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Women in Action 2017-2018: Part 2 – 2018 Analysis

Like 2017, 2018 is a year with a lot of movies coming out. I’m liable to miss some and others may get moved around to next year or unexpectedly into this one, but let’s take a look at the up-coming season that we know so far. Women are not starring in a ton of the big action franchises, reboots and adaptation films this year, but they are playing substantial roles in those movies as co-leads and major character in ensembles. And there are a number of big films in which they are the lead, some of them looking to be potentially important for women’s gains in action and big budget.

Early Movies:

Some movies have already been released or more widely released in the first six weeks of 2018, mostly films that were low-budget and problem children for distribution or are competing in the 2017 awards season. Proud Mary, a Blaxploitation homage starring Taraji P. Henson as an assassin, came out on a small budget but has sadly not hit it out of the park with just over $21 million in domestic box office and a lack of marketing support from its studio. Hopefully foreign box office will let it eventually come out ahead. Horror thriller Insidious Three: The Last Key, starring Lin Shaye as a psychic, has continued to perform in that franchise with a tiny budget and bringing in over $164 million in world box office. Also brought out early is the medium-budgeted romantic thriller Fifty Shades Freed, which ends the book adapted trilogy, starring Dakota Johnson and earning over $274 million in world box office so far. (This hit franchise does help “women” pictures get made as having box office potential, but otherwise has probably not done a great deal for women advancing in big films.) Smaller, notable Oscar-leaning movies that had December debuts but opened wider in 2018 are the gothic film Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, and the bio pic I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie. Both have earned small but respectable amounts and good buzz and are likely to increase their take after the awards season.

In non-woman led action films so far this year, we’ve had the final YA adapted Maze Runner: The Death Cure, starring Kaya Scodelario, Rosa Salazar and Patricia Clarkson in key roles, for an over $259 million box office to close out that previously delayed franchise; the low budget thriller Den of Thieves, featuring Meadow Williams, for a medium take so far; the war and terrorism bio pictures 12 Strong and The 15:17 to Paris, neither of which had much female participation and have done middling box office; and Liam Neeson’s thriller The Commuter, starring Vera Farmiga in the chief villain role and which is closing in on $100 million box office. There were also two live action-animated mix movies Paddington 2 and Peter Rabbit, featuring Sally Hawkins and Rose Byrne respectively. Paddington 2 has done well for that franchise with over $213 million world box office, while Peter Rabbit, despite the efforts of many, many British actors doing voices, has underwhelmed with only $56 million so far on a mid-sized budget and probably won’t be establishing the Beatrix Potter books as a franchise this go round.

Superhero Movies:

The summer blockbuster season now starts in mid-February, with this year’s launch being given to the Marvel-verse’s much anticipated Black Panther, which has already pulled in over $462 million in world box office and smashed all sorts of records. Black Panther has a fundamentally important group of kick ass women as main characters, played by Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett and Florence Kasumba, as well as a lot of women in supporting minor roles, a win not just for women in action, but actresses of color in big movies.

The superheroes will, as they have been doing the last several years, dominate the big scene in movies this year. DC/Warner has got its machine finally up and running, but it is rather overwhelmed by Marvel, which in addition to its giant, incredibly successful Disney Avengers Marvel-verse that includes Black Panther, has the entire Fox/Marvel X-Men-verse, Fox’s related but meta-style Deadpool franchise, and then Sony/Marvel’s Spider-verse without Spider-Man directly (because they lent Spider-Man to the Avengers universe.)

While there’s only one big superhero movie this year in the franchises that is woman-led, all the movies are going to feature women characters in major ways. In the Marvel-verse, in addition to Black Panther, they are putting out sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp, which promotes Evangeline Lily’s Wasp character to equal billing with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man this time and will feature Michelle Pfeiffer as the chief villain. And in the summer, we have the next, enormous Avengers movie, Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1, in which pretty much every character in the Marvel-verse franchise ever is going to show up as the currently divided Avengers join back together to go to war over the Infinity Stones and the fate of the Earth.

In the complicated land of the X-Men, we get another prequel film, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, in which the X-Men in the alternate new timeline have to deal with a storyline concerning Sophie Turner’s young Jean Grey, in the wake of the events of the previous movie, X-Men: Apocalypse. This is the nominal woman-starring superhero flick and Turner is backed up in it by Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Alexandra Shipp and others. Fox/Marvel will also be releasing Deadpool 2, which takes place in a surreal world adjacent to the X-Men and involving a few versions of their characters. Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand and Leslie Uggams will be reprising their roles in the sequel and be joined by Zazie Beetz as mercenary Domino.

Sony is coming out with Venom this year, and the thriller will feature Michelle Williams, Jenny Slate and Michelle Lee. They are also putting out a big animated feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, which may feature some female voice actors as versions of Spider-Man in a multiverse take on the web-slinger. And DC/Warner will follow up on Justice League with Aquaman, the solo outing for Jason Momoa, which will also star Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman.

The Women in Action:

Outside of the spectacle superhero movies, a number of much anticipated woman-starring big pictures will be sprinkled throughout the year. The biggest buzz has been for Ocean’s 8, a spin-off of the successful Ocean’s Eleven heist films, starring Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett leading a team of eight women thieves and trying to pull off a complicated heist on Anne Hathaway. Also on deck is a prequel reboot of Tomb Raider, this time starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft with support from Hannah John-Kamen and Kristin Scott Thomas. The original Tomb Raider years back not only made Angelina Jolie a star but gave a big boost for a bit to women in big action roles. While the reboot may not have as much impact, it’s got the entire game franchise backing it up.

We have a number of science fiction films starring women this year. The biggest is the adaptation of the iconic YA novel A Wrinkle in Time. The story will star Storm Reid as the main character, searching for her father, and she’ll be supported by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Rowan Blancherd. The film is directed by Ava Duvernay with a screen adaptation by Jennifer Lee, with the big name actresses helping to produce as well. You don’t get more women-power stuffed than this and the film looks like it’s going to be visually stunning.

 

Also women-packed is the film Annihilation, adapted from the bestselling novel, which stars Natalie Portman in a woman-only science team investigating a mysterious transformed land zone where expeditions keep disappearing. She’ll be backed up by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson. We’re also getting the big budget live action adaptation of the cyberpunk manga Alita: Battle Angel from James Cameron, starring rising star Rosa Salazar as the title character in motion capture, and supported by Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor and Eiza Gonzalez.

Amandla Stenberg will star in The Darkest Minds, adapted from the YA book trilogy, and backed by Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie and Golden Brooks. The film posits a post-apocalypse in which most children died of a disease that leaves the remaining ones with superpowers and imprisoned. We’ll have to see if it can launch another successful YA dystopia franchise and keep that avenue going. Action star Gina Carano also takes the post-apocalyptic route as a bounty hunter looking for criminals in the ruins of civilization in the film Scorched Earth. The Transformers franchise will give us Bumblebee, starring everyone’s favorite yellow car-robot-alien, teamed up with Hailee Steinfeld as the human lead this time. The sequel Deep Blue Sea 2 will have Danielle Savre facing off against engineered super sharks.

In the suspense thriller area where women often manage starring roles, Jennifer Lawrence tackles the adaptation of the novel Red Sparrow, about a Russian spy/assassin who looks to defect. Claire Foy will be yet again another actress taking on the role of hacker Lisbeth Salander in the sequel The Girl in the Spider Web, based on the best-selling book series. And Gabrielle Union will fight off a home invasion to protect her family in the film Breaking In.

Revenge and crime will also figure big in films like Widows, in which the widows of a group of crooks start their own operation, starring the very busy Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon. Taraji P. Henson has a second movie out for the year in Acrimony, where she plays a wronged wife out for payback. Michelle Pfieffer stars in Where is Kyra? in which a woman whose life has collapsed goes on a dangerous and mysterious path. Making its way into wider distribution, the film Assassination Nation stars Odessa Young as a high school senior in Salem, Massachusetts when the town turns into chaos. Australian thriller The Nightingale, starring Aisling Franciosi, has a woman going into the Outback to avenge her family.

Horror films for the year with women leads include remake Suspiria, pushed back from last year, about a mysterious ballet academy and stars Dakota Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz and Tilda Swinton. Toni Collette apparently is freaking people out starring in psychological horror film Hereditary. Unsane takes place in a mental hospital and stars the also busy Claire Foy. Truth or Dare forces star Lucy Hale and friends to play a deadly game. And the new Halloween is not a reboot but instead a sequel of the same name in which Jaime Lee Curtis will again reprise her famous character in the franchise for a final confrontation with the resilient, magically powered killer Michael Myers, with Judy Greer playing her daughter.

On the big bio front, we have Mary, Queen of Scots, with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie playing the opposing queens. And Melissa McCarthy will tell the story of fallen celebrity biographer Lee Israel in the bio film Can You Ever Forgive Me? The Miracle Season, starring Helen Hunt and based on a true story, is about a girls basketball team that must struggle on after the unexpected death of their star player.

In the more YA end of the pool, we have the adaptation of fantasy novel Every Day, in which Angourie Rice plays a teenager who falls for a spirit who inhabits a different person each day. I Kill Giants is an adaptation of the graphic novel in which a troubled girl played by Madison Wolf believes she has to defend her town from giants, and she may or may not actually be right. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms turns the famous ballet into an adventure fantasy starring Mackenzie Foy, backed by Keira Knightly, Helen Mirren and Miranda Hart. And famous YA novel Where’d You Go Bernadette? has been adapted into a film in which Emma Nelson plays a teen who has to find her missing, troubled mother, played by Cate Blanchett.

There are also going to be plenty of action comedies and some high profile dramas starring women. Chief among them is Disney’s huge sequel attempt, Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt in the role made famous by Julie Andrews. Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again is an ambitious sequel for the hit Abba musical, with extensive flashbacks, Amanda Seyfried taking the lead role, and legendary Cher joining the extensive cast. The Spy Who Dumped Me stars Mila Kunis with Gillian Anderson and Kate McKinnon, a comedy thriller about a woman who discovers her ex-boyfriend is a spy.

Update: Looks like we may also be getting the sequel to Enchanted this year, entitled Disenchanted, with Amy Adams returning to the role that made her a star in Disney’s romantic spoof of its own princess movies that mixes live action and animation.

 

Overboard is getting remade, with the story about a rich person with amnesia tricked into being part of a working class family having an up-dated gender switch, with Anna Faris playing a working mom who desperately dupes her obnoxious former employer, played by Eugenio Derbez, into believing he’s her husband. The best-selling novel Crazy Rich Asians is having an adaptation starring Constance Wu, as an Asian-American woman who has to deal with her fiance’s wealthy Chinese family. Melissa McCarthy’s comedy entry this year, Life of the Party, focuses on a mother who goes back to college at the same university as her daughter. Amy Schumer’s newly produced comedy is a gamble called I Feel Pretty, about a woman whose head injury makes her think she now looks like a fashion model. Half Magic from Heather Graham’s production company stars Graham, Stephanie Beatriz and Angela Kinsey as women who befriend each other and help change their lives with more adventure. Rom-com The Competition sees Thora Birch avoiding long term relationships until a man challenges her to test her theories about love. And black comedy Dear Dictator has rebellious teen Odeya Rush taking in her pen pal — an exiled Castro-like dictator from a small island nation, played by Michael Caine, who teaches her how to cause revolt in her high school.

High profile dramas starring women bring us a British adaptation of the historical novel The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, renamed just Guernsey, in which stalled novelist Lily James discovers she has a fan club on Guernsey Island and sets out to tell their story of surviving World War II. Kings stars Halle Berry as a mother of five trying to keep her family together and safe during the L.A. Rodney King riots. Please Stand By, starring Dakota Fanning, tells the story of an autistic woman who travels to enter a Star Trek writing competition. Midnight Sun stars Bella Thorne as a young woman who can be killed by sunlight due to an illness. Mary Magdalene stars Rooney Mara in the title role of the Biblical epic. And Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz star in Disobedience, adapted from the novel and produced by Weisz, about two women whose love is forbidden by the Orthodox Jewish community one of them left and the other remains in. Continue reading

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Women in Action 2017-2018: Part 1 – 2017 Review

The year of 2017 had a lot of movies released and the “summer” blockbuster season has now crept into February, though troubled or uncertain productions are still dumped in the early part of the year. Combine that with twice the usual number of big budget pictures released for the holiday season along with the Oscar bait movies, and the impact of the actual Memorial Day to Labor Day season becomes somewhat less important. A number of the big films in 2017 were well received on content, such as the British WWII production Dunkirk (a film with nearly no women in it,) which bodes well for ambitious plans in 2018 and 2019. However, there were a hefty number of large flops and franchise movies that failed domestically in the U.S. and were reliant for most of their profit on world box office, leading the whole summer take to be down over 10% for the year.

Hollywood is combatting the appeal of large amounts of acclaimed and varied television by trying to coordinate big franchises with a t.v. side (see Marvel and D.C. Comics,) and with reserved seating, reclining seats and better food options in U.S. theaters, plugging it as a cheaper night out than a concert or play ticket even with film ticket price raises. They are heavily dependent on securing box office in Europe and Asia, where China has only a limited number of slots for foreign films, leading to a continued reliance on established spectacle that can lead to costly disasters and is likely not sustainable. (Asian movies themselves have been doing very well in box office, frequently rivaling the English-language Hollywood market, but I have some difficulty getting info on those and the actresses that may be in them.) Studios keep trying to reboot old properties they own as less expensive launches that will have foreign name recognition or nostalgia value in the States, but that frequently has not worked that well beyond the superhero and Star Wars films, and a number of the older reliable franchises like Transformers seem to be running out of steam.

In the U.S., smaller budget dramas and comedies are actually finally getting a boost, as they can turn tidy profits – and that’s an area where women have been allowed to take a bigger role the last decade. Horror films, another good area for actresses though it tends not to make them stars, also seem to be immune to market shifts and usually have tiny budgets for maximum profits in the U.S. and abroad. Hollywood seems to have temporarily lost some interest in adapting bestselling YA SFF this year, a sector that helped young actresses, with the last Divergent and Maze Runner films both delayed, which again may limit the chance of new franchises if the trend continues.

After seismic events in 2015 and 2016, in good part thanks to Disney’s Star Wars franchise, 2017 proved to be fairly impactful for women actors in action, if maybe a bit more muted on those lower budget thrillers and horror flicks that were women-led. A number of those smaller thriller films starring women got pushed back to 2018, like the spy thriller Red Sparrow and trippy SF film Annihilation. There were also a few high profile flops for women-led films, such as (very predictably) Ghost in the Shell, the Flatliners sequel and adventure comedy Snatched.

In terms of box office wow for 2017, however, women-led action films did land with a determined thump. Once again, the number one worldwide box office film for the year was December release Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, rocketing to over $1.3 billion in under two months. Daisy Ridley reprised her lead role as young Jedi candidate Rey, squaring off with Mark Hamill playing a guilt-stricken Luke Skywalker, trying to save the son of her mentor Han Solo and deciding to take her destiny and identity into her own hands. The sprawling and complicated middle film of the new SW trilogy also let the late Carrie Fisher shine in what was to be her last performance as General Leia Organa, (she also helped with the script,) and had Gwendoline Christie’s First Order Captain Phasma trying to enact revenge on her former stormtrooper Finn. It added Kelly Marie Tran as rebel mechanic Rose in a key role, Laura Dern as Leia’s right hand woman, Vice Admiral Holdo, and Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, as a rebel Lieutenant, with Lupita Nyong’o reprising her alien role in a cameo. All of that apparently made some macho posturers mad, but everybody else had a good time and the Star Wars juggernaut is firmly secure.

The bigger supposed gamble was DC Comics/Warner’s first entry of the year for their slow building franchise, the final arrival of the Wonder Woman movie in the summer, starring Gal Gadot and set in WWI without a Superman or Batman in sight. The plot of the movie was a bit flimsy, as superhero films are wont to be, but Gadot gave a stellar performance, backed up by a bunch of actresses as the Amazonians, led by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, Elena Anaya as a scarred German scientist, and scene stealing British actress Lucy Davis. The strong action scenes and interesting visuals carried the day and Wonder Woman brought in over $821 million in world box office, putting it in the top ten for the year. More importantly, it produced a DC franchise film that not only made money but that most people liked, with some actual solid humor to it. There was a lot of pressure on this movie, and it delivered, so much so that they had to adjust the Justice League movie to give Wonder Woman a bigger presence and bring in some of the Amazonians for it. Wonder Woman 2 has been greenlit as part of the DC franchise and it will keep its female director, Patty Jenkins, who now holds a box office record for a woman director.

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Women in Action 2017-2018: Preamble

So 2017 was a year, wasn’t it?

Six years ago, I started looking at how actresses were advancing and not advancing in movies in terms of the big star parts in big budget and high status films, mainly action, suspense, SFFH and action comedy. Women have been frequently blocked from major roles in those films, especially having fewer opportunities to be the lead role, as well as kept as much as possible from working behind the camera. (Women make up only about 12% of the directors for film in the main English language market.) They’re paid considerably less than their male counterparts, as people have been made aware, even though on average they have a more reliable track record for bringing in profitable box office. They are given fewer lines of dialogue than male actors, even when they’re in the lead role, and often fewer action things to do, even though women performing action and fight work has increased overall.

When I began doing this, in 2012, that was something of a turning point year for women movie stars in high profile action, so much so that the media actually noticed and called it rather optimistically the “Year of the Women.” The question was then, would that momentum build or sputter out. The answer seems to be that over the recent years the momentum did build, leading to gains for women actors. But an acceleration of women’s roles doesn’t mean that the increase is going particularly fast, given from where it started. For women, it has been a continual slow process of trickle, trickle erosion in what they are allowed to do, and most importantly, how often they’re allowed to do it, and how their participation is viewed in the industry.

In Hollywood, the (mostly white) men who still run most of the film dream factory are heavily focused on their status, on how other men see them, to bolster their position in their jobs. They are thus deeply invested in the idea that (mostly white) male actors are better for big action films, more competent and more popular, leading to a system that also sees men as better at doing the production and financing of movies (and thus reducing the competition in their field.) For Hollywood executives, even the women ones, an action movie with a female lead that does well has less status than working and hanging with a male movie star. The status of male movie stars is also carefully propped up with higher pay, and bigger budgets and wider promotion for their films, even though costly flops are not uncommon. To keep that system of male bonus points and high status going, Hollywood still tries as much as possible to treat women either as exploitable gophers (on the production side,) or replaceable eye candy (as actresses.) Hollywood brands action movies that don’t do as well with women leads as evidence that all actresses can’t carry franchises reliably, while successes of women-led movies are often dismissed as having only niche appeal and/or being flukes.

But there is eventually a limit to how much your status bonus points can get you versus actually producing real money in Hollywood. If one studio makes a woman-led action picture that does well, there is pressure on other studios to try to do woman-led films like the hit one. While global audiences have become essential for big movies, it’s often very unreliable (and not really hostile to women either,) and so domestic U.S. box office is still a concern — and the biggest group going to movies in the theaters in the U.S. are the women. The more women-led action films there are that do well, the less convincing the business arguments that women can’t bring in reliable box office and handle franchises, that they’re niche and narrow in appeal, sounds to people. Actresses continue also to leverage the star power they do have to form their own production companies and launch projects featuring themselves and other women off the ground, a number of them doing very well. So while things are still slow and Hollywood tries to block women – and itself – with as much foot-dragging as possible, at this point the industry would be hard-pressed to try to turn back time and keep women from the big roles and action pictures, even if it wanted to do so.

But star power and the lure of money weren’t the only things that had an impact on the industry with regards to women this last year. For a very long time, women and others have been trying to improve the workplace conditions in the industry, specifically with regards to sexual abuse and harassment of workers, which are endemic to it, particularly in targeting and controlling women. Such abuse is not only traumatic and often criminal, it discriminates against women, helps depress their salaries, and drives many of them out of the business altogether. The horrible case of Bill Cosby, everybody’s dad whose history of serial rapes got amplified media attention and legal prosecution in recent years, not only drew focus to sexual abuse in the industry but showed that media, the courts and the public might now sometimes start to listen if victims banded very publicly together. This came to a boil in the subsequent case of influential producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017, who really should be in jail along with half the people who worked for him. The fact that Weinstein’s victims were also so numerous and that many of them were high profile actresses whose careers he tried to ruin caused the media endless fascination, and from there the boulder rolled – directors, screenwriters, actors, and further ripples in every industry from tech to the government.

The reverberations are still going on, including a few court cases and a smattering of firings. In Hollywood’s case, it ripped the lid off of just how bad the industry remained. And this has caused some surface changes in the business that may run deeper, given that an entire woman’s movement is blazing through the industry like a tornado. Hollywood is promoting its women-led movies a lot harder, it’s facing an army of actresses on pay inequality and professional treatment, and it’s finding its facile excuses for its discriminatory system and for only slowly changing that system to be constantly challenged. It’s too early to know if large changes are really going to happen from all this, especially given the current government in the U.S. But it has given a special significance to the women-led movies that came out in 2017 and a white hot spotlight on women actors and women-led big movies for 2018.

So let’s take a look at the tumultuous year of 2017 for women in the movies and where things are going in 2018.

 

 

Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started, Part 1

Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started, Part 2 (2011/2012)

How Are You Ladies Doing? (mid-year 2012)

It’s Time for Women in Film (2012/2013)

The Female Movie Star Lives in 2014, Yearly Update, Part 1 (2013 review)

The Female Movie Star Lives in 2014, Yearly Update, Part 2 (2014 preview)

Women in Film, Part 1: 2014 Review

Women in Film, Part 2: 2015 Preview Analysis

Women in Film Take the Stage, Part 1: 2015 Review

Women in Film Take the Stage, Part 2: 2016 Preview Analysis

Women In Film — Part 1: 2016 Review

Women In Film — Part 2: 2017 Analysis

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Linky Times — Writer Stuff

Various and sundry writer-related links and news today that caught my attention:

 

An older piece this year from Chuck Wendig’s blog about writing processes and not panicking.

A piece by author Rufi Thorpe about issues women writers often deal with in their lives and careers.

A piece by author Nisi Shawl on writing the Other/other cultures in SFF stories in an effective way.

Various SFF authors talk about the terms fans use about SFF writing that drive them up a wall.

For those who haven’t heard, Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose has optioned the dramatic rights of Daniel José Older’s best-selling YA series Shadowshaper, as well as the rights earlier to his urban fantasy trilogy Bone Street Rumba. I’m working my way through the Bone Street Rumba series and really like it. Shadowshaper has been a big hit with teens and the second book in the series, Shadowhouse Falls, is just coming out now. Rose has been starring in the t.v. shows Power and The Quad, as well as the movie Everything, Everything, which itself was based on a best-selling YA novel. So here’s hoping she can get something going for Older’s work.

Disney/Star Wars is releasing a prequel graphic novel, Star Wars: Rogue One — Cassian & K-2SO Special #1,  to its prequel film Star Wars: Rogue One, which covers how Rebel agent Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, first encountered his android partner K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk. Since K-2 has become my favorite robot in the Star Wars universe, I am interested in this particular tie-in, which is now out from Marvel.

HBO is developing a television series based on the World Fantasy Award winning novel Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor, who is also an executive producer on the show, and they have now hired screen and comics writer/producer Selwyn Seyfu Hinds to co-produce and write the initial scripts. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future Nigeria and offers a complex, brutal and vibrant story about myth, identity and destiny with some really interesting magical elements.

And lastly, Neil Gaiman just released a photo of David Tenant and Michael Sheen in character for the adaptation of his and Terry Pratchett’s famous fantasy novel, Good Omens, and they look awesome as the demon and the angel who decide to save the eleven-year-old Anti-Christ and prevent the Christian apocalypse. I’m quite looking forward to seeing it, as the novel is an old favorite of mine.

 

 

 

 

 

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You Don’t Own Me — Plot, Worlds and Experiences

 

 

So I watched the very brief panel at San Diego Comic Con this year for Netflix’s up-coming movie Bright, debuting in December, mostly to watch cast members Will Smith and Terry Crews goof around. But it was really funny to listen to them all talk as if they’d invented the genre of urban fantasy with this movie, and as if no other movie or t.v. series in that genre, much less thousands and thousands of books and some games, had existed in it before, (not to mention that more than half of those stories involve cops or other forms of law enforcement.)

And then there was one guy in the audience who asked a question at the end of the session, somewhat hostile, about whether they’d ripped off the popular RPG game Shadowrun, a question that they side-stepped with a certain amount of perplexity, as well they should have. This guy was acting again as if contemporary fantasy novels with elves, etc., hadn’t been published for decades before Shadowrun was created in 1989. Shadowrun itself, of course, borrowed copiously from the “elves with computers” novels of contemporary fantasy that were particularly popular in the 1980’s.

In contrast to Shadowrun, Bright is much less cyber-oriented and more grit police procedural thriller – like again many, many contemporary fantasy stories and a few science fiction stories involving usually aliens, including the story it most resembles on the cop part: the movie Alien Nation (1988,) followed by the television series adaptation of the movie (1989) under the same name. Alien Nation itself borrowed heavily/was descended from many, many science fiction stories in which a human and an alien were cop or other law enforcement partners (building on the buddy cops who are opposites idea from suspense fiction.) More recently, the SF television show Almost Human paired a cop with an android AI in a near future Earth, also a favorite in science fiction.

Does any of this matter? No, it has little effect on people’s enjoyment of a particular story being told, be it written fiction, game, movie, t.v., web series or theater play. Occasionally, a fan of one property will be quite put out if another property is anywhere near the same neighborhood, under the mistaken impression that it somehow harms the property that they love or that the property they love now owns common elements like vampires, elves, time travel, love triangles, etc. When the television adaptation of The Vampire Diaries came out, for instance, many fans of Twilight assumed the show was ripping off their beloved book series, even though The Vampire Diaries had been a bestselling YA book series back since the early 1990’s, long before Twilight existed, and its television show started a year before the novel Twilight was adapted into a movie.

Plots are made out of smaller building blocks of structure. Every combination of these building blocks has been played out one way or another over and over again in story-telling, so much so that people learn at an early age what possible block combinations might be tried once a story-teller sets up a universe and a situation. This is not just applicable to what we call genre stories, but to any kind of fiction. It’s of particular importance to mystery writers, who have to set up clues to the answer to a mystery that are slowly uncovered, include false clues to keep readers guessing, and play with reader expectations of who caused the mystery (usually a murder,) through their use of characters in the plot. No mystery author can keep all their readers from guessing the answer correctly because readers are so familiar with plot and the little structural signs of how story-tellers use character, detailed description and imagery to indicate the levers of plot. But they can try to keep readers unsure of whether their guess is correct or not, to keep reading, and they can work with other aspects of character, plot and theme that stem from the mystery plot or are connected to it but that are interesting in and of themselves.

Every author creates something that is original, because the characters, the exact nature of the story world, and the emotions and relationships, as well as the specific use of words and imagery, all within that story are unique to that author. Characters can become dear to many readers, not because they’ve never encountered a character similar to that one before, but because within the context of the story they are in, they specifically connect with readers. That turns the story into an experience for the readers – which is what art is – an experience through story/language/imagery/sound, etc., that personally resonates and so is valued, (or does not and is critiqued.)

But the bones of what they create will always, always be familiar to readers, always be connected to all the different building blocks readers have encountered, from the time they were small, in other stories and sometimes in real life and history. When a reader is surprised by something in a story, it’s not because of a clever plot twist, but because the reader missed the clues in the structure of the story that would have led them to expect it, or because the reader did notice the clues but other clues created an expectation in the reader that a different building block/direction was where the author was going for that story. That can be delightful when it happens, but it won’t happen with every reader and it doesn’t have to happen for readers to be immersed, engaged, and fall for the characters and world of a story.

Take for instance Ned Stark, in the novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. [ Though it’s quite late in the game to bother, I will issue a SPOILER warning here for those who have not yet read the book or seen the television adaptation. If you don’t want to know stuff, stop reading this part now. ] Martin is, above all else in his series, using mythic structures and imagery to tell a massive fairy tale. In the opening parts of the novel, six children of a lord come across a dead parent (mother) dire wolf with six puppies in her belly. These six puppies are given to the six children, very symbolically, by their father. Just previously, their lord father Ned Stark had to execute by beheading a deserter from the Night Watch, because that was the law. And then Ned Stark is asked to come back into far more complicated but equally heavy politics by his friend, the king.

The plot structure of the story is clearly, because of the symbolic dire-wolves, that the six children are destined to be separated, scattered across the lands, and have to deal with different arduous situations and different fates that lead towards the ultimate plot showdown the book sets up at the very beginning in the prologue – as happens in classic myths. They will lose their protector to mainly cause this process – their father, whose dread about taking up the role his king wants him to do will prove to be mythic prophecy. And because of parallel symbolism, the father, who beheaded the herald deserter who warned them about the end, will in turn be beheaded, causing the beginning.

If you’re familiar with mythic story structure, with those combinations of building blocks, and you read the novel, it’s pretty clear early on that Ned Stark is going to die, and in that particular way, and that this event will be the lynch-pin that sends his children into being lost, scattered and driven low by events. It has to happen for the story to unfold properly. He is a supporting character to the six children – Chosen One figures symbolized by the six magical dire-wolf puppies – and their fates.

But the adapters of the television show knew that they could shock a lot of viewers of the show who hadn’t read the books by misdirecting the audience with expectant clues. They hired Sean Bean, a big name actor, to play Ned Stark, while of course the children were played by young, not well known actors. They promoted Bean as the star of the show, so that unfamiliar viewers would think he was the protagonist, etc. They played up Ned Stark’s scenes, while still following the fairy tale structure of the book. It was kind of fun to watch my husband, who hadn’t read the books before watching the first season of the show, freak out when Ned lost his head.

Why would he be especially freaked out at this development? Because it is a familiar story structure, particularly for movies and t.v., that the protagonist doesn’t die – a plot building block. It’s just that the book and thus the t.v. show were using different and also very familiar mythic plot building blocks (see “dead parent” movies.) (Also some building blocks kill off the protagonist, for that matter.) Even if I had not read the book before seeing the t.v. show, I would have known that Ned was destined to die because the t.v. show adhered very closely to the book and used the prisoner beheading and the dire wolf puppies symbolically for the six kids. It would have been clear to me that Jon Snow – the illegitimate, mystery son who decides to go to the Night Watch in exile where the big action would eventually be – was going to be the protagonist, etc., and that all the kids were in for a fall. Because these are plot building blocks of an epic journey/fairy tale/coming of age. For some viewers, even if they hadn’t read the book, those blocks were familiar.

So was the surprise for some over Ned Stark’s death important for the t.v. show’s success? Not particularly, any more than it had been in the book. It certainly didn’t hurt that the show managed to trick some of their viewers (and entertain their fellows who were in the know over their surprised reactions.) But the show didn’t lose viewers when Ned Stark turned out not to be the protagonist and died, when the path the show was taking turned out to be different from what some expected the plot structure to involve. Viewers were engaged in the characters, the world of the story and the images and scenes on the show, whether they knew/guessed that Ned Stark would die or not. [ End of SPOILERS.]

When we’re engaged in a story – its language, imagery, characters and so forth — we aren’t really worried about originality – or rather about being surprised by plot building blocks because we missed or misread clues about them. We’re more focused on seeing what the author has chosen to build just for that world and characters, just for us, and drawing out what meaning the story has for us personally. When we’re less engaged, when we’re bored by a story, then we are likely to carp that the story is too flat, predictable, maybe too like some other story we were more engaged in – it’s not a strong experience for us. Sometimes those comparisons can be pretty ludicrous, such as accusing The Vampire Diaries of time travel, or declaring all elves in gritty contemporary settings to be attributed to the Shadowrun game. Other times, they’re just really acknowledgement of common DNA in plot building blocks — of story ideas, themes and relationships that are of familiar resonance to ourselves.

I’m going to enjoy Bright when it comes out, even if it is directed by the guy who made the movie Suicide Squad for DC/Warner – a film I consider a hot mess. But it will be the umpteenth story I’ve seen/read involving gritty cops and elves and/or magical species. It’s going to be fun, it may even be something I find really well done, but what it won’t be is unique, mind-blowing or radical. Because human beings live on stories – and down deep we know every trick a story-teller can play. We can still be surprised sometimes, we can be impressed with a creation in and of itself and its combinations. But no story owns or invents those basic building blocks of plot structure. Not even if you combine cops and elves one more time, with feeling.

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Wonder Woman Sails Into Shiny Waters

So obviously a lot has been going on in recent months all about, but I did manage to go see the long awaited and much speculated about Wonder Woman movie, starring Gal Gadot. I enjoyed it overall and give it about a B+ grade, which, given the DC multiverse’s film record the last few years, is quite good. The action scenes were mostly great, very cleverly done, the cinematography and use of color and audio with homages to the comics themselves was interesting and nicely shaped by the director, Patty Jenkins. The special effects were sometimes a bit uneven – some of them were great but a few looked a bit too electronic game animation-like. That’s going to happen, though, and it’s pretty amazing at how extensive a range of things they can CGI create now. There were a few points of the plot that didn’t make a great deal of sense – par for the course in action movies – and the ending had some very good dramatic stuff but also a fair amount of hokey stuff that didn’t quite pull it together as well as it might have been done.

But that also is a bit of a Wonder Woman tradition and they managed to set up Wonder Woman’s role in the up-coming Justice League movie quite well. There were a lot of shout-outs to the Wonder Woman comics, although the story and action were moved to World War I, the war that greatly changed both war itself and the idea of empire. They managed to jigger together the character’s many re-booted back stories to give her a cohesive background origin that worked with the movie’s main arc.

Gadot herself gave a very strong performance. She brought easy physicality to the role and handled the tricky mix of naïvety and smarts that is Diana first leaving her island about as well as could be managed. The main costume was still too Xena-ish but the movie may have started a new fashion trend of swords down the back of evening dresses (and the use of the sword was explained in the film.) Chris Pine showed his all to the audience as American spy Steve Trevor (and I do mean literally all.) He also had a tricky balance between playing a man of the 1918 time period trying to explain it to Diana and one who accepts backing her plays as leader in a changing world, as well as an island of warrior women, and I think he did a good job. Their canon romance was a bit rushed for the movie’s sake, but that really couldn’t be helped and they had good chemistry. The movie did a good job on the difficult issues of war and humanity that both of them have to grapple with, (though again the ending could have been stronger.)

Non-white representation in the movie was not great, which was a bit of a disappointment. Two major black canon characters were cut from the Amazons and WOC were token among them (though they did beautifully in their action scenes.) The main Amazon roles went to white, not particularly Mediterranean  appearing actresses — Robin Wright was steely sharp as Diana’s “fun” aunt and Connie Nielsen had the rather thankless role of Diana’s worried queen mom, Hippolyta. Two major supporting characters were non-white men and both actors, Said Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock, did really good performances with what they had. Problem is that what they had were awful stereotypes, which may have been partly because their characters were actually drawn from the DC Comics, but things definitely could have been improved in the script. The film seemed to acknowledge itself on the sad state of Hollywood in this area, including one very pointed line of dialogue delivered by Taghmaoui. So here’s hoping DC does better in the other movies.

Ewen Bremner also had to deal with some stereotypes – Scottish ones for his part – and managed to also give a nice performance nonetheless. Elena Anaya and the renowned Danny Huston made interesting villains. And Lucy Davis, who I particularly enjoyed in Shaun of the Dead, is a national treasure here as Trevor’s British assistant Etta, stealing every scene she’s in. The movie was not a laugh riot, given the subject matter, but it did use healthy doses of humor very effectively throughout, which is again a considerable improvement on the dour, muddled DC film universe so far. If you haven’t had a chance to catch the film yet, I’d say it’s well worth your time even if you’re not the biggest Wonder Woman fan, for the action visuals alone.

If the movie Wonder Woman had been a regular big action film in our ideal world, my little review above would be the only things needing to be talked about. But of course the movie in the sexist system we still have was made the flashpoint of “will woman superhero movies ruin us,” with an enormous amount of pressure, including the responsibility to prop up sagging enthusiasm for the entire DC franchise in preparation for the up-coming Justice League movie.

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An Excellent Twitter Rant on Post-Apocalypse and Other World Building

Sigrid Ellis points out a basic problem in writers and of course, television/movie writers in doing post-apocalyptic dystopias. It’s also applicable to pre-industrial secondary world-building as well in fantasy as well.

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