The Need For Good Guys

Long-time readers probably know that I’m a wrestling fan.  And every wrestling fan knows yesterday was Wrestlemania; the Super Bowl for the professional wrestling world.  And the main event at the ‘Grandest Stage of Them All’ was a championship match between John Cena and The Rock.  Both big-name characters, both icons of their business, this was their second meeting and was poised to be the stuff of legend.

But surrounding their meeting were the rumors that John Cena was going to pull what in the wrestling world is known as a ‘heel turn’.  This parlance means he was going to go from a good guy (a face) to a bad guy (a heel).  Cena has been the goodie-goodie of the WWE for close to a decade now and such a turn would have been industry-shaking (much like Hulk Hogan’s heel turn in the 1990s).
Many fans – John Cena detractors and proponents alike – called for such a turn.  They felt his boy scout persona had run its course and it was time for him to take on a darker, edgier, meaner character that would be more in-keeping with a villain.  In Cena’s early days, he had been a heel but since he began his first steps towards his ascent to the top of the industry, he’s been an incorruptible good guy.  And it is my opinion that shouldn’t change.

Sometime around the 1980s, the dark and edgy characters seemed to come to the forefront.  In comic books, it was the arrival of the seminal works ‘the Dark Knight Returns’ and ‘Watchmen’ which vaulted comic books not only out of childish fare and into the adult world (with the gritty realities and very mature themes injected into these fantasy tales) but they would also serve as the harbingers of comics’ mainstream acceptance today.
In video games, it was probably the mid-90s when the Sega Genesis would go on the offensive against the more family-friendly Nintendo/Super Nintendo with more brazen advertising and more mature games at their forefront (the equivalent to letting their PG-13 titles do the talking against Nintendo’s G and PG titles).  This would be further exacerbated when Sony’s Playstation would enter the field and would aim their marketing squarely at 20-somethings and largely ignore the kids’ market entirely.  And they did this by emphasizing darker, more mature, and more morally ambiguous stories.
Films have likewise embraced this approach.  The James Bond franchise, once about world-saving and high adventure, has for the last three movies been based on themes of betrayal and paranoia.  The famed Dark Knight Trilogy by Christopher Nolan, one of the most successful comic book film franchises of all time, worked so hard to embrace it’s gritty crime aesthetic that two of the three films avoided even having the name ‘Batman’ in the title.  One of the most successful adventure franchises of the past decade – Pirates of the Caribbean – places pirates as not only the protagonists but as iconic heroes fighting against tyranny.
Even animation has moved in this direction.  While other factors were at play, no doubt, the romantic interest in Disney’s most recent fairy tale ‘Tangled’ is a thief and a liar, which is far removed from the tradition of princes and knights.

Please don’t mistake me, I’m not asserting that darker tales are bad.  Quite the opposite.  They’re wonderful.  Watchmen and DKR helped deflate the egos of the pomp and silliness of comics and added some literary credibility.  Nirvana broke the rock world with a much-needed dose of reality, and NWA would do the same with the music world as a whole.  But not every title and franchise benefits from that grit and edge.  Not every movie needs to be realistic and ugly.  Not every character needs to have a dark side.

It’s for this reason that I believe John Cena shouldn’t make a heel turn.  Because some characters need to remain idealistically – maybe even excessively – good.  Every time they’ve tried to darken up Superman, fans have never embraced it.  Superman remains an unapologetic boy scout.  And Cena serves that same role in the WWE, in professional wrestling.

A heel turn can do wonders for a performer, no doubt, as well as for a story and for an entire company.  I am not opposed to well-done heel turns at all.  But not every wrestler needs one, and Cena definitely doesn’t.  Wrestling is a surreal, escapist fantasy.  And if there’s one thing our fantasies should always have room for, it’s a true-and-through white-hatted good guy.

April Fools’ Day

I really don’t like April Fool’s Day.

It’s not (entirely) that I’m a curmudgeony old man who doesn’t like fun.  I do (or I tell myself that when I’m playing two-player video games by myself, just so I can rib my imaginary friend Steve about how badly I beat him).  My problem with AFD is that the execution of a prank is a very delicate thing, one that requires care and forethought and that is something that doesn’t really happen too often.

There seem to be two types of April Fool’s Day jokes: the really mundane and boring jokes that are wastes of time.  These are usually jokes that everybody sees coming and they’re as harmless as they are bland.  This is usually the realm of the cheap joke-store gags like joy buzzers, whoopie cushions, or Rick Rolling.

A lot of the pranks you see online are this way.  Joking posts on Facebook (especially of the psuedo-ironic variety), flagrantly false news reports, and other such phenomena can be fun (I loved CNN reporting on the potential African zombie outbreak half a dozen years ago…back when CNN had actual reporters, but that’s another issue).  The problem with them is that they’re predictable, to the point of becoming disruptive.  It’s gotten to the point that we expect these false reports, so ANY report that comes out today we treat with suspicion.  So every news story needs to be fact-checked and double-cross-examined.  It turns into just a waste of time.

The other, thankfully somewhat less common, prank is more elaborate but also more disruptive and potentially even hurtful.  See, the problem with pranks is that they can cross the line from fooling around into bullying and even being harmful.  A bucket of water over the doorway is fun to some, but it sucks for the person who gets splashed and then has no clean clothes to wear around the office.  What’s worse is if his/her cell phone gets splashed and is ruined.  A ‘harmless prank’ has now just cost this person some (potentially serious) cash.  That’s not funny, nor is it in ‘good fun’.

A prank is largely about lying to people.  And while in the right context and executed the right way, they can be a hysterical experience shared between friends, they are the sorts of things that require forethought and consideration.  Granted, a good prank is about taking somebody down a peg, but just a single peg.  You aren’t trying to humiliate them (or, you shouldn’t be).

And that’s why I don’t like April Fool’s Day.  You’re either wasting everybody’s time, or you bullying somebody.  There are exceptions, sure, that can be fun.  But the rest of the time, it’s a day that’s disruptive at its best and mean-spirited at its worst.

 

On the other hand, all that Easter Candy is on sale…

Formulaic Entertainment

As many of you may know, I am an appreciator of animation; both cartoons and animated series.  I’ll discuss the difference in a future post, perhaps, but today I wanted to mention a trend I’ve noticed.

I’ve been watching a lot of 1980s cartoons recently, and not the mainstays like Transformers and GI Joe.  I’ve just finished up Starcom and I’m starting into Visionaries.  From there, I’ve got half a dozen series planned.  But I can already tell a major difference between these shows (and their siblings of the era) and modern cartoons.

I’ve been introduced in the last year or so to Ben10 and a few other shows.  I have yet to look at modern remakes like the new Thundercats series (I tried watching the new Voltron series and, while I hope I just tuned into the single worst episode of the series, I found it unwatchable after even five minutes).  But what I’ve been noticing is how different the shows are from their 1980s predecessors.  This is hardly a surprise, but I’ve spent some time trying to hammer down just what is so different.

We seem to have roughly six to seven eras of shows we’re dealing with, each era being approximately 5 years in length.  We’ve got the post-cable deregulation/non-quite-Japanimation invasion (Transformers, GI Joe, MASK, Visionaries, Starcom, others) and then we have what I am momentarily calling the post-Transformers the Movie era.  This is the last few years of the 1980s and maybe the first year or two of the 1990s.  Transformers and GI Joe are probably the best examples of this because it is with these shows that you see such a clear change in the nature and writing of the show (compare season 1 of Transformers to season 3; compare episode 10 of GI Joe to episode 100; they’re almost totally different shows).
After that, you get into the 1990s which I am currently calling the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Knock-off era, where cast size dropped.  You went from the, what?, 200 members of GI Joe to the team of 4-5 core characters for each show.  Superheroic powers began to replace more reality-based limitations.  But then, probably around 1996, you saw the second-wave Japanese invasion.  Sailor Moon and Ronin Warriors led this charge and it affected the shows around them.
And then you get into the 2000s, which may or may not be able to break up into two distinctive eras of television (probably divided between either the Adult Swim/Toonami influence or Avatar: Last Airbender).  And then you have the current era; the 2010s.

It’s interesting to juxtapose something like Ben10 (especially the most recent incarnation, Ben10 Omniverse) with a show like Visionaries.  Art-style, cast, music, world-building, everything’s so very different.  The fact that the shows are separated by almost 30 years doesn’t begin to explain why they are structurally so different.
Much like comparing Judas Priest to Godsmack, the evolution of art is always a fun thing to witness, especially when it’s the art styles within the same genre and medium.

God of War vs Game of Thrones

A tweet can start a war, make no mistake.

Since I follow anime anthropologist and geek-academia god Charles Dunbar (and boy, you really should be too), I saw his retweet of the postulate by @TheifofHearts that “Game of Thrones is a mature fantasy, not because of the sex and violence.  God of War is not a mature fantasy even if it features those.”
This sparked a discussion between the living embodiment of geek knowledge and myself, about that.  Specifically, I asserted the opposite was true: God of War is the more-mature fantasy than Game of Thrones.

Before we begin, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what we’re talking about.  Game of Thrones is a television series based off the Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R R Martin.  The story revolves around political intrigue over supreme command of the lands of Westeros and Essos, while also confronting the invasion of winter and all the evils that come with it.
God of War is a video game series very loosely based off Greek mythology and follows a Spartan Warrior who is repeatedly tricked and betrayed, and subsequently seeks revenge for the skullduggery.

So, both stories are fantasy series that contain rather egregious amounts of violence and sex/nudity.  So why is one story ‘more mature’ than the other?

Now, key to this discussion is the vernacular which we should iron out, and specifically what ‘mature’ means and does not mean.  For the purposes of this discussion, we will be distinguishing between adult and mature.  This is a critical distinction to be made, like ‘dangerous’ versus ‘harmful’.  The two terms can be used interchangeably, but in this context (or at least the context of this essay), we’re going to define ‘adult’ as ‘excessive’.  An adult film is one geared towards hyper-emphasizing some element.  Not merely sex (though that is often where the term ‘adult film’ is applied); an adult topic or substance is looking to take something out of proportion, whether for analysis or consideration (like satire and metaphor) or just to get overloaded by it.  An adult product is meant, in essence, for those looking to damage themselves because they are extravagant and extraordinary over the regular world.

Mature, on the other hand, is at the heart of this discussion.  Maturity is about confronting one’s own reality.  It is, in essence, ‘concerning real-world constructs’.  The difference between a show meant for children and a show meant for adults is how much of the real world and its consequences are presented.  It is the evolved and higher sensibilities that come from experience and knowledge/wisdom.  It is about facing reality directly.

It is my assertion that what passes for maturity in Game of Thrones is a veil of civility, primarily based around a status quo that is to be as closely maintained as possible while still allowing for advantageous advancement of a select few characters.  It is quiet machinations and careful subtlety.  It is maneuvering others to achieve goals.
But a byproduct of this is that these characters also don’t, well, do anything.  By incessantly relying on civility and the veil of reason, the various characters and even whole states in Game of Thrones don’t handle their affairs; they lead others to handle matters, to the point where a vast network of favors and movements occur to facilitate the generation of more favors and more debts.  And what was begun as a social contract turns into a web of deceit and constant deception, to the point where most every character is committed to getting as much for themselves as possible while trying to avoid getting one’s hands dirty and to make sure blame always fall elsewhere.

It is upon this view that I believe God of War to be more mature than Game of Thrones because, simply, the titular character Kratos handles his business himself.  He doesn’t look to make backroom alliances so that someone else can deal with a problem; he deals with it.  He confronts reality.
When you think of a child in trouble, what do you imagine?  Odds are, it’s of that child crying to someone else (maybe a parent) to deal with a problem that they cannot.  It is the reliance on an external force to make problems go away.  And that is just about all that goes on in Game of Thrones: incessant politicking to avoid getting one’s hands dirty.  That isn’t a depiction of maturity; it’s a depiction of childishness.
To handle one’s affairs honestly and directly, and with minimal input and aid from others, is the essence of maturity.  To be able to do for yourself.  Few scenes in Game of Thrones depict this, and it is upon this construct that God of War is built.

Both series are excessive and exaggerated, and are at their heart escapist fantasies, but God of War is honest in one thing: Kratos handles his own problems directly.  Game of Thrones is almost a nonstop litany of backstabbing and conniving to have as many others do as much for you as you can manage, while doing as little as possible yourself.  That is not an adult; this is a selfish child who is expending his energy to convince others to solve his problem for him.

Life sucks and that’s a good thing

Golf celebrity David Feherty once compared Depression to having an immune deficiency for your brain.  And if you’re anything like me – or the 1 in 6 Americans, or the 1 in 50 world-wide – that deals with Depression, you can probably appreciate that description.

Depression isn’t an affliction, it isn’t a mood: it’s a condition.  It’s one with no clear marker, one with no clear symptom, but a very vivid and unrelenting effect.

Many people who don’t understand Depression – including many of its sufferers – is that one aspect that can drive the spiral of affliction is guilt.  Guilt for being depressed.  Guilt for not enjoying such a wonderful life and wonderful world.  It’s a more common observance than you might think.  Dante famously said in The InfernoThere is no greater torment than to recall, in times of misery, times of great happiness“.  That’s the essence of this guilt; to see beauty before you and to be able to do nothing with it.
I had that experience yesterday.  Living in the southeastern United States (in the dubiously great state of North Carolina) and after an unpleasant and snow-lacking winter, I was treated to warm weather and bright sunny skies.  Sadly, I was also treated to a very serious bout of debilitating Depression brought on by (among other personal triggers of mine) sleep-deprivation due to – you guessed it! – Daylight Savings Time.  And the guilt for looking at a beautiful day and realizing that you can’t enjoy it is just devastating.

But to my millions of brothers and sisters out there with Depression – true, blue, real and clinical Depression – I want to remind you that life isn’t just beautiful; life also sucks!!! 🙂

We shouldn’t feel guilty about missing out on a sunny day, because there are so many other problems in the world that we can fixate on to feel bad about.  We shouldn’t feel guilty because we’ve got good health (if we’re fortunate enough too) because healthcare costs are so astronomical, it wouldn’t matter if we did because we couldn’t afford to do anything about them.  Life sucks!  🙂

Why the smiley face?  Because life sucking is critical in reminding ourselves that life isn’t some great and grand party that we’re summarily missing out on because we’re ‘broken’.  Life is a myriad of experiences – some good, some bad, and some bland – and if we remember that, then we can break the cycle of guilt.  We can get away from being depressed about being depressed and just be depressed.  Because if we’re depressed about being depressed, we’re fighting against our depression and ourselves.  But if we can get rid of the guilt, then all we have to deal with is the Depression itself and we become an ally, an aid, in that struggle, not a hindrance.

Depression is an ugly, nefarious affliction, one that doesn’t play by the rules most other illnesses operate with.  And so we, the afflicted and those who look after/over/out for the afflicted, must remember to not get tangled up in our own measures to deal with and address it.

So remember, life sucks, every bit as it is beautiful.  Don’t feel bad because you’re missing out on the beauty because just as there’s always something awful about life, there will always be something beautiful about it too.  And in time, you realize that there’s actually more beauty than suck.  But you aren’t missing out on the beauty because that would suggest there’s a finite amount of it.  There isn’t.  There’s so much beauty in the world, it can never and will never run out.  So don’t feel guilty because you can’t enjoy it right now.  Take care of yourself and get back on your emotional feet.  Enjoy it when you can, not when you feel like you should but can’t.

Enjoying beauty when you can and when you want to adds to the beauty of the world.

So be good to yourself. 🙂