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A Year of Reading (Books)

I measure my reading year from an undefined point in June, because that’s when I started keeping track four years ago, so it is time for the listing of the books, and perhaps some words on what I thought of them. I’ve read more this year than I have in quite a long time, because I work at a bookstore, and I really liked a lot of the things I read, to the point where I wonder, a bit, if I’ve started to read less critically, or if I were really ever reading very critically at all. If the former, it might be a consequence of trying to read more poetry and nonfiction, which requires me, in some ways, to relearn reading. If the latter, well, it’s probably valuable to realize that I am less clever than initially supposed.

Anyway, I’ve included some short reviews of some of my favorite books from this year below, with the complete list at the bottom. This is also the year I fell back in love with comics, but for the sake of space and because I want to go into the subject in more depth, I’m not reviewing any of the series comics that I read in collected trades. If you have any questions about any title on this list, whether I talked about it or not, I assure you I’d be delighted to discuss what I think. To see what I’m reading and get an abstract idea of what I thought of a book without any explanation of what makes the difference between three and four stars, follow me on Goodreads.

Read the rest of this entry

Ms Marvel (2014- )

Writer: G. Willow Wilson

Artist: Adrian Alphona

Color Artist: Ian Herring

Editor: Sana Amanat

 

Ms Marvel

It seems like last week, when I should have posted this entry, I started seeing write-ups and video reviews of Ms Marvel all over the place in comic and geek circles, with everyone talking about how well done and important and all around great it is. Well, let me tell you something: it is great, and important, and very well done. And before I can tell you why, I need to tell you something about myself.

I got into comics through Spider-man and the X-Men (with a detour through Alpha Flight and The New Mutants, but I’ll talk about that some other time). Peter Parker was a huge nerd who transforms into a super-powered hero with a quick wit. The X-Men develop powers around puberty and suddenly are both extremely special and extremely different, alienated from a society that doesn’t understand them. When I was a kid, I wanted that! Like Parker, I was a nerd, with big plastic frames on my glasses and a fascination with Magic: The Gathering that left no room in my brain for the rules of sports games. I wanted nothing more than to spontaneously develop super-powers through accident or birthright, and be capable of astonishing feats and incredible adventures.

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Also, one of the villains on the X-Men cartoon show was a DINOSAUR MAN.

Of course, the 90s were also the Age of Wolverine, whose tough-talking, cigar-chomping, anti-heroism was so popular that he began to eclipse Spider-Man as Marvel’s mascot and began, as Lore Sjöberg said, to be displayed “on the cover of comics in which he didn’t actually, technically, appear.” I, and probably most of my friends, began to be drawn more to grim-faced badasses like Cable, the Punisher, or Batman, and eventually I left wish-fulfilling superheroics behind altogether and discovered Vertigo titles like The SandmanPreacher, and 100 Bullets.

I’m not necessarily trying to extrapolate from my own experience to describe a trend in comics, but it’s clear from this Vulture article about Captain America that I wasn’t the only one who fell into the trap of thinking that stories were for babies unless they reflected the gray moral landscape of the “real world”. There is, of course, value in deconstructing standard superhero tropes like Alan Moore did in Watchmen or Warren Ellis did in NextWave. Those are superlative comics, and it’s important to not just passively accept, in a cultural sense, the stories we are given. I think the problem comes from assuming that because those kinds of stories have value, the other kinds of stories have none. This leads to a lot of Missing the Point, with writers glomming on to the sex and violence and “oh what if The Flash were alcoholic” and then everything is The Boondock Saints and we have to dynamite the Earth to prevent the infection from spreading.

Ms Marvel is the other kind of story, and it has everything to do with the best things about Spider-man, and the X-Men, and the Captain America we’re seeing on the big screen these days. It calls back to the classic tropes of superheroism while updating them and interrogating them in a very smart, very thoughtful way, one that is totally relevant both to contemporary teens and the kind of conversations we, as adult comics fans, are having about our favorite media. The new Ms Marvel is a hero we can understand and empathize with as well as aspire to be, and it is written in the new spirit of inclusivity and diversity that Marvel is clearly making a concentrated effort to get in front of. It is, quite frankly, everything that we need in comics right now.

everybody gets to be normal

Kamala Khan is, like Peter Parker, a huge nerd, and way more of an outsider than I, or Parker, both cisgendered, heterosexual white boys, could ever claim to be. She’s a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl from a Pakistani immigrant family. She writers Avengers fanfiction, and idolizes Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, the blonde, buff fighter pilot who punches giant robots and can fly in space. She wants to be normal, but she also wants to be exceptional. This is her central conflict.

i want to be you

There are lots of great things about this comic. The art, for one thing, is wonderful and expressive, and the writing complements that with geeked out teenage whimsy. Together they work to bring characters as disparate as Aamir, Kamala’s devout, unemployed older brother, and Zoe Zimmer, the blonde, popular “concern troll” who Kamala wishes would accept her, to instantly recognizable life. G. Willow Wilson also does a great job of writing a classic superhero origin dilemma in a recognizably contemporary world with text messaging, Internet searches, and online gaming. The series feels classic and contemporary at the same time, and similarly marries genuine, heart-felt characterization with laugh-out-loud humor.

cultures are so interesting!

nggh

KAMALA KHAN

But what makes great is the way the story offers a new take on the aspirational superhero story. Kamala’s struggle bears a lot of similarity with Peter Parker’s realization that with great strength comes great responsibility. And I see it in a similar vein as the  cinematic interpretation of Captain America, as someone who is recognizably human (as opposed to classic, flawless pulp science heroes, or indeed, most anti-heroes) while also being undeniably good. So good, in fact, that he makes others aspire to be better. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury says “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be” and Steve Rogers emphatically rejects that viewpoint. This is what makes him a hero. And what we see in Kamala Khan is a real effort, upon being granted tremendous power, to live up to that standard.

saved all of mankind

And what makes this so important, and so much more than just a Good Old Days throwback superhero story, is who Kamala Khan is. She’s brown. She’s Muslim. She’s female. She is American, definitely, but she is also Other, and reminded of that fact often by her peers. The heroes she aspires to be are all white and, with the exception of Iron Man, blonde. No one in her entire pantheon of superheroes looks like her. That’s what makes it so powerful, and so difficult, as she struggles to figure out how to be the kind of hero, and kind of person, she wants to be. And in a “real world” in which women in the comics community are still routinely subjected to sexist abuse, in which we still don’t have so much as a promise of a Wonder Woman movie, and in which attempts to add some diversity to the heroic universe are greeted with vocal racist opposition, a hero like Kamala Khan is exactly the kind of hero we need.

the most amazing girl from Jersey City

G. Willow Wilson, herself a Muslim, has written a great story, and a great character, one that hearkens back to all the best things I remember loving about superhero stories (before the Dark Times…before the Empire). She has done so with a consummate awareness of the ongoing growth of comics as a medium, in terms of narrative complexity and depth of character, as well as the pressing need for more diverse voices in our superheroic universe. The Ms. Marvel team have put together what may be the most important superhero book in years, so let me add my voice to the increasing number of people speaking up about Kamala Khan and Ms. Marvel: do yourself a favor. Read this book.

wannabe hipster punk

 

Read Ms Marvel at Comixology, or, better yet, pick it up at your local comic shop!

The Fall (Season 1)

Starring Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan

Created by Allan Cubitt

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I am, in general, not a fan of serial killer stories. I am squeamish about the fearful final moments of victims that filmmakers and storytellers like to linger on, and these killer stories in particular tend to fetishize violence against women. And yet, somehow, I’ve found myself consuming and enjoying a lot of them lately. I’m currently hooked on Larime Taylor‘s comic series A Voice in the Dark, about a young late night college radio host struggling with her compulsion to kill. I recently finished reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, about a time-travelling killer driven to snuff out the lives of brilliant, vibrant young women.  And, most recently, I accidentally watched all of the BBC drama The Fall, in one sitting, right before I was supposed to go to bed.

In The Fall, Gillian Anderson plays Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a coolly professional police officer brought to Belfast to formally assess an ongoing murder investigation. Soon, she is in charge of a task force chasing a serial killer, while an explosive scandal simmers in the department. Meanwhile, the killer himself puts his children to bed, kisses his sleeping wife, and opens his notebook to plot his next kill…

Part of what makes these killer thrillers palatable to me is that they actively work to confront or subvert the establish tropes of the killer genre. Every murder scene in The Shining Girls is from the victim’s perspective, not the killer’s, denying readers a voyeuristic thrill. Beukes’s says she hoped to establish the girls as “characters rather than pretty corpses”, and as a consequence, each death is painful, sad, and terribly frightening. A Voice in the Dark, though superficially similar to Dexter and other Heroic Psychopath stories, more deliberately attacks the demographics of the slasher genre, putting the knife in the hand of a young biracial girl and populating the story with women of all shapes, sizes, races, and sexual orientations. Also, like The Fall‘s creator, Allan Cubitt, Taylor is explicitly aware of the racism and sexism so often inherent in both these kinds of crimes and the fictional genre inspired by them.

“One of the ways the killer is able to perpetrate such crimes is by objectifying and dehumanising their prey,” Cubitt says, in an article before the finale of the first series. “I think it’s important that drama doesn’t do that.” This awareness shapes the way the story of The Fall is told, so that Spector’s victims are entirely human to us, characters not corpses. Although we spend a lot of time with the killer, and he is driven by a need to literally and explicitly objectify his victims, the show takes pains to ensure that we don’t see the victims the way he sees them. They are people brought to a horrifying end. And although the killer may try to erase their humanity, DSI Gibson never forgets.

Through Stella Gibson, the show is able to call out and criticize the violence against women endemic to the genre and the world at large. Gibson finds nothing poetic, sexy, or fascinating about these killings. “It’s just misogyny,” she says. “Anyone have any doubt about the gender of the person responsible?” Gibson rarely raises her voice, but she asserts her feminism constantly, refusing to allow her detectives to judge or shame the victims, refusing to dignify Spector’s misogynistic spree, refusing to express embarrassment for having a one-night stand with a fellow officer. We rarely catch glimpses of her personal life, but through her actions we come to know her as methodical, quick-thinking, and relentless. She is, in some ways, the antithesis of Luther as a police detective. Though equally as driven, Gibson isn’t volatile, and never risks destroying an investigation through egotistical grandstanding. That kind of behavior is left to corrupt police officials. And the killer.

The cool force of Gibson’s personality meshes with the tense, muted mood of the chase to create an atmosphere punctuated by startling thunderclaps of violence. While Gibson does vocally criticize the misogyny of the crimes, the story does most of its emotional and psychological work with greater subtlety. The men around Gibson, from the obsessive, murderous Spector to smoothly competent Detective Eastwood, are revealed to be wearing masks of fragile stoicism over barely controlled emotions. It’s a powerful recurring device that the louder a character is, the weaker his position. The Fall is a quiet storm, a carefully constructed cascade of emotional reactions that feel all the more real for being so actively and constantly suppressed.

The serial killer genre is prone to exploitation, to fetishization, to gimmick and cliche. The Fall is none of these qualities. What it, and The Shining Girls and A Voice in the Dark, share is a willingness to acknowledge the sexism and misogyny at the heart of these kinds of crimes and stories, and to address it directly. The viewer should be upset and horrified by the deaths we witness; we should feel that the victims are people, not props. We should see that women populate our fictional world as much as our real one, not just as the victim but also as the detective, the medical examiner, the constable, the hero. We should see the emotional truth of the characters, male and female, struggling against a violently misogynistic worldview. The Fall works at every level to deliver a compelling, tension-filled story that is laced throughout with the unfortunate truth: men are responsible for terrifying violence against women. It makes you grateful for Stella Gibson. She sees that truth with clear eyes, and like a scalpel, she means to cut it out.

The Fall is instantly viewable on Netflix, and for purchase on Amazon on DVD or digital download.

Orphan Black (Season 1)

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Starring Tatiana Maslany, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Hanchard, Dylan Bruce, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett

Orphan Black had me right from the beginning, introducing Sarah Manning and the central mystery of the show in three breath-taking minutes without a wasted moment. Even though there are only 10 episodes, each a little less than an hour long, the season feels full, deep, without feeling busy or crowded. Each episode is a cliffhanger, pulling the viewer deeper into the mystery of the orphans and the high tension acrobatics of impersonation and intrigue that inevitably arise in a series about lookalikes.

The series follows Sarah Manning, an orphan and hustler with a seven-year-old daughter she hasn’t seen in 10 months, a drug dealer boyfriend to whom she owes money, and the exact same face as a woman who just threw herself in front of a train. When she assumes the woman’s identity, hoping to scam enough money to reclaim her daughter and go on the run, she finds herself in trouble with the police, on the run from a killer, and being drawn into a conspiracy involving ever more women who look just like her.

Sarah is my favorite kind of hero. She’s rough around the edges, often casually or even compulsively deceptive, but despite her complicated relationship with her family, she is loyal and, no matter how many times she tries to walk away, unquestionably brave. She can’t walk away, not from her family, not from the orphans, not from the woman whose life she has stolen. Something binds her to the fight, some mixture of loyalty – to her family and genetic twins – and sheer punk rock rebelliousness against whoever is playing games with her life. It’s this combination that makes her the protagonist of the show, and a bonafide hero: even her fellow “copies” look to her for leadership; even the antagonists remark that she is special.

The antagonists, speaking of which, are nicely complicated, and despite the shadows cast by corporatism and mad science, I don’t detect much of the usual science fiction trope of What Hath Science Wrought that’s been part of the genre since its inception. Much like Fringe, which I’ve been watching a lot of lately, the science is as likely to be the solution as the problem. The real problems faced by the characters are much more existential than that, a tangled mess of shared genes, assumed identity, and unfathomable purpose. The villains are charming and monstrous in equal measure, capable of generating sympathy while remaining a very real and dangerous threat. It’s risky to make assumptions in the orphan’s world, and difficult to know who to trust. Who can best protect the orphans from the killer who seems set on eliminating them: the cheerful and charismatic transhumanist or the driven and eminently capable detective?  Who has their best interests at heart?

Tatiana Maslany is the core of the show, for obvious reasons, convincingly playing multiple characters, often in the same scene, each with her own motivations and neuroses, strengths and vulnerabilities. She plays both the protagonist and the supporting cast, although the other supporting characters, especially Felix, her foster brother, are also instantly recognizable and endearing. Orphan Black is a well crafted drama based around well-realized characters, and every minute feels rich with meaning, tension, and possibility. Season 1 feels whole and complete and fulfilling, and yet I am so hungry for more. More mystery. More deception, more thrills. More of everything Orphan Black.

Season 1 is streaming on Amazon, or for sale on DVD and BluRay. Catch up before the new season starts April 19th on BBC America.

 

 

Revivification!

I wound up taking a long, unannounced hiatus, not writing much in general, and feeling really uncertain what I wanted to do with this blog specifically. I wish it had been a deliberate, planned, announced break, but nope! Just fell off for a while. I’m sorry.

Now that I’m back, I have some new ideas, new plans. I still plan to post effusive recommendations now and then – I have one planned for today – but I want to open things up a little bit. Sometimes I just enjoy something so much I think you should all watch it. Sometimes I have more to say about genre, character, or storytelling in general. Sometimes a piece of media is like a personal revelation. And sometimes, really, something just needs to be pulled apart to see why it failed.

Obviously your mileage may vary, but that’ s always been true. So, in the future, in addition to dividing posts by Books, Movies, etc, I will divide them into Recommendations, Writing, Criticism, and Personal subsections. Those are the working titles, anyway. As always this blog is a work in progress.

I’m also going to try to keep a bimonthly schedule of posts. Once a week was a bit too much for me, but I think I can have something to say once every two weeks. That should also allow time for me to work on other projects.

Anyway, that’s the state of the union. Stay tuned for ORPHAN BLACK.

Crusader Kings II

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Strategy games have always been my weakness, the games that I fall into for hours, from sunset to sunup, until I stagger away like a drunk from an all-night bender. The first one I remember falling in love with is Deadlock, which is a sci-fi battle for planetary dominance with similarities to both Masters of Orion and Alpha Centauri, which was a spin-off of maybe the most successful strategy franchise, Civilization. All of those games have sucked away whole days, even weeks, of my life. I may have even written fan-fiction based on Deadlock, before I even knew what fan-fiction was. I may have been inspired to model future Earths in my science fiction after the results of games of Civ III, in which the mighty Zulu battlefleet threatened to overwhelm the Aztec-French Alliance. It’s dramatic stuff.

Alpha Centauri

I may be in love with Alpha Centauri.

Crusader Kings II, the second-most-recent installment in Paradox Interactive’s sweeping and immersive history-based strategy games, is full of drama. You control Medieval lord, and strive to guide that lord and his or her heirs through the next several centuries of European civilization. Intrigue against other nobles, arrange profitable marriages, make war on your neighbors, and try not to annoy the Pope. It all comes down to a series of choices, and the choices you make can change history. Will you create the Empire of Russia? Will you conquer Iberia for Islam? Will your king or queen convert to the Cathar heresy and try to replace Catholicism as the One True Faith?

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The game world is dynamic and ever changing.  In my last game, the Merchant Republic of Gotland took advantage of the chaos caused by the Mongol invasion of Scandinavia to conquer most of Norway, Denmark, and Finland. As the Golden Horde collapsed and its former subjects returned to their original faiths, the population shift caused the Zikri sect of Islam to replace the Sunnis as the dominant non-Shia Muslim faith. Due to a confusing series of crusades, the Iberian peninsula became a patchwork of Castilians, Scots, Irish, Italians, and Aztecs, while the Kingdom of Sicily colonized North Africa. When you begin a game, a whole new European history begins to unfold, and the fun of it is deciding where to reach in and change the flow for yourself. Exert what influence you have to cause the Pope to declare a crusade against that heathen whose territory you want, lend aid to struggling provinces rebelling against oppressive rulers, or conspire with others to overthrow your own feudal overlord. Again, it’s all about choices.

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What a mess.

Similarly to the Total War series, Crusader Kings adds an RPG element to the strategy mix. Each character, from highborn king to lowborn peasant rebel, has certain traits, such as Brave, Deceitful, Drunkard, or Craven, and may gain others during play. You will be presented with a series of decisions and random events. Will you abuse your power to sleep with your courtier’s wife, or will you allow your arranged marriage to deepen into true love? Will you convert to the heresy that is sweeping your lands, or will you make a pilgrimage to the holy sites of your faith? Each choice changes your character, and can affect the game in far-reaching ways. Neighboring kingdoms may become friendlier, your own courtiers may begin intriguing against you, rebels may rise up against your unjust and heretical rule. Think carefully before making a decision that could create more enemies than you can handle.

ck2_20Your trusted councillors/most likely assassins

The depth of play is tremendous, and this makes the learning curve a little steep, even for veteran strategy gamers. It’s not Dwarf Fortress (in which Losing is Fun!™), but skills learned in Civilization or StarCraft don’t necessarily apply here. You don’t have much control over the units you build or the technology you develop, because this is feudal times, bruh, and learning is for Jesuits and Parisians. You do have control over your armies, and to a lesser extent, the generals who lead them. And your family and your court allow you to create alliances and engage in intrigue and murder plots. You can spend your tax and trade income on mercenaries, castles, city development. There are many different ways to play the game, even within one campaign. It’s possible to play one ruler as a war-leading badass, another as a contemplative and pious builder, another as a backstabbing and ruthless powermonger. Wage war to restore your courtiers to the titles they have lost, or throw them all in prison for being disloyal jerks. It’s up to you. And the gameplay changes further depending on whether you are a count or a king, a Catholic or a Muslim, a Pagan Norseman or an Ashkenazi Jew.

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Sometimes becoming King causes Death by Close Relative

I started my last game as the sovereign Grand Prince of Novgorod, took part in the civil wars of the early Kingdom of Russia, spent a generation or two as a minor vassal of the Golden Horde, gained my independence through an unexpected trick of succession and wound up ruling for the next 50+ years as a woman who became Queen Feodora the Great of Wallachia and Ruthenia, uniting most of the former Russian territories under her rule before the invasion of the Timurids ruined everyone’s day and her grandson had to become a vassal king under the rule of the Greek Byzantine Emperor just to stay alive. Several times I thought I would lose the game, only to re-emerge stronger than ever. You don’t lose unless you lose control of all your lands and titles, and there isn’t a set win condition, like conquering a certain amount of territory or eliminating all your enemies. There is a score, an end date, and your own ambition. It’s a giant sandbox, and because you can play as just about any landed noble in all of Europe, the Middle East, or Northern Africa, across almost six hundred years of history, the replay value is enormous.

ck2_4She crushed multiple rebellions and foreign invasions, and reconquered most of Russia. And spoke Greek.

The game has a bunch of expansions and downloadable content. Legacy of Rome, Sword of Islam, Sons of Abraham, and The Old Gods add tons of options to the various religions and cultures of the game, with the last one extending the start date to 867 AD, the Age of Vikings. The Republic adds additional options for the various trade republics of the medieval period, and is probably essential if you want to play as Venice or Genoa and show those snooty Kings and Emperors what a boatload of money can get you on the road to Constantinople. Sunset Invasion is a fantasy expansion that triggers an Aztec invasion of Western Europe, which in my game resulted in the conquest of Ireland, Great Britain, and most of France, the rampage only ending when the second Emperor, a half-Irish imbecile who would rule for 60 years, converted to Catholicism, and then later, Catharism, spreading my favorite heresy over most of England and France. You can also purchase DLC to expand the range of character portraits for a little more visual variety.

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Result: Aztec Cathars with French dynastic names and violent fits

Crusader Kings II might be my favorite Paradox Interactive game, due to the depth of character and gameplay. I love being able to play the Duke of Parma or the King of Croatia and blaze a path of glory across Europe. I enjoyed being Queen Feodora the Great and smashing every rebellious vassal who would not be ruled by a woman. I enjoyed seeing history play out in new and unexpected ways with each new King, Emperor, or Pope. I just thoroughly enjoy this game.

crusaderkings2_old_gods_bannerPlus there are Vikings.

Purchase it from Steam or GamersGate, and check out Paradox Interactive’s other games at Paradox Plaza.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz

Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt

Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Directed by Francis Lawrence

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And so we return, coughing at the dust, pulling cobwebs from our eyes, bursting with thoughts and opinions on Katniss Everdeen. It’s weird to me that Catching Fire is what finally got my fingers moving, because the first Hunger Games film left me kind of cold. I liked it well enough, it had some memorable moments, and an actually brilliant narrative trick in which the viewer is encouraged to cheer the “good” tributes only to be reminded that the Games aren’t actually a competition, they’re a bunch of children being forced to murder each other for the entertainment of the elites and the distraction of the masses. It’s not about winning. It’s about control. However, as a whole, the film had no staying power for me, and left me with no excitement about a sequel. Catching Fire changed that.

Catching Fire picks up a year after the first film. Although basically set for life with their winnings, Katniss still goes out into the forest, where she sits silently and shoots nothing, and Peeta spends long hours in the kitchen, baking endless bread. However, Katniss and her mockingjay badge have become a symbol of resistance in the Districts, so President Snow requires that their victory tour be a performance to pacify the restless and the oppressed, a believable pop idol romance to distract the people from their hunger and their hope. And if they fail, he will conclude that the Victors have become a liability to the State. Katniss and the defiance she inspires must be undermined or they must be destroyed, utterly, like District 13. And the way to do that is, of course, with a new, all veteran Hunger Games.

A coworker of mine pointed out that Katniss actually has little apparent agency. Her most important choice happened at the beginning of the first film, when she volunteered, impulsively and heroically, to save her sister’s life. Since then her life has been rapidly yanked from her control, and this only becomes more acute after she survives the Games. The President himself comes to her home to tell her she will put on a performance, or lose her family, her District, and her life. Effie and Cinna, delightful though they are, tell her how to dress and what to wear as she prepares to die. Hamich works around her prickly disposition to arrange alliances and conspiracies. And Plutarch Heavensbee, the new showrunner for the Games, literally and directly controls her entire future, with a complex and shadowy agenda. Not to mention that by simple virtue of being brave, compassionate, and good, she has become a hero to the oppressed. Then again, while Katniss doesn’t have control over sweeping political events or the Big Picture, that’s never been what she cares about. She hates the injustice she’s seen and had to be a part of, but what matters to her has always been the personal: Prim, Gale, Peeta. They are what drives her, what focuses her intense, brilliant anger into the sharp point she needs to survive. They are what make her fight.

I can’t say how it is in the books, never having read them, but taking the Big Picture out of Katniss’s hands also forces the film to focus on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. Though strained by Peeta’s unrequited love, they are bonded in adversity. They share the same psychic scars, and a unavoidable closeness. When Katniss wakes up screaming, it is Peeta who understands and comforts her. Linda Holmes at NPR has a beautiful analysis of the way their relationship defies typical Hollywood norms with regard to gender, but for the purposes of this review, I’d just like to focus on their relationship on its own terms. For all their estrangement, it seems clear that they would do anything for each other. Peeta has a mastery of interpersonal relationships and social politics that Katniss completely lacks, and he uses them to protect and support Katniss. He is sad, even bitter, after her rejection, but avoids behaving like Actual Boyfriend, Gale, who sulks and snipes like a petulant teenager, which, of course, he is. Katniss, for her part, takes responsibility for Peeta, who is not weak and is reasonably competent but clearly couldn’t survive without her. It is important to her that Peeta live. It is essential. She can control nothing else in the world, but she desperately needs to control this. She needs to make sure that Peeta survives.

I mention this because it is one of the core tensions of the film, but also because trauma, pain, and grief are the motifs of Catching Fire, the uniting narrative threads. You may have noticed from previous reviews that I think it’s important that action heroes, if they are truly going to be heroes, suffer terribly before they win. They have to feel things, not just physically but emotionally, and in a way that feels genuine. Less screaming and emptying your clip into the sky, more pulling shards of glass out of your feet while trying to convince your only friend that you are hanging in there. Ranging from the kind of vivid, hallucinatory flashbacks that movies have taught us are the hallmark of post-traumatic stress, to the more subtle look of pain that crosses Katniss’s face when she aces a marksmanship challenge and realizes how easy and reflexive killing has become, Catching Fire shows us just how costly our hero’s survival has been. And it’s not just Katniss. The  bulk of the cast are victors from previous games, brought back to be traumatized all over again by their government. They are broken and damaged, strange, eccentric, and angry. They invade personal space and strip naked in elevators, they’ve lost their power of speech and sit there, eyes rolling anxiously. Every single one of them is a survivor and a killer, from raging Johanna to gentle Mags. Is it any wonder that Hamich drinks? Or that Johanna, in one of my favorite moments from the film, tells the entire Capitol to go fuck themselves? They have all been forced to do, and be, terrible things. As Hamich says, there are no winners in the Hunger Games. Only survivors.

I liked Katniss in the first movie, but it’s really in Catching Fire that she starts to feel truly heroic, despite how much of that heroic image is out of her hands. She doesn’t actually want to be a hero at all. She seems incapable of seeing herself as powerful and transformative. She does what she does out of necessity, because it is her nature. Where others see her as strong, proud, resourceful, a potential leader, she only sees her own anger and pain and fear. This doesn’t diminish her. She is strong, resourceful, and in possession of a forceful, earnest nature and deep well of compassion that draw people, the best people, to her. And she has courage, in abundance. She has always been one to take on the world alone, and to sacrifice herself for others. All of these qualities combine to make her a hero, and her flaws, her temper and aloofness and Games-inflicted pain, make her one we can believe in and admire. After Catching Fire, I admire Katniss Everdeen. I think that’s a worthwhile quality in a hero.

This movie made me feel things. I came close to crying quite a few times, embarrassing my friends with my sniffles. It is an emotionally charged story about sacrifice, defiance, grief, pain, and betrayal. It is a well-executed film, and I can’t praise Lawrence enough for her ability to channel raw emotion in a way that breaks my heart. Despite its narrative flaws and somewhat ponderous length, Catching Fire managed to redeem a franchise that I was having a really hard time being excited about. I’m excited about it now. I’m committed enough that I feel justified writing over a thousand words about it, and there’s still so much to say. This is a film that causes emotions and thinking and conversations, with a compelling hero and an escalating conflict. It is what I love about watching action movies.

Pre-order on Amazon! Still in theaters, go see it!

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