And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

Avengers: Infinity War is essentially a terrible movie. It’s about an hour too long, it has too many characters and too many plot threads running at once, and most of the characters are either not introduced or barely introduced, get very little dialogue and don’t get any development. If you haven’t watched a long train of interminably dull prior movies in the sequence, you have nothing invested in this shlock, which is just as well because the movie suffers from a more fundamental problem: it bullies its viewers. This movie is basically a series of scenes in which a giant, invincible arsehole does whatever he wants and takes whatever he wants, and all the efforts of the people that we the movie-watchers are supposed to have emotional investment in amount to nothing. If this were an actually serious, well-made movie about a real topic – sexual abuse at Ohio State University, for example – we would be watching the same series of awful bullying scenes, and we would leave exhausted and shattered by the sheer brutal abusiveness of the experience. This isn’t how you make entertainment, it’s how you make documentaries.

Perhaps the movie-makers knew this, and this is why they made sure that not only is a casual viewer unable to invest anything in the characters, but is also unable to engage with the substance of the movie itself. The script wavers between a serious adventure/sci fi, a classic superhero movie, and a comedy. This means that the viewer cannot properly get into the flow of things. Has Thor just seen his entire crew murdered by a fatally powerful demon who aims to destroy half the living creatures in the universe, or has he had an entertaining evening at a bar with some friends? It’s impossible to tell. Is Spacedouche fighting to save his loved one from a fate worse than death, or just hamming it up for his friends at a keg party? It’s impossible to tell. This is one of the (many) fatal errors that sank the recent Star Wars effort, and it did no favours for this movie either. Well, perhaps it did the movie a small favour – the only reason I finished watching it was the dialogue. I watched the whole thing at a remove though, as a disengaged critic, because I had nothing invested in it or its characters.

And how bad were these characters? I have no sense of Thanos’s motivations, or any emotional engagement with his drive to get the infinity stones and destroy half the universe, which is terrible because a fundamental requirement of these kinds of movies is that you be on board with the bad guy’s plans. I felt more in common with the Alien queen in Aliens than I did with this boring dude and his gold fist. Spacedouche, obviously, is a waste of my effort and a completely awful character. Iron Man long since lost his shine and, like late-vintage Elon Musk, has become just a rich entitled white dude with bad ideas. Dr. Strange is a condescending prat who should have stuck with his original career as a detective. Insipid Witchgirl is weak and boring, and I have no idea why she is in love with Useless Robot (Phase? Nobody introduces themselves), who seems to have no purpose in this movie except spare parts. Black Panther might as well also be a robot for all the energy in his performance, and who was that Steve Rogers guy and why is he so useless? I think I was supposed to feel some emotion other than relief when Spiderman died but why would I, when his sole role in this movie is to act as a ham-fisted tool for breaking the fourth wall (and why are we breaking the fourth wall in a supposedly serious movie?) What is Black Widow’s purpose, and what is wrong with this world that Scarlet Johanson can be paid millions of bucks to turn up, say three lines, and then sit in a chair while her stunt double does 90% of her moves[1]? I think there was a guy who flew a thing and blew stuff up, but I don’t know his name and I don’t even remember if he died. Bruce Banner has now thoroughly ruined the Hulk, turning him from a metaphor for adolescent angst into a metaphor for middle aged male sexual dysfunction. Groot – now Groot is an example of how to really terribly mistreat a great character. In the original Space Daddy Issues movie he was a fun and interesting character, but baby Groot in Daddy Issues 2 was just a waste of space and this teenage Groot is such a depressingly bad form of comedy relief that it makes me want to go back in time and destroy the original movie.

A further mark of how bad this movie is is that it introduced time travel. It is a universal truth that a movie with incidental time travel is a bad movie, and that only two movies in the history of cinema have done time travel well: Terminator and Back to the Future. As soon as you casually insert time travel into a movie you ruin it. This was easily avoidable in this story simply by replacing the time stone with some other noun (the shit stone? the mcguffin stone? It doesn’t matter, because there is no sense in which anything Thanos does with his golden fist corresponds in any way to the supposed functions of the stones embedded in the fist). But no, the directors had to go there because there is no stupid thing that cannot be loaded into a modern American action movie. Of course, in keeping with this principle there were a bunch of other incredibly bad decisions that completely undermined the good guys’ efforts and made all their failures both predictable and frustrating:

  • Spacedouche’s decision to punch Thanos in the face while he was sleeping, just as his friends were about to pull the glove off and save the universe, and indeed his decision to stand there arguing with sleeping Thanos and making everything in the universe all about him instead of helping his friends remove the glove and then punch the stupid blue dude when he was actually vulnerable
  • Dr Strange’s decision to go with stupid Iron Man’s stupid plan to confront Thanos while holding the very thing Thanos wants, and then to give up that thing even though he asserted very strongly earlier in the movie that he would let Iron Man die rather than hand it over (we all know why he did this – see below).
  • Dr Strange’s decision to scan all possible futures for the wisdom of his actions after going to confront Thanos instead of before
  • The decision by the idiots at Wakanda to spend precious time and lives defending Wakanda against invading alien hordes so that Little Sister can extract the stone from Useless Robot’s head without killing him, thus ensuring Insipid Witchgirl doesn’t cry, even though ultimately Insipid Witchgirl has to kill Useless Robot anyway, but does it in front of Thanos so that he knows where the stone is[2] and can go back in time and stop her destroying it (but Useless Robot still dies at least)
  • The dumb-arsed series of historical decisions which led the super people of Wakanda with their super-powered Bullshitanium super mineral and hyper high-tech social order to develop an army that fights with spears, has no air support, no artillery, and no projectile weapons of note, and also lacks the strategic sense to stay on the high ground focusing the piss-weak projectile weapons they do have on a narrow breach in an otherwise almost impassable wall
  • Thanos randomly and incoherently spares people, like the entire crew of Spacedouche’s ship (who subsequently go on to try and remove his glove, almost successfully) and Iron Man, who is going to kill him in the next movie

It’s become a pretty much constant aspect of modern American movies that the main characters make bad decisions based on emotion rather than heart, and then at the end have to save the day by sheer grit and determination in the face of the avalanche of consequences their hot-headed decisions unleashed[3]. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Often these stupid decisions simply lead to long unnecessary extra scenes to undo the damage, and plot complications that make the movie less believable than it would otherwise have been, and frustrating. I have got to the point with movies like this and Star Wars that I am basically just hate-watching them: I watch them to see how terrible they are and to get angry at my cultural overlords, more than to enjoy the actual content of the movie. In truth this is why I skipped most of the Marvel movies leading up to this one, and only watched this one because I was on a plane[4].

I also previously avoided this movie because there is one crucial scene, where Dr. Strange hands over the time stone to prevent Iron Man being killed, which basically tells us that Iron Man is crucial to the one possible future in which Thanos is defeated. This means that the rich entitled white guy is going to be the person who saves the universe. Who could have guessed!? That amongst a cast of thousands of super heroes, all the non-white and non-human characters die “randomly” after Thanos gets the final stone, leaving white Iron Man, white Spacedouche, and white Black Widow[5] to save the universe, with rich white Iron Man as the central hero. I can’t wait to see this unusual and novel ending to a movie! It’s highly unlikely I’ll watch the next one, unless it’s playing on a plane in a typhoon, so it seemed like a waste of my time to watch this one too. Perhaps one day someone can remake these movies without all the stupid decisions and white entitlement, and then they might be actually enjoyable. But probably not.

There is one more aspect of this movie which I found amusing, though. It seems to me that there is a metaphor in this movie for the 2016 presidential election, with Thanos as Trump and the six stones as the swing states that he had to pick up to win the electoral college. Everything our heroes throw at him doesn’t stick or slides off, and while some of his buddies are sacrificed on the path to victory, he is ultimately unscathed, and seems to be protected by this strange otherworldly power that enables him to change reality to suit his whims and battle off any enemies. In this metaphor the glove is Russian interference, and the central scene is the moment where the intelligence agencies are trying to reveal the truth to the electorate – this is Spacedouche’s friends trying to pull the glove off – but instead of helping to reveal the horrible truth and fatally weaken him, the mainstream media (represented aptly in this metaphor by Spacedouche) is distracted by Hilary’s emails – a distraction put there by Trump himself – and the moment is lost in their fury. Thanos wakes up and shakes off the people trying to drag off the source of his power over reality, and he goes on to get everything he needs for ultimate victory. It’s up to you to decide whether the half of the universe destroyed by this are a metaphor for women, the Democratic electorate, or most of the rest of the planet. I guess we’ll find out in a year or so.

It’s a nice metaphor, but I have to ask the directors – why did you make us sit through your pain? Couldn’t you have made some other movie, in which the evil arsehole isn’t an invulnerable bully who rampages through the world taking whatever he wants until he gets ultimate power, and the people ranged against him were annoying, powerless losers who consistently make bad decisions? Because I’m not interested in workshopping your pain, and what the world needs now is more superheroes, not more shit superhero movies.

Other reviews you might be interested in

My review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was a horrible movie in every way

My review of Mad Max: Fury Road, as an exemplar of eco-feminist violence

My review of Dunkirk, as a story set in the in-between

fn1: Sorry in advance if this is a slur on Johanson and she actually does all her own stunts. Even if she did, though, she still was almost not present in this movie.

fn2: This is the best gloss I can put on the insertion of time travel into this movie. Otherwise, why doesn’t Thanos just go back in time to the beginning of the universe and hoover up all the remaining stones as they come out of the big bang? This is why this movie is a railroad – you know Thanos is going to get what he wants, you just have to watch everyone suffer and die until he does.

fn3: See also, Battle of the Bastards

fn4: Did I mention that? I didn’t watch this movie by choice, but because I was flying past a typhoon and couldn’t work on my computer for fear it would fly up into the ceiling of the plane during turbulence

fn5: Wait, isn’t Major Kusanagi Asian?

Imagine if you will an anime set in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 about a man called Mr. Stonewell, a former soldier from Unit 731 who has returned to Japan and is having difficulty fitting in. He bears a terrible secret about the involvement of senior military figures in the murder of many of his comrades to cover up a heinous crime. The crime in question was a major antiquities theft ring, which was operating in occupied China and smuggling ancient Chinese artifacts to collectors in Japan and other parts of South East Asia. Now the war is over, and Mr. Stonewell has lost his family and many of his friends as a consequence of his superiors’ efforts to cover up the smuggling ring. Fortunately Mr. Stonewell is a master of biological warfare, and has killed off everyone involved in the cover-up and subsequent murder of his family and friends, though he has never seen the people involved brought to justice, and the crimes have been buried, hidden from history. In this show, called the Avenger, we encounter Mr. Stonewell as he attempts to fit into ordinary society after his demobilization. He and his former comrades feel misunderstood and abandoned, nobody understands the things they had to do, or how much they suffered, they are on the fringes of society, abandoned and rejected. We see Mr. Stonewell lurking at a support group for ex-soldiers, we see his flashbacks to the terrible things he had to do and we understand how he suffers under the burden of the tasks he undertook for the freedom of his country. Meanwhile some of the loose threads of his military past are being tugged, and we discover that perhaps that heinous crime – the murder of soldiers to cover up a corrupt trade in antiquities – hasn’t been fully buried. We can expect in later episodes of this show to see Mr. Stonewell using his chemical and biological warfare skills to kill a sequence of bad military leaders in inventive and disturbing ways, it’s going to be great. In episode 3, with this groundwork laid, the anime takes us on an extended flashback so we can see exactly what terrible deeds Mr. Stonewell had to do in defense of his country. We see the briefing at the formation of his new unit, where one of his fellow soldiers makes an off-the-cuff comment about how their work isn’t exactly going to abide by the hypocratic oath; then we see him vivisecting American soldiers, conducting horrific experiments on them to develop better weapons so that his army can win this terrible war against this implacable foe. We understand he didn’t want to do these awful things but he had to, because it was a war and he was told to. We come to appreciate his moral struggle, but we accept that he is a good man because he is Japanese, and all Japanese soldiers are by necessity good people. This is why the murders of his comrades to cover up mere smuggling are such a heinous crime.

Do you think that this show would be popular in America, and non-controversial? Do you think it’s an acceptable moral frame for your hero? Because in episode 3 of Marvel’s The Punisher we see its putative hero, Frank Castle, shoot a suspected Iraqi terrorist captive in the head, killing him in cold blood in direct contravention of the laws of war, but we move on to discuss the more important issue of how this was wrong because Castle was inadvertently doing it to cover up a heroin smuggling ring. The fact that he just committed a crime for which, in America, he should receive the death sentence, is just irrelevant to the story. This happens in the context of his and his friends’ struggle to deal with the terrible things they had to do for the war effort, and after one of them makes an off-the-cuff reference to Operation Phoenix, so they know they’re doing things against the law of war but they, the directors of this shitshow, and we are meant to not care about that. Castle’s moral struggle and flashbacks have nothing to do with that, although sure he didn’t like killing people. Castle’s real problems are all to do with the real crime at the centre of this show, the heroin smuggling ring which he bravely – and morally – lost everything to break.

Frank Castle is a war criminal, and this terrible tv show is a paean to war criminals. There’s a heirarchy of moral ills in this show, with killing your own soldiers to cover up a crime right at the top, and murdering a captive in cold blood right at the bottom. Even the special agent trying to find out about the crimes Castle committed isn’t interested because there was a clear and extensive violation of the laws of war – she’s interested because one of the victims was a friend of hers, and he was innocent. The implication here is obvious – that these wouldn’t be considered crimes at all if the people who suffered them had all been guilty. Here we see the insidious effect of 15 years of wars of aggression, extra-judicial killings and egregious violations of the Geneva convention on the mentality of ordinary American producers of culture – they have lost their understanding of what a war crime is, and of how Americans can be guilty of … well, of anything at all really. And so it is that Castle sails through this show bearing the scars of everything wrong that was done to him, and blissfully free of any guilt, trauma or even recognition of all the things he has done to people.

It’s worth noting that there is a controversy attached to the Punisher, but this controversy is all about the timing of its release, and how its gun violence might be triggering for many Americans after the Las Vegas mass shooting. The valorization of a war criminal isn’t mentioned, and although some reviews dwell on the trauma he experienced, none seem to have noticed that he’s a war criminal. It’s remarkable that this central part of his background is completely missed in favour of the wrongs done to him. Have Americans managed to completely insulate themselves from the consequences of their own wars? Are they now completely morally impervious?

Another aspect of this show that is tired and boring and that I am completely over in American TV is the stereotype of the neglected and abandoned veteran. This is heavily present in the first three episodes, as we see Castle lurking around a support group for veterans, and hear their complaints about how they have been abandoned on their return, how the world doesn’t understand them and hasn’t made a place for them, they’re alone and lost in the world. This overdone stereotype is, frankly, complete bullshit. Returned veterans get access to a nationwide network of socialized medicine, they get discounts on student fees for retraining, they get two weeks of NFL games devoted to them, there is a transnational sports event for disabled veterans with very senior political figures as its patrons, and they get a plethora of TV shows about their struggles and issues. Where and how exactly are these people being abandoned and neglected? Like every other show that ever dwells on this issue, we hear lots of vets saying it’s an issue, but none of them actually tells us what was done to them, or what happened to them. This is particularly insulting in a show that is devoted to exploring the trauma issues of a returned vet, while ignoring the fact that he’s a criminal who should in be prison for life (at least). It’s right up there with right wing talk show hosts using their nationally syndicated tv show to complain about how the media is censoring them – a show about a vet’s trauma, complaining that vets don’t get enough attention to their trauma. Just drop it already. Or better still, make a TV show about a vet returning to America proud of his contribution to the army, counting the notches on his belt of the enemy he has killed, willing to defend his actions in a foreign war he didn’t choose. This story would be much closer to the truth of life for a returned vet, but for some reason we have to be subjected to its exact opposite, this boring trope of the vet who can’t get a break.

This show could have had other stories, that would have kept Castle’s background intact but given a more realistic and sensitive approach to the war. The detective pursuing him could be pursuing him for his war crimes, not because her friend was an innocent victim; he could be seeking redemption for his crimes instead of vengeance for his trauma. Someone, somewhere in all this mess could have just tried to at least talk about this aspect of his back story. We could see an arc which ends with him finding redemption for what he did, through extreme violence of everyone else who ever does anything like it. Or he could have refused to be part of that torture and murder network, and all the trauma visited on him could have been a consequence of his principled stand against war crimes. That would make his punisher stick way more believable and way more moral than this elaborate refrigeration of his entire family, with detailed and boring flashbacks, and no real explanation for why he is so uniquely traumatized compared to everyone else (those hammer scenes are really, really overdoing it). We could have been watching a show that once, just once, in the history of American TV since Rambo, actually tries to tell the truth about returned vets and makes some tiny effort to explore America’s war crimes. But probably that would have been even more controversial than the gun porn.

I really wanted to like this show. I like the actor playing Castle, I love vengeance as a theme and I enjoy watching bad guys get their comeuppance, as brutal as you can. So I was looking forward to a long arc of redemptive violence. But I can’t accept this redemptive violence for this reason, when really the first person who should be getting a dose of it is the guy who casually shot a prisoner in the head because he was told to – the Punisher, indeed. So much of everything that has gone wrong in the world for the past 30 years is the fault of America’s policy adventures, and so much of its current mistakes can be laid at the feet of its ordinary citizens and their foolish misguided self beliefs. A million people died in Iraq, and four million were displaced, because American politicians decided to launch an illegal war of aggression, but none of it would have been possible if people like Frank Castle had refused to break the laws of war. It’s an insult to those million dead to make a show about one of their murderers, to gloss over all the bad things he did, and then whine incessantly about how this man who signed up for an illegal war is the real victim. Obviously everyone has their breaking point, and this is mine. I’m not going to watch a show about a war criminal who doesn’t even have to redeem himself, simply because he’s an American. You can keep your war propaganda, and I think Marvel I can’t be bothered with you anymore.

I have never been able to argue with authorial authority

I have never been able to argue with authorial authority

In a recent discussion with my regular role-playing group one player was complaining about the plethora of super-hero movies being released recently, and her increasing exhaustion with this genre. Another defended it partially on the basis that he has always really enjoyed superhero comics so seeing good movies of them is fun, but yeah maybe there are a few too many. I chimed in to this essential conversation to observe that I’ve never been able to get into super hero comics by Marvel and DC (and I guess Vertigo too) because I find the text so incredibly frustrating to read. The way they put bold/italic emphasis on almost random words in the text – in almost every piece of text – really distracts me from what I’m actually reading and drives me crazy. The original complainer agreed that she, too has always found this off-putting.

As an example, consider this blog post at Lawyers, Guns and Money about what a superb comic artist some guy is. It gives a long, detailed dissertation about how the action within the frame is juxtaposed with the flow of the panels to inculcate in the reader the same sense of discomfort and challenge experienced by the character the panels are about. This seems like a fairly plausible interpretation of the effect of this particular set of panels but I just can’t care about how great this makes the artist because the entire scene is so devastatingly annoying. What is with all that emphasis in all the text? Why emphasize the word “lightning bolt” and the names? It’s distracting and annoying.

I’ve felt this way for years of course but never really investigated, so I tried a bit of googling to see if I could find anything on the topic, and a brief search revealed nothing – possibly because including the words “Marvel”, “DC” or anything similar in a search term drowns out the rest, but possibly also because no one writes about this stuff. So what is going on? Why do they have to put emphasis in comic book text at all, let alone randomly throughout every second speech bubble? Is it something about the reading age of the audience? Is it meant to add dramatic tension? Is there no one in either of these quite large companies who reads this stuff, finds it annoying, and occasionally considers maybe not doing it? Are there two types of people in the world? As far as I know the method isn’t used in manga, at least not in Japanese and I don’t remember it in English either. Why do these comics do it? And is there a legion of haters of this stuff out there? If you do hate it, is it possible to enjoy the comics at all or are is it always overwhelming?

Inquiring MINDS want to KNOW.

I finally got to see the Avengers today, and a fine romp it was too. I’m still chuckling now about the encounter between Loki and the Hulk, and the movie has much to recommend it. It has good characters, excellent explodiness, very snappy dialogue, and some very smooth cultural references. I know nothing about the Marvel universe, but I really like the Incredible Hulk and I think he’s done very well in this movie, as is the Stark guy. Thor was a bit bland, and Hawk Eye both incongruous (a bow? really?) and a little weak, but Black Widow was excellent, and even Captain America had charm despite his obvious inherent blandness. So that’s four good characters, an excellent script, some genuinely awesome action scenes, and a plot that mostly made sense. I’m willing to forgive Joss Whedon the flying aircraft carrier madness because a) it’s pretty cool and b) it was probably some Marvel stupidity anyway, so whatever. Though FYI to super-spy agencies planning on building a massive flying double-decker invisible aircraft carrier: more than four rotors is a good idea. Try eight. Also, maybe there’s a new truism of movie-making here: plots that occur on a massive flying invisible aircraft carrier will be a bit silly, because I thought the whole shenanigan in that part of the movie was a little unbelievable. I don’t in general like it when the bad guy’s scheme is so devious that it relies on 88 layers of mistakes by his otherwise intelligent opponents (“I know! If I get myself captured and trick them into taking away my weapon and placing it in the dungeon right next to an unstable ammunition supply, and then they simultaneously build a hoverbike in the same room – which I know they’ll do – and the hoverbike relies on beta-particle generating fusion power for its locomotion – which I know it must – then surely the resulting chemical reaction will kill them all and free me from the indestructible prison I know they will put me in!”)

But otherwise it was excellent. Though I must point out that the wiggly monster-thingy from the preview that appears in the final battle, though 78 spiny shades of awesome, does appear to be a bit of a copy of a certain monster from a Final Fantasy movie I watched. But as Chumbawumba said, there’s nothing new under the sun, and provided it explodes in sufficiently technicolor glory I don’t care. And anything that gets punched by the Hulk does, so all’s well that ends well (unless you’re the spiny beast from beyond space and time – it doesn’t end well for them).

I was reminded while watching, however, that a while back I put up a post about Game of Thrones passing the Bechdel test, and that this post was inspired by the observation that the Avengers fails the Bechdel test, so having finally had a chance to see the movie, I’m in a position to make a judgment about this burning cultural issue. As a reminder, the Bechdel test requires that two female characters must have a conversation about something other than a man.

In this simple sense the movie fails the Bechdel test, but this is for a very simple reason: there are only three female characters in the movie, only one of them is a significant lead, and they basically don’t meet. Most assuredly, it fails the “where have all the chicks gone?” test, but there’s a very simple reason for this: it’s set in the Marvel Universe, a comic book world designed for teenage American boys, and so there are very few lead characters who are female. The only chance for any woman to interact with any other woman in this movie is in the first half of the movie when Black Widow is on the bridge of the USS Stupid Flying Invisible Aircraft Carrier, and there is one other female agent who might be able to engage with her – but that agent’s role is so tiny that she gets maybe three speaking parts and is largely irrelevant through most of the movie.

I think a more relevant question is whether Joss Whedon should have considered putting women in more secondary roles – e.g. Agent whatisface who gets killed, or the physicist guy who does something. Alternatively, and more radically, Whedon could have considered making one of the five core cast members a different gender. I’m not sure how Black Widow could be made a boy given her name, but Captain America and Hulk are both gender neutral names. Come to think of it, a female Hulk would be fascinating on so many levels of feminist inquiry, it would make the average teenage nerd’s head explode. It would probably also lead to the movie being shit-canned as “too politically correct” before it even got to the funding stage. And Marvel would no doubt not have supported it.

I guess the moral of this is that the Bechdel test really only applies to movies set in genres which allow women to have meaningful roles.  That pretty much rules out much of the super-hero genre and a lot of sci-fi too. Bechdel tests are an irrelevant second order concern when women can’t even be portrayed in strong roles in a genre, and in fact the female characters that Whedon did put in this movie really shone: Black Widow was awesome, and the nameless female agent on the bridge was very competent and cool. Sadly, everyone else was a bloke. So, more important than giving Black Widow the chance to workshop her mass-murder issues with a couple of her girlfriends, is actually giving her female colleagues. Once the American comic universe has risen to that level of sophistication, we can upbraid Joss Whedon for not having the all-female murder crew talk about something other than the men they’re going to kill…

Through the website i09 I discovered an entertaining Call of Cthulhu comic, written and drawn in the style of Dr. Seuss. The artist is one DrFaustusAU, an Australian artist with a page on DeviantART. What a mysterious coincidence …


I saw The Adventures of Tintin, aka Tantan no boken in Japanese, in 3D at the Kichijoji Toho Cinema on Friday, and I can report that it was a great deal of fun. It’s basically a mystery adventure that takes Tintin from his hometown to the desert town of Baggar and back again in the quest for the secret of the Unicorn, a 17th century ship. At the beginning of the movie, Tintin purchases a scale model of the ship, only to discover various forces are trying to get it off of him, because of the secret it contains. Being an intrepid investigative reporter, he decides instead of waiting for a press release from the relevant criminal organization to track down the secret himself (this is the inter-war era, remember, when “investigative reporter” still meant something). In the process he meets Captain Haddock, the Thompson twins and a wide range of nasty villains.

Of course, no one is really that interested in the details of his adventures, since we all know roughly what to expect from the stories and the movie genre: there will be some chases, some (mostly non-fatal) fights, some quite ridiculous leaps of intuition by Tintin, some quite ridiculously intelligent acts by his dog Snowy, and another couple of crazy stunt scenes. What people are really interested in is how it cleaves to the original stories and setting, what is Tintin like, and should all die-hard fans of a musty comic be outraged! outraged I tell you! because Tintin’s quiff is at slightly the wrong angle? So I shall skip over the car chase near the end, which is the most genuinely spectacular and exciting chase scene I have seen in years, in favour of reporting on my opinion of the story’s faithfulness to the original.

Of course, it’s been years since I read Tintin and I don’t recall the details, so I don’t know whether, for example, the way he meets Haddock matches the story of the book. But I have strong images and impressions from my (repeated) childhood reading of the stories, and in my opinion the movie is very close in atmosphere, appearance and style to the original. The opening credits are a direct and obvious tribute to the style of the comics, but the movie itself also sticks to the impressions of the story. It is animated in a semi-realistic style, so I couldn’t tell (and haven’t checked) whether it was animation over real actors, or fully animated, and this means it retains the same sense of simple realism of the stories, which though they might cover fantastic themes, always were very grounded in a sense of being in the real world. Tintin is picture perfect, as is Snowy, and Snowy’s mannerisms are just as I remember them – the same eager, attentive walk, the same cowering manner when gunfire starts, the same cat-chasing peskiness. The first 20 minutes of the movie are, just like in the comics, entirely focused on Tintin, and involve him talking to himself a lot (just like in the book!) Captain Haddock is also straight from the pages of the comic, as are the Thompson twins (or Dupont, as they are known in the Japanese version). But more than that, the colours and structures of the setting – ships, planes, buildings, cars – are nearly perfectly like those of the covers of the books. The sands of the desert and the settings for the conflicts there take me straight back to the books, as do some of the fight scenes, the regular moments where someone gets clobbered on the back of the head with a torch or cosh, the way Tintin runs – it’s a real homage to the style of the originals. The way the characters talk is also refreshingly old-fashioned – polite, no swearing, very clear and short expressions and un-self-consciously old fashioned, also like the comics.

Although the first third of the story follows the plot of The Secret of the Unicorn (1942-43), it completely deviates from the second part of this story, Red Rackham’s Treasure, in its conclusion. It includes a few nods to other stories (e.g. in the credits, and a nice inclusion of a part of The Castafiore Emerald). So although the finale is a conclusion completely different to the original, and the action of the last third follows a completely different style, the first half is quite faithful to the comic on which the movie’s name is based. Also, some parts of that story – e.g. Haddock’s reenactment of a naval battle – work better in the movie than I suspect they would on rereading the comic. So I think it’s actually a good companion to the comic story.

The cinematography in this movie is quite nice. The animation is very very good, and some of the grander scenes – pirate battles involving Red Rackham, flight scenes, and the final car chase – are genuinely spectacular. Transitions between scenes are also very nicely done, and works of art in their own right. Snowy is a joy to watch, and the action is very tightly paced and well coordinated. The final battle scene between Haddock and the bad guy is great fun as well. The movie is visually a lot of fun. The only two flaws I would say are that it’s a touch too long, and the plot could have been simplified to get rid of some twists and irrelevancies; and the first 20 minutes can be a bit hard going because it is mostly Tintin talking to himself. This is very faithful to the comic but just doesn’t work in a movie.

Though I’m sure Tintin aficionados will poo-poo this movie, and no doubt refer to some second-rate 70s job as vastly superior, I think it’s a nice companion to the comic it is based on – at least based on my impressionistic memories of the world of Tintin as I read it in my childhood. I was a big fan, and I really appreciate the effort that has gone into recreating the world for the modern cinema audience. It’s a fun movie in its own right, and a nice visualization of Tintin. I recommend it to anyone who’s not completely stuck-in-the-mud about the originals, and/or wants to enjoy a fun adventure. A perfect christmas holiday fun movie!

Postmodernism and Panties

After a work- and laziness-induced hiatus, I’ve returned to reading this series, about the detective/university student, Yakumo, and his friend Haruka. Yakumo can see ghosts, and works as a private detective in the ghost world; Haruka (pictured, in a rage) is his friend, and a university student as well, who becomes embroiled in his cases after initially inviting his help with a friend. At the end of Part 2, the pair – along with a rough and bullying private investigator called Gotoh – thought they had cracked the case of a child murderer, who had died in a car crash but managed to take possession of a by-stander in the moments before his death.

In this episode, we meet Yakumo’s uncle, a Buddhist priest, who helps them to deceive the ghost of the child murderer and trick it into possessing the body of a rat, thus freeing the girl it had possessed and dooming it to a life of cheese and over-sized testicles. Unfortunately, they were wrong about the culprit for the murders – a fourth victim is discovered just hours after they consign the supposed murderer to a life of medical experiments. There must have been two murderers, and they have only caught one. So, they are back on the hunt for the murderer and, as might be expected, through the development of sympathy with a related character and the decision to act kindly towards someone else, Haruka becomes the potential fifth victim. Yakumo, Goto and Goto’s long-suffering side-kick Ishii arrive just in time to save her from a horrible death, and the identity of the real criminal, as well as his twisted motives, are revealed. As seems to be typical of many putatively evil people in manga, we come to understand and sympathize with his motives, and someone is able to forgive him (though he still goes to prison, which is going to mean the death penalty).

This episode is reasonably light on investigative stuff and is primarily focussed on revealing more about our heroes. Haruka is forced to confront the ghosts of her past (having literally done so in the previous episode), and has a long and difficult conversation with her mother about her feelings of guilt over the death of her sister. This is quite a sweetly done conversation, and in fact much of this episode seems to be about deepening our understanding and appreciation of Haruka. Haruka is a very kind, very considerate and genuinely nice person but she’s also very feisty, open-minded, and quite tough when it comes to expressing her feelings or acting on something she thinks is right. This combination of traits seems to be very dangerous when you’re part of Yakumo’s world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that although this series is titled Psychic Detective Yakumo, the central character is really Haruka and it should be renamed Haruka’s Adventures with Ghosts and a Cold-hearted Bastard (would that be 冷たいあいつと幽霊を出会う春香の冒険?), because although we are learning to understand his history and motives, Yakumo really isn’t very nice to Haruka. He teases her and is always cold and rough.

By contrast with Haruka’s story, in this episode we mainly find out functional details about Yakumo, and particularly we discover that he has some kind of nemesis who has the same powers as him and was involved in setting the murderer onto Haruka. They have some historical connection, and he’s obviously going to be the chief enemy of future episodes because in the final scene, when Haruka is enjoying the cherry blossoms with Yakumo, they are given a note by a child that simply says “See you again soon.” This is an ominous sign for their future: cherry blossoms are a sign of the passing of things, and if they get this note while they’re walking through falling cherry blossoms then it probably means the end of their happy life so far (if being coolly treated by someone you clearly have a crush on and nearly murdered twice counts as a “happy life,” but Haruka doesn’t seem to be complaining). The fourth episode looms …

A brief aside concerning panties, and styles of representation

In the above frame, Haruka has just finished her conversation with her mother, and her mother asks her “Haruka, your readers could see your panties, you know …” And in fact we could. For the first time in 3 episodes, and only at this moment when Haruka is opening up to her mother about her feelings of guilt, we get several quite direct views of Haruka’s panties. This is interesting because there are lots of other times – going up railway station stairs, sitting on chairs, exploring mysterious houses – where we could have been accidentally exposed to this most hideous of sights; and of course the writer has complete control of the field of view, and Haruka isn’t exactly excessive in her use of leg-covering material, so we could regularly witness this sight, but we never have up until now. It could be fan service, but I don’t think so. I think that it is intended to emphasize her emotional vulnerability in this conversation – unlike when she is being beaten, drowned, tied up and about to die, at which points we never see her undies. So I’m wondering if actually the “panty-shot” so maligned by western critics of anime is actually a representational ploy to show someone’s naivete, childlike position, or vulnerability. I’ll be exploring this and other aspects of representational styles in manga in a future post.


This episode of Psychic Detective Yakumo gave us a complex and challenging crime, some more details of the workings of the ghostworld and its interactions with the human, and a deeper insight into Haruka, who is developing as a stand-out character. It has also set us up for a plot involving some dark nemesis, which promises to be a lot of fun but threatens to turn silly. The story is a page-turner and the characters, though still a little stereotypical – especially Gotoh san – and with sometimes somewhat too archetypical relationships (Haruka and Yakumo’s friendship/unrecognized love affair is as old as Japanese drama, I think), are sympathetic and generally enjoyable to read about. I’ve got another book to attend to now, but I’ll be getting back to number four soon. The series is certainly popular here, and is definitely good enough to hold one’s interest. Stay tuned for more adventures in ghost-detection, manga-style.

Curiosity killed the...

In part 2 of this manga series, Yakumo and Haruka have to investigate the strange possession of a young woman by the ghost of a man, against the backdrop of a serial murderer in their town. The serial murder has been abducting schoolgirls, holding them for a few days and then killing them, but this isn’t Yakumo’s case; he has been approached to deal with a young woman who has been rendered catatonic by possession, and in investigating her situation he finds she has been possessed by a man.

In this episode we find out more about Yakumo’s friend Gotou san, who is a private investigator assisting the police with the serial murderer case and is central to the plot, because it turns out that the possessed girl and the serial killer are intimately linked. We also find out a little more about Yakumo’s family background, and Haruka reveals she too may have a talent for seeing ghosts, probably because her older sister – for whose childhood death Haruka blames herself – hangs around her spiritually, and is guiding her to certain scenes and situations.

There’s an interesting contrast in this story between Yakumo’s self-imposed isolation from a society that has always scorned him, and Haruka’s connectedness, both of which are directly related to their ability to see the supernatural world. We see increasing hints of a possible relationship between them, and it seems likely that Haruka is going to draw Yakumo back to the mundane concerns of the world (and out of his “movie research club” at university, that is really just a front for skipping class and sleeping). The development of their relationship is going to be slow, however, and no doubt form the central plot tension of the series.

Part 2 of the series doesn’t involve any high-risk situations or combat, it’s pure investigative work, and as usual the final resolution has to wait until the start of part 3, but it looks like it’s going to be a high risk play that may go pear-shaped. As an investigative story, part 2 was interesting, and although we work out early on who the serial killer is, the task of unravelling his motives and his connection to the possessed girl held my attention well; it was also more than a little disturbing. It’s worth the effort to read, which is just as well because Part 2 was a lot harder to read than part 1, involving a lot more casual and slang Japanese, and more unusual words. Nonetheless, my mad scramble from Tokyo wasn’t so crazy that I couldn’t chug my way through to the end of this book by Shin-Osaka, so not tooooo hard.

This series is holding my attention and the ghost stories so far have been interesting and well done. I’m seeing the development of an internal logic to the supernatural world, which is going to make future stories more predictable but also more believable; and I like both the main characters, as well as their slightly antagonistic relationship. They both have past problems whose resolution we may see in the future, and lots of scope for development and exploration. So, I continue to recommend Psychic Detective Yakumo.

The Daily Mash today has an excellent article on how women prefer me who like comics. It even has a warhammer reference:

They should make Warhammer condoms, shaped like balrogs and space marines

So this is where I’ve been going wrong my whole life…

Treachery never looked so cool...

I’m playing at my local gaming convention this Sunday, and there’s a risk that I’ll be invited into a Japanese-made role-playing game, so against this risk I thought I’d read one of the more popular (and cheaper) Japanese-made games, both to get an introduction to the feeling of Japanese games and to learn some language; and also in the hope that this actual game is being played. The game is called Double Cross, 3rd edition, and in this post I aim to give some outline information on it. So far I’ve only read up to the beginning of character creation, because I’m using my standard translation technique, which I’ve become better at in the past year but which is still slow. And I have computer games to play, so nothing is happening fast at the moment…

For more background information, the website for Double Cross 3 (entirely in Japanese) outlines the main products available, and the J-RPG webpage has an outline of some of the basic elements of the game, including background on the origins of the character class names. The “Download” section of the Double Cross 3 website contains some example character sheets, and the J-RPG group also has a link to some of the character class concept sketches, which look very cool. The English writing in the background of each picture gives a rough idea of the character concept behind the picture: the first character, for example, translates roughly as something like “Fighter to protect dreams,” (yume no mamorishu) and is written in English as “Dream Fighter.” If you download the firefox add-on called “rikaichan” you can translate individual words in some websites, but sadly not in the character pictures. Anyway, the first picture contains all the information you need to know about this game: it includes schoolgirls. Can’t go wrong there.

So here is the outline of what I’ve read so far.


The book is a B5 hand-held book, purchased for 840 yen (5 pounds, or $AUS10, or $US8) new, and it contains everything you need to play – player guide, GM guide, world information, character sheet, sample characters, example of play, and scenarios. Eat that, WOTC! It starts with an outline of the world, and then has a short comic strip involving some demon-summoning school children (de rigeuer, I think we can all agree). Then it goes into the standard RPG stuff – what an RPG is, guidance for using the book, glossary of terms, character creation, etc. It’s all black and white, and the B5 format means some stuff (e.g. pictures of the character sheet on the page) is very small. The sample characters have pictures just like those in the link above, in black and white. I think a benefit of the Japanese language is that you can stuff an enormous amount of information into a very small physical space using the pictograms, and this shows here. The language is simple and business-like, which is a bonus for me, but it has occasional slang/crime language (in the comic, for example) and some lyrical introduction language that is completely wasted on me (see the translation on the J-RPG page above). I think Western game designers really need to consider this game book format, because it’s a really good idea to present the whole game in a $10 package. I think they have a proper A4 size colour version for ¥3000 (20 pounds, $AUS35, $US30) but the separation of the game into luxury and practical versions is I think an excellent plan.

Game idea

The game is set in a modern world, everyday Japan, which has been beset by a virus called renegade which corrupts people and gives them superpowers. The PCs are people with these superpowers who stand “in the space between human and superhero” and fight the evil forces unleashed by the virus. These powers are essentially dangerous, because the renegade virus “erodes the human sense” and every use increases the risk that a person will go mad, becoming a germ, a human overcome by some evil trait who is not considered human anymore. In the game, people with powers from the renegade virus are referred to as what has been transliterated as overed, though I wonder if it is actually meant to be transliterated as overawed (it’s hard to tell). So you start the game as an overed person, and have to manage your powers carefully lest you transform into a germ and have to be hunted down like a dog by your friends. The characters also all start with important personal connections called Lois, and if they lose these connections the connections become a Titus, which is some kind of evil bastard, at least according to Shakespeare.  The PCs also are supposed to have a cover, and may or may not work for UGN, a company or government organisation in the classic Anime style, which hunts down the bad guys (I haven’t read that far yet).

Character classes

Characters are chosen entirely on the basis of their mutation, or syndrome, of which there are 12. These give different types of powers, and the PC can be a pure breed (with powers in one syndrome only) or a cross-breed, with two syndromes.For example, our happy school-girl dream fighter is a cross-breed combining the syndromes of “Angel Halo” (controlling light) and “Salamander” (controlling fire). Mmmm, dreamy… I haven’t read the syndrome descriptions yet but judging by the TRPG translation they look very cool. Each syndrome comes with a brace of powers, maybe 15, of different levels, some combat, some investigative. This means that in total there are… 66 possible character classes (if my calculation of “12 choose 2” in my head is correct). For example, our schoolgirl (whose picture in the book, btw, has her sucking a lollipop, wearing a short skirt, and pointing a big gun) can choose the level 1 power Eyes of God, which increases perception, from her Angel Halo syndrome; or Wrath of the Fire God, which wreathes her in fire and increases her attack power, from her Salamander syndrome. That’s the kind of girl you want in your high school hostess club, or your high school basketball team. I haven’t read this far yet, but it seems like the syndromes control your starting ability scores, of which there are four: physical, sense, mind and charm. There’s also a section for choosing life path. I get the impression that character development is simple, but we’ll come back to that when I’ve read it. It seems to involve a lot of choices from tables using the mechanic they call “Roll or Choice,” wherein you roll on the table or choose, according to your preference. Some tables are choice only. So you can randomly roll your cover, or choose it.

Some similarities

I was struck by the inherent similarities of the introductory sections about what a role-playing game is. The explanation was very familiar to anyone who has read a few Western-style games. There was also a section called “Golden Rule” which is just what one expects: a brief paragraph on how the game is for fun and you only use the rules you want to use, with final judgement on anything resting on the GM, who is responsible for coming up with appropriate rulings in consultation with the players. Sound familiar? Also in common with a lot of Western games, there was a brief section on “The Third Person,” in which the authors state that they will use “he” or “several hes” as the third person singular/plural, and this is done to preserve readability[1] and not for any reasons of discrimination. The glossary also contains the usual definitions of GM, Player, etc. and the layout of the book is very similar – introduction, faffy bits, character development, player guide, world guide, GM guide, scenario section. This is yet more proof that the RPG world is actually really similar across the cultural divide.


The main differences in the game will probably lie further on, in its development of the world, but a few that were immediately evident were the heavy manga focus, with all the illustrations being done in a manga style and the inclusion of small manga strips at crucial stages in the book. Obviously, the world setting is very consistent with a lot of Anime and Manga ideas, with a secret organisation using superheroes to hunt down superheroes. Witch Hunter Robin springs to mind immediately. The book itself is set out in a more formalised style, which is very useful, with for example a page giving a flowchart to explain the character development process, an initial page with a picture of all the items you need to play, and so on. This is consistent with a Japanese style of presenting information that can be much clearer and more ordered (in print) than in the West. My local town’s onsen guide, for example, has a scatter plot of every onsen in Beppu, plotting its water mineral content against some other water property, so you can immediately find the onsen that suits you. The magazine Tokyo Graffiti[2] has some really interesting examples of graphical presentation of information for the lay reader (about hair style choices, or shoes!) that shows a much more ordered and advanced approach to information than in the West. This gamebook follows in that style.

The system seems to be heavily focussed around powers, rather than spells and class-specific abilities, but I think there is a skill system as well. More on this later, when I’ve read it. It also seems to be low complexity, aimed at starting quickly and resolving actions quickly. Also, it has the phenomenon of erosion, in which using your own powers increases the risk of losing your PC, so there’s a type of insanity-check based resource management system which is not too common in western games, I think.

A few other notes

The JRPG site translation of the powers also includes references to the original source of the power’s name, and as can be seen, there is a lot of reference to classical western and ancient literature, as well as Chinese and Japanese history. The use of the word Titus to describe vengeful ex-associates is a very cool touch, and apparently there’s a supplement set in an Eastern European country in the throes of a civil war. This kind of Western-influenced anime style reminds me of Full Metal Alchemist or any of the famous Miyazaki Hayao movies, and I think it’s a really impressive and interesting style. It’s also classically Japanese, to merge Shakespeare, ancient fallen Japanese Gods, and a reference to a Stanislaw Lem novel.

The book also includes an example of a “Play Report,” which is written like a play, with the actors being the GM and the players. Apparently there are whole novels written in this style, and play reports are very popular here. I will at some point try reading one, but I suspect there’ll be too much casual Japanese for my skills, at least for a while.

In my next update on this game, I’ll talk about character creation and the game mechanics.

Oh, and the name of the game is taken from the idea that the characters are traitors to those with superpowers caused by the virus, I think. So there’s a sense of their being in hiding, looking out for evil virus-infected superheroes to kill.

fn1: “Readability” was a classic moment of Japanese-language obstinacy. I can read all three characters in “readability”: 可(ka),読(doku) and 性(sei) which mean, in sequence, “ability,” “reading,” and “essence,” and from their combination I could guess what the word meant. But when I put these characters together and search them in my electronic dictionary, they don’t exist. I also couldn’t find them in my mobile phone dictionary, which is slightly more convenient for finding words with unusual readings. I had to email a friend and ask her! She’s Japanese, she read it instantly, but she said she’s never seen it before. This is classic – not only does the character system throw a physical barrier in front of you when you try to read, but the word for “readability” doesn’t exist in simple dictionaries.

fn2: I really really recommend this magazine, btw. My other blog has some examples of its contents.

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