Archive | April 2014

‘The Winter Soldier’: Cap’s in Charge

Some quick, rambling thoughts on why I’m STILL thinking about The Winter Solider:

I finally understand why Captain America is the natural leader of The Avengers.

Cap can lead The Avengers because he embodies the integration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in his films. The first Captain America introduces the cosmic cube — which factors directly into The Avengers, after being “rediscovered” by Howard Stark. It also factors into a long form narrative the MCU is interested in telling, that of Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet (or at least they want us to deduce as much). It also introduces us to HYDRA, which prominently figures into The Winter Soldier and as a major development with SHIELD. Similarly in The Avengers, Cap arguably has little to distract him from the mission, unlike the other Avengers. (Side note: IN FACT, he goes off book to investigate what SHIELD is up to, now obvious foreshadowing for The Winter Soldier.) Tony Stark is caught up in his individualistic tendencies, not being on board with the Avengers Initiative, and Pepper. Bruce Banner must be wary at all times of his capabilities as The Hulk and is used by SHIELD and Loki under false pretenses. Thor is enmeshed in the mission as well as dealing with his brother’s involvement.

When we get to The Winter Soldier, yet again, it moves the most plot –overall–of any of the films that came before it. It’s interesting how each individual superhero arc is used in the MCU. Either they are contained by their own storyline or they have a flexible structure that can take on the big overarching narrative. A successful Marvel film, at this point in the game, is to advance character and/or to advance plot. In theory, a film should do both but you can see different preferences throughout the MCU. Obviously, some stories aren’t shaped by preference but by accessibility; it is hard to take on the grand MCU narrative in a Thor film, where so much of the action is contained in Asgard and other realms. Iron Man 3 focuses on the advancement of Tony Stark as a character and succeeds at delivering that as well as a carefully crafted, contained narrative. The Winter Soldier focuses on tearing down the governmental world the MCU has been building since Iron Man. The film strengthens and deepens Cap’s character by forcing him to confront his past via a myriad of ways, but this is the character development, cherry on top of the complete dismantling of SHIELD.

Finally, how could you not watch this without thinking about “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” (unless, of course, you don’t watch it)? The filmmakers and show runners made it clear that the series has knowingly built towards the events of the film all season. So the series was effectively spinning its wheels all season, waiting for The Winter Soldier to change the game. In hindsight this all seems so risky. Marvel masterminded a continuation of the MCU onto the smaller screen, and wanted the show to be shaken up by The Winter Soldier by the end. While this might sound good in the writer’s room, they must have overestimated how interested fans would be during the wheel spinning phase. The series is now poised to embrace the shake-up caused by The Winter Soldier, but will viewers come back or will “Agents of SHIELD” be the first casualty in Marvel’s fast growing, far reaching universe?

Advertisements

The Ethics of Accepting a Television Role

[Obligatory spoiler warnings for “The Good Wife” and “Downton Abbey.”]

An actor wants to leave a role in a television show because they want to move on to film parts or are disillusioned with their character or are having an internal dispute with writers, showrunners, fellow cast members, etc. Sometimes these are valid reasons. But what about if your show is insanely popular and/or critically acclaimed? Adored by the masses? And most importantly, what if it disrupts the end game of the show’s narrative?

As you can guess, these very questions crossed my mind (and not for the first time) with Will Gardner’s death on “The Good Wife” and Josh Charles’ exit from the show. It’s one thing when a death or exit serves the story being told. It is another thing when a significant character leaves, thus altering the creators’ final vision of the show. I doubt that I’m alone in this, but when deaths or character exits happen for this reason, I don’t get sad. I get ANGRY. After all, they literally brought it on themselves. You chose to leave; and if you fundamentally screwed up the culmination of different character arcs, why shouldn’t I be pissed? We can only hope that the creators and writers can use the exit to inject fresh life out of the unfortunate loss of their (potential) conclusion.

What do I mean by ethics? Well, I mean an implied ethics. An ethics that says, hey I decided to play so-and-so because I wanted a job but more importantly because I believed in the character and hoped the show would be a hit. And sometimes it is. But what “moral” right do you have to say a few years later…I love this show. It’s the hit I wanted it to be. It’s Emmy nominated. I’ve been nominated for my work. But you know what? I’m bored. I want to concentrate on doing other things. No hard feelings guys! Feel free to call me for talk show appearances anytime.

In case you missed the bitter undertones, Josh Charles’ exit from “The Good Wife” has left a particularly bad taste in my mouth. It’s not just that he wanted to leave. Or that for whatever reason the writers chose his exit to be the most schlocky ending they could go with. It’s how vocal and jovial Josh Charles has been about the matter. Reassuring fans on Twitter. Making the talk show rounds. In other words, relishing his moment that torpedoed what everyone expected about his hit show. Will “The Good Wife” still be excellent? Yes, I think so. But doesn’t the idea that whatever the writers planned for their characters was taken away because of someone that was over a job he signed on the dotted line to have? Look, I’m not even saying I expected the last scene to be Will and Alicia going off into the sunset together. I just imagine they had an idea of how Will fit into the idea of a series finale. And that’s gone forever. Hopefully the writers come up with something better and they can thank Josh Charles for abandoning ship early.

This same scenario played out last season on “Downton Abbey.” After spending seasons dedicated to the love story of Mary and Matthew, they finally married. Then Dan Stevens (Matthew) looked around and thought, well that’s that then. I think I’m ready to move to New York, star on Broadway and hopefully transition to film full time. And thus the heart of the series, Mary and Matthew’s relationship, was blown to smithereens. In what seemed like a “screw you” at the time, Julian Fellowes, showrunner, decided to off Matthew in a random car accident and spent almost no time mourning him in the next season. And once again, why not? A primary component of the series known as “Downton Abbey” was now gone forever. Let’s move on with people that want to be here, on a hit show no less.

Of course Fellowes said that Matthew had to die, that there was no feasible alternative to explain his absence from Mary and their newborn. Sound familiar, “The Good Wife” fans? The Kings wrote an open letter that explained the decision for Will’s death the same way. Except, at least in Matthew’s case, the reasoning is sound. I’d argue it makes total sense for Will to decide trying a new life at the proposed Lockhart/Gardner New York offices. But in reality, just as Fellowes chose such a cheap death for Matthew, the Kings chose a cheap death for Will. Get outta here if you want to go! See how expendable you were in the end?

Actors leave long running series all the time. Sometimes their talents are being wasted. Some have no obvious bearing on the show’s trajectory. Some characters are written to be expendable. I’m not implying that actors do not have reasons for leaving or that some exits are necessary. I am implying that when your exit impacts a serial show where you figure into the narrative prominently, a certain ethics should be involved. And maybe these ethics normally work. Do the remaining original cast members of “Grey’s Anatomy” really want to be playing those roles still? Their ethics are likely motivated by paychecks. As was the cast of “Friends” (although “Friends” would have just ended a few seasons early as opposed to Matthew Perry leaving and Chandler leaving Monica a widow). I could talk in circles around this all day. Perhaps devotion to character and story keep many actors in jobs they’d rather leave. And the Josh Charles’ and Dan Stevens’ of the world are the outliers. Bottom line reiteration: if an actor chooses to leave a role you love on one of your favorite shows, don’t mourn. Get angry! And move on. If the writing is good enough, the show will turn their poor judgement into a creative windfall for your series.

The ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Finale: A Case Study on the Planned Narrative

Everywhere you look on the internet today (and last night) you will find an article either in defense of “How I Met Your Mother” or an enumerated list of what the finale did spectacularly wrong. In an effort for catharsis, I too need to air my grievances with the finale; after all, what’s the use of a blog if you can’t use it for a good ol’ rant.

But first I’d like to comment on my title’s assertion, that this show will become a case study of the planned narrative versus a show with a more rambling, flexible structure. As intricate as the timeline became on the show, the writers were always pushing toward one end goal, established after the first season. And for whatever reason, deviating from this end does not appear to have been an option for the creators, even though the show morphed into a long running hit that slowly altered the character dynamics. Nowadays writers can go on the internet and get a general feel of what fans are thinking and feeling, but apparently the end game was set in stone and inflexible. This failure to adapt to the changing show dynamics is as disastrous as writing a show with no end game in mind that will inevitably be unable to wrap up a complex mythology. In the end, I think a successful formula is to have a well thought-out idea about your show when you get to your pilot or halfway through the first run of episodes. How do you foresee the plot trajectory? When the series ends, where will a particular character likely be? With these ideas in mind, you can write coherent stories that are true to characters, but at the same time be more adaptable. Do two people have surprising chemistry? See where it leads. Change your ideas just as real human beings change their minds. Obviously the ability to stick to a mishmash of the planned versus flexible is highly dependent on the foreseen lifespan of a show as well as a particular show’s subject.

My Primary Issues with the Series Finale:

  • We spent the entire season, not just on Barney and Robin’s wedding, but also reinforcing how much Barney and Robin love each other and were making the right choice by getting married. Never mind the fact that Barney’s elaborate proposal plan was, for me, one of the most enjoyable moments of the penultimate season. Obviously the creators knew that the marriage was doomed to failure and still thought staging an entire season around it, then abruptly erasing the marriage three years later was a good idea.
  • One of my biggest pet peeves is recognizing where and how characters react solely in service of an outcome the writers want to reach. The plan here: Barney and Robin get married, freeing Ted from Robin (enough to meet the mother), Ted gets to have the family he always wanted (a point of contention with Robin when they were a couple), Barney and Robin get divorced, the mother eventually dies, and after a tasteful six years, Ted pursues Robin again.
  • Barney finally becomes a father. This I have very mixed feelings over. On the one hand, the only reason I was confused over Barney and Robin getting married was, once again, Robin’s stance on children. A few seasons ago made it very clear that Barney wanted to have kids, and that was never something Robin wanted in life. I’ve already struggled with my feelings over the episode where Robin finds out she can never have kids, in a time when Barney and Robin were not even a couple. But the show led me to believe that Barney’s love for Robin trumped his desire for children.
  • Speaking of Barney, we as viewers expect (and desire) to see our characters grow, learn lessons, and develop along different paths. Most striking in “How I Met Your Mother” is Barney renouncing his womanizing ways to settle down with Robin. However, and most disappointingly, Barney immediately reverts to his old ways following his divorce. The show seems to suggest that we prefer the old Barney and the reintroduction of the playbook…but I can easily imagine some viewers did get a chuckle out of seeing some new plays. Certainly not this viewer, who saw it as the ultimate backslide.
  • Who in the writer’s room thought it would be satisfying to watch the whole friend group fall apart for over half of the finale? The gradual dissolution of the group (which appeared to be accepted by every character except Lily) contradicted the show’s message about friendship and love. Also, how telling is it that the titular MOTHER took a picture of the group on her own wedding day, without anyone saying that she should be included? You’re in the group for life, provided you aren’t written off to be killed in a few years. (Note: See included pictures. While I couldn’t find a screencap of Tracy taking the picture, I found one from right before: even this still is telling. Tracy (in her wedding dress, no less) stands between Robin and Ted, just like the obstacle she ended up being. The other screencap is of the picture taken by Tracy.)
  • Anyone that was remotely concerned about the “mother is dead and Ted is going to hook-up with Robin” theory could see from a mile away that it was actually happening almost immediately. Once again the story gears ground toward that conclusion throughout the majority of the finale, particularly with the emphasis on Robin’s absence from the group.
  • The finale (although obliterating the friend group for a large portion) was still an exercise in wish fulfillment for the characters. Lily gets to go to Italy. Marshall gets his judgeship after a few years of demoralizing work. The show remembered that Barney wants children so he gets a daughter and is partially cured of his womanizing ways.(?) Ted gets to be with the mother for a decade and then gets to be with the love of his life Robin. Robin gets to travel the world. Tracy is the real loser in this scenario. She loses her first love. She finds love again with Ted only to get sick and die while her kids is still young. What did she do in a previous life to love and lose so much?
  • Finally, what happens with Barney? The show implies that having a daughter cured him of chasing younger women and perhaps led him back to the man he was when he married Robin. Does the show have any definitive answer on whether Barney would settle down again, solely concentrate on raising his daughter, or…? He seems to disappear from the narrative. (Of course I could be forgetting any number of flash forward scenes that give a clue to this).

Like I said, there are plenty of articles outlining these points and just how much the finale screwed over the characters, the storyline, and the viewers. This write-up by James Poniewozik at Time expertly examines and expands on many of these same points. His review not only encapsulates the faults of the finale, but also my sentiments in the wake of the end of the series as a whole.