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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Reading/Watching Log #23

This is being posted a day late, but I churned through a lot of stuff in November. As someone who doesn't going to the movies that much anymore, I ended up seeing three films this month, two of which were superhero flicks. There were also plenty of graphic novels, a lot of stuff set in the Eighties, the nearing completion of my "finish books series that you started" project, two re-watches, and a horror movie. I love 'em, but I'm kept awake all night afterwards.
Plus, I got TONS of stuff to say about Stranger Things.

The Whisper by Aaron Starmer
This is one of the most inventive children's books I've ever read, to the point where I'm not even sure how to describe it. The direct sequel to The Riverman, it's highly (though coincidentally) reminiscent of Stranger Things, mainly due to the Eighties setting and pre-teen protagonists.
Fiona Loomis has disappeared, and only her friend/neighbour Alastair knows where she really is: in the (clumsily named) realm of Aquavania, a place where kids can create wholesale worlds with the power of their imaginations. Once there, any number of years – or centuries – can go by, but when they return to the real world it's as though no time has passed at all. The fact that Fiona hasn't come back can only mean something terrible has happened to her.
Alastair is in no doubt that the "something terrible" is the Riverman – a bogeyman who preys on children who visit Aquavania, and whose startling identity was revealed in the last book. Naturally, Alastair now takes it upon himself to enter Aquavania for himself, find Fiona, and defeat the Riverman.
What follows is a sort of twisted Alice in Wonderland, and there were times in which I wondered whether Starmer was making it all up as he went along – but there are unexpected layers and patterns to Alastair's strange experiences. I found myself squinting at the pages, trying to derive a deeper meaning from the text, which continued into...
The Storyteller by Aaron Starmer
As the follow-up to The Riverman and The Whisper, this final book in the trilogy takes an interesting course by switching protagonists. This time it's Alastair's older sister Keri, a budding writer who takes on the role of narrator. With all the chaos going on in her small town, she takes refuge in her diary, voraciously filling the pages of her diary with short stories and her personal woes.
Clearly something is deeply wrong with her little brother, who confides in her about imaginative realms and missing children from around the world – but she's shocked when he demonstrates preternatural knowledge about some of the stories she's writing. Is there a grain of truth to his tales?
The reader is put in the odd position of knowing that Alastair is for real, and it's a little frustrating to wade through Keri's awkward love-life and familial stress on her way to a realization we've known for the past two books. But it's still a haunting, unforgettable read, especially since Starmer doesn't provide many clear-cut answers to the mysteries he's raised (given the trilogy's pervading melancholy tone, it's a risky creative choice that still manages to work).
It's hard to know what younger readers will make of these books, what with their existential themes and interest in the power of storytelling – but if you're looking for something to tide you over till the next season of Stranger Things, these books just might scratch that itch.
Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas
Yup, still going. Empire of Storms is the fifth book in a series that is being churned out at a remarkable rate (I think it's averaging at about one per year – and these are thick books). Sarah J. Maas must be a machine, especially since she's also writing a completely different series of comparable length at the same time as this one.
Our motley gang of incredibly beautiful and supernaturally gifted teenagers are ready to take back the kingdom for their queen Aelin Galathynius (the most beautiful and powerful of them all) but it poses a challenge when two enemy forces converge on their fleet. There are the expected alliances, backstabs, long cons, skirmishes and secret plans – but I gotta say, some of the plot twists caught me off-guard. As Frank Herbert might say, there are "wheels within wheels" at work throughout this series, and Maas is pretty good at keeping the reader in the dark until just the right moment.
It's a shame that the writing is so pedestrian and the love stories so banal. Regarding the former, this book was in need of a good editor given the author's fondness for modern colloquialisms and the overuse of the word "bark" as a verb (people bark, wounds bark, weapons bark – it's weird), while the latter is your typical overwrought YA glurge. Everyone is horny, no one communicates, much hawt sex is had on beaches and in ships, and hey – there's even the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em gay couple amidst all the angsty heteros.  
I've heard rumours that this is to be adapted for television in the near future – if so, I'd have to tune in, if not just to see how a show would handle the strengths and weaknesses of the books upon which they're based.
Monstress Volume 2: The Blood by Marjorie Liu
As much as I enjoyed the first volume of Monstress, this second instalment is a vast improvement. The first collection of comics was so stuffed full of world-building and backstory and exposition that it took at least three re-reads to discern the actual plot. This time around, the story is much simpler (though not without complexity) which gives the characters more space to breath, and the reader more space to process exactly what's going on.
One-armed Maika Halfwolf is on the run from about half-a-dozen organizations that want to exploit the Lovecraftian monster that resides beneath her skin. Occasionally it manifests as a mass of terrifying eyed tentacles, forcing her to fight against its bloodlust and search for power. In an attempt to sate its impulses, Maika is following in her mysterious mother's footsteps to uncover why exactly she carries such a monster within her.
The story is supplemented by panels that are a feast for the eyes, which are like nothing I've ever seen before: a fusion of steampunk, Art Deco, and Chinese/Egyptian aesthetics. Pirate-filled seaports and mist-shrouded islands are rendered in bright colours and incredible detail, and I was consistently surprised by the plethora of female characters of different ages, races and sexualities that were featured. When a fearsome shark/human hybrid emerged from the ocean, my poor conditioned brain simply assumed it was a male. Nope. She was female, and it was awesome.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
This is another must-read. You can find some of Carroll's graphic stories on her webpage, and this anthology collects five of them with an introduction and conclusion. Drawing inspiration from familiar fairy tales (Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood are obvious inspirations) as well as the Victorian Gothic tradition, you may have already seen one of the stories on Tumblr – it features the popular quote about how you have to be lucky every time you traverse the forest ... but to catch you the wolf only has to get lucky once.
Carroll's stories are better than just scary – they're unsettling. She knows exactly what to depict and what to keep in the shadows, and every word, line and colour adds to the atmosphere of unease-turning-to-dread. Focusing mainly on young women, each consecutive story adds more meat to its bones (the supernatural phenomena in the first couple are unexplained and inexplicable; the last few give you a firmer grasp of what's going on) which draws you deeper into the reading experience. With each passing tale, you hold the book closer to your face, searching the illustrations more closely for clues and answers...
It's a must-read, and guaranteed to keep you awake if you chose to read it before bedtime.
One Trick Pony by Nathan Hale
On the heels of the above graphic novels, this one was a lesser offering, but certainly not bad by any stretch of the imagination. In a post-apocalyptic landscape that's been left riddled with strange pockmarks after an alien invasion, the remnants of humanity either live in tribal communities or travel in large caravans attempting to recover and preserve the world's technology.
Given that the giant, bulbous, insectoid aliens are attracted to technology, using large "bubbles" to gather it up while destroying anything in its path, everyone involved in this venture is at constant risk. Strata is a teenage girl out scavenging with her friend and brother when she uncovers a beautiful robot pony, one with which she feels an immediate connection.
The design of the book is lovely, with everything rendered in black, white or grey, except the yellow hues of the robot pony, the remaining technology, and the alien eyes. The story doesn't quite measure up though, which is a standard "run from the bad guys" plot, with fairly one-dimensional characters and a climactic finish in the alien mothership that's entirely anticlimactic.
The title is fairly clever though, especially in hindsight.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Art of the Animated Series by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Koniestzko
As I suspected, this coffee table book is big on beautiful concept art, low on solid information about the storytelling process behind the making of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Needless to say, I was more interested in the latter than the former, but it's not like the book's title presents itself as anything other than a collection of the show's artwork: rudimentary sketches, background designs, and character concepts.
There plenty of notes supplied by Mike and Bryan, but most of the tidbits are things I already knew (that Katara's name was initially Kya, that Toph was originally a boy) or which are completely meaningless to a layman (plenty of the characters were actually designed on cast and crew members – but without supplementary photographs of these individuals, how are we meant to appreciate the similarities?)
Still, it's a lasting reminder of how beautiful this show was, and how it's nearly time for a rewatch...
Superman Unbound (2013)
I'm not entirely sure what drew me to this – perhaps because Supergirl has returned and she features prominently here? In any case, this is a standard Superman versus Brainiac storyline, with a side helping of Lois and Kara. It's fine... There's nothing about it that stands out, and some of the character designs aren't particularly attractive (Lois looks very spiky and Clark has a giant chin) but it's entertaining enough, and gives us this fantastic GIF:

In general, the standalone animated DC films are odd ducks. By this point there are so many different stories and continuities involving this particular set of characters that it always takes a few minutes to grasp just what is and isn't known to them. Does Lois know Clark is Superman? How far along are they in their relationship? Have they all met Lex Luthor? Does anyone know Supergirl's secret identity? It's different every time.
It Follows (2014)
It's the easiest thing in the world to hear the premise of It Follows and think: "oh, a metaphor for STDs." A fatal curse is passed from one victim to another through sex: if you sleep with the last recipient of said curse, you'll become the next target of a horrifying spectre that'll stalk you relentlessly – albeit at a slow pace. To rid yourself of the monster, you have to pass the curse onto someone else via sex... but if/when it catches up with its victim, it'll always return to the last person in the chain.
The more you think about it, the more terrifying this prospect becomes. To save yourself, you have to doom another – and even this only gets you a temporary reprieve. The monster can look like anyone, either in a bid to get close to you, or (if it takes on the form of a loved one) to mess with your head.  And though it's easy enough to outrun the monster (it never goes faster than walking pace) it never, ever stops coming after you. Nowhere is permanently safe. You're looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life.
It's a winning premise, like something straight out of an urban legend, and the film itself captures the situation's horror, moral conundrum, and psychological toll. But to take it all as an STD metaphor is way too simplistic. The concept behind how the monster operates works better as a musing on the transitory nature of life. Unlike other teen horrors, the characters featured here are directionless and uncertain about their futures; finding a degree of solace in sexual encounters and driving around aimlessly. In a subtext that's even more chilling than the nature of the monster, they're all just waiting for death.
It's not all doom and gloom – the way the teens rally around their targeted friend is heart-warming, as are the quiet moments in which they enjoy the tiny pleasures of life, but there's a quiet dread that permeates the whole thing, and it's not just down to the monster. I wish I didn't get freaked out so much by horror films, as there's a lot to unpack in It Follows: the mystery of Jay's missing father, the way the setting/period/season is deliberately obscured, and of course, the way a viewer will inevitably start peering into the background of any shot, searching for the tell-tale figure of a slowly-approaching stalker.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
I'm getting prepped for The Last Jedi in December, which meant revisiting The Force Awakens to refresh my memory. And it's a charming movie, it really is. I totally get that Disney and J.J. Abrams wanted to play it safe with the return of Star Wars to the big screen, and it's a shame that the plot adheres so closely to A New Hope, but it does the job of introducing old and new characters, setting up an interesting conflict, and making us look forward to the next instalment. It's hard to believe it's only a few months away.
Based on the promotional material for The Last Jedi, the one thing I'm afraid of losing is the deliberate parallel between Kylo and Finn. Fandom is all over Kylo/Rey, but there are several fascinating moments between our male hero and male villain, from the masked Kylo sensing Finn's inner conflict on Jakku, to him honing in on Finn (not Rey) seconds after killing his father. It's in Finn that Kylo sees himself, not Rey, but I get the distinct feeling that Rian Johnson isn't particularly interested in that dynamic.
Wonder Woman (2017)
This was my second watch, and yeah – it still holds up well. That said, I don't really have anything further to add beyond what I've already written in my original review: the leads are great, the supporting cast is strong, the sense of time and place is tantamount to the story, but that final twist regarding Ares's true identity still doesn't work that well. Diana's realization should have been that humanity alone was responsible for the war, but that there were parts of man's world that were worth fighting for anyway.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The first of the two big superhero films that rounded off the year naturally raises contrasts and comparisons, but truth be told, I was lukewarm about each one for entirely different reasons. There's a lot to like about Thor: Ragnarok – the plot holds up well, the villain is great, the colours are vivid, most of the jokes land...
But it's a massive change of pace from the first two Thor movies, which is a bit of a shame since I liked their mildly overwrought Shakespearean grandeur. And it wasn't just the shift in tone, but three flies in the ointment that soured me on the whole thing:
1. The throwaway mention of Jane. Okay, like most people I thought Thor/Jane was the least convincing Marvel couple and I can understand why they wanted to jettison it. But that doesn't change the fact the franchise spent two movies setting it up, only to chuck it away with a one-liner (and how would a random woman on the street know about Thor's relationship status anyway?)
It reminds me of the Tony/Pepper misfire in Civil War, which established the two of them had broken up, only for the franchise to get Gwyneth Paltrow back on board for Spiderman: Homecoming – in hindsight, the Civil War breakup felt like a waste of time when they could have simply had Pepper off-screen till they were ready to bring her back.
Now though I doubt that Natalie Portman will return, and I wasn't that convinced by Thor/Jane anyway, the fact that they've ended them in such an offhanded way makes me wonder what else I shouldn't get invested in. After seeing this film's stinger and footage from the Infinity War trailer, does anyone else want to bet that all the Asgardians who survived this film will be promptly killed off by Thanos?
2. So the Warriors Three are killed in seconds by Hela. The hell?? At least Hogan got to go down fighting, but it's unforgivable to treat Fandral and Volstagg like Red Shirts: killed off inconsequentially without a word of dialogue. Would it have been so difficult to have them dying to save some Asgardians, or at least keep them in Heimdall's subplot as they rescued civilians?
Even weirder, they're completely forgotten about afterwards. Aren't they Thor's best friends? Wouldn't he have noticed their absence and asked after them? I'm assuming the idea was to clear the board of any extraneous characters for Infinity War, but the way they were treated ruined my enjoyment of the whole movie.
Also, I get that scheduling conflicts meant Sif couldn't appear, (and I suppose I should be grateful considering she would have probably just been killed off) but they couldn't have put in a single line explaining that she was off exploring another dimension or something? I was more curious about her absence than Jane's.
3. So Asgard is destroyed, a city of beauty and learning and wonder; the place of Thor's birth, the city where his mother died, the glorious pinnacle of the Nine Realms, the destruction of which renders his people refugees floating in space – and it's sent out with a dumb joke about how they can rebuild over the foundations, until – okay, no they can't, that place is toast. I'm a kiwi, and I recognise my country's droll sense of humour, but jeez – we're not THAT glib. Any sense of poignancy or tragedy or heartbreak is obliterated for the sake of a fairly stupid joke.
Remember when Ragnarok was foreshadowed in Age of Ultron as something terrifying and disturbing? Here it's treated more like an excuse for a party.
Justice League (2017)
In a nutshell: it was good, but I wanted it to be great. There was a lot of stuff to like: all the characters, the teamwork, the spectacle, the cameos (Green Lanterns!) and the general world-saving bravado. But even though DC beat Marvel to the "giant crossover galactic war", it remains a pretty generic superhero film, with a tedious villain, a bizarre reintroduction to Superman, and an irritating preoccupation with setting up later films in the franchise.
It mostly came down to bits and pieces that I enjoyed: Wonder Woman, obviously. The Amazons. The obvious enthusiasm from every cast member (sans Ben Affleck). Lois and Clark's reunion. And that scene between Superman and the Flash – you know the one I'm talking about.
One thing did stick out, and that's the real world backdrop that was lost. What I mean is that in Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman, there was always the sense of the wider world going about its business as the superheroes did their thing in the foreground. Some of the most striking moments in those films belonged to characters that had no comic book precedence whatsoever (the man praying in Wayne Tower when it collapsed; the bully from Clark's youth who helped him out as an adult). It gave the films a depth that even the Marvel movies haven't quite captured.
But here, all the focus is entirely on the Justice League. There are no panicked crowds, no news anchors giving out PSAs, no military or air-force attempting to come up with their own ways of dealing with an alien attack. Just that random Russian family who never even had names. The whole thing felt oddly ungrounded, especially in comparison to its predecessors, and it was that human touch – that sense of a full and busy world – that I appreciated.  
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
SPOILERS
A couple of months ago I re-read Agatha Christie's novel and watched two earlier adaptations in preparation for Kenneth Branaugh's take on the material – and ended up disappointed with what he delivered. The main problem is simply that this latest take on Christie's most famous novel doesn't bring anything new or interesting to the table. The 1974 film had some amazing performances and powerful flashbacks to the tragedy of the Armstrong family. The ITV version focused on a slightly ill-advised but still intriguing theme of justice and punishment, with Poirot having a moral crisis over whether or not to turn the culprits in.
This is just a straightforward presentation of the book's plot-points, adding nothing particularly unique besides a bigger spectacle than either of its predecessors were capable of (I'm genuinely astonished that they didn't bother with an opening of the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping – it would have set the tone wonderfully, and made the reveal of Johnny Depp's character a little less random).
And perhaps now is as good a time to say it: Christie's original text is actually a little overrated. At the time of publication, I'm sure that the never-done-before solution to the murder blew everyone's minds. In 2017, the game is up the moment the film reveals that all the passengers had a connection to the Armstrong family. Is there a single audience member who wouldn't realize they were all in it together? Any film has to present this wide net of suspects from all across the world as people who couldn't possibly know each other – but again, the strangeness of a wide range of nationalities gathered together in a single train doesn't resonant with modern viewers as it did back in Christie's day.
The film is also very lazy when it comes to explaining its plot-points: the absence of Mr Harris at the train station (and Poirot subsequently taking his berth) is here, but no one ever points out that the conspirators fabricated this individual to ensure there were no extra passengers on the carriage. The fact that they throw about all sorts of red herrings designed to confuse Poirot is also never brought up either, though I'm sure there were more than a few viewers baffled as to why Daisy Ridley running down the carriage aisle in a red kimono was treated as a huge reveal.
Worst of all, they play around with the story's most crucial bit of evidence: the time of Ratchett's death. In the book Mrs Hubbard impersonates Ratchett in his compartment early in the night to make Poirot believe the murderer is trying to get rid of the night-man – though in fact Ratchett is still alive at this point (albeit drugged). The idea behind it is to make Poirot assume the murder took place at this time, giving everyone else on board an alibi when in fact the murder occurs in the later hours of the morning.
Here Mrs Hubbard impersonates Ratchett directly after the stabbing, which defeats the point entirely. What would have worked wonders is a scene like the one in the ITV version, which shows the conspirators frantically trying to pre-empt Poirot's deduction skills in the hours before he wakes up and the body is discovered. It's a great way of showing how many spanners were thrown into their plan, and how by the end of the investigation they were flying by the seat of their pants.
In short, it's a convoluted case, and the movie doesn't do much to iron out its kinks.
The Village: Seasons 1 and 2 (2013 – 2014)
I had actually forgotten why this was on my "to watch" list – then Joe Armstrong appeared, though he's once again playing yet another creep. As told through the framing device of the second-oldest man in Britain, Bert Middleton shares his experiences of an abusive father, the First World War, and the social changes that took place between 1914 and 1920.
It's easy to point to Downton Abbey as the obvious comparison to The Village: they're both set in the same country and in the same time period... but there the similarities end. Downton Abbey was essentially a love-letter to the past, while this takes a much more jaundiced view of its subject matter, focusing on a poor farming family rather than a household of upperclass aristocrats.
But more cynical doesn't always mean better. Whatever its flaws, Downton Abbey was full of loveable characters that you rooted for, whereas everyone in The Village is... well, pretty awful. And some of the characterization is just ... really, really weird. The young reverend's daughter arrives in the village and takes an obsessive interest in the redemption of Joe Middleton, for reasons that are never clear. Bert's older brother stumbles across the wealthy Caroline Allingham in the woods and the two have sex out of nowhere. The lord of the manor house ends up shooting himself in the head, which is only ever mentioned once afterwards. A woman tearfully breaks off her engagement at the end of season one, only to be married to the guy at the start of season two. A sadistic doctor who more or less takes over the Allingham household disappears entirely without explanation between seasons. What happened??
Most of the time it's hard to fathom what motivates these people, and because they're kept at arm's length we never really invest in their lives. The one exception is Maxine Peake as Grace Middleton, who apparently won an award for her work as an impoverished farmer's wife who strives to be a good mother, even as she's caught up in the political revolution happening all around her.
The show was apparently meant to run for forty-two episodes, but only managed two seasons (twelve episodes) before cancellation. Though most of the important plotlines are wrapped up satisfactorily, there's still a sense of incompletion about the whole thing.
Luke Cage: Season 1 (2016)
So don't kill me, but I didn't really enjoy Luke Cage. Or to be more specific, I liked the disparate details of Luke Cage, but wasn't impressed by the sum of its parts. The good things were Luke Cage himself, the ever-wonderful Clare Temple, anything involving Misty Knight, the flashbacks to Luke's jail-time, the illegal experimentation that was done on him and his interactions with his future fridged wife, the call-backs to Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock, the dynamic between the show's initial antagonists Mariah and Cottonmouth, and the hilarious crush that henchman Shades has on Mariah.
But words cannot express how much I didn't care about Luke's half-brother and his over-the-top religious fanaticism/life-long brotherly resentment. I'm having a lot of trouble understanding why they chose to kill off Cottonmouth so early, and then introduce Diamondback so late in the game instead of focusing more on Mariah. Especially since Diamondback is defeated in a simple fist-fight on the street while wearing a remarkably stupid-looking costume. I just didn't care, and I almost resent that fascinating stuff like Reva's complicity in Luke's treatment was glossed over.  
And also, the fact that Luke is invulnerable makes for a fantastic writing challenge that's ignored. How do you maintain suspense and drama when your lead character is invulnerable? Have his loved ones targeted? Find a way to negate his abilities? Come up with an elaborate trap? Simply have fun with the fact that he's unstoppable?
No, you just introduce magical bullets that can penetrate his skin. Booooooooooring.
Iron Fist is next. Wish me luck.
Stranger Things: Season 2 (2017)
After much encouragement from my sister I watched the first season of Stranger Things earlier this year – and after all the hype I inevitably felt a little underwhelmed. It was clever and entertaining and heartfelt, but I wasn't quite sure where all the enthusiasm was coming from.
But after watching season two...? I'm officially on the bandwagon. It's always fun trying to figure out why exactly a certain show or film or book (or story in general) strikes a chord with audiences. Plenty of terrible stuff is popular, while tons of great stuff flies under the radar. What is the mysterious X-factor?
When it comes to Stranger Things a lot of people would point to the inherent nostalgia of a story set in the Eighties (and man, I had my first "I'm getting old" moment when I realized people were getting nostalgic over the year in which I was born). It's the way the show not only presents a rosy picture of a simpler time, but also (for me at least) recapturing what it felt like to grow up in that period – specifically the freedom that came from riding my bike around the neighbourhood, or the thrill of walking into a transformed school hall for a dance. 
The show also does a great job with its characters and their dynamics. It's not enough to have one without the other – for instance, Star Trek: Discovery has plenty of interesting characters, but I'm not hugely engaged by how they interact with each other. Here however, the cast chemistry is everything.
What's especially magical is the dynamic between the pre-teens, and the way the show captures what friendship is like when you're twelve: it's a game unto itself, with a complex set of rules and codes and promises and secrets – all of which are treated with the utmost seriousness. Between Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will (and soon enough, Eleven and Max) is the passionate ride-or-die devotion that's seldom found in adults, interspersed with squabbling over stupid shit like how to pronounce words. It rings so true.
But more than any of this, I think the secret to the show's popularity is that it's fundamentally about the goodness of people – and God knows, we need this sort of thing in 2017. We all side-eyed Bob when he first showed up, but instead of being evil he ends up sacrificing his life for Joyce and the boys. Steve was the typical Jerk Jock when he started out, now he's protecting pre-teens with nothing but a baseball bat. Paul Reiser defied all expectations when he turned out to be much more benevolent than first appeared.
Eight and her goons may have been an odd storytelling tangent, but the seemingly-inevitable "they're all evil and they're gonna hurt Eleven" twist never came, and they didn't stop her from leaving when she wanted to. As shifty as Murray seemed, it turns out he was just rooting for those crazy kids to get together, and didn't have a dozen or so cameras rigged up around the spare bed. Nancy's big moment wasn't finally choosing what boy she liked, but rescuing Dustin from humiliation at the Snow Ball.
I even bristled at the lady on the bus that initiated conversation with Eleven, certain that she was some sort of government spy, but even she was just a kindly stranger.
And when you look at exactly how these characters saved the world, it was all rooted in their love for each other. Eleven returned from self-imposed exile to save Hopper and Mike. Jonathan, Mike and Joyce distracted the monster by stories about how much they loved Will. Nancy takes on the government (and wins!) in her quest to get justice for Barb. The gang risked their lives causing a distraction in the Upside Down because they knew it was the only way to clear the path for Eleven. Dustin's affection for Dart paid off when it stood down and let the kids pass safely.
Sure there's some gunfire, but ultimately the day is won through acts of kindness and love. At a time when superheroes are still punching their way to victory, this is like a balm to a wound I didn't even know was there.
***
And I have to mention just how incredibly moved I was by Mike and Eleven's love story. And yeah, I'm going to use the word love without quotation marks or a "for their age" disclaimer, as I think it's pretty clear that the two of them love each other.
What interested me in the wake of season two's finale was some negativity surrounding Mike and Eleven; specifically that their feelings for each other came across as "too intense" for kids their age, and that Mike's behaviour across the season was "whiny and annoying". As it happens, I think that thirteen year olds are just as capable of love as individuals of any other age (I mean, young people love their parents and siblings, right? So why is love born of fondness, protectiveness, friendship and adolescent attraction considered out of the question?) and the bond between the two of them handled beautifully.
The reason I think it struck such a chord with viewers is that it captures the innocence of first love with the intensity of true love. And it's not too intense because they're kids, it's because they're kids that it's so intense. From Mike's point-of-view, Eleven is a girl straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons game, complete with mysterious backstory and magical powers. Of course he's going to be fascinated, especially when he accepts the very adult responsibility of protecting her. She's his secret and his responsibility, which is a potent mix.
And on Eleven's side, she's met a boy that's feeding her and caring for her and giving her new experiences that are wholly positive for the first time in her life. She naturally latches onto him – though at this point it's crucial to note that this type of story could only work between two kids of the same age.
Any older, and a power imbalance or a sense of creepiness would inevitably arise (teenage boy/grown man hides vulnerable girl in his basement and starts developing feelings for her – ew). That or too great a suspension of disbelief (the first adult Eleven meets immediately calls child services, which is what any adult would do. Only another kid would think it was a good idea to keep a peer hidden in a blanket hut in the basement).
But as it is, we can accept Mike's desire to help and Eleven's trust in him at face value. Neither one has any ulterior motive beyond helping the other, and each one is something they've ever experienced before. After they save each other's lives, have a number of dangerous adventures together, spend a year apart without fully knowing what the other is up to – it makes their emotional reunion totally deserved.
And it really bugs me that Mike was given such a hard time for his moody behaviour throughout season two. Between him and Nancy, it's actually quite disturbing how little patience or understanding audiences had for entirely realistic depictions of teenagers in all their heartfelt, messy, complicated authenticity. 

After his traumatic parting from Eleven, the only thing Mike has to suggest she's still alive is a half-second glimpse of her at his window. In the year that follows, he keeps up a one-man vigil in the hopes she'll return – so as unpleasant as it is, his negative reaction to Max's arrival makes perfect sense. She symbolises the fact that Dustin and Lucas are moving on from Eleven, something he's not at all prepared to do.
Basically, this is a very young person who's genuinely in love with a girl and grappling with the sheer intensity of those feelings – on top of grieving for her possible death.  Even adults can act like emotional children when they're in love, so for a thirteen year old in these particular circumstances it's even crazier.
(Having said all that, it would be nice to see Mike apologise to Max. Eleven as well for that matter. Max was incredibly patient and gracious toward the two of them, and seriously didn't deserve the treatment she got. Others have pointed out that Lucas was just as awful to Eleven in season one, but a crucial difference is that he eventually looked her in the eye, admitted he was wrong, and apologised.
There's nothing like that for poor Max, and though I'm hopeful that she and Eleven can and will form a friendship once the latter starts school, the fact that another year-long Time Skip is going to take place between seasons two and three probably means we'll probably never see a decent apology from Mike).
So I guess I'll have to admit I'm a total Mike/Eleven shipper. And I'm not a shipper at the best of times. Like I said earlier, it captures the joy of first love and the intensity of true love: in the first case, it's the giddy euphoria of liking someone and being liked back – but how many of us can say we're still with our childhood sweethearts? First love tends to burn out as teenagers grow and change and mature, but Mike and Eleven have already been through life-changing experiences together, with a relationship built on a level of trust and compassion that'll probably last them all their lives.
I already can't wait to see what the third season brings for them. Will the Duffer Brothers keep the rose-coloured glasses on and portray them as devoted to each other (perhaps to the detriment of their other relationships and the concern of their parents?), or will they crack a little under the pressures of normal life? I can easily see Mike butting heads with Hopper given he's taken over his role as Eleven's protector, or Eleven struggling to socialize in a high-school setting.  It's gonna be a long wait.
Miscellaneous Observations:
I thought Max was a great addition to the cast, though the stuff with Billy (who ultimately didn't have much of a purpose) and her mother/stepfather a bit random. The whole time I watched Billy/Max's scenes together I assumed something deeper was going on; like they were runaways or something – so when their parents/step-parents appeared on-screen quite late in the season, I was thrown. Turns out they weren't a mystery after all.
I found it fascinating that Mike was essentially the protagonist of the first season, but very much takes a backseat in terms of screen-time for season two. In making room for Dustin and Lucas to have their own subplots, not to mention an entire episode that focuses on Eleven, the cast billing is shuffled around considerably. Jonathan and Joyce also aren't as prominent, while there are expanded roles for Will and Steve – not to mention room for newcomers Max, Billy and Bob.
I would have said the first season's emotional heart was Mike/Eleven and Joyce/Will; in the second it's Hopper/Eleven. This change-around isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just interesting to see how storylines change and evolve – though I hope the third season returns to what made this show so special in the first place: the bond between the kids.
It sucked that Eleven was separated from the boys for so long, even though the emotional catharsis of her reunion with Mike was all the more powerful for us having endured their separation along with them. Still, I can't help but be a little peeved that so much time was spent on keeping them apart, especially since another time skip is necessary to keep up with the actors' growth spurts.
Granted, they specifically said that Eleven is going to be kept hidden for at least another year, but we're still going to miss the "honeymoon period" of everyone being back in each other's orbit, and the recalibration of the group dynamics that now includes Will, Max and Eleven interacting properly for the first time.
Speaking of squandered opportunities, I also think they missed the boat in exploring Eleven's behaviour toward Max (telekinetically pushing her off her skateboard) in regards to the fact she's been watching Eighties soap operas for the better part of a year. I mean, no one wants to model their behaviour on trashy television, but so far it's the only point of reference Eleven has.
So I really hope she and Max get a chance to become friends in season three – the potential for Eleven having a female friend is surely too good to pass up, right?
Amidst all the complaining about Mike, I actually had far less patience for Hopper, who thought he could keep a girl isolated in a cabin for over a year and then calls her a "brat" when she tries to alleviate her desperate loneliness. Dude. Not cool. You couldn't take her for a drive somewhere? Or sneak some of her friends to visit? The answers to these questions is "because plot", and as much as I loved him in the rest of the season, this was a bit of an overstep.
I think it's safe to say that Steve had this season's best character arc, right? This is how you do redemption, folks. Watching him wake up in the car with the pre-teens was comedy gold, as was his mentoring of a hero-worshipping Dustin.
Another interesting thing about the show is that its mythology isn't all that interesting – not the government conspiracy and not the Upside Down. It's all just a backdrop for the far more interesting characters and their interactions. This is perhaps the reason why that infamous seventh episode didn't really work – it attempted to expand on a mythology that no one really cared about.
The Lost Sister has already been scrutinized within an inch of its like, so let me briefly summarize its problems (though I certainly didn't hate it as much as others seemed to – in fact, I appreciate the Duffer Brothers trying to do something different. Better a failed experiment than a successful formula).
First of all, as a character study for Eleven, it didn’t tell us anything we didn't know already: that her place isn't with the "sister" she barely knows, but with Hopper and Mike in Hawkins. None of the new characters were particularly compelling (though Kali had presence) and the insta-bond between sisters hardly seemed genuine in comparison to the on-screen friendships Eleven developed over the course of the last two years of her life.
Though Kali and her gang weren't revealed as "evil", they still fell into the cliché of exercising vigilante justice without limits in a way the protagonist couldn't bring herself to partake in. Who didn't see that coming?
Most of all, the change in tone was as jarring as the change in setting. Whereas all the other episodes are very careful in depicting the kids acting within the boundaries of what kids are actually capable of (relying on their bikes for transportation, struggling to avoid the supervision of their parents, filtering their experiences through their board-games) this felt like it broke the rules of realistic boundaries that the show established for itself. Suddenly we've got Eleven catching buses by herself (how does she know how to do this?) and joining gang-members on assassination hits.
It's impossible to imagine the other young characters doing this sort of thing – or even Eleven herself when you consider the emphasis on her youth and naivety in season one. Now it feels like she's outgrown Mike and the other kids, and her new experiences don't feel like they belong in the same story as theirs. I seriously doubt we've seen the last of Eight and her cohorts, so let's hope they're a little more gracefully integrated next time around.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't seen any of these movies yet, although I'm sure I'll catch Ragnarok and Orient Express eventually. (I've not watched any of the DC films yet.) Pity Orient Express was such a bust; I agree it's overrated as a Christie mystery, but it's still quite strong. I wonder if it would actually benefit by really substantial alterations to the plot to cater to modern audiences' changed expectations.

    I started The Village for Maxine Peake, but couldn't get through more than a few episodes of unrelenting grimness. Sounds like it's probably not worth the trouble.

    I'm pretty much in agreement with you on Luke Cage - I found the late villain switch-out SO BAFFLING. Even if they did want to kill Cottonmouth early (which - why? He was a great villain!), you have Mariah and Shades right there ready to step into the breach!

    As for Iron First, yeah, good luck. I will say it gets better as it goes, and actually manages to do a couple of interesting things, but it is by far the worst of the Netflix MCU shows. I'm just getting through Punisher at the moment, which is on the weaker side of things but still streets ahead of Iron Fist.

    Loved reading all your thoughts on Stranger Things. Like you I was really struck by how (almost) all the characters are just fundamentally decent people, which makes them incredibly lovable as an ensemble. My main wish list for next time: give poor Will a break, and give Cara Buono something to do.

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    1. Yeah, The Village really isn't that good. I expect it would have had more impact if it had been allowed to carry out its vision of presenting Bert's experiences across his entire life, but since it was cut short the whole thing falls a bit flat.

      Re: Stranger Things. My wish-list is some decent interaction between Will/Eleven/Max, a look at the way friendships either strengthen or dissolve in high school (especially when people start pairing up), and for Nancy to go into journalism. And yeah, more for Cara Buono - she's wasn't a "bad mum" by any means in season one, and yet here they overplayed her negligence a bit.

      Hopefully the focus is returned to the gang and their dynamic - I actually feel a bit resentful that so much time was spent keeping them apart in season two, especially since their friendship is the foundation of the show. And now we're going to miss another year of it when you take the time skip into account. These kids won't stay kids forever! Use what works before it's too late!

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