Last night I saw Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Now, with one or two complaints I dug the first Kingsman flick. It was bombastic, over the top, beautifully shot and just fun. The second movie is so fucking flawed, and it's sad because one or two tweaks and this movie could have gone from good to great.
The 2016 reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise represented a departure from the norm when it comes to films aimed at women. But there's something else amazing about the Ghostbusters reboot. Not only is it a feminist masterpiece and a fun damn movie, it is an allegory for sexual abuse. (CW: rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, misogyny.)
So, I know I'm particularly late to get to this rant, but Wednesday I had the...um...unfortunate experience?...of seeing the Fantastic Four reboot. (Look, in my defense, I've been under a lot of stress, it was cheap and I just needed to get the hell away from Kickstarter for a couple of hours. Don't judge me.) When I left the theater, I was pissed. Many are the reasons for my ire. Alright. Where to start?
Let's start with the simple problems. This movie is FULL of shitty writing.
(I would warn you about spoilers, but I don't think anything is spoiled here.)
First off, the relationships are all half-baked. Sue and Johnny Storm don't come across as siblings at all. When they're on screen together there is no chemistry, let alone any sort of familial bond. Reed Richards and Sue? Eh. Weak sauce. It comes across that Reed thinks she's pretty, but there's nothing there in terms of romance. Reed and Ben Grimm? No depth. Ben's devotion to Reed has nothing behind it. Ben and Johnny? They don't start quipping with each other until the last 3 minutes of the film. And then there's Victor Von Doom. His relationships with--well, everyone--are flaccid. We get that he is a creeper for Sue the way he stares longingly at her, but that's all performance. That's the actor. Doom and Reed partner up well, but don't develop any sort of bond. Doom and Ben? They meet five minutes before Doom falls into a pit of green lava. And Johnny? Well, Johnny and Doom do seem to have a decent playfully antagonistic relationship. This is only shown in a single line exchange that happens to be the solitary line in the movie that is a true Johnny Storm character moment.
Johnny: This is Borat. Borat is a Dick.
And that was it.
Basically, these 5 characters are supposed to be the crux of the film, but instead, they are pawns just being moved around by plot rather than their own motivations. Their relationships never get the opportunity to form, and their own personalities never get to develop. They are all, at best, two-dimensional characters.
When your characters have no arc or depth, when their relationships have no meaning, there is no human element to latch onto. The story becomes little more than a vehicle for CGI effects and mass destruction sequences.
And let's talk for a moment about the plot, such as it is. The plot is that Reed (with Ben's pocket knife and .... I guess his silent presence and free reign of his family's salvage yard?) has created interdimensional travel without realizing just what he was doing. When his school science fair (a scene totally ripped out of Disney's "Meet the Robinsons", I might add) DQs him for being smart, Dr. Franklin Storm and his adopted daughter Sue show up (random!)
From there, in a move from 80s classic "Real Genius", we see a group of college students working on a major project that the military wants for itself. Doom, a brooding emo drop-out, is pulled in with the promise of seeing Sue. Johnny is coerced by his father to join the team so that he can get his car back and return to a life of illegal street racing. They build the thing. They succeed. They fail. They get powers. Doom is left for dead. The military gets their fingers in, weaponizing the people involved as well as the technology. They rebuild the teleporter. They find Doom. Doom goes apeshit. Four people--one of whom has been absent for a year--suddenly know how to power stunt with one another to defeat Doom.
Weak. Fucking. Sauce.
The pacing of events is also strange. We spend too long getting to "Planet Zero", the alternate dimension where the plucky smart kids will get their powers. And in all that time, we're not building relationships. We're not DOING anything but watching construction montages and Franklin having arguments with Doom and Johnny about how much potential they have. (Basically, Franklin spends the whole movie thinking he knows what's right for other people.) Again, there's nothing human to latch onto during this time. You want them to succeed because you're told you want them to succeed. The audience has no skin in the game. By the time we get to the second act--all events that happen AFTER the ill-fated trip to Planet Zero--we're snoozing. (Literally. My friend that saw it with me fell asleep. Multiple times.)
Act 2 is a lot of showing how the military are responding (poorly) to the development of four kids coming from Planet Zero and having pyrokinetic powers or fluctuations outside the visible spectrum. We see Sue being left to fluctuate on a table. They're just watching Johnny burn. Reed is being stretched to his limits and seemingly tortured while Ben is left alone to be a rock. And Franklin can only watch as his children--biological and adopted--are in dire straits. We see more training montage action, but again, there's nothing to grasp.
There's a lot of wasted potential in Act 2. We should be seeing Ben trying to cope with body dysmorphia and how the government is using him to kill. We should see his depression, his loneliness. But we don't. It's all flat. It moves quickly, but jerkily, into the third act which, like many films these days is riddled with problems. Most of those problems though are because of the poor set up with characters.
In my review of "Star Trek: Into Darkness", I told you about the Hollywood Formula of characters. Protagonist, Antagonist and Relationship Character. A satisfying story comes when we like our protagonist and can root for her, when someone clearly presents obstacles (antagonist), and there is a person who has been around the block who can help bridge gaps between protagonist/antagonist and protagonist/audience. For a story that "works", all three of these roles need to be clearly related in the film or text.
We get that Reed is our main protagonist. We follow him. He leads the audience into the story. His goal is also pretty clear: make a teleporter. However, for most of "Fantastic Four", we don't have a clear antagonist.
You would think it would be Doom, right? I mean, we've read the comics...or we've seen the first attempts at bringing the Fantastic Four to screen. Even if you haven't, the name DOOM kinda outs him as the baddie, right? But that's the thing...he's not the antagonist. He's not the one getting in Reed's way of his goal.
In fact, for most of the movie.... no one is. No one is trying to make things more difficult for Reed. Only once the team has succeeded in making their device does an antagonist show up.
Government Man. (Does he even have a name?) Anyway, this is the military liaison who wants the project. He shows up and is the face of evil, not just because he's trying to keep the kids from finishing their work (going to Planet Zero), but he represents everything DOOM hates. Everything Franklin is working against. The Government Man is the antagonist. Which, to me, says that Doom or Franklin would be the best choice for relationship character. They share the role.
However, it seems that "Fantastic Four" writers didn't learn from my rant about "Star Trek: Into Darkness" because what happens in the third act? Doom, our relationship character, takes a leaf out of Khan's book, squishes the head of the antagonist and then assumes the role.
Beyond that, the characters? They're all wrong. Again, this could be due to poor pacing and just lazy writing, but the characters are little more than namesakes of the original Fantastic Four.
Ben Grimm looks like Peeta from the Hunger Games. He's silent and just kinda plods along with Reed. He doesn't have his own strength, even though he's supposed to be Reed's rock (Watson to Richards' Holmes.)
Doom is emo, and while he does have a bit of a vibe of "I'm smarter than you, and I don't need you", he's not egomaniacal enough to be DOCTOR DOOM.
Johnny? Oh my god, I jerked at one line because the wrongness of it slapped me in the face. Johnny Storm--our adrenaline junkie--is afraid to go repelling on the surface of Planet Zero. BULLSHIT. Johnny would've been basejumping. Doom says, "We need an anchor." That anchor SHOULD have been Ben Grimm. It always was. Ben had no place to go into the fissure and no motivation to do so. Poor choice, writers.
And then there's Sue.
The original comics are rife with sexism. Sue Storm is the Invisible Woman for a reason. She's a commentary on what men at the time thought a woman should be: pretty, silent, come when I need you. Unfortunately, while this movie seemed to ignore the source material for, well, almost every other character's motivations...they kept this tidbit in tact.
In the film, Sue Storm is portrayed as smart, but cold and distant. She is pretty, an object of both Reed and Doom's affections, however that seed--like most planted in this film--doesn't grow to anything resembling fruition. And her role in the team is to MAKE THE CLOTHES they'll wear when they go to Planet Zero. Yes, environment suits are important, but they've literally got the woman MAKING THE CLOTHES.
When the experimental teleporter works, Government Man walks into the room with Sue, Reed, Johnny and Doom and this is his line:
"Gentlemen! Everyone! Good work."
*jaw drop* SHE's standing right there! I get that you're trying to punctuate "Invisible Woman" but there are better ways to do it, assholes!
And, when the guys decide to go to Planet Zero, does Reed call Sue? The person who's been working on this project just as long as he has? Nope. He calls Ben, his buddy from back home. None of them even bother to let her in on things, thinking that maybe she's just as upset as they are. Sue is left out of this midnight recon entirely UNTIL SHIT HITS THE FAN AND THEY NEED SOMEONE TO BRING THEM HOME!
She doesn't get much better treatment in the next acts. She bails everyone out with force fields as long as she's not falling to the ground and flailing prettily.
Sue's treatment in this movie is sickening. And she's the only woman with more than one line. It's abominable.
There was very little that this movie did well. I liked the visual effects of the Human Torch. I loved how they presented Doctor Doom after his year on Planet Zero. That was nicely done. Beyond that? Nope. This movie fails on every level. The writing is worse than poor, it's lazy. And the sexism is disgusting.
I'd rather watch the one with Chris Evans and Michael Chikliss. The guy might be wearing a foam rubber suit, but at least he's actually Ben Grimm.
and 2) I have a very righteous, active and at times insane fantasy life.
When you combine these two things about me, and my profession as a writer, you get a distinct, burning desire on my part to write for Doctor Who. Now, I am under no delusions that I am, at this stage in my career, going to find that falling into my lap like a purring kitten. However, it's a goal that I strive toward much the same way other pursue Oscars, Hugos or the ice cream truck. (Seriously, my episode of Doctor Who will be how I win my Hugo. Then I'll buy an ice cream truck.)
So, you can imagine that my heart sank a little when I saw agency sibling and rock awesome story spelunker Paul Kreuger post this article at the Daily Dot. According to the Daily Dot, the next season of Doctor Who will see many writers who are old friends of the show. (Show-runner Steven Moffat has said himself he likes to keep things "in the family", as it were, and does not try to deny nepotism. This is well-documented in terms of his other hit show, Sherlock.) A few new hands have joined this season.
And not a single one of them are women.
From the article:
"...this is now the fourth season in a row that has employed precisely zero female writers.
In fact, since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner in 2009 he has never hired a single female writer. And only once has he brought on a female director, back in season five. Needless to say, this track record only adds fuel to the ever-growing number of fans who say Moffat is taking Doctor Who in a more conservative and sexist direction."
The internet is full of evidence and speculation about Moffat and his potential to be a misogynist. You can look that up elsewhere. I'll say that at the moment my jury is still out. I have really enjoyed watching Sherlock, and think that Mr. Moffat has a gift for creating engaging stories. However, having watched Coupling and his episodes of Doctor Who, I have issues with the way he portrays women. I'm sure that Mr. Moffat himself is a lovely person but can neither confirm nor deny this from firsthand experience.
Now, I'll be honest, I'm only about half-way through the first Matt Smith season of Doctor Who. Already, though, I'm pissed about some of the writing decisions. Those decisions are, invariably, tied to the way women are written or treated. Specifically, women who are given monumental power and then divested of it almost immediately. It has happened with Donna Noble and it happened with Amy Pond... the woman had a pivotal choice to make that could save or condemn the universe...and when she made her choice she was strong. She owned. She saved the day.
And then... (Spoilers, sweetie.)
The choice didn't matter.
In Donna's case, within the same episode we take the choice she made and the being she had become and took it away from her in a horrifying way. Everything she'd been to us up to that point simply erased. All of her past mattered in the grand scheme of the universe, but that moment of her becoming more than herself? Robbed of it. And put back into a world where she is slow on the uptake and flakey because she "missed" huge world events (that she played a major part in!!!) In a way it's worse than death or being marooned in another dimension.
In Amy's case? Wow... she made her choice to live in a world with Rory in it no matter what that might mean in the long run. Her love for him (and the fact that it eclipsed her infatuation with the Doctor) was so fucking amazing and heartrending at the end of that episode! She realizes in that moment something she hasn't admitted to the audience, to the Doctor or to herself! She needs, loves and wants Rory in her world. WOOT!
In the next episode, Rory is killed. (Yes, I know, shut up. Not there yet. Grr.)
It feels like they gave Amy the choice: The Doctor or Rory? And then when she made her choice, someone (*coughMOFFATcough*) said, "You know what, you didn't make the choice I wanted you to make. So guess what. Oh, and I'm going to take your memory, too."
In both cases, the woman was given the +1 Stompy Boots of Awesome. In both cases it is up to the Doctor's companion to save not just the Doctor and those in the immediate area, but the world as they know it! In both cases, the women make the clutch decisions, regardless of the odds or how difficult it may be. And in both cases, their actions and memories are deleted so that the Doctor can have a moment. (In one case, the moment is morose and bitter, while in the other...well, he's now #1 and doesn't have to compete with poor Rory any more.)
(As an aside, I don't remember thinking "poor Mickey" every episode, but damn, do I pity Rory.)
While I can't know the writers' motives on the matter, or how it went down in story planning, it plays out like this weird situation where Amy and Donna are working away merrily when the Doctor steps up to look over their shoulders. "Oh, no, that won't do. You'd better let me," he says. Then he shoulders them aside and does things his own way.
And casts "obliviate" on them. Quit fucking with women's heads and memories, Moffat!
But I digress.
New season of Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi manning the TARDIS...no female writers. As I said, I saw this link when my friend Paul Kreuger posted it to Facebook. Someone commented on that thread, "Why does it matter?"
Allow me to explain.
I watch Doctor Who and I don't see myself in the women there any more. The change happened shortly after Russel T. Davies and Julie Gardner left the show, to be replaced by current showrunner, Mr. Moffat.
In the RTD era, I could empathize with Rose because I remember what it was like to be 20-something and listless with a shit-paying job and no idea what I wanted in life. I could see the allure of running away with the Doctor. I could see myself in Sarah Jane whose heart had developed a scar in the shape of the Time Lord. Martha was smart, capable and invisible to the man she loved. But once she got over that crush on the Doctor, she continued to be a badass! She was more WITHOUT him. (In fact... Rose became MORE without the Doctor. As did Sarah Jane. Those women grew and took their time with the Doctor as a foundation. They built wonders.) And Donna? Never once was she dewy-eyed and lovestruck by him. She was the "mate" he'd been looking for! A take-no-bullshit partner.
But then...Donna didn't get to be more. She was diminished.
Amy? River? Don't get me wrong, Amy has had some choice moments, and River has had some great dialogue. But, thus far, these two women have been defined by their relationship to the Doctor. They are props, set pieces and plot points bowing dutifully or batting their eyelashes at the Doctor. They aren't whole people.
And that is a problem.
For one thing, in terms of story? It gets old. I'm tired of seeing the Doctor with young companions who just fawn over him! It's a hope I have with Capaldi in the role: older companions who aren't trying to bed him or wed him. I want him to have a companion again.
For another... I want to see women written as fully-formed human beings (or aliens, or whatever). I want them to be written from places of truth where they have real motivations and histories and needs and fears that have NOTHING to do with the Doctor! Men on this same show get that. Captain Jack, the Master, even Mickey "the Idiot". They all have fully-realized characters who have the opportunity to grow in--and because of--their time with the Doctor.
That is why it's important to have diverse writers. For more points of view, and more satisfying, emotionally engaging stories where everyone can see themselves portrayed in a positive role.
....when such a high-profile show has no women writing or directing episodes, what does that do to the crop of female writers? In my case, it pushes me. It's not going to deter me, though it might hobble me. It's another obstacle for me to circumvent, climb, think my way out of or blast into rubble. (Just like the Doctor, Martha, Donna, Rose etc etc have done time and again.)
But what about others? What about young girls? Kids like my daughter. If they don't see women directing, writing or collaborating on the things they love, they may think they are not allowed to do those things. My daughter has already said she feels "more like a boy" sometimes because she likes comics, video games and Doctor Who. Why are these boy things? They aren't! They are for everyone. So when little girls look at the lists of creators on a show and don't see female representation...they may believe that this is something they can't do. And sweetie, let me tell you, the only things a woman can't do that men can involve peeing while standing.
This move--this continuation of keeping Doctor Who a Boy's Club--is dangerous because it says to women and minorities that we are not welcome. And sci-fi has always been about exploration, finding humanity and ourselves in the alien.
By excluding us, you're limiting yourself.
Now, I am not professionally ready to write an episode of Doctor Who at this point. My writing is not at that caliber, and I need more experience with the older Doctors (plus I'm not caught up). But that doesn't mean I'm not going to keep my head down and work toward that goal. Moffat might not be the showrunner when it's my time, but my time will come.
I'm the same woman who said, "I'm going to drum on stage of the Briar Street Theater in Chicago with Eric Gebow (my Blue Man Group idol)". And I did.
I've never let my gender stop me. So why should you?
I'm going to voice an unholy, unpopular opinion...
I didn't like the Joss Whedon "Much Ado About Nothing".
There. I said it.
Look, I love Joss Whedon's other works. I find his writing to be impeccable, sharp and entertaining. His direction and filmmaking abilities are some of the best in the current crop of Hollywood. In short, I dig Joss Whedon. However, I cannot say that I enjoyed his take on this particular Shakespeare play. I much prefer the Catherine Tate/David Tennant stage production directed by Josie Rourke. I could write an entire blog post about my issues with the Whedon version, but, in the end it comes down to four words: It's not for me.
Along those same lines, I don't like lima beans, country music, reality television or skinny jeans. I'm not into Clown Dominant BDSM porn. These things and the people who dig them are not inherently bad (though I ask for a slight dram of understanding when I look at you funny for the clown thing). They are, however, not for me.
In general I am a "live and let live" person. If you eat lima beans while listening to your Keith Urban, I'm not going to rage at you or call you names. I'll be over here with my chai, watching the Tate/Tennant version of "Much Ado" for the tenth time in as many days.
But I realized recently that there is one avenue where I have an extreme prejudice. And that arena is BOOKS. I posted on Twitter quite happily that if your book is poorly written (ie riddled with spelling and grammar errors, rife with poor characterization and otherwise chock full of suck) I will rip it apart. I can, when it comes to the written word, be a judgmental bitch.
Now, my personal Facebook account is set to "friends only" for various reasons, the most pressing of which is that I like to have some semblance of space that is for myself, friends, family and close colleagues. Otherwise, I've got a fan page or my Twitter feed or this blog or conventions et al for everyone else. Anyway, I used my personal Facebook account to ridicule a self-published novella for its horrible cover and the atrocious writing quality. I started off being vague about it, not naming names or using the copy/paste function. After a while, however, I posted a link to the book on Amazon to share with others so they would see, "This is why I'm gagging here!"
I have amazing friends. Not only will they laugh with me, they will take me aside and say, "This time, I think you need to check yourself." One such friend sent me a private message offering a different point of view that I had, admittedly, been ignorant of. He suggested that this book was written that way specifically because it was aimed at a particular audience. The book used a cultural language and plays to the values of a specific kind of person.
In short, this book was not for me.
It wasn't written for me. It was written for another woman with a different life experience.
I think what we've seen recently in the news with Ferguson and the like has highlighted that while many of us are trying to live colorblind, we are instead blinded to other experiences. It's not out of anger, hatred or racism, but it is a flaw. In trying to see only people and treat everyone equally, we forget that everyone lives different experiences. Women walk to their cars holding their keys like a weapon. Black men are stopped for carrying a can of tea and Skittles. These are details of every day life for some people that the rest of us do not necessarily understand. A man doesn't know what it is to grow up in rape culture from a woman's perspective any more than I--a middle-class, cis white woman--can truly understand what it must be like to live the life of a black teen in middle America. Or a Latina immigrant. Or a transgender male. I can--and do--have sympathy. I can imagine or put myself in his/her shoes. But I can never truly know what that person's life is with cultural heritage and social conditioning.
That being the case, this particular book was not for me.
And I know that some of you are sitting there shaking your heads wondering how this can possibly be an epiphany for me. Well, I know that there are divisions. I know there are sects, schisms and denominations in the world. I know well that there are cultural/racial divides. But the one place I forget these things exist is in a library. It may be my naivete showing, but I think of libraries as huge, open areas where anyone can peruse any section at length and read any volume they choose. There isn't a room set aside for this class or this color or this creed. Books are accessible to all, in my mind, and I try to make my own writing equally open.
But, yeah... guess what, Jamie. This book isn't for you.
Coming to this conclusion throws the issue of diversity-in-fiction into even sharper relief, and adds new questions to the mix:
When writing The Other (be it People of Color, other genders or sexual preferences etc), where is the line between writing people--fully-generated characters--and ignoring their differences? For example, we don't want our strong female characters to be "men with tits" any more than we want to whitewash PoC. I think we can agree that white-cis-heteronormative male is not the default human setting (regardless of what popular media would show). However, we don't want to have token black characters or Sassy Gay Friends just for the sake of them being there, either. Personally, I write people. Some of my characters are black, some are white. Some are satyrs and gods. Some are bi, some are cis, some are Pan. To me, though, these are things that inform who they are without defining who they are. My characters have fears and desires that resonate on a human level.
However, is this also a problem? Does being colorblind turn into erasure? I'm thinking here of a discussion way back in high school about how shows like Cosby and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air didn't depict "blackness" but black people in white roles. The idea of "the Carlton" being the equivalent of a house slave. (Not my personal feeling or argument, but one I've heard often and take into consideration when developing characters.) That argument stuck with me, though, and it does play in the back of my head sometimes when I'm working on character development. Am I writing a fleshed out character who is black, or am I writing a Carlton?
Where is the line between writing a dialect and poor writing? It's been pointed out to me that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is considered to have its own rules. If that's the case, and we say that AAVE has its own set of standards, where is the line between "poor writing" and "following a different set of rules"? And along this same line, by deciding that AAVE is acceptable, are we allowing writers to "write down" to people? And to that point, is that good for anyone? It almost sounds like--in some cases--we would lower standards and turn out poorer product for certain audiences. I find that as insulting to both creator and audience as I do seeing men portrayed as having dull minds and uncontrollable libidos, or women used as plot devices.
Now, in my own writing, I look at dialect as something that individual characters have. If writing in first person, I will allow slang and dialect to a point, but not over do. In third person, the prose I keep in standard American English with all the grammatical trappings and spellings of MLA and Chicago Style manuals. If a character is Cajun, or African American, or has a thick Geordie accent, I let that come through in dialogue. Spellings and grammar be damned, if it's what that character would say, so be it. However, I don't let it leak into the prose. (I will admit that my lead character speaks in Internet English sometimes in her prose, but that's who she is.) So don't misunderstand; something like the works of Twain written in Southern American English is not going to be held to the same yardstick as Shakespeare.
Furthermore, if we posit that there are not only books that are "not for everyone" but entire genres written with one subset of humanity in mind, is this in some way segregating? Is it just as limiting as omission? We have black publishers, women's publishers, LGBTQ publishers...groups set aside to make sure all voices are heard. But at what point does that swing the pendulum to separate but equal?
These are more philosophical points, perhaps, and I know that they only scratch the surface of issues. These questions are not going to be answered in a day or Twitter post. But I'm keen to open a dialogue with you about them. I don't pretend to have The Answers to this. I have ideas, but I also will admit that in some matters I'm ignorant.
PS: And no, "Much Ado" is not up for debate. Tate/Tennat FOREVAH!!!