man who wants to run,” and that’s still his first instinct. Granted, it’s to undertake a desperate plan to get the First Order off of the back of the Resistance, but it’s still running away, on his own. Rose intervenes and finds a way to go with him; this does not stop him from continuing to fail. Even after he finally decides to stop running and dedicate himself to the cause of the Resistance — which, incidentally, is why the sequence in the casino matters — he keeps making mistakes. At the climax of the story, he puts himself in a position to make a “heroic” sacrifice in a suicide attempt to destroy a First Order weapon; Rose denies him that, doing serious damage to herself, but “saving what we love” is a better way to seek victory. She’s right, Finn screwed up one last time, and you can tell from the expression on his face that he’s going to learn from this mistake.

Courtesy LucasFilm

Learning from failure is something Luke Skywalker needs to do, as well. He got ahead of himself and operated under the assumption that the old Jedi Order was something that needed to be preserved. In his hubris, he completely mishandled the training of his nephew and gave rise to an individual who ultimately becomes the Supreme Leader of the First Order. He is so struck by the completeness of his failure that he removes himself entirely from the rest of the galaxy. It is only through Rey, her determination to carve out her own place in the scheme of things, and her unflagging belief in the idea of the Force as something that guides and protects, that Luke is shaken out of his depression and forces himself to come face to face with his mistakes. It is only through Rey — whose lessons are reinforced by Master Yoda — that Luke learns from those mistakes and manages to make a difference, saving lives in the process. Even perhaps, in the long run, the life of Kylo Ren.

Few characters exemplify toxic masculinity as completely as Kylo Ren. His power and potential are regarded with fear by his parents and his uncle. Snoke takes him in only to abuse him and exploit him. His alienation and isolation cause him to turn to the memory of his grandfather and the fascist scheme that created Darth Vader. Moreso than Armitage Hux, a power-hungry despot who fetishizes the Empire’s military might and comprehensive brainwashing, Kylo longs to be relevant and powerful. Since so much of his life has been out of his control, he wishes to seize control, and the only way in which he’s been shown to do so is by force. He and Hux both want to be bigger, badder, more powerful, and more famous than their predecessors. If that’s not a manifestation of the alt-right zeitgeist, I don’t know what is.

Courtesy LucasFilm

Is there a redemptive path for Kylo Ren the way there is for Luke, Finn, and Poe? It’s difficult to say. He comes across to Rey as someone who wishes to help her, to become her ally. Partially due to seeking a relationship that is not abusive, and partially because he merely wishes to posses her, he reaches out to her, coming dangerously close to being ‘seduced’ by the Light. Rey, for her part, feels the pull of the Dark Side, the quick and easy path to power that promises to fix all of the problems in her life and in the galaxy. These are two characters who have been tossed about by tides of life far beyond their control, and who wish to make their own way forward. Kylo’s biggest mistake is in trying to tell Rey that his way is best. He both offers her insight and mansplains the Force to her. He does everything he can to win her over — not necessarily in a romantic sense, but to prove that even in recruiting a follower, in using methods other than abuse and force, he’s better than Snoke.

Rey, for her part, holds onto her belief in herself. She’s always been a person who reaches down into the depths of her own being to find strength, power, and answers. She turned to Luke because the Force was something she barely understood, and he encouraged her to feel it on her own terms to find her own purpose, as he did when he was young. It occurs to me that if he’d taken this approach with Ben, rather than adhering to what Jedi Order teachings he was trying desperately to preserve, things might have been different. But having made that mistake, he tries to learn from it and gives Rey the instruction she needs — the answers lie within oneself, in our own light and darkness, and it is we who must make the choices that decide the course we take. To Rey, discovering that the Force is not unlike the path of self-reliance that’s guided her until this point is the sort of epiphany we all seek — it’s as simple as it is empowering.

Courtesy LucasFilm

I know that I’m not the first to see The Last Jedi in this way, but I hope that in taking things point by point, character by character, I can illustrate why I feel this is a better film than Empire Strikes Back — it has more to say. To me, the best science fiction, even a fantastical space western where people hack off each other’s limbs with laser swords, says something about our society at large. If anything, Empire Strikes Back is a time capsule that latches onto the fears of its time. The characters are betrayed by friends and crushed by enemies. But these are things that happen to them, not because of them, with the exception of Luke’s decision to try and rescue his friends. The Last Jedi gives us active characters across the board whose choices, especially their wrong choices, shape the story that unfolds, rather than allowing it to unfold around them. If the story of Empire Strikes Back is one of fear, The Last Jedi is one of determination. And that will always be more empowering and more meaningful than fear.

Poe, Finn, and Luke all become determined to learn from their mistakes, to turn their failures into lessons that can be applied towards making the galaxy a better place. That’s what makes them heroic, not the explosions they cause or the sword fights they have. Kylo is blind to his flaws and failures, for the most part, and that’s what makes him villainous. The film is not merely saying “here is what toxic masculinity is”; it goes on to say “and here is how you can be better than it, if you stop and think and learn how.” Our heroes need to fight themselves just as much as they need to fight their enemies, and as exciting as their face-offs with their enemies might be, their struggles to overcome themselves and their pasts is, to me, far more meaningful.

Courtesy LucasFilm

I love this film. I love that its female characters are strong, determined, and supportive. I love that its male characters are flawed, insecure, and emotional. Nobody’s dumb, and nobody’s a caricature. These feel like real people. You can understand them, empathize with them, and desire to see them improve and grow — even a character like Kylo Ren. “You can be better than this,” I want to say to Kylo, as much as to many other people that have been in my life. “Why aren’t you better than this?”

The Last Jedi, in addition to being an exciting sci-fi adventure, a well-shot and nuanced film, and a worthy continuation of one of the greatest sagas of our time, is a living example of how we can learn from our failures and overcome our flaws. It shows us people, men in particular, who have fucked up and possess the strength and wherewithal to learn from it, to do better, get better, be better. This isn’t just something that applies to us now, even if the film is cast within a certain encapsulation of our current socio-political climate. It’s a timeless lesson, one that I myself have had to learn, and that will never lose its edge or its power as we move into a future that, one hopes, is better and more prosperous than the past we will, and must, leave behind.

Courtesy LucasFilm

That’s the whole point of it. Learning from our mistakes means letting go of our past. Stop fetishizing those things you hold dear, stop falling back on old habits and lines of thought, stop trying to force the world to conform to your point of view. Instead, look within yourself at your failures and flaws, learn what you can from those choices, and dedicate yourself to overcoming the obstacles you’ve created for yourself on a path to being a better person. Only then will you make the world a better place. You won’t do it by screaming at everyone else how wrong they are about things and calling them names.

As much as I laugh at the enraged fanboys, I can’t help but pity them. They completely miss the point.

That, to paraphrase Master Yoda, is how you fail.

Learn from those failures, or be defined by them.

It’s your choice.

Adventure Review: Quelling the Horde

“Quelling the Horde” (DDEX03-09) is an Adventurer’s League module set during the Rage of Demons story arc. The story it tells is a classic one: farms and homesteads are getting sacked by goblins, and adventurers are needed to rise to the challenge. This time, some of the goblins seem to fancy themselves as ‘knights’. Calling themselves the Skullspike Clan, they gruesomely drive metal spikes into their heads to resemble crowns, and ride on death dogs and giant toads during their raids. Something is definitely driving them to this madness, and it’s up to the players to discover that something.

There is a misprint, in some editions of the adventure, claiming it is optimized for five 1st-level characters. However, in its opening text, this claim is for five 3rd-level characters. This can confuse some DMs, and lead to sticking points. For example, a party of mostly 1st-level characters encountering the scarecrows at Callidell Homestead as written can struggle mightily, especially if none of the party has fire-based attacks. It’s definitely something a DM should be aware of in preparing to run the adventure.

That aside, the adventure is a solid one. There’s opportunities for investigation and interaction before hitting the main feature, which is the Skullspike Caves. There are goblin antics with training different mounts, an encounter with an incubus, and the final confrontation with Agrak, leader of the Skullspike goblins. There are connections to the Underdark that tie the adventure into the greater Rage of Demons story tableau, and the adventure is flexible enough that it can stand on its own or be part of a larger campaign.

: Would run again with some modifications and a better handle on keeping the party moving.

Book Review: Ready Player One

Fan Cover by Ali Kellner

I state the following without hyperbole: the first few chapters of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is some of the most difficult reading I’ve done in a very long time.

Not because of the nature of the events, or even the quality of the writing, in and of itself. It was difficult because it was just so damn proud of itself for the number of 80’s references it was making. Reading over our protagonist Wade’s list of 80’s nostalgia subjects was like reading over the results of a search for “80’s pop culture references” and had just about as much emotional effect. Hey, I remember the Atari 2600! I remember Adventure! I remember Joust! I remember WarGames! I remember… wait.

Let me back up. For those of you who don’t know, Ready Player One takes place in a near-future Earth where things are not necessarily post-apocalyptic, but are definitely bleak and cynically prophetic. With fossil fuels all but gone and the global economy in dire chaos as a result, homelessness and unemployment are as rampant as power outages and autonomous corporate monstrosities. The only refuge most people have is in the OASIS, a free (ostensibly) virtual world which allows user VR access to a universe that takes notes from the Matrix, MMOs, and even SecondLife. Our protagonist, Wade, is a high school student who uses the OASIS for his schooling, since he lives in a refugee camp/shantytown of stacked RV trailers called… well, “The Stacks”. He is also participating in a hunt for an item hidden within the OASIS by its creator, who recently died, and left the bulk of his fortune and the controlling share of the OASIS to whomever can find the item. Wade is not alone, however; not only have many other nerds started the hunt, but a corporate rival to the OASIS’s company has mounted a major operation with tens of thousands of employees scouring the virtual universe for the item. What chance does one little reclusive nerd has against those odds?

Well, if he starts rattling off 80’s pop culture references every time he takes a breath, his chances are probably pretty good.

I grew up in the 80’s. I didn’t quite hit my teen years until 1990 or so, but I do remember a lot of the things Cline gleefully barrages readers with during the opening chapters of Ready Player One. When he described the crude, pixelated characters of the Atari game Adventure, I could picture it clearly in my head. I’ve played through the D&D dungeon “Tomb of Horrors” a few times since I first learned how to play 2nd edition in the 90’s. Quick aside: I am really looking forward to the full-blown campaign being built around the latest version of the dungeon. It’s called “Tomb of Annihilation” and I plan on ordering it in at my Friendly Neighborhood Comics Store.

The novelty of Cline’s zeal in rattling off his references quickly wears off, and soon becomes tiresome. Yes, Ernest, we get it, you love the 80’s, and a lot of other nerds do too, and this is aimed at making them feel like this is a story for them. That this protagonist is someone they understand and can relate to. Specifically, the tone and timbre of Cline’s opening feels like it’s leaving out huge chunks of cheese for spectacle-wearing mice, where the cheese is references to Back to the Future and Joust and the mice are mostly males, and probably a majority of them are white. It felt, to me, like pandering to a horrifyingly shameless level. I nearly stopped reading entirely.

Like the hunt within the book, Ready Player One contains three gates. This was the first one, and it was definitely the hardest one for me to get past. And to get past it, I had to take a step back.

Ready Player One was published in 2011. This was a time before the Oculus Rift, perhaps the most prevalent equivalent to the OASIS’s VR/haptic hardware. This was a time before GamerGate and the rise of social justice as a major component of the online narrative. Hell, this was a time before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was really a thing; until The Avengers debuted on 4 May 2012, nobody really thought Marvel could pull off its grand experiment. The world into which Cline presented his novel was one where nerd culture was still most definitely a sub-culture, one far less part of the public narrative than sports, celebrity scandals, and reality television. Tournaments for games like StarCraft II happened largely away from public eyes in the Americas and Europe. Other accessible mutliplayer games geared for what is now called ‘e-sports’ like League of Legends, Hearthstone, and DOTA 2 hadn’t been released. Unlike today, where you can find people playing D&D every week on Critical Role, if you wanted to see people doing that, you had to find a special episode of Community or a fan film like The Gamers.

So, yes, while Ready Player One is pretty blatant in pandering to a certain demographic, at the time of its publication, that demographic was not this directly represented. Sure, plenty of white male power fantasies existed — comic books in and of themselves were as power-fantastic as ever, and look at games like God of War and Call of Duty. But here was a novel in which the protagonist, like much of its intended audience, was a reclusive nerd. Even during the first few times we see him in the OASIS, he’s kind of a loser. He starts getting ahead because of all of this esoteric knowledge he has in his brain. Not because he gets bitten by a radioactive spider, or discovers an alien rock, or because he’s some kind of Chosen Onetm. Wade finds the first key, and clears the first gate, by knowing his D&D, his Joust, and his WarGames.

I can see the narrative merit in that. I saw that there was some value in a protagonist, especially in the context of young adulthood, thinking their way through a problem rather than punching their way through it. When I looked at it from that perspective, I found it a bit easier to move forward with the book. And, to be honest, the references became less pervasive and persistent as the book went on. Such was clearing the first gate of the book — whether you embrace and delight in the references, or merely endure them, accepting them gets you into the meat of the story.

Spoilers abound past this point. Fairly be ye warned.

The second gate involved seeing Wade as a human being. With all of the pandering in the narrative’s set-up, and the many ways in which it was clear (at least to me) that Wade was meant to be just as much an avatar for the reader as Parzival was Wade’s avatar in the OASIS, how do we contextualize Wade as a person? This involves not just raising the stakes but also making Wade respond to pressure, dealing with real complications, and so on. When his horrible aunt and her idiot meathead of a boyfriend are killed when the evil corporation bombs the trailer where Wade had his mail sent, it’s horrific, but Wade walks away from it pretty nonchalantly. By now, as an online celebrity for clearing the first gate of Halliday’s challenge, Wade has sponsorship money in no small amounts and can look after his own needs. Sure, it establishes EvilCorp — sorry, “IOI” — as a pretty major threat, but it also shows Wade is capable of planning and forethought to a pretty high degree considering where he goes and what he does next to keep himself safe for the hunting to come.

There is a romance, and this being not just a novel with a young adult protagonist but a romance in the context of online, things run anything but smoothly. It feels like pretty standard teen angst, albeit with the backdrop of nerd ephemera and virtual laser-gun battles. The zero-g dance party held by The Great And Powerful Og was a highlight, to be sure. But it isn’t until another character is killed — literally yanked out of his rig and thrown out a window by IOI goons — that suddenly the threat becomes incredibly real. In his conversation with the victim’s brother, Wade shows us that he has a capacity for respect and compassion that, honestly, runs extremely counter to how straight white male nerds tend to comport themselves in modern society.

I feel that it is this, just as much the moment where I considered the second gate of the book cleared, is really what sets Wade apart from quite a few other young adult protagonists. While he did get a little obsessive over his paramour Art3mis in the wake of her cutting off communication, lovesick teens do a lot of dumb shit. He never goes so far as to invade her privacy or compromise her safety or integrity, but he does do the whole standing-outside-the-window-with-the-boombox routine. The window, in this case, being set in a huge fortress on the remote world of Benatar. Wade is someone who can learn from his mistakes. He can take steps to improve himself — he sets up a system for himself to get and stay in shape rather than just become a sad sack of meat strapped into an OASIS rig. And, most of all, he can see past the digital avatar to the real person on the other end, and imagine them complexly.

When he sits with Shoto, the brother of the murder victim, their conversation is quiet and meaningful. There are no explosions of angst or huge dramatic reveals; instead, Shoto tells his story, Wade conveys his condolences, and they start to plan what to do next. This could have been another young-adult-standing-in-the-rain moment; instead, both Wade and Shoto demonstrate a strength of character that is not only difficult to find in the genre, but all too often lacking in many of the denizens of the Internet we deal with here in the real world.

What happens next in the book, with Wade infiltrating IOI, was to me, a very pleasant surprise. After all of the tiresome reference-making and the teen angst — which, again, Cline handled very well — we come to a moment where Wade risks everything. He sacrifices his safety, his comfort, and his very identity to find a way to overcome the villains. He doesn’t do this by kicking down doors, shooting up goons, or even confronting the enemy mastermind in the real world. He lays out an elaborate plan in secret, sets himself up for success, accepts the hardships that will be involved, and without a word to his friends, disappears into the IOI corporate machine. To me, this sequence is the highlight of the book. Moreso than the explosive climactic battle (which I’ll get to), this demonstrates what Cline is capable of in terms of storytelling. Devoid of his toys, his resources, and his allies, left with only his wits and whatever he prepared for in advance, Wade has to be clever, subtle, and think on his feet to accomplish his goals.

There’s no violence, no explosions, no rants, no moments of big drama. Just tension, a touch of corporate horror, and — if I’m honest, much to my delight — a very subtle nod to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.

I never said all of the references were bad ones.

The second gate is cleared when Wade is picked up after his real-world infiltration gambit by one of his closest friends and allies, H (spelled out ‘Aech’ since the OASIS doesn’t allow one-letter monikers). While presented in the OASIS as white and male, H turns out to be neither of those things. How does Wade react? Barely at all. H’s race, gender, and sexuality matter very little in the grand scheme of things. Cline, in his fashion, may make the point in a bit of a heavy-handed matter, but considering how relevant a point it is to this day, in this case I think it’s justified. Wade’s character sketch is now complete; we can move on to the third and final gate.

The third gate is — what’s the point of this story? What’s it trying to tell us?

As much fun as the epic final battle is, with everything from a tiny Johnny-5 robot being a key part of our heroes’ plan to a showdown between Mechagodzilla and Ultraman, the payoff for all of the fireworks needs to be worth all of the time it took to set everything up. While Wade’s obsessive knowledge-farming and gaming skills get him up to the climax of the battle, it is a combination of things that see him through to victory. He relies on a little luck — a one-off scene from earlier in the book becomes incredibly vital to success — as well as knowledge his friends possess that he does not. In the end, his recollection of Halliday’s message to the world and an understanding of where Halliday’s heart lay are what secure victory. And what lays beyond for Wade is not just the prizes and the accolades, but something far more interesting — he has the ability to turn the OASIS off.

Would Wade ever push the Big Red Button? I don’t know. Probably not, not unless IOI put some sort of virus into it that might kill everyone if he doesn’t. But that seems far-fetched. The message, though, is that Wade can turn it off for himself and, more than likely, should do that more often. After all, he’s proven that he can handle himself in the real world, without having to be some kind of hyper-masculine badass or post-human savant. His friends respect him because of who he is, not because of what he can do for them. The last scene of the book, between Wade and Art3mis (Samantha) in a lovely garden maze in the real world, is quiet and touching, and it makes it clear that however amazing and dangerous and empowering a virtual world like the OASIS might be, it is the people we connect with, not the systems we use for that connection, that really matter. And it doesn’t really matter who that person may pretend to be, but rather who exists behind the digital avatars and the character sheets and the bells and whistles. That’s what matters. That’s the crux of the story. That’s what lies beyond Ready Player One‘s third and final gate.

Maybe I’m still too optimistic after all of these years. Maybe I’m trying to find meaning where there is none, where other critics see just an endless pile of pandering 80’s references aimed at a demographic that already has more than enough representation in pop culture, thank you very much.

I can’t shake the feeling, though, that Cline has smuggled something to us under all of that seemingly shameless tat and glitzy graphics in our minds that actually means something. On the surface, Wade is a stereotypical gamer — reclusive, introverted, obsessive, maybe even selfish or downright mean. But look again at how he treats those around him. Examine the way he tackles his problems. Read over how he looks into himself when he runs into obstacles, and how he works to overcome them. How many gamers do that? How many dedicate themselves more to practice and self-improvement, rather than screaming imprecations and slurs and insults at their opponents before throwing down their controllers and jumping on Twitter to blame SJWs for the woes of the world?

Wade takes responsibility for his actions, and pushes himself to do better. He doesn’t give up, never stops trying. He reigns himself in, checks himself, corrects himself. This is something a lot of people, not just gamers, fail to do when the time comes for the individual to step up and do the work necessary to make things right.

This is why I ended up liking Ready Player One. This is why I feel it has value, and why I will be interested to see how Speilberg’s film adaptation turns out. I don’t think it’s a “HOLY GRAIL OF POP CULTURE” as the self-fellating promo text tells us in the preview. I think it’s good, and honestly, better than its superficial reference-making pandering appearance would make it out to be. Like Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors, if you can navigate the various traps and get past some of the more monstrous parts of things, there’s definitely treasure to be found.

In my honest opinion, to see a protagonist behave like a decent human being in a world where most of the populace would rather be anything but a human being is definitely a treasure worth finding.

It’s easy to blame the controller or the other player or the world or your circumstances for whatever made those dreaded GAME OVER words flash in front of you.

It’s a lot harder to dig out another quarter, take a deep breath, and put yourself in harm’s way again.

Ready, Player One?

Cover artwork by Ali Kellner

Doctor Strange Is My Hero

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I’m going to take a break from pontificating on our current crisis and the implications of the resurrection of ultra-nationalism to talk about a comic book wizard. Because it’s a form of self-care and it’s something that tickles the cockles of my imagination.

I used to do reviews on a fairly regular basis, and while there’s definitely enough going on in Doctor Strange to warrant several paragraphs, I’d like to dwell more on why I feel like the character is one of the best transitions from page to screen Marvel has done yet. Let’s keep it simple: Doctor Strange is the best Marvel origin movie to date. It has compelling and complex characters, downplays the humorous elements to rely more on well-woven world building and truly stunning visuals, and even gives us a villain with more depth than a soup spoon. Not lots of depth, but its there. It’s well-cast, well-written, and Jack Kirby is smiling from the Great Beyond at the capture of his visions of the realms beyond our reality. The true strength of the piece, however, is Stephen Strange himself.

Way back in 2010 I pontificated on Strange in the comics, given the decision to have him lose the title of Sorcerer Supreme due to an act of hubris that, while motivated by the best of intentions, cost him dearly. In the film, we can see both that hubris and that humility and self-sacrifice, which I’ll get to. But what makes Strange stand out from the start is his baseline level of self-awareness. He knows how great he is, but he tempers that with taking opportunities to save lives as well as proving it. The opening scene’s bullet extraction is a fantastic, pitch-perfect moment of character-building without too much exposition or too many bells and whistles.

Okay, from here on, it’s spoiler territory. Fairly be ye warned.

When he loses the fine dexterity of his hands, Strange pushes himself to find a way to fix himself, improve himself. He isn’t motivated by an outside force, nor is he willing to settle for a more mundane profession, like teaching or dictating his theories to another person. While he is ambitious, arrogant, and even antagonistic at times, to the degree he alienates friends & colleagues and burns up his life savings, he is still seeking a return to his former glory, a position where he can regain his cushy lifestyle and keep saving lives. That, by itself, makes for a good story.

Then, when he arrives at Kamar-Taj, a very interesting thing happens. Once the Ancient One actually allows him to study, he throws himself into those studies. The haunted and hurt surgeon gives way to the astounding and curious student. A legitimate bookworm and very quick study, Stephen Strange gains a fundamental grasp on the essence of the Mystic Arts even as he struggles with the hand gestures that manifest even the most basic of spells. His focus on and struggles with his mangled hands do get in his way, but when he is studying, he gets out of his own way to a degree that is even more inspiring than his redemptive struggle itself.

Then, after the obligatory Marvel cinematic fight and chase scenes (which are still Inception-levels of creative and compelling, no seriously, they are that good), we come to his confrontation with Dormammu, ruler of the timeless Dark Dimension and overall sadistic bastard. What does Doctor Strange do? He doesn’t unleash any offensive spells, never throws a single punch. Instead, he uses his mind. Knowing that time is foreign to Dormammu, he locks himself and the godlike creature in a time loop, bewildering and frustrating his opponent rather than seeking to destroy or even cripple it. Haunted by the one murder he did commit (even if it was in self-defense), Strange pushes himself to redeem the act, refusing to do actual battle with Dormammu. He dies, over and over and over again, to fill Dormammu with such impotent rage that the entity has no recourse but to bargain with the sorcerer. His calm and somewhat whimsical admission that “pain is an old friend” perfectly encapsulates this strategy. And it works. At last, we have a Marvel movie that reaches its climax in a way that, while gruesome, ultimately resolves in a non-violent fashion.

And after all of that, Strange is not Sorcerer Supreme. He has no predefined destiny, no obligatory position as an exemplar or pinnacle-occupying hero. Instead of promoting his own genius or prowess, he humbly becomes the mere guardian of one of the Sanctum Sanctorum locations that protect our world, and offers his assistance to those who share his goals, even if they present a possible threat. He shows intelligence, discretion, charisma, and an ongoing desire to continue improving, continue changing, continue to do and get and be better than the man he was at the start of his journey.

This is why I hold him in higher regard than Captain America.

I may get some backlash for this. But while Captain America basically was born as a paragon of the virtues United States citizens aspire to exemplify and wish their country would represent, Stephen Strange is truly a self-made and ever-improving vanguard of actions matching intention and morals defining actions. Relying on his wits and intellect rather than physical violence or even his powers, he shows us that what it takes to be a hero isn’t what you are, but the choices you make, especially if you’ve made bad ones in the past. Steve Rogers has made mistakes, but not to the degree of Stephen Strange. Tony Stark has improved himself, but not to the degree of Stephen Strange. He is simply, in my opinion, head and shoulders above the rest. And not just because of the Cloak of Levitation.

I’ll be watching Doctor Strange quite a few more times. I suspect it will join other works in my yearly practice of revisiting narrative moments that inspire me on a foundational level. There are echoes of who I was, and goals for who I want to be, in the cinematic portrayal of Stephen Strange. This deeply personal connection, along with its production values, memorable portrayals, and mind-bending effects, is why Doctor Strange is, if not the best, one of the finest Marvel movies they have or will produced.

The Aftermath Review: Let Go Of Your Hatred

There are a lot of people out there who don’t, and won’t, like this book.

I’m pretty sure I know why, and it has nothing to do with the plot or characters of Aftermath: Star Wars. It has to do with the book’s very existence.

Courtesy Del Rey Books

You see, Aftermath, written by Chuck Wendig, takes place between the end of the original trilogy of films, Return of the Jedi, and the upcoming JJ Abrams addition to the franchise, The Force Awakens. It chronicles the effect of the fall of the Empire’s leadership and the loss of the second Death Star on one of the far-flung worlds in the galaxy, and how its people struggle against an Empire that refuses to surrender or fade into the night. I won’t go into laborious detail about it, because in the end equation, it’s not anything terribly original. Oh, the characters fill out their roles quite well, coming across more like people and less like cardboard cut-outs, and the use of present tense keeps the action well-paced and immediate rather than getting bogged down in exposition or pontification. For what it’s worth, Chuck does what Chuck does best: punchy dialog that doesn’t mess around, Hemingway-esque connective prose that’s just as short and to-the-point, and just enough intrigue and provocative ideas to keep the action from feeling too shallow or the characters too weak.

For the record, I don’t think this book as quite as good as some of Chuck’s other work, such as Blackbirds or The Blue Blazes. Merely my opinion.

BUT.

The point is that, as Star Wars novels go, this is a good one. While it doesn’t quite have the grandiosity of Timothy Zahn’s works or the space swashbuckling of Michael A. Stackpole, it also doesn’t suffer from the byzantine structures of the old expanded universe. And that’s a big part of the reason why people hate it so much.

They might say negative things about the plot or characters, but I cannot imagine that a large portion of the negative reactions come from a biased perspective. While I may be biased towards Wendig’s writing in general, I am also a long-time Star Wars fan, and I mourned the loss of Zahn’s trilogy and the exploits of Rogue Squadron when it was announced that the old canon was being ejected. It hurt, to be honest.

But things change. And we move on.

In the end, you really can’t ask for a better bridge than the writing of Wendig, both between the two films and the old EU and the new. It does its job, workman-like, moving the story towards its ultimate destination and using enough familiar faces to acclimate open-minded readers to a universe both old and new. All we have to do is let go of our hatred of change and the unfamiliar. Much like a black stormtrooper, a three-bladed lightsaber, or a woman in shining armor, change is good even if it seems strange or unnecessary, and it is up to us to embrace it and see where the new journey takes us. Anything less cheapens our beloved stories, derides the creative endeavors of people like Wendig, and makes us look foolish and childish. Do better, Star Wars fans. Be better. Let go of your hate.

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