A Chinese Ghost Story is considered a landmark piece of Hong Kong horror entertainment, almost a quintessential example of the genre fusing genuine scares, comedy, romance and incredible martial arts action into a cacophony where one does not outweigh the others.
I don’t know if it’s right to call A Chinese Ghost Story the Chinese version of Evil Dead, specifically Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. I feel that way, but then I looked at the releases of both movies and they came out the same year: 1987. There are certain sequences where the camera moves erratically and swiftly in first person, like the one in Evil Dead 2, chasing after poor Ash in and around the cabin. It is a serendipitous coincidence and would honestly make for a great double feature seeing them one after another.
Set in late 19th century mainland China, in the dying era of the Dynasty system, it follows a tax collector called Ning( played by the too quickly departed HK star Leslie Cheung, also seen in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow). He’s just trying to stay afloat in an unfair world and will learn in time that death is just as unfair to those who exist on the other side.
Looking for a place to stay during his travels, he is given the joking suggestion to stay at a haunted temple on the outskirts of town and our somewhat bumbling hero does just that. In quick succession, he meets a Taoist Ghost Hunter called Yin and a mysterious, beautiful woman named Nip.
Yin steals the show as this absolute badass warrior against monsters of the East Asian variety, using his sword, spells and skills to be a chimera hybrid of Van Helsing, a Jedi, and even a Dragonball character due to using his Ki( chi) as an energy based weapon. He best demonstrates the unique form of cinematic martial arts that was introduced more prominently in the West through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Wuxia.
This floating and flying form of martial arts which often includes weapons like swords and spears mesmerized audiences throughout the world in 2000 and A Chinese Ghost Story was among many things, seen as a watershed moment for Wuxia becoming a box office draw in its native market.
Gradually, in an almost Inspector Closeau manner, Ning stumbles across a plot that involves the lovely Nip being forced into an arranged marriage with an evil spirit of the nearby mountain. Her mother is a powerful demoness that resides in the forest’s tree. If you hadn’t already figured it out, Nip isn’t exactly human, not anymore. She is a Jiangshi, a mythical being that combines vampire and zombie into one. There are different interpretations of Jiangshi in Chinese culture, another famous version being of the hopping variety, as seen in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, which was sadly unavailable for me to view at this time and place along with another Hong Kong horror comedy, Encounters of the Spooky Kind, with HK legend Sammo Hung.
She has preyed on hapless visitors to the haunted temple for a long time, not that she really wants to, as the tree demoness gives her no choice. However, the arrival of Ning into her “life” so to speak gives her a chance to refuse that job and with help from him and Yin, an opportunity to avoid a twisted arranged marriage and even better reincarnation into a mortal body.
There is a lot to take in for A Chinese Ghost Story’s narrative though due to its mostly madcap pace and tone, as well as a very humorous attitude, it is never confusing, just pleasantly bewildering. The pace in concert with the humor and action makes AChinese Ghost Story one of the most purely fun Halloween experiences I’ve had this year. The effects are jaw-dropping and are on par and might even surpass Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead.
The header image is Ning in a very close encounter with the tree demoness in her true form but there is also her terrifying alternative form that is a nigh endless massive tongue that prowls through the forest and tries to take out Ning inside the temple in one hair-rising fight. That’s almost nothing to Ning and Yin’s trek into the underworld to save Nip from her dark wedding with the mountain spirit which is a battle which becomes all out Wuxia pandemonium that left me all but gasping for air. On the lighter side, there’s a very Peter Sellers moment where Ning is exploring the temple while a bunch of creepily animated stop motion zombies try to get his ass. Of course, they never catch him and he is none the wiser comically during that skit.
A Chinese Ghost Story manages to juggle its many disparate tones so well that I entirely ate up an honest to God RAP NUMBER with Yin singing and dancing to himself about how cool a demon hunter he was. This film is that good. It’s also a beautifully shot piece of film where the old woods, where most of the picture takes place, feel both haunting and strangely intimate at once.
You’ll rarely scream, but you will cheer and laugh at this example of Hong Kong doing what it did best: Not just delivering its own unique flavor of one genre but several and leaving you fulfilled. There are two sequels but there is a wide range of opinion about them. Some see them as worthy successors, more so the second than third, others think they don’t amount to nearly as much as they should. All I truly know, is that the first one is a must see.
Sweet Home (Japan) (1989)
Resident Evil, one of the most successful game franchises of all time, let alone in horror, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The 1996 original was one of the first true success stories of the original PlayStation and was the game to officially coin the term “survival horror.”
Dubbed by series creator Shinji Mikami, that subgenre of horror in gaming involves taking control of a vulnerable player character, who generally have low resistance to injury and a limited amount of supplies and inventory space. Careful management of items, both to stay alive and to explore and figure out the environment around you, is key.
The first game placed you in a mansion in the middle of the forest, full of ravenous dogs, hungry zombies and other more novel terrors like razor-clawed lizard men, giant spiders, a giant snake and shark. It was a wild game that managed to break new ground for games as an interactive, exploratory experience, not to mention cultivating an eerie, nervous atmosphere where danger you may or may not be prepared for always lies in wait. It did not break new ground in voice acting and contains some of the most enjoyably awful examples in the entire medium.
As mentioned, it spawned a monstrous franchise with ups, downs and in-betweens. Recently the eighth but in truth thirteenth main entry in the game series (this includes several remakes and the prequel Resident Evil 0 mind you) ,Resident Evil VIIIage, was released to positive attention. I have played and very much enjoyed the latest entry in the franchise for the Halloween season and will try however I can to write up a review of that latest jaunt in the series.
But, you’re here for me to talk about a horror movie for the Halloween season, right? Well, let me discuss the background of Sweet Home, both as a movie and as an early example of a tie in video game. Despite some definite winners in the acclaim and box office departments, Japanese cinema was struggling in the 1980s. This was in large part due to television and direct to video being a big thing in the popular culture of the era.
One way to promote a theatrically released Japanese film was to tie it in with a burgeoning new medium that while essentially created in America in the 70s, was all but perfected in the Land of the Rising Sun: video games. Yankees like me experienced the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the system that gave the world Mario, Zelda, Metroid and countless other enduring staples. It was the system that had Sweet Home, but only for Japanese audiences. The rest of the world could later experience the game adaptation through fan-made localizations.
Over in Japan, the NES was called the “Famicom”. Instead of calling it by it’s original name over in the U.S. of A., due to concerns over the video game crash of 1983 that occurred prior, Nintendo marketed it as an “entertainment system” rather than a game system to ease those who felt leery about a device with bad history attached.
So, with all of that out of the way, Toho( the studio that gave us all the glory of Godzilla) wanted to make a ghost story film. They got Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) to direct. He would eventually make Japanese horror landmarks Cure and Pulse that I will one day watch down the road. It was produced by Juzo Itami, best known for culinary Japanese comedy classic Tampopo, featuring an early appearence by Ken Watanabe that I am dining to see one day.
Due to the weakness of the theatrical Japanese box office in 1989, the filmmakers wanted an extra hook to the release of SweetHome. So, in conjunction with Capcom (the future developers of Resident Evil, alongside a crapton of other huge franchises) and a young Shinji Mikami, a tie-in video game was developed for the Famicom. The movie was released in January of 1989, the game came out at the end of the same year. Nice symmetry there.
Sweet Home the game could possibly be described as the actual first survival horror title, seven years before Resident Evil and three years before Alone in the Dark, another title often seen as a precursor to the genre. You took control of three of the five principal characters in the movie. It was up to you to use your resources you collect throughout the game as well as tactical use of the characters and their skills to survive the mansion and make it out alive.
Unlike Resident Evil, which has always used science fiction medical horror as the root of its, well, evil, Sweet Home is completely supernatural. It is very much a ghost story. Though Japanese ghost stories are well known due to exposure to films like Ringu ( and the American remake The Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge in America), not to mention the acclaimed survival horror series FatalFrame (where you must stand and photograph the ghostly terrors in your midst), Sweet Home feels like a fusion of Western and Eastern ghost tales.
Though set entirely in Japan, the mansion that a TV film crew goes to located inside a thick forest looks very Western influenced in and out, and the type of ghost that is encountered feels like a hybrid of what a person in Europe or North American would call a ghost and what a person in Asia would call one. This also foreshadows how Resident Evil, wanting to appeal to both Japanese and Western audiences, always has a charming toe dipped in two different parts of the world.
The film crew consists of a middle-aged TV producer, an aging female news host, the producer’s short-haired, spunky daughter and the cameraman and his girlfriend. Perhaps as a nod to this setup of a film crew in WAY over their heads, a playable subplot of 2017’s Resident Evil 7: biohazard has you play as a cameraman for a television show called Sewer Gators. Through VHS tapes found throughout the game, you can play flashbacks to other characters’ predicaments.
Poor Clancy Javis starts off filming his three-man team exploring a seemingly abandoned house on a just as seemingly abandoned plantation deep in the Louisiana bayou. It very quickly goes south, deep south you could say. He is then forced into various escape room situations by the terrifying Baker family and for more on that, play RE7 or watch it be played online. This won’t be the last time that the narrative of Sweet Home possibly inspired a Resident Evil game’s story, and not just through coinciding developments of game and movie.
Like with a film that I watched on Youtube for a non-Halloween 80s retrospective blog entry, Dangerous Encounters of the FirstKind, I saw Sweet Home in its entirety for free on Youtube, though the quality was VHS and made the viewing experience difficult at times. It did add something to the atmosphere, but still I wouldn’t mind viewing a version with better visual fidelity.
Sweet Home is quite traditional plot wise when it comes to ghost story tradition and a lot of it will ring true to anyone who read over my thoughts on The Changeling. A group of people go over to a place that is supposedly haunted, discover gradually it is definitely haunted, and have their own reasons for not leaving a place that is likely perilous. In this case, it’s to record a TV special on the mansion.
There’s a subplot relating to the aging producer wondering if he should remarry so his daughter can have a mom again, despite the daughter fast approaching adulthood. The female TV host is the obvious candidate and the daughter happily ships her with her dad. This plays into Japanese cultural expectations on family and relationships though there wouldn’t be too drastic a change if this was an American or Canadian cast I suppose.
Much like how the Changeling’s ghostly conflict centers over a horrible incident in the past, Sweet Home’s haunting is borne out of an accident which in description is just ghastly, no lie. 30 years ago, the madam of the house lost her infant daughter in a freak accident involving the furnace. Following that horrific tragedy, the husband left and never returned and the mother took her life. Of course, she didn’t leave.
Now, the spirit of the mother roams over the house, unable to let go of losing her daughter and anyone who walks the halls of this tragic occurrence will be her prey. (Warning: potential spoilers for this year’s Resident Evil 8, you have been warned.)
The main antagonist of Resident Evil: VIIIage (i.e. Village) is Mother Miranda, who through the series sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and related experiments has managed to be alive since the 19th century, having not aged since the early 20th. During the Spanish flu, she lost her baby daughter Eva to the pandemic and has never been able to let go of that loss. She managed in short order to come across something called “the mold”, this and the prior RE’s substance which allows for the monster mashing to occur in the first place. With her long life, she has spent the next century using a Romanian village and their oddly American sounding residents as a giant science project with the mold.
All to find a way to get her daughter Eva back to life. A mother who will go to any horrible length, will hurt countless innocent lives and will allow herself to become a terrible monster. Not unlike the ghost mother of Sweet Home, at least in motivation. How the film resolves is kinda hard to describe, though it obviously involves the easing of the spirit’s pain. Along the way to the predictable but beautifully shot conclusion, there is some terrific practical effects involving a chair made of molten lava, a really spooky shadow that chases after our cast along the walls and one extended disintegration of a fella that ends with a skeleton collapsing onto the floor.
The familiarity is bolstered by the visual imagination that I could make out through the VHS quality of the screen and it having quite a few more telltale connections with the game series it would bring to life one day than the ones I mentioned. Namely, there being several McGuffin items that come across like the “key items” the player must acquire to open up the space they traverse to both survive and figure out what is going on.
It’s a more fascinating cinematic experience if you know it’s background and have been exposed to its bountiful legacy like I have. It’s kinda cute that a franchise that has sold as of 2021 117 million copies has origins in an otherwise quaint yet occasionally spectacular Japanese horror picture. It deserves more exposure than its gotten and not just because of Resident Evil. Like many things I like about watching cinema from the 1980s/90s, it’s a time capsule to a bygone era and its even better here seeing one from a non-American perspective.
Go ahead and look for Sweet Home full movie on Youtube and if you can find a better looking version somewhere, check it out. If you’re more inclined to the game legacy of Sweet Home, try to find the fan-made English localization of the Famicom game. Discover for yourself that Resident Evil’s shadow is longer than a quarter decade.
The Fly (1986)
For whatever reason, three movies, all remakes of 50s horror classics, were released roughly 30 years after the originals they were based on. Even crazier, all three of them have come to be considered horror classics of their era and arguably all superior than their forebears.
In 1982, indie cult master filmmaker John Carpenter( one of my favorites) gave us his version of The Thing from another World, now just The Thing, skewing closer to the landmark horror short story, Who Goes There?, then the original film. Initially dismissed over its insane gore and gross nature, it has now become one of the most acclaimed works in Carpenter’s career, one of the best loved horror movies and one of the greatest remakes ever made.
The third example, The Blob, will be talked about right after this one. Here we have David Cronenberg’s The Fly. The Canadian body horror extraordinaire had achieved attention with his controversial Rabid from 1977 and less controversial offerings like 1981’s Scanners and 1983’s Videodrome. The 1986 remake of The Fly is his most commercially successful feature. So great is Cronenberg’s association with this version of the Fly that anything humanoid that takes on a grotesque, messed up appearence is called Cronenbergian.
Rick and Morty paid tribute to the Cronenberg style of body horror in the vein of Fly 86′ with the outstanding episode “RickPotion No. 9″, where a terrible accident on the titular duo’s part transforms nearly all of the world’s inhabitants into monsters that would be right at home alongside the final form of Seth Brundle into a horrifying half-human/half-fly creature. That episode of Rick and Morty is more shocking for Rick’s “solution” to the problem he made than the monstrosities he unintentionally created. This stunned, memetic picture of Morty from that episode works pretty well when one views the final stage of the “Brundlefly” that Jeff Goldblum tragically transforms into. A mix of shock and sadness.
Before watching the remakes for both the Fly and Blob, I saw for the first time the original movies they are based on. The 1957 Fly stars David Hedison as the poor Canadian scientist who unintentionally undergoes an extreme makeover. You might know Hedison as one of the many actors who has portrayed James Bond’s CIA best buddy Felix Leiter, first in 1973’s Live and Let Die and in 1989’s License to Kill.
It is better known for featuring Vincent Price in a rare non-villainous role as the doomed doctor’s brother. Due to Vincent Price being the biggest profile in Fly 57′, it is commonly mistaken that Price plays the scientist who becomes the Fly. Despite how unconvincing the effect of the transformed man is by modern standards, the original Fly remains a deserved classic of 50s’ sci-fi horror, in a time when really bad sci-fi horror films, brought into the forefront due to anxiety over the atomic age, were a dime a dozen and looked almost as cheap as such.
There is one case of surprising violence that I just don’t know how it was possible to get away with back in the Production Code era of the time. The original film is told mostly through flashback so we see at the start the bright-red bloody result of how Hedison’s Fly dies. There’s obviously some discretion away from actually showing the Fly’s death, but it’s pretty daring for a 50s’ movie to go that far. It makes Cronenberg taking the concept up to 11 feel more appropriate seeing as how the original was already pushing, borderline passing the limit.
The new 80s’ Fly carries many subtle similarities to the first. The entrance to the lab, in this case also being the scientist’s apartment home, is a sliding wall door. There is a love interest who is absolutely torn up by her love’s predicament. The scientist, Goldblum’s Seth Brundle, eventually locks himself away for weeks to avoid anyone viewing him devolving into the ghastly creature, like with Hedison’s.
Cronenberg is absolutely committed to keeping as much away from the imagination as possible, though there’s one moment where he shies away from showing us one of the grossest things Brundle as the Fly can do. You do get to hear it so you’re not entirely spared. This piece of advice is self evident, but eat lightly or not at all while watching. I managed to keep my stomach settled pretty well in truth, perhaps because I already knew some of the worst to expect.
The Fly, gross as it is, is able to wrap you up in its incredible visual effects, without a drop of any CGI. What sticks out, other than the horrifically realized final form of the Fly is the less visceral effects.
In the earlier, more subtle stages of Seth’s transformation, he starts climbing effortlessly on the walls with effects that would be spot on for any modern Spider-Man movie. The framing of the shots makes me wonder how they actually did it as you see in the same frame a bunch of stuff that is not nailed down, like bottles, trash and other props on ground level. There’s also Seth Brundle demonstrating his new-found agility and strength, by spinning around on a pull up bar. Basically, you’re watching Peter Parker’s origins with a messed up twist.
The physical horror is what is brought up most with Cronenberg’s Fly, how could it not? But the psychological and emotional horror is also what makes it more than an expertly done barf bag feature. You see a shy, good natured man, who might be on the spectrum like myself, try to impress a woman journalist with his teleportation device. Essentially, like with the original, the catalyst to the Fly’s creation is a machine that has a utilitarian purpose: instantaneous transit to anywhere on the planet.
Both movies make the strong argument that we should probably at least be extremely careful or shouldn’t attempt at all in creating a transporter from Star Trek. Barring the anxieties of whether or not transporters kill and then replicate you with all your memories retained, the possibility of an incident similar to the Fly also makes it a disturbing risk. There are accidents from time to time in Star Trek’s otherwise banal example of the technology, but those never get in the way of transporters being an indispensable part of everyday life in the 23rd and 24th centuries.
Over the course of showing off and testing the technology to Ronnie (Geena Davis), they form a romantic relationship which is hard for me to swallow if only due to the time restraints of the film. They do make a cute coupling (before the horror, mind), but I suppose a romantic subplot was needed to explore more of the allegorical horror of this movie.
Cronenberg has stated his version of the Fly is related to the heartbreak and tribulations of living or knowing someone who is either declining due to old age or slowly withering away from a terminal illness, chances of recovery nil. Due to its 1986 release, many saw it as metaphor for the AIDS crisis, and that is especially easy to ascertain due to the appearance of Brundle in the early to mid stages. Cronenberg doesn’t dismiss this applicability whatsoever, but he meant for the message to be widely attributed to any depressing and disturbing downgrade of a human body and mind. While the visuals are definitely not for everyone, the theme is horribly universal.
What is almost as disturbing as the physical transformation of Brundle, where more and more of his human attributes simply falloff in place of something not human is his personality change. He first becomes hypersexual, having a nymphomaniacal need for sex. He is also faster, in both mind and agility, unable to hold attention on much save for baser needs and is both impressive and disquieting in what his proportionate fly strength gives him. Again, like Peter Parker but without any inhibition.
Eventually, his attempts to figure out a cure for this predicament begins to fold to the needs of his “fly side” and his humanity shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until in the end, his very final moments of existence where any human side left is only theoretical, such as the heartbreaking last action he makes.
The Fly will disturb you on multiple levels, assuming you have not yet already seen it, which is a more likely possibility statistically than any of Cronenberg’s other works. If you have the courage, in mind and in stomach, it’s also worthy of watching more than once, just to piece together the series of events as you see the mistakes Seth and Ronnie made, where things could have taken a less harrowing turn and to see how one phase leading to the Brundlefly reflects off the last part.
The same I will say of the Blob, but watch the original and this version back to back. The context and where Cronenberg gruesomely built on the 1957 edition will fascinate you.
The Blob (1988)
The 1958 Blob is a quintessential example of 1950’s B-movie sci-fi horror. Aside from Them! and Earth vs the Flying Saucers, if you want one movie to watch to get an idea of how American cinema handled themes of dangers from beyond and within our world, the original which features Steve Mcqueen in his first starring role is the one.
The Blob hits the sweet spot between being a just awful movie worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and an actual honest to God classic of sci-fi horror. It’s acting isn’t the best, but not bad. It’s effects are rarely state of the art but are imaginative and done with spirit. It contains and may well be one of the earliest examples of countless conventions for the type of film it is.
A tiny meteor crashes in the woods, containing an otherworldly..something that does not come in peace. Some hapless guy and his dog nearby just has to touch it, being inadvertently responsible for the peril to come. There is a teenage all-American couple, out at night, having an intimate date, when they respond to some strange occurrence nearby, though they really shouldn’t.
The titular Blob claims its first victim, the poor schmuck who put his hand where it shouldn’t and it sets off a chain of events which leads to a small American town stuck in some very sticky trouble. The teens try to warn the adults but they don’t believe them at first though eventually it’s impossible to ignore. The vindicated teens then help the rest of the adults defeat the Blob by finding some weakness by happy accident (not unlike your average Star Trek episode), and the film ends on an enjoyably ambiguous note of whether the Blob is defeated for good.
The manner of the Blob’s defeat, in that it is neutralized, not killed through the cold, and flown off to the Arctic where it can best stay immobilized takes on a terrifying new prevalence watching it in the 21st century. Basically, with the growing horrors of climate change, if the Blob actually existed and was defeated in the 1950s, then chances are very good we would be in deep s**t right about now.
The 1988 Blob is actually close to the original, most so at the start. It involves again, a meteor falling to Earth with what else inside it. An old man and his dog nearby spot the crash and decide to poke at it with a stick. The blob comes out, the old man is doomed the moment it makes contact on his skin and a group of teenagers, one of which is a young pre-Entourage Kevin Dillon, get him to a hospital.
Once we reach the hospital, the Blob 88′ takes on a format that’s different enough but still echoes the original. Certain set pieces, like the Blob’s iconic assault on a movie theater, with moviegoers running out screaming, is retained. The weakness of the blob is the same though the outcome changes into something more explosive. This is a remake that feels genuinely like an update rather than a retread. It is certainly a scarier film where the survival of some characters are actually not guaranteed.
While some characters’ survival in the end is entirely expected, some fates are genuinely surprising and add to the utterly terrifying way the Blob does in its victims. Due to the aforementioned “production code” in place in the 50s, how the original Blob kills people is left almost entirely to the imagination. People that the Blob consume simply disappear.
Here, you see how they die and go****n if it ain’t some of the worst ways to check out I’ve seen in a motion picture. Like with the Fly and Thing remakes, these updates succeed so well because there is something new to add to the experience that was either not permitted or possible back in the day. In the 1980s, audiences got to see old stories breathed with new life in the most obvious way: take what was already had to its stomach-churning furthest extent.
The Blob, in spite of the disturbing ends to many characters, is still a fun movie. It has a faster pace which at times reminded me of the same breathless motion of James Cameron’s Aliens up to a point. You get to have the female lead (played by Shawnee Smith) take on a much more active role in surviving and fighting the blob than the more passive one from the original, alongside Dillon’s male lead.
The effects, if you couldn’t already tell, are outstandingly impressive and for the most part are just as good now as they were in 1988, not that I would know seeing as how I didn’t exist in 1988. There are some genuine surprises in store and it has a really spooky score by Michael Hoenig, which underlies the more serious tone to the comparatively more playful first.
It’s co-written by Frank Darabont who wouldn’t be done with showcasing visceral horror, with getting Walking Dead’s TV adaptation off the ground and his 2007 film of Stephen King’s The Mist. It was directed by Chuck Russell, who the prior year directed the best regarded Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, the third, Dream Warriors.
Like with the other 80s updates of 50s sci-fi horror, you might want to be wary of the gross out factor that possibly lies in wait for you. Here, it’s more shocking and even awe-inspiring than digestively unsettling, but not everyone is me. I wholeheartedly endorse it. I think you will find it… an absorbing watch.
Next time will either be my overdue thoughts on the latest Resident Evil game or my next part of my 80s film retrospective.
It’s the most horrifying time of the year, or at least the time of year we want to be most horrifying. It’s getting cooler, darker and with it we are drawn to exploring and enjoying the grimmer aspects of life, almost always in a playful manner. Despite Halloween having roots in Celtic Pagan origins and like Christmas getting changed into a Christian day of celebration, Halloween and to a greater extent the month of October is a time where we look back at our fears or what we once feared and laugh at or along with it.
Is it a coping mechanism for our everyday anxieties? Dunno, but I find myself proud that my species decided to create a popularly recognized holiday that is all about this particular side to the human experience. If Lovecraft is to be believed (more on him going forward), fear is the oldest emotion. If that psychological relationship is true of us, then it makes sense that we would have some kind of celebration of our species thus far having conquered that emotion or at least having kept it from destroying us wholly.
Being 27, 28 next month, I am far too old to trick or treat and I always find it sad that the most iconic ritual of the holiday is age-locked. In turn, there are parties, festivals, haunted house attractions, seasonal versions of amusement parks big and small and consuming media that is adjacent to something horror related. There are games, there are books but most of note are the movies.
Keeping in the vein of me being laser focused on covering 80s’ popular culture that I have not yet absorbed, all these movies shall be from that decade, as it was the last three years since this blog began.
The Changeling (Canada) (1980)
George C. Scott is one of the great American actors, more so if you want someone to effortlessly play a guy who is either grouchy or has some underlying aggression beneath the surface. He played that aggression comically in Kubrick’s ever relevant Dr.Strangelove, he played it as the definitive depiction of one of America’s most controversial military figures in Patton and he will play the grumpy old man to end all grumpy all men in one of the most acclaimed adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Does Scott play a grouch in 1980’s The Changeling? No, not really. His appearence can’t help but bring to mind one, but his portrayal of John Russell, a widower trying to escape his past by living in one of the gloomiest American cities, Seattle, is one of forlorn sadness, no real anger in his heart.
Scott obviously does the role justice, but it is an awkward role based on his aged appearence (he wasn’t that old in 1980, a little over 50), as he seems inappropriate to be a widower to a departed young wife, who looks like she was in her 20s/30s, along with their daughter. All through, wouldn’t you know it, a tragic vehicle accident.
Don’t take this as a slight towards couples who can and do have big differences in age between each other. Perhaps here it was intended for there to be a middle-aged man in a loving relationship with a much younger woman. What matters is if the relationship is healthy & loving and of course it was for Scott’s Russell.
Having an old looking man be the widower adds to the melancholic tone of the film, and that’s before we get to the ghost stuff. Again, Scott was younger than he looked filming The Changeling, but seeing this old man who has lost his whole family trying to make it through life as a music teacher with some help from some work friends can be hard to watch. You feel as if John Russell has lost his legacy through his daughter and he is probably too old to start again, if he even wants to.
Russell has moved to the Emerald City and is somehow able to afford basically a mansion on the outskirts of the city. It’s old, run down and could use some renovations and I might have just explained how he afforded it because nobody wants to live in a place that would feel spooky without the actual haunting.
We are all too exposed to the conventions of the ghost movie in 2021. The success of the Conjuring series and its extended universe of films have if anything given us a refresher course on its tenets. The creaking door with no apparent outside force, a person telling a main character don’t go or live inside that house, a wild séance sequence and many telltale signs that the entity is trying to communicate something.
Watch the Changeling while just knowing those tropes can make it overly familiar and by extension possibly not that scary. There are a couple of moments which did take me by surprise all the same such as the sudden demise of a character Russell had just talked with, conveyed to him in a gruesome supernatural manner.
Keep in mind that The Changeling was released in 1980, when those ghost horror tropes in film were comparatively fresher. Yes, the 1978 Amityville Horror (which I hear sucks) was released prior and there’s even earlier examples like Robert Wise’s mentally claustrophobic The Haunting from 1963, but you can see the kernel of ideas for possibly the first time in this 1980 feature and done quite well, helped along by George C. Scott’s novel presence.
What makes The Changeling a winning ghost story despite the familiarity is that it is intended to be more a sad movie than a scary one. If Russell’s grief over his untimely departed family wasn’t enough, the reason for the ghost haunting the mansion is both sad and just disgusting ethically. I won’t tell you the nature of this spirit or how it came to die back in the day, but it is just one awful revelation that would unsettle most of the hardiest individuals. Scott is renowned for playing hardy men, and he is definitely shaken by what he learns.
Before you ask, the ghost is not the titular Changeling. The Changeling is still breathing, a senator played by Melvyn Douglas in his second to last role. Funny as it sounds, his last role was also a ghost movie, though reportedly nowhere near as good here. Even more than Russell’s family or the ghost’s predicament, Douglas’ character of Sen. Joseph Carmichael as an elderly but relatively decent politician is just heartbreaking.
I won’t mention any details, but his role to play in Russell figuring out how to give the ghost peace to move on is just sorrowful. Hearing the old man’s voice break when denying what unintended role he played in the spirit’s dilemma is really distressing. Considering how close Douglas was to passing away in the real world only adds to the moments with him in it.
The Changeling is a successful proof of concept for ghost cinema going forward. It’s novelty lies in its unconventional choice of actor for main protagonist and that the familiar is tied to a somber story of how family life can really, really be a bitch for people no matter where you are in the economic classes.
The term “Chud” is used online as a general expression of a person who is contemptible, mean, stupid and just plain annoying all in one. In more agreeable circles, a Chud in my experience would be in this day and age people who are effortlessly petty and self absorbed like a “Karen”, refuse to take for many aggravatingly and simply pathetic reasons a life-protecting vaccine or are all too comfortable with trying to overturn a fair election like from this past January. To me, those are Chuds: where their behavior is just as likely to harm themselves as other people.
Most don’t realize that the term comes from the name of the cult classic sci-fi horror movie of the same name. It’s an okay, not really stand out creature feature which co-stars two future Home Alone actors: John Heard as a struggling NYC photographer and Daniel Stern post-Diner as a soup kitchen owner for the homeless who might have ulterior motives that are never elaborated on. Amusingly, the two actors are never in the same scene in the two Home Alones they appear in. Yes, I know there is a sixth Home Alone movie coming to Disney Plus and no, I’m not going to tangent myself into talking about it.
Something is causing the citizens of Manhattan to disappear in the night. Only a photographer, the soup kitchen runner and one precinct captain (Christopher Curry) are concerned enough to look into it. The photographer’s wife (Kim Griest) gets caught in the middle and as is want to happen, gets up close and personal with the titular monsters from beneath the Big Apple.
C.H.U.D. is oddly paced. It doesn’t really drag and isn’t a long watch, and yet there are still times when you want the film to get around to what you’re here to see: Cannibal Humanoid Underground Dwellers and the monster mashing that comes with them. The film does end on an impressive climax involving escaping the underground before it is blown up with the Chuds, revelations about the nature of the creatures which is very transparently commentary on environmental concerns in the Reagan 1980s and a house invasion which begins with one odd non sequitur but culminates in the photographer’s wife trying to escape her apartment from the Chuds like it’s Michael Myers up to his old tricks against poor Laurie Strode.
There is a big plot oversight which perhaps considering the kind of movie it’s attached too shouldn’t be entirely surprising. The Chuds are discovered to be radioactive monsters and there are way too many times where our main heroes are in proximity to them and the materials that helped create them. Not once is it ever indicated that the characters played by Heard, Stern and Griest are in immediate danger from just the radiation and the only apparent danger presented is from the Chuds physically trying to kill them.
Perhaps it reflects the relative lack of understanding of radiation’s effects from many lay-men and women in the 80s, let alone from the film-makers, but I’ve seen HBO’s Chernobyl. Radiation is a terrifying and absolutely horrible way to die. No one and I mean no one that I know or hate deserves a death in that manner. If played more realistically (again, maybe asking a bit too much from this kind of film), the fates of all those in contact with the Chuds and the waste that made them should be absolutely pitch black.
Also, the film does leave it pretty vague if the city’s efforts to destroy the Chuds by leaking and blowing up gas beneath the city got them all. Ignoring that this would be likely disastrous for New York aboveground, I imagine quite a few Chuds should’ve survived. There is a sequel but it is not related whatsoever to the plot of the first, stand-alone from what I’ve heard. There is remarkably no ending gag where it’s revealed a Chud survived. It ends like “Yup, got em. That’s all, folks.” Now just ignore the implications that New York might be facing a radiation disaster that could eclipse Chernobyl which had not yet occurred in the real world.
In spite of it not being as fun a cult b-movie as I was hoping, with the effects involving the Chuds often feeling cheap in the not charming way, it is worth a watch for the committed performances from Heard, Stern, Curry and the shifty Government dick Wilson, played by George Martin, before his notable side role in Leon: The Professional a decade later. Also so you will know where that prolific term originated from. Not the best revelation of a movie, but not the worst waste of time either.
Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of theComet, like many enjoyable 80s horror films, is arguably a Twilight Zone episode that lasts an hour and a half. It’s speculative, creepy, stressful and fun. It’s a cult classic that is not that well known in general. When looking for films for my 80s watchlist, Halloween or otherwise, Night of the Comet and its intriguing premise completely blindsided me.
I am very averse to this kind of thinking, often due to its lazy corporate background, but I would actually be okay with some kind of new version for Night of the Comet(which I learned while writing is in development). Watching it made me think there could be a miniseries or even a multiple season show based around the movie’s conceit. I was that impressed by the setup.
Of course, audiences are generally growing tired to apocalyptic stories, whether it involves zombies or zombie-adjacents. Recently, a long in development adaptation for Y: The Last Man was released on FX to ok to middling reviews. The Brian K Vaughn graphic novel series it is based on is one of my all time favorite comic book stories and a fantastic example of the medium without superheroes involved.
I was very underwhelmed by the trailers for the FX adaptation and am not surprised it’s reception has been muted. It just looked and felt wrong as an adaptation. I hope the same fate doesn’t befall another upcoming Vaughn adaptation for Paper Girls, which I recently read and loved. In case you’re wondering, no I have not finished Vaughn’s other acclaimed work, Saga. For whatever reason, it hasn’t hooked me like Y and Paper Girls did.
Mentioning both Y and Paper Girls is actually quite apt. Like Y: The Last Man, a catastrophic event, the titular night of the comet leads to the majority of humanity getting dusted in a manner not dissimilar to a certain method of death in 60s’ Star Trek. Like Paper Girls, two of the main leads are teenage or pre-adolescent girls stuck in a situation incredibly over their heads.
Catherine Mary Stewart (as seen in The Last Starfighter, an 80s cult classic I do not like) plays Reggie, a valley girl who is the tomboy to her more girly sister Sam. She works at a movie theater in LA and likes to spend her time playing 80s’ arcade classic Tempest more than doing her job, though the boss strangely doesn’t seem to mind that badly. There you go folks: an unabashed female gamer well before the Gamergate era. Suck it up.
On one fateful night, a comet that last approached Earth roughly 65 million years ago (funny timing that…) is returning. The whole planet is gearing up to watch it’s passing, right before Christmas time. Sam is stuck at home with her really awful stepmom and Reggie is planning on spending the night with her quasi-boyfriend Larry.
The following morning, Reggie wakes up and finds that the world seems a whole lot emptier and much more redder. She comes to discover (a little too slowly if I’m being honest) that something really bad has happened. If all the sandy clothing lying around a now barren Los Angeles wasn’t a sign that shit is now wack, how about an attack from a sentient, vocal zombie with a wrench?
It’s interesting to note that this scenario of our protagonist waking up to a terribly changed world predates famous examples from The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later. Eventually, she makes it home to her sister who has also miraculously avoided both dusting and zombification. The sister takes even longer to let the new reality sink in and she doesn’t handle it well in her dreams going forward.
They make it to a radio station which is still on the air, hoping that means other living people are around. It’s obviously all pre-recorded but they do meet Hector, played by Robert Beltran. You probably know him for playing the second-in-command of the U.S.S. Voyager, Chakotay, aka the one character the writers for Star Trek Voyager never could figure out what to really do with.
He has his moments and some great episodes involving him and FYI, I am a simp for one of the more divisive Star Trek shows. Then again, every Star Trek show starting with Voyager has had an adversarial relationship with the fanbase and viewerbase. I mean, just look at how they took in Star Trek Picard alone, with Discovery not far behind in terms of Trekkies brandishing the torches and pitchforks.
I’m laying on the Star Trek talk because the movie foreshadows the actor’s future history with the franchise. Right before Beltran’s Hector meets are two girl protagonists, Sam says “Beam me up, Scotty.” Later on, while Hector is trying to evade the comet induced zombies at his home, his handling of his gun against them is humorously poor. This mirrors sentiments from Voyager fans that Commander Chakotay was oddly bad at using his phaser weapon. If that wasn’t enough, I think the opening titles recall something familiar.
Beltran was possibly the least happy with his time on Voyager involving the main cast and yet it seems as if he was destined to end up there in the end.
So, what makes Night of the Comet stand out, aside from being another charming time capsule to the 1980s? Well, it mixes the light-hearted and the darkly serious really effectively. Much like the survivors of Dawn of the Dead, there are moments where the teen/preteen characters are having fun in the new world, without any adults to get in the way. It is paired with perilous threats from other more hostile survivors who turn out to not really be survivors at all and the underlying dread that even though being underneath steel protected the survivors from the comet’s effects, it might only be delaying the inevitable.
A group of adult scientists have also survived dustification in their underground lab but a simple act of human error means that they are also doomed to first mentally regress, then physically until finally you can sweep them up the floor. It leads to an amusing twist on the really aggravating convention of child centered stories: the adults are stupid and trying to get in the way of the kid’s fun and the kids in turn are very intelligent.
The difference here is that the affected adults are literally getting dumber and their plans for the kids are terrifying. It is left intentionally vague if the under 18 survivors are also going to eventually succumb but it’s just as possible they’re fine, with only a world without management being their real concern down the road. Oh and the lack of people might mean eventual extinction.
It has been reported, whether it was directly Joss Whedon or not, that Mary Stewart’s Reggie, with her Uzi-toting, no nonsense attitude still paired with feminine traits was inspirational in the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have not watched any of Buffy but I know enough that I can see how the NOTC character could have been a source for one of the most prominent female heroes in recent decades. That probably helped lead to the film’s cult status.
It’s a decent though occasionally uneven what-if story that meshes sci-fi, horror, comedy and adventure pretty well. The sequences involving an utterly empty downtown 80s LA are fantastic and as eerie as intended. It’s also rather ahead of its time in having a diverse cast with the inclusion of a Hispanic male lead in an almost romantic dynamic with Reggie. Also, teens are implied to have sex in this movie and contrary to Hollywood’s ruling on this activity, well on display in the slasher genre, they survive! Well, one does die but whatever.
Give it a watch, especially for its lowkey snyth soundtrack and for the well crafted shifting of tone and atmosphere. Also, an ending that feels paradoxically just as hopeful as it is bleak.
It is a real crying shame that the next two entries to discuss in my 2021 Halloween Horrorthon are movies my parents could not sit through the whole way. They love Jeffrey Combs who appears in both,, due to his standout appearences in the Star Trek franchise. He is best remembered as Weyoun, the most insufferable spokesperson for a genocidal empire you could ask for.
Combs’ makes you love to hate Weyoun immensely in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the showrunners in return reward that relationship between character and audience by having Weyoun die multiple times. He is “resurrected” by being replaced with a clone and each Weyoun is just as smug as the last. His other standout Star Trek role was as Shran, an Andorian freedom fighter/terrorist who is one of Star Trek Enterprise’s best characters. Before Star Trek, before a crap ton of voice work, Combs was the man to appear in some of the best adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
H.P. Lovecraft is an enduring figure in science fiction, fantasy and most importantly, horror. The Cthulhu mythos continues to inspire dread, fascination or ironic enjoyment from us humans: the very beings he would annihilate without a second thought. The Lovecraftian style of horror continues to be implemented in popular culture, often so subtly that you might be surprised it was inspired by Lovecraft. To promote my recently finished deep dive into Mass Effect, the trilogy’s antagonists the Reapers are inspired by Lovecraft’s harrowing imagination, namely the utterly pitiless Elder Gods.
One creepy moment aboard a dead reaper in Mass Effect 2 even alludes to the incomprehensibly powerful nature of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods in that even in death, a reaper can take control of you and change you body and mind. The game even spells out in one hapless character “Even a dead God can dream.”
The two movies are not based around Cthulhu or the Elder Gods. One does involve a likely Godlike being, but nothing that you are likely familiar with. Re-Animator and From Beyond are two short stories and not exactly known for being Lovecraft tales. You might have heard of these movies but you might not have known the eldritch connection they share. It was a surprise to me when I watched both.
Both movies are done by Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, a collaborative team that also brought you the utter horror that was Honey, I shrunk the Kids. No, really. Lifelong Lovecraft fans( I hope they didn’t like everything about that New England chap if you know what I mean…), it must have been a joy for them to take that fandom they shared and bring it on the big screen.
Not only is the story that the first movie is based on not that well-known, Herbert West: Re-Animator, Lovecraft even said it was one of his least favorite works, often due to the publisher keeping him from going as far as he wanted with the story. It’s probable that the Gordon-Yuzna version can be viewed as an improvement on the source material. It certainly overshadowed it, as Re-animator’s enduring cult success led to all later depictions of main character Herbert West being modeled after Comb’s appearence rather than the original blond, blue-eyed description by Lovecraft.
Comb’s Herbert West is absolutely determined to prove that life can be brought back, particularly following the amount of time that brain death occurs. This is fueled by his feud with insufferable surgeon Dr. Hill (David Gale), who insists on following the official science and snarkily dismissing anything West has to offer as proof.
At Miskatonic University( a recurring location in Lovecraft’s loosely shared universe which will also appear in From Beyond), West gets residence with a medical master’s student called Dan Cain(Bruce Abbott). Dan has recently experienced disappointment in his ability to keep patients alive on the operating table and that might be the only reason he doesn’t run for the hills with his college sweetheart Megan (Barbara Crampton).
Inevitably considering the name of the movie, West begins his experiments in raising the dead, which had began and had some messy initial success at a university in Zurich, Switzerland. There, he found a green, glowing substance which when inserted into the brain stem may allow a body to return to the living. Obviously, this form of resurrection brings back the deceased not as they were and quite wrong. Why wouldn’t it, this is a Lovecraft story.
The film goes to great lengths to establish some ground rules on what makes re-animation feasible. If the brain is gone or too badly damaged, it’s a no-go. If the body has been dead for around a year, it’s been too long. The more recent the better. It’s grisly stuff of course, but it is West’s unwavering focus and Cain’s never-ending bewilderment at it all that makes it easier to stomach such stuff, at least for me. I could be desensitized too, but probably not as there is some gross-ass stuff in store. I was closer to nauseous with what From Beyond had in store, due to their being a super uncomfortable sexual component there.
What makes it much easier to stomach Re-Animator and what makes it a better overall movie is that there is a relieving amount of comedy included, often black because how could it not? There is some real imagination to how the brought back move around, communicate and do generally anything not to mention some outstanding practical efforts work. In terms of visceral horror mixed with effective comedy, the closest film I can think of to compare it to is Return of the Living Dead, which might have the best zombie special effects I have ever seen.
Like ROTLD, part of the black comedy is the schadenfreude that comes from an avoidable bad situation getting worse and worse. You start to wonder if there will ever be an end to the experiments, all due to West finding new excuses to keep going based off the earlier crises he created. Due to Comb’s wonderful style of acting, you hate what West is doing, especially to Dan and Megan’s life, but he is such a charming bastard that I never wanted to boo him.
I should warn that as much as I think Re-Animator is an essential 80s’ horror viewing so long as you are not faint of heart or stomach, there is one really disturbing scene that I just don’t know if it could be done today. It is meant to be disturbing, wrong and horrible and there is a macabre genius to the setup I can’t deny, but it was this scene and almost this scene alone that made me realize my parents and a lot of people could never get through it.
It happens near the end of the picture and for those in the know, it’s one of the more famous scenes. All I will say is it that it involves a decapitated head of a re-animated main character and Crampton’s Megan put in a position that I imagine would make my skin crawl just as much if I was a woman as it does as a man. Again, it’s meant to showcase how utterly loathsome the resurrected character in question is, but I would not want to put any actress in the position Crampton’s was put in.
She might have been just peachy filming that scene and evidence points to that being the case as she returned to work with Combs, Gordon and Yuzna for From Beyond. But I would omit this kind of scene if I were in charge of making Re-Animator. Everything else in the film, that’s just swell with me.
All being said, Re-Animator is 98% deserving of its reputation as one of the best movies based directly on Lovecraft’s work. I shouldn’t forget to mention the catchy and quite familiar theme which might remind you of a certain track from Hitchcock’s Psycho. Take a listen to both.
Composer Richard Band openly admits to it being copied and tweaked from Herrmann’s work. There was even a blurb in the awesome opening credits that I missed where the film-makers apologize to the late composer. Think of it this way: this is a film about bringing something back to life: Re-Animatorre-animated Herrmann’s iconic theme.
Re-Animator had two sequels, both starring Combs’ as Dr. West. None are as well-regarded as the first and a fourth film continues to be stuck in development hell. I’d say follow the film’s message and let the dead stay dead. Let us remember the glory of what once lived on the big screen as has certainly been the case with this 1985 gem.
From Beyond (1986)
I don’t know how closely From Beyond the movie ekes to the original Lovecraft story, though I do know that the role of Combs’ hapless Crawford Tillinghast is quite different than before. What I can tell you is that I should take the time to mention that Lovecraft had a… difficult relationship with the concept and activity of sex.
Lovecraft was married for a time in his life but the arrangement was hardly a loving one and that is probably part of the reason it didn’t last, aside from Lovecraft’s many, many anxieties and personal demons he wrestled with. I would indeed believe him if he told me he never slept with his wife. Lovecraft, likely due to a sickly, miserable childhood developed a physical revulsion to sexual activity of any kind and many of his stories involving the Cthulhu mythos act as a dark and gross reflection of his discomfort with the thing that ,you know, prevents our extinction.
I have no idea how much examination of libido and sex drive was in the original story, but this adaptation delves headlong into the psychosexual, with the human pineal gland taking center stage as a plot point.
It’s almost a companion piece to Cronenberg’s Videodrome, with its uncomfortable exploration of human sexuality, human malleability and how close those two can and will be intertwined. Depending on your own sexual preferences, your level of comfort watching From Beyond will vary. You will probably be rattled in some manner.
An experiment into viewing a world invisible to our eyes has succeeded. Terribly so. Comb’s Tillinghast alongside Ted Sorel’s Edward Pretorius manage to make contact through a resonator device and well, first contact goes very poorly for the latter. Crawford runs out of his house screaming and is brought into a mental ward at the returning Miskatonic University. The above image for this section showing Crawford has him describe his lab buddy’s fate in a way that is beautifully cheesy.
“It bite his head off, like a GINGERBREAD MAN.”
The description of this scene is nothing compared to hearing Combs’ say it out loud. In all fairness, Crawford is distressingly sincere when saying that you should absolutely not turn on the resonator. Because we still have a movie to watch, of course it gets turned back on, with Crawford forced into it by Dr. Katherine McMichaels (a returning Barbara Crampton) and her assistant from the police Bubba Brownie (played by Dawn of the Dead veteran Ken Foree).
Crawford turns on the resonator once more and entities that are normally beyond view are visible. They appear as ghostly eels and jellyfish but it’s not just seeing them that is the effect of the resonator, they can touch and hurt you as well. Eventually, they meet an entity that appears to be Edward himself but changed and mutated in a gross mess of flesh. Is this Edward having survived and been transformed in this other reality despite losing his head to some creature? Or is it a being that is masquerading as Crawford’s fellow scientist? Who knows and Stephen King says that any horror story needs some mystery left at the end.
The aforementioned pineal gland comes into play here as exposure to the resonator enhances the gland’s strength, transforming its function in the human body beyond what is possible. Crawford, Bubba and Dr. McMichaels are soon affected with their libidos strengthened and once dormant or repressed aspects of their sexuality emerging.
I am not against it personally if consensual, but like Videodrome, From Beyond delves into BDSM concepts. Nothing horribly explicit happens and the focus is on the resonator and trying to combat its effects, but for those not inclined towards even discussion of such topics, I give you my warning.
The enhanced pineal gland does more than increase the three’s libidos, it also acts as an addictive drug in favor of using rather than destroying the machine which explains why the three do not leave for safety after turning it on again the first time. It becomes both a physical and mental battle for the three to overcome the influence of the other side and escape, but this being based around Lovecraft, there is no easy way out, there’d no shortcut home (sorry, it’s an 80s’ movie, couldn’t resist.)
In spite of Re-Animator also being gross, it’s comic factor does much to keep my stomach feeling fine. FromBeyond was a harder watch. It relates to the body horror of what the resonator actually does to the pineal gland and also how it affects the appetites of those affected, especially poor Crawford who undergoes a seriously uncomfortable transformation. He is the one who suffers most despite also being the one who wanted his lab to be abandoned or destroyed.
The third act is a visually insane fever dream with some really impressive effects regarding the transformed Pretorius. There is a properly Lovecraftian sense of doom lingering in the air as it feels increasingly uncertain if any positive outcome will happen in the end. Re-Animator doesn’t end on a happy note either but it’s not as distressing a watch due to the black comedy tone and it having a deliciously ironic conclusion.
From Beyond is the lesser of the two Lovecraft entries but it is by no means a bad watch. Combs is as great here as he is in, well, anything, and Crampton and Foree do not lag behind him. Take watching From Beyond like you would take the warning when looking at any eldritch object or learning anything of the sort in a Lovecraft story: it won’t be comfortable, it won’t entirely make sense. You won’t go mad but you might vicariously feel that same madness from the characters who will. Re-Animator is macabre fun, From Beyond is just macabre with more than a little to tickle your mind when it isn’t making you feel queasy.
In part 2, coming after Halloween night due to me watching a horror film at the same time to finish my viewing, we will look into two beloved remakes of 50s horror classics, a landmark Hong Kong horror entry and the oft forgotten Japanese picture which was responsible in time for the creation of Resident Evil.
Mass Effect 3 is possibly one of the most acclaimed and well regarded games to also fall under the category of “divisive.” There are as many defenders as they are detractors to the conclusion to Commander Shepard’s story. Some of those same people might hold both views at the same time.
No matter how it ends, it left the Mass Effect universe in one hell of a pickle for a follow-up. The last… massive effect puts the galaxy in a state that is hard to imagine any further story or tale being told, with or without Shepard. It does give ME3 this almost oppressive sense of finality but at the same time left the writers for the franchise in a mental block as to what should come next.
Namely, which of the three base conclusions should a Mass Effect 4 follow? Is it even possible to write up a narrative that would allow for all three different conditions of the state of the galaxy you make in the end to be honored? Not to mention all the smaller decisions that came along for the ride such as individual character fates, how many of Shepard’s friends, allies and love interest were around. One scenario and only one scenario allowed Shepard themself to live.
Part 1: The Coming of Shadows (What came after and where we’re going)
For a while, Bioware’s answer for the fourth Mass Effect was essentially not so much “to boldly go” but “to boldly flee”. Instead, they contrived a scenario where sometime inbetween one of the three games a whole bunch of denizens from the Milky Way decided to leave their home galaxy and head over to Andromeda, a whole new celestial neighborhood free of all the custom decisions Shepard ordained.
Even if Mass Effect: Andromeda was a project that hit on all or enough cylinders, even if it had writing and storytelling prowess on par with the original trilogy, even if it was a beautiful, creative, emotional new beginning to the franchise, it could never escape the shadow of its real intention: that Bioware had written themselves into a corner and they saw no other way for fresh new adventures than breaking the internal logic of its own universe & continuity and having most of the same species deciding to follow through on a really dumb idea.
Mass Effect Andromeda is one of the most depressing disappointments I’ve ever played. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it and I got the game for free through PlayStation Plus. Barring all the lazy similarities Andromeda’s story and characters had with the first Mass Effect (a team of six that was curiously close to the original’s makeup, researching a dead alien civilization for secrets and even a villain looking for a McGuffin like Saren who acts even closer to Sarris from Galaxy Quest), it was just not a fun game to play for the most part.
The Frostbite 3 engine, which had mostly served Bioware’s prior title well( with some ugly exceptions here and there) in Dragon Age: Inquisition, was horribly used and perhaps not even capable of the kind of game Andromeda was meant to be, though some of the background visuals were outstanding. I am well aware that ME: Andromeda had a terrible development cycle and that most of the work on the game was done in the project’s last year and a half.
On top of that, the team leading the project wasn’t the main Bioware team that had worked on the trilogy, it was a somewhat inexperienced b-team from Montreal, though there was also some help from a studio in Austin, Texas and a couple of veterans from the original Edmonton staff like writer Mac Walters and Aaryn Flynn. Montreal had done some good work such as with the ME3 expansion Omega and clearly there were people who did care in spite of the needless complications that occurred. Some of that caring can be sussed out in the final product, but not nearly enough to be redemptive.
Upon release and to some extent to this very day, Andromeda is an embarrassing mess in terms of performance. There are still annoying and immersion breaking bugs that I experienced in my attempt playing it in the Summer of 2019, two years after launch. The biggest complaint was when it came to the either unconvincing or unintentionally hilarious facial animations that made the original trilogy by comparison look more state of the art.
Now, of course because the original three were released between 2007 and 2012, some of the animation and models can look or are dated. But it is much more consistent and it is shocking how often I can forgive the slips-ups when they happened, which might have also been due to me giving more of a shit to boot.
It’s not just silly or stunted performances of character faces or how the eyes move or react to the surrounding environments like the infamous “My Face is Tired” woman who did receive an update to make her less…terrifying, but it just felt more obvious than ever that you weren’t looking at real people. Obviously, everyone in the original trilogy were not real too but the suspension of disbelief was much more in effect there than with Andromeda.
Maybe these bad facial and body animations would’ve been allowed more leeway if you know, the writing and characterization was up to at least the standard of past games, but it wasn’t. Very few if any of the characters came close to the original cast in terms of memorability or likability. The best characters were at least passable with a couple of standout moments.
Ryder, the new customizable protagonist to succeed Shepard was possibly the worst offender. He/she had a dialogue system that was closer to the Dragon Age system than the original trilogy’s Paragon/Renegade. Yes, that system was binary and the new “tone” system Ryder had was meant to address that. But it rarely registered into making one feel as if there were crafting a distinct character that could feel unique compared to someone else’s interpretation.
Most Ryders generally feel the same, no matter how the dialogue system was used and the deflating lack of consequential choices offered Ryder and the player, where more than ever the choices really did often feel like an illusion, added to the sameness if someone decided for whatever reason to get through Andromeda more than once.
The two areas where Andromeda actually did seem to offer a commendable sense of player agency was in one department Bioware Montreal did have both experience and time to work on and the other was something that had basically become a core tenet of Bioware overall: combat and romance.
With romance, Bioware Montreal was generally more adept at getting that down. Considering how awkward a romance system can be when done wrong, I figure the studio feared the negative reaction to that coming out as below-average as most everything else did. Some of the romance options for Ryder (that I’ve watched on Youtube) are actually quite convincing considering the game it’s part of and even crazier, the love scenes which are the most explicit in Bioware’s history, are not cringe-inducing. Again, it must have been Bioware realizing how much more scrutiny would come in those moments.
With combat, Andromeda hits a stride where the greater open-endedness of being in an open world environment allows Ryder to be far more versatile in how they traverse and shoot up enemies. Jumppacks, no locked behind cover system and the ability to speed through the area makes it a case of Andromeda actually innovating where otherwise it is recycling and regressing.
The problem is that Andromeda’s combat is tied to a narrative that never hooks you like any of the prior MEs, often involves checking off the stock, stale objectives of older RPG games or MMOs even and that again, the never really patched jankiness of how Andromeda plays gets in the way. Also, there is so much superfluous shit that gets in the way of Andromeda giving you something interesting, funny or dare I say it relevant.
As much as the individual members of Ryder’s team and the crew of the new ship the Tempest feel average at best alone, when they banter or communicate with one another and Ryder, that’s where you will best feel that sorely lacking Bioware magic and may even fool yourself into thinking you are actually experiencing the old Bioware. It’s those moments, often when you’re riding and listening to your squad’s chit-chat through the new all-terrain vehicle to replace ME1’s Mako, the Nomad, or are just walking and talking shop around the Tempest where you can almost forgive the whole thing. Almost.
Bioware followed the misstep of Mass Effect: Andromeda with a far greater misstep that honestly could’ve killed the studio: Anthem. Anthem was Bioware’s first new property since Dragon Age’s debut in 2009 and it was wasted on a transparent attempt to copy the same formula of games like Destiny and the Division.
I have never been able to categorize what kind of genre those games fall into and frankly I don’t want to bother discussing a game like Anthem that is antithetical to virtually every tenet of a Bioware game. Far be it from me to say a studio can’t do something starkly different than prior works. Guerilla Games, the Dutch developer of grim sci-fi military shooter Killzone blind-sided everyone with a successful new franchise in 2017’s Horizon: Zero Dawn that was color, tone and gameplay-wise the opposite of the earlier IP. The sequel, Forbidden West, coming next year is one of the hottest titles in the PS5’s future.
Of course, any game studio should play to their strengths or should be given the time to cultivate new ones. Bioware really was never given the chance to with Anthem and of course EA’s despotic interference with the creatives at Bioware and another rushed development cycle broke the chance for Bioware to expand into a new genre. Even then, even before Anthem’s shitsstorm launch, it was painfully apparent that all the components that me and many others had come to expect and hope for in a Bioware title were sorely missing.
Last year, at the Game Awards, Bioware showed off a teaser for the next, untitled Mass Effect. This is on top of the also-untitled fourth Dragon Age, which was announced seemingly forever ago with few concrete updates. Much like with Andromeda so that’s a great sign there. Due to the appearence of a dead Reaper in the background and a shot at the end which definitely showed Liara, all signs are pointing to this being Mass Effect 4.
So, yeah, we might be getting a follow-up to at least one outcome of Mass Effect 3 and with that comes the promise that yes, Shepard’s story isn’t quite over. It certainly won’t be over for their surviving circle of friends at least. There are so many ways Mass Effect 4 can go terribly wrong and so many ways it could actually go right. I’m expecting a “passing the torch” style narrative not dissimilar to The Legend of Korra, the Star Wars Sequel trilogy or the new slice of Gears of Wars, starting with 2016’s Gears of War 4.
That in and of itself, will be a tricky thing to pull off considering Korra is a consistently polarizing series in the Avatar fanbase and well, I need say not a thing about Episodes 7-9 that you don’t already know and are weary of being reminded of. It might come to pass that if the tentatively titled Mass Effect 4 falls apart like Andromeda, Bioware may resort to a complete reboot that must ignore much of the bottlenecking lore that the Reapers create or perhaps to echo a line Shepard can give to one of the new characters in Mass Effect 3, let old ghosts rest.
Let’s talk about Mass Effect 3 finally. I went through this pre-(post?)amble about Mass Effect and Bioware after ME3 mostly because it’s important to note that as much as Shepard’s (last?) chapter might leave you conflicted at best, it could be and was definitely worse in the end. If anything, it might highlight better where Mass Effect 3 shines.
Part 2: Point of No Return (the JMS Connection, authorial intent and expectations)
Video from Youtube (Episode III: Return of the Reapers)
Every time I arrive at playing Mass Effect 3, after I have played with a newly crafted Shepard from ME1 and ME2, I don’t enter it feeling “Aw hell, let’s get this over with” or “Should I really bother?” I’m actually excited, pumped to get going.
That’s because Mass Effect 3 always offers something satisfying, something amazing and most importantly, something thought-provoking. There is plenty to the final product of Mass Effect 3 that feels that against all odds, Bioware succeeded. They did indeed complete an incredible trilogy of interactive space sci-fi that will, as history has proven, continue to resonate well after the original run. Next Spring will be the tenth anniversary of ME3 and it will on some level feel like a milestone on the calendar as far as I’m concerned.
What always impresses me most about ME3 is that it is unrepentant about what it’s really about: tearing down the assumptions of not so much what Commander Shepard is as a custom-tailored space hero, but how it feels to be in control of that character. There are plenty of moments where you will feel like a badass, whether you be Paragon or Renegade. There are many more moments where you feel small, weak, behind the curve of an utterly pitiless nightmare you’re living through. But first, a word about Babylon 5.
Both franchises have a giant space station, it being the titular location for B5 and in ME’s case it’s the Citadel, as a major part of the narrative. Both stations are multicultural hubs for intergalactic culture and also act as a seat of interspecies political and ambassadorial authority.
Both series involve a darkly-textured, extremely dangerous menace that is ancient and almost unknowable in its whole intent. Babylon 5 had the Shadows, Mass Effect has the Reapers. Both stories involve the galactic community taking its sweet time coming to recognize how dire both threats are and both the Reapers and Shadows use indoctrination through agents that make the ability to fight them much more difficult.
In time, a big galactic war begins against the Shadows. Due to creator J. Michael Straczynski always fighting to ensure his five season planned vision of the series survived cancellation, he had to go to great lengths to rewrite the story to allow it to have either an earlier stopping point or a different conclusion that still reflected what he always intended.
The big war against the Shadows ends surprisingly early at around the mid-point of the fourth of five seasons. I was well expecting the Shadow War to conclude with the end of the show, much like how the war with the Reapers will end one way or another by ME3’s closing. I experienced Mass Effect first, having watched all of Babylon 5 for the first time with my parents earlier this year.
Obviously, my bias is in favor of Mass Effect’s take on the concept and If I’m being honest, B5 is a show I respect more than love for its ahead-of-its-time planned out, serialized storytelling and innovation with connecting with its audience through the internet that was unheard of in the 1990s.
It is rarely the best acted show with some performances almost consistently making me roll my eyes than not. I do feel really shitty insulting B5 in any way, not just because I know people that love it but because it’s legacy is quite a formidable thing indeed.
Getting back to its connection with Mass Effect, B5’s pretty abrupt (due to behind the scenes factors) resolution to the Shadows would be like if around the first to second act of Mass Effect 3 the Reapers were taken care of. Like that. Wouldn’t that feel weird as hell and even wrong? Again, Babylon 5 is hardly just about the Shadows, as there are many other narrative spinning plates the show had to deal with. The Shadows were easily the most interesting aspect (aside from a related human civil war) for me so seeing their sudden departure also made B5 a less compelling show going forward. Fans of the show I feel would begrudgingly side with me there as the final season is widely viewed as a mixed bag.
There are other major plot elements to Shepard’s trilogy including the Genophage and the conflict between the Quarians and Geth and by extension organic vs synthetic life, but those are very much intertwined with the Reapers and are also given proper resolutions in Mass Effect 3.
Part of the enduring reason for the conclusions for Mass Effect 3 being seen as “unsatisfying” even after the Extended Cut did much to improve matters was that there is no “golden ending” offered to the player. No way for all the hard work you put into not one but three games to lead to a finale where the sweet outweighs the bitter.
How Mass Effect 1 and 2 can conclude is partially responsible for this problem of expectation. Mass Effect1 will always involve you decisively defeating Saren and the Reaper Sovereign. You will always end that game with Shepard coming off the battlefield with victorious pride beaming in their face. You did it, great job, high five!
The endgame choice you make relates to a matter of moral prerogative. You are given the option to save the Citadel Council, who represent three important alien species. The whole game you have been trying to prove Shepard and by extension humanity’s worthiness in the galactic arena. The council is often dismissive, never takes your claims on the Reapers’ danger seriously and you even have the ability to rage-quit several meetings with them via hologram, if only to humorously tick them off.
Then, at the last hour, you are given the choice to save the Council during the final battle with help from Humanity’s space fleets. Doing so will save the Council and earn enduring respect in some form from the represented races. It comes at the cost of a lot of good men and women in the process.
Or, you can hold those ships back to face down Sovereign the reaper alone which in turn will result in the Council’s demise. There are two given reasons for Shepard’s choice to forsake the Council: cold pragmatism or pettiness. Either way, you do end the game on the note that Shepard and friends had a clear victory. For many, the paragon choice to save the Council was the Golden ending and choosing your mentor/father figure Captain Anderson (voiced by the great Keith David) to be Humanity’s councilor was the icing on the cake.
Mass Effect 2 is even more evident about offering a “golden ending”. As mentioned in the part about that game, it’s the result for the Suicide Mission where everyone makes it out of the mission alive, the Collectors are blown up and you cruise happily into ME3 having lost no one this go around.
Mass Effect 3 is explicit about the notion that you can’t save everyone and no one really takes issue with that at least. In the final war against the nearly invincible Reapers, it would make no sense for Shepard to again manage to keep everyone alive. The Collectors were minions of the true foe and that true foe will never let you off easy. The best case scenario of your over-time collection of friends and allies survival is to lose up to three of them.
I won’t mention the three common losses Shepard suffers, but again you cannot avoid it. Even without Shepard’s inevitable personal loss, Mass Effect 3 is all too happy to remind you that the best case scenario on a galactic scale still involves billions upon billions dying or worse being transformed into enemies you then face. Garrus eloquently confronts Shepard with this reality with the simple but brutal calculus that in the end “ten billion here will die, so twenty billion over there will survive.” You might be a badass space hero, but again, you are but one man or woman. Nothing can save them. The best you can do is make sure they didn’t die for nothing.
This is all before you reach the infamous “Catalyst” section that ends the trilogy. There are four base conclusions, with a fourth added in the Extended Cut to rub it in that you either use the three original endings or everyone you ever knew or love will die.
Each of the three color coded “solutions” offered Shepard give and take something from you. That perfect conclusion that was possible with the Suicide Mission, impossible here. In the interest of making this article have a more conclusive feel, I will detail and spoil the three catalyst choices at the end. I placed this point of discussion here early on to emphasize why fans felt and continue to feel bitter about there never being a totally happy possibility. It’s because Bioware nurtured that attitude with the earlier games and possibly didn’t do the best job of bracing their audience to that no longer being possible.
The three endings always having a catch do hurt me, as it was intended, but at the same time, it does do something right in the end that I’m glad Bioware stuck with. When you have a truly imposing antagonist like the Reapers, you shouldn’t have an easy way out in defeating them. In the end, it is respecting the power of the Reapers that the trilogy expertly built up that there is no easy victory possible. To do so would be to diminish them and would that in turn make the fans happy? I should hope not.
Once again echoing Babylon 5, Mass Effect 3 will end the trilogy even in the best of circumstances: In Fire.
Part 3: No Retreat, No Surrender (Party Members, Romance)
Video from Youtube (Wake up, get up, get out there.)
Let’s talk about who makes up the Commander’s party for the last run. Instead of 12 members like last time, it is reduced to 7. This is, in Bioware’s own words, to make Shepard’s last team feel more intimate, closer knit and it is thematically a wise, almost inevitable direction. Four of the members are veterans of the original game, returning for, in my best Dom Toretto voice “One last ride”. Three are new, with one of them actually being a character from ME2 I opted not to mention due to her becoming a party member: EDI, voiced by Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer.
EDI is in many ways the opposite interpretation of a Cylon like the ones Helfer played in the mostly acclaimed reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. The Cylons are the AI antagonists that attempt to drive their human creators to extinction. As the four season show progresses, a complexity to Human/Cylon relations cultivates.
BSG 2003 goes out of its way to present the Cylons as being exceptionally advanced, to the point that most are so convincingly human that there are a number of major characters who don’t even know they are Cylon. Overtime, the number of things the Cylons share with the Humans creates a rocky but eventually decisive connection: it is the uplifting message about humanity and a potential artificial intelligence’s sharing the world that almost makes up for the frustrating end to the show, that I do find much more unsatisfying than anything in ME3’s last hours.
The several Cylons that Tricia Helfer portrays represent both the danger and the potential of AI co-existence. One is a seductive femme fatale whose story arc has evolve into an overall decent person that comes to fall in love with the same guy she had as a mark.
EDI is never really treated in an ambiguous light. While much of the Normandy crew, including Shepard, can express misgivings about her due to the Mass Effect universe having a poor history with AI (the Geth namely), EDI is true to her word in being not just the Normandy’s resident assistant but in some perspectives becomes the Normandy itself.
It is the initially hostile relationship Joker the pilot has with EDI that helps reflect the growing dynamic she eventually shares with everyone living on the Normandy. EDI is always patient and is only ever remotely aggressive in a comic passive-aggressive way. Eventually, the circumstances of ME2’s suicide mission forces Joker to give more control of the Normandy over to her and she never betrays or goes against the crew like HAL from 2001.
Instead, against all odds, EDI comes to view each and every member of the crew of the ship, including AI-despising ones like Tali, as her crewmates. The care they give to her home and that the Normandy’s denizens come to recognize her utility helps her become a warm if ever formal figure. Joker himself begrudgingly also comes to like her by ME2′s end.
In ME3, right after the explosive opening to be discussed down the road, Shepard and crew make a stop at Mars to find information on the almost literal plot device that will be the only thing that can defeat the Reapers. However, Cerberus is also after that information and you first encounter The Illusive Man’s full on army that he deliberately hid from you.
One of the agents that is in the Archives is a Dr. Eva Core, named after one of TIM’s old flames from before he became all evil and stuff. I say “named” as that is actually a full blown AI that takes on a sexy body, either because the Illusive Man is still working through some past relationship issues or well, if a seductive female robot worked so well in BSG, why not here?
A fight with Dr. Core deactivates her but also seriously wounds either Kaidan or Ashley who escaped from Earth with you at the start of the Reaper invasion. Once Dr. Core is brought onboard the Normandy, EDI decides to hack the body for information on Cerberus, without the crew’s permission. It causes the Normandy to go haywire for a little bit and scares the hell out of Shepard and the crew but EDI’s initiative is ultimately entirely to their benefit.
That is definitely true for Joker, as not only can EDI act as his co-pilot more officially now, but well look at EDI’s picture again and tell me that a guy like Joker wouldn’t find something to appreciate. This leads into the most evident example of a romance happening not involving Shepard. For once, Shepard can be a wingman/woman to both Joker and EDI in getting them to have, in more ways than one, an unorthodox relationship.
The player can opt for Shepard to scuttle the relationship before it happens between the two and instead have them be just friends/co-workers. One of the endings for Mass Effect 3 can make Shepard’s decision to make the relationship happen feel like you committed an act of treachery. Possibly because it sort of is. EDI herself acts as a maypole for the series theme for if organic and artificial life can have a positive relationship, like with the Geth and Quarians.
That she is a party member and will have some kind of relationship with everyone’s favorite weak-boned pilot means that what she represents cannot ever be ignored. The most popular or to put it another way seen-through ending players have chosen for closing Mass Effect 3 and by extension the trilogy is the one which sacrifices EDI and by extension the Geth. That choice is perhaps related more to the player’s priorities than Shepard’s as there is a very personal, emotional reason that many including myself would be willing to go ahead with killing a genuine friend and newly benevolent race of machines. I’ll delve more into that conclusion of course, but I’ll give you a hint with Jaime Lannister’s infamous, immortal words from Game of Thrones:
“The things I do for Love.”
Now for someone completely new.
James Vega remains the most polarizing new addition to the Mass Effect cast in 3. He was specifically meant to be an audience surrogate for players who might choose ME3 as the first game they play. In practice, I think James actually works perfectly fine, never enough to make him a new favorite nor is he chosen often to accompany my Shepards out on the field, but still.
Freddy Prinze Jr voices the Hispanic hunk and does a fantastic job with the kind of role he has. You might know Prinze Jr. as being one of the textbook washed-out actors from the 1990s, though he has had a career revival in possibly the best place for such a thing: voice acting. Following ME3, Prinze Jr returned to Bioware to portray the even more muscular Iron Bull for Dragon Age: Inquisition. Fans were far kinder to Prinze Jr’s character there than before, some considering Iron Bull to be one of the best companions in the entire Dragon Age series.
Freddy Prinze Jr also struck gold for voicing youthful Jedi mentor Kanan in Star Wars Rebels. The point is, knowing where the actor was heading in his voice acting makes me respect his work with James for MassEffect 3 even more. The worst thing that Vega brings to the table is that he will (optionally) call Shepard by a nickname, “loco“, which does get on my nerves from time from time. But I did choose to let James call me that, didn’t I? His nickname for Femshep is far less grating maybe for how he says it, “Lola“.
Despite already having considerable and tragic to boot combat experience before the Reapers struck, James is meant to be the latecomer to Shepard’s story who gets to experience intergalactic politics and their infuriating complexity with front row seats. He’s also acts in some way as an apprentice with Shepard as their mentor. Considering Shepard is nearing the end of their tale, it does make narrative sense for James to be here.
That being said, is it really a surprise that, love or hate him, many like myself rarely pick him for fighting alongside Shepard? You have Shepard’s returning friends and possible love interests, you have a newly playable EDI and there is the significant new member to be discussed right after James. Like Kaidan, Ashley or Jacob, James is surrounded by others that are more interesting or have more history with the commander. That being said, with the possible exception of Kaidan, James is the odd man out that I would favor spending time with the most, so hey.
Javik was a risk of a character that in the end payed off immensely. He wasn’t a risk because as mentioned last time he was once only available shamelessly as a piece of DLC at launch, but because he’s part of a race that was thought to have been systematically wiped out or worse by the Reapers. And the Reapers are known for their pants-shitting efficiency.
He is the last surviving Prothean, recovered in a stasis pod by Shepard, Liara and the Normandy crew on the planet where it all began: Eden Prime. Against all odds, the technology of his time period has allowed him to survive 50,000 years into the future where no one else did. This is a small approximation of how Javik must have felt about making it, though unlike the below example, he did know of his intended destination.
More so than Captain America, who as of now, has always had a frozen down-time of under a century, Javik is utterly a being out of time. He is so uncomfortable with the fact he now exists in a period where all the lower species that were either once little more than cavemen or food, now control the galaxy he once had.
However, what gets him together is that he still has a purpose, one purpose, to kill the reapers, avenge his race. Unless Shepard intervenes later on, it is all he has to live for. When that is done…
Javik is the most apparent party member in the trilogy that I would call a renegade figure. He is ruthless in his advice for Shepard, only sees allies as tools for fighting the Reapers, no more no less. He has a hatred for synthetic life that is not entirely the fault of the Reapers devastating his time period. His attempts to interact or socialize with the rest of the Normandy crew is either cold advice for the battles to come or a whole lot of trolling.
Despite being the biggest jackass in Shepard’s entire lineup of squadmates, he is my favorite new addition to the team. Javik is only a jerk because he has known no other way to live. Hell, maybe his jerkass personality is the reason he thinks he made it that far to get frozen to the future.
Javik has lived the full nightmare of the Reaper’s harvest. He was part of the last generation of Protheans born in a hopeless war that had lasted for centuries. He was born with the knowledge that victory against the Reapers was impossible. Eventually, he and a million other surviving Prothean soldiers realized that maybe victory wasn’t impossible….50,000 years later.
Javik planned to have himself and that million of his people get frozen in stasis and re-emerge right before the Reapers would return, based on the cyclical nature of their invasions. They would force the civilizations of the new era to fall in line and prepare for the mother and father of all wars, or else. Sadly, his Reaper-transformed people, the Collectors, now hapless agents of the enemy, revealed their plan and the plan went from 1 million Protheans to the future to 600,000 to several hundred to ultimately just him.
All Javik can do is fight alongside the one person that has any hope to defeat his lifelong foe: Shepard. So long as Shepard never wavers from his commitment to defeating the Reapers or becomes indoctrinated, Javik will be satisfied. He will even stomach serving alongside the AI EDI, though he rarely fails to advise Shepard to, as has become meme-worthy, jettison her and eventually the returning Legion out the air-lock.
Before the Reapers, one of the subservient races under the dominating Prothean empire, the Zha, had created their own artificial intelligence, the Zha til. A brutal war was fought against the AI race that usurped their creators and the Protheans were going to win, but those big stupid bio-synthetic cuttlefish had to come and ruin everything.
As you may have surmised by my mention of a “subservient” race, the Reapers did not harden the Protheans’ hearts, they were already a douchey, conquering empire. Perhaps not every Prothean was as hardass as Javik as, again, the war made them colder than ever, but they were not the benevolent, inquisitive, decent folks that were heartlessly slaughtered by the Reapers that Liara had hoped.
You first met Liara in ME1 as she was exploring Prothean ruins. She has a near life-long interest in the departed civilization, especially due to the many tell-tale signs that her species the Asari had known the Protheans back in the day. Ancient aliens but for real. She is…disappointed that Javik’s anecdote and knowledge of his people means her observations came to the opposite conclusion of what she had hoped.
The relationship between Liara and Javik is one of the best in the game that doesn’t directly involve Shepard. Liara is trying both to find the Prothean she had hoped for in Javik and Javik in return wants to both instill in her the harsh truth while also having return her focus to the more pressing matter of avoiding extinction.
While it never really comes to pass like it can between Joker and EDI, the makings of a romance between the two is ever intriguing. This feels more possible as something that happens after the events of ME3, depending on Shepard talking down Javik from committing suicide when and if the Reapers are defeated and he survives the war. If Shepard plays his dialogue cards right, he can convince Javik to consider a post-war life dedicated either to living on the Hanar homeworld( where they believe Protheans are their Gods) or perhaps to travel with Liara through the galaxy, helping her write a book.
Who knows: maybe being around positive influences like a paragon Shepard, Liara and the less vengeance-minded members of the Normandy will soften his heart and maybe just maybe the Prothean and the Asari will find a reward for surviving and defeating the Reapers: happiness with each other.
Obviously, this is barring Shepard being and staying with Liara romantically and this is doubly true in the one scenario Shepard gets to experience a life after the Reapers. Well, if not Shepard or Javik, Liara could always see if her Drell partner Feron is still up to giving it a go. If Javik surviving the unsurvivable is proof that life finds a way, why not love?
For most players, Javik is fun to bring out and about due to his many often humorous observations on the galaxy compared to the galaxy of yesteryear. He is especially great to bring to missions that involve past party members that can’t journey with Shepard anymore or for critical Reaper lore-related missions, especially the mission on the Asari homeworld of Thessia.
Javik’s inclusion in that late-game mission makes it almost an entirely different experience tone-wise compared to anyone else that can come along. For at least your first playthrough of ME3, bring Javik along to Thessia. It will be worth it. Also, his deadpan sarcasm is just delicious in voice actor Ike Amedi’s Kenyan-like accent.
Now for your returning favorites.
Kaidan/Ashley: the Survivors of Virmire
You can and never will be able to get all six of your Mass Effect 1 party through alive. At the crucial battle against Saren on Virmire, either Kaidan goes or Ashley goes. They didn’t get to return to Shepard’s side in Mass Effect 2 due to Shepard’s uneasy alliance with Cerberus. Though they were dead right in that Cerberus is quite bad, they also come to realize that they were dead wrong about Shepard’s choice to be working with them against the Collectors.
By the start of Mass Effect 3, they are forced by the Reapers’ apocalyptic assault on Earth back into Shepard’s life. It seems at first that either Kaidan or Ashley will be one of the two starting party members for ME3 along with James, following the tradition of two human characters always being at the start. This is somewhat subverted in that they’re temporarily back in the party, much like how Captain turned Admiral Anderson, Shepard’s surrogate father essentially, is a temp member during the fight off Earth. Right up until Anderson makes the hard but wise decision to stay back and lead the resistance.
If you play your cards right or possibly wrong, it’s possible for Kaidan and Ashley to only ever be in Shepard’s team for the second mission occurring on Mars. In one of the best examples of consequence based on how the player uses the dialogue wheel in the trilogy, Shepard can subtly sow the seeds to several different outcomes to their relationship to the Virmire survivor (VS). Obviously, if you had a romance with either in ME1, this will be reflected in the tone of the still estranged rapport they share.
Following them being knocked out of commission by the robot that will eventually be EDI’s body, they are taken to a hospital on the Citadel where they make their recovery. It has irked me that when Shepard (optionally) visits either at the hospital right after you make it to the station the first time, the wonderful love theme ,”I was lost without You“, plays. Even though Shepard’s words to the comatose Ashley/Kaidan can be made to infer he sees them as either a friend or a good comrade-in-arms, the romantic soundtrack makes it seem that no matter your build of Shepard, they can’t help but harbor loving emotion for the VS.
This is especially weird when Femshep is talking to a conked out Ashley, as under no circumstances can that combination get romantic. All the other variables can involve either a rekindled romance or a brand new one down the road, but if I have a commitment to keeping my Shepard’s love story with Tali or Garrus going( as I always do playing a straight Shepard), this feels…wrong. Of course, it leaves the door open to players who might be considering Ashley or Kaidan for a first time relationship but my point stands.
When I play Shepard male and gay, I always opt for one of the two choices: newcomer to be discussed later Steve or Kaidan. Due to Kaidan’s history with Shepard spanning three games, it always makes more sense for my gay Shepard to go with Kaidan.
There is something very heartwarming about the scenario I’ve been describing playing out with a Shepard who has had no relationships thus far due to his orientation and now, seeing this man he has grown to slowly care about, now clinging for life on a hospital bed, talk to him with encouraging words that are as applicable to speaking with a person you care for as a friend, brother from another mother as you would someone you want more from.
Eventually, a major development in the plot thrusts Shepard and the VS back together and one of three scenarios will play out. Due to the stressful circumstances, Shepard can be in a position where they can actually shoot and kill Kaidan or Ashley. You can either show great remorse or borderline sociopathic lack of caring in doing so based on the pre-established morality path or how they went about gunning them down.
However, and this will probably be the case for most players, Kaidan or Ashley will survive that Space Mexican stand-off and will later be waiting next to the shuttle door to the Normandy. If you were unrepentantly antagonistic towards the VS in both ME2 and the first half of ME3, they will grimly decline to rejoin the Normandy. Because they got bad blood. Hey.
Or, if you were more conciliatory, friendly or dare I say it loving earlier on, they will be gnawing at the bit to get back with the crew and will be a little heartbroken if you decline them, though you are rewarded with them becoming a war asset( more on that system later). For most completionist players, those genuinely interested in their return or have plans to fully romance them, Shepard gratefully welcomes them back.
In terms of combat, Kaidan is more fun to bring than Ashley. Ash is a straight up soldier in her abilities and that of course is reflective of the character. Kaidan’s class is a Sentinel, a biotic but with skills that reflect both tech and soldier backgrounds. He is very well-rounded ability-wise, perhaps to make up for him seeming like a more average biotic character in the first game.
Liara, Garrus and Tali: To the End of the Line
In a certain lens, Liara is actually the third party member to have Shepard’s back in all three games. She is responsible for getting Shepard’s remains to Cerberus before the Collectors and she is a temporary member of the party in ME2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker. It once again reinforces Bioware’s bias in favor of the character and to be more charitable to her use in the trilogy, it was perhaps necessary for one major non-Shepard individual to survive no matter what through the course of the trilogy. Liara is only vulnerable at the very end if you have rushed your way to the finish line.
Having some kind of constant in Shepard’s life, no matter how malleable Shepard can make their life is important. It is perhaps due to the consistency of Liara’s presence and how she is all but committed to Shepard no matter what that speaks a lot to what is so desirable about her to so many people as a love interest.
Liara as a love interest only feels appealing to me based on certain circumstances that you really have to work for. The minimum number of party members you can have in ME3 are three: if you never recover Javik from his slumber, you get Kaidan or Ashley killed before recruiting them again( or they contemptuously refuse to come back) and Garrus & Tali did not survive the suicide mission (painful requirements there). All you will have is James, EDI and Liara. Liara is the only long term character that will accompany you into battle in that scenario.
From that perspective, if all else are dead and you don’t wish to romance the two new non-party member LIs aboard the Normandy, all that’s left is Liara. You, of course can decline all love, but with the pain Shepard has endured from just losing all those teammates, having Shepard come back to love with Liara or more powerfully, fall in love for the first time with her can be quite a thing.
As it was in the first two games, there is a moment where Shepard and their lover will go to the captain’s quarters for possibly one last night together. You can decline a night to remember, this time without killing the relationship at least, but come on, are you seriously not going to go through with it by that point?
Due to them being love interests since the first game, Kaidan, Ashley and Liara get romance scenes that last longer than the other love interests aboard the Normandy (Samantha, Steve, Garrus and Tali). I do get it, but at the same time, I wish Garrus and Tali had had scenes as lengthy as the three mentioned above because even if they were not romantically connected in the first game, they were still there for Shepard since the first journey. They have enough history to earn that moment with the Commander.
It’s not the part where Shepard and the LI start getting busy in the sheets that makes those moments so beautiful. The PG-13 love scenes are actually kinda hokey looking, especially involving Shepard with Kaidan or Ashley( never taking off the nightwear is kinda part of the problem).
It is the talk that happens before the whoopie (might) begin that is where the heart of the moment happens. The best ones involve Kaidan with Shepard of either sex or Liara. Ashley’s kinda puts me off due to that sequence involving one too many moments of the couple saying “I love you”, when one would have sufficed.
Liara’s in particular stands out despite me never preferring her pairing with Shepard barring that extreme scenario I mentioned earlier. It is a moment that would feel just as perfect with the other love interests: Shepard and Liara holding hands lying on the bed, looking at the skywindow above Shepard’s quarters, staring out at the stars, thinking that maybe just maybe, there is a place out there where they could truly hide from the reapers and live a good life.
Below is the outstanding love theme for Mass Effect 3, the best of the trilogy. I enjoy the moments with the melancholic, reflective piano more then the part with the snyth that signifies that talking is done and it’s time for some loving action. Hell, If I could find a version of this track with just the piano, I would buy it in a heartbeat.
Video from Youtube (Composer Sam Hulick claims this was his favorite track to record, or so I hear)
Garrus and Tali’s shorter scenes are given weight through their romances being so great altogether and by what they discuss with Shepard the morning after.
Garrus as a character arc has new responsibility thrust upon him before meeting up with Shepard. Due to him being the one Turian in the galaxy with any experience fighting anything Reaper-related, he has become an advisor for the defense of his homeworld of Palavan. The Turians have the best military in the galaxy and it is barely keeping the Reapers from curb-stomping them.
Once again, Garrus departs to be with Shepard while still assisting with military matters relating to his race’s fight for survival. No matter what, romance or no romance, nothing can and will keep Shepard and Vakarian apart.
Replaying Mass Effect 3 with my Femshep and romancing Garrus, I came to recognize that I don’t have the same enthusiasm in that pairing as I do with my male Shepard and Tali. It could be a reflection of me being a straight man, but I feel more earnestly about making the latter pairing as happy as I can and dreading the many scenarios that will force the two apart for good.
Just because I don’t have the same emotional connection to my pairing of Garrus and Femshep that I do for my MaleShep and Tali doesn’t mean I can’t immensely respect how Bioware handled it. As I surmised in the second part, the Shepard/Garrus romance is mostly the same as a friendship, just with more to it. It reflects that almost no matter what, these two are meant to be together in some way.
Many have interpreted the romances possible in Mass Effect 2 as Shepard and their possible lover not exactly falling in love wholly. It’s either a case of hooking up right before potential death or a “friends with benefits” kind of deal. For the most part Femshep and Garrus’ romance in ME2 really is that, with the lingering potential of it growing into more if they survive the Collector Base.
Mass Effect 3 is where you get to decide if your Shepard truly loves the returning love interest, in this instance Garrus. I will admit, while my straight male Shepard was steadfast with no temptation to ever be with anyone other than Tali, I did wonder if perhaps my Femshep would be better suited to Kaidan, Liara or newcomer Samantha. Did I really think Garrus is her love of her life?
But certain moments with Garrus reminded me that it in the end, the Femshep I had shaped would love Garrus. Garrus has never turned on her, has always been there for her. She in return never turned her back on him. They’ve seen so much, experienced so much and can’t imagine their lives apart. Also, having Shepard fall in love with someone with less obvious attractive features tracks well with a woman like Shepard who stands apart from everyone else.
Maybe the most out of all the love interests, Garrus and Femshep is a tribute to blossomed trust, commitment and that not every romantic relationship need be borne out of sexual or romantic attraction. Sometimes, those attributes can come after the fact.
That being said, I am more willing to let my Femshep make the ultimate sacrifice and let Garrus go in the end than I could with Shepard and Tali. Maybe it’s because I think Shepard knows Garrus can bear that parting better than Tali could. Doesn’t mean that Garrus and Shepard’s possible last moment together doesn’t make me choke up somewhat.
Now let’s talk about Shepard and Tali. Oh man, here I go.
I cannot truly bring myself to agree even begrudgingly with the haters of Mass Effect 3 mostly for the fact that this is the game that has the real love story between what is possibly my favorite video game couple. As brought up earlier, Mass Effect 2 either offers a fling or the potential for something to grow overtime. Mass Effect 3 is the payoff and here they genuinely delivered.
As Garrus grows into a bigger role due to the dark circumstances of the galaxy, so does Tali. She is made an admiral in her fleet, replacing her father. Due to her bad experiences as a leader in Mass Effect 2, she is certainly not comfortable with the role. even more so as she dragged into a war she doesn’t want. Not against the Reapers, but the Geth.
Right as the Reapers launch their galactic invasion, so do the Quarians foolishly decide to assault the Geth to take back their homeworld of Rannoch. Even without the timing being just horrible, it also plays into the Reaper’s hands. The scared Geth run to the Reapers for help and upgrade them to give themselves a chance against their creators.
Thankfully, Shepard and Tali have a mediator that can help end not just the new conflict between both species, but could well spell the birth of a new paradigm in organic-synthetic relations: our robobro Legion! Assuming you didn’t sell it to Cerberus or it died fighting the Collectors of course.
More so than the curing the Genophage arc that can involve Wrex and Mordin, the arc with Rannoch definitely ties into one of the essential themes the controversial endings pose: can we co-exist peacefully with artificial life and how can that be seen through?
It is with earlier decisions you make with Legion and Tali in Mass Effect 2 and especially how you parse your words here in Mass Effect 3 that you get to mold your Shepard’s very much life or death viewpoint. Much like how Garrus and Shepard’s relationship is a matter of true trust, getting the best possible outcome with how the Geth and Quarian conflict resolves is a matter of how you treat Legion.
Legion does give Shepard many moments to ponder whether he/it/they should be trusted. Legion not sharing some information earlier than it should. It thinking that maybe the Code the Reapers give to upgrade it’s people would be of benefit instead of detriment. Shepard placing faith in Legion even when you might be compelled otherwise will be far more impactful than you first realize. It’s not just stating an opinion, it’s laying the groundwork for avoiding a scenario where no one ends up happy.
Eventually, Shepard, Legion and Tali’s fight against the Reaper controlled Geth on Rannoch culminates in one of the most epic missions in the series. First a fight through the main Geth base with bitching music playing in the background. Then, you discover that the base is being controlled by a full on Reaper itself. It emerges from its hole underground and starts chasing your ass.
Eventually, the Quarian Migrant Fleet above fires down upon it, giving the reaper pause. In most playthroughs, namely the ones that do not involve a Shepard/Tali romance, Shepard gets out of the escape vehicle, decides to sync up their gun as a targeting laser so the entire Quarian fleet will rain death down upon the Reaper. In these instances, if Legion is alive, they will say to the Commander simply good luck, but in an endearing way. Then it’s boss battle time.
However, if you’re romancing Tali, the atmosphere of the scene changes dramatically. Shepard still gets out of the vehicle, gets his gun synced up with the fleet, ready to directly kick a Reaper’s ass for once. But a certain exchange occurs between the two that I will deign not to spoil because hey, I would like it to be as freshly impactful for yourself as it was for me. I might have internally fangirled harder here than I have at any other point in my life.
So, following the battle against the Reaper, you then have to make a choice with regards to the Reaper Code and Legion’s use of it. On the one hand, the Geth will be more powerful without any Reaper control whatsoever and that will be a definite asset in the battles to come.
However, the Quarian fleet is about to recommence their attack on the Geth fleet after downing the Reaper and if the Geth are fully armed & operational and if they attack their creators in self defense at that certain moment, well… I’ll just let the music exclusive to the scenario where you side with the Geth play.
The moment is brutal if you aren’t romancing Tali. It’s brutal if Tali isn’t alive to see the horror that occurs in this sequence. It’s downright sadomasochistic if you are romancing Tali and let this moment happen. I have only watched this scene online and never had it happen while playing it. And I never will.
There are only two other moments in Mass Effect 3 that will make you feel as emotionally devastated. Both involve Mordin and Wrex in relation to the Genophage Cure and you will feel like the biggest son of a bitch if you go through with two despicable acts of betrayal against them.
If you side with the Quarians over the Geth, it’s not much better and is just as cruel a moment to witness though I can’t say I wince in quite the same way as the alternative. But I do wince.
But in the event you wisely broker peace, Tali stays aboard the Normandy and is the last member of the squad to join up in Mass Effect 3, assuming you still haven’t woken up Javik. If not romanced, Tali stays as your ever friendly Quarian friend and if Garrus is alive and also not romanced, the two end up together at the end. Awww.
If you have her in Shepard’s heart, Tali gives him a gift back in his cabin and it’s a picture of her unmasked. Finally! But the original photo used for Tali was immensely disappointing, mostly due to it being a lazy photoshop of some real person off the internet with some alien characteristics added. I just quietly accepted it and thought well, my Shepard didn’t fall for what she actually looks like in the first place and that’s part of what’s so affecting anyway.
In one of the best revisions I can think of in any Remastered Edition of a video game, Bioware did correct this in the Legendary Edition by giving us a new built-in-house photo of Tali that doesn’t play up her sex appeal unmasked and makes the whole thing more heartfelt as an expression of love on her part for Shepard.
So, eventually, inevitably, we reach the climax of the game and here is where my priorities with two fictional entities having a shadow of a chance of a happy ending gets in the way of the again pragmatic reasons for Shepard’s endgame choice to be elaborated on later.
But, like the final encounter Shepard can have with Garrus or any lover in the party, Tali’s last moment with Shepard…is just hard to avoid tearing up at. Sure, there is a way for those two to (offscreen) reunite after it all ends. But chances are good this is the end. Hear their hearts burst again.
Well. I just made myself sad. Well, don’t worry, there’s plenty of other romance options that you don’t have to tearfully say goodbye to right before the end. Let’s start with the two that are fresh new members of the Normandy’s crew.
Samantha Traynor and Steve Cortez: A gay old time (Also, all the other LIs)
Mass Effect 3 is not the first Bioware game to have gay love options. It certainly felt that way back in 2012 and if you can believe it, it was seen as controversial. A lot of the reasons are not reasons that would hold up at all in 2021 and I’m not entirely certain the rest are good either. As mentioned in an earlier part, Bioware had planned a lesbian romance option in a Star Wars game, the first Knights of the Old Republic.
With the recent announcement of a top to bottom remake for the first KOTOR, it now seems perfectly likely that the intended to be gay character of Juhani will be romanceable by a female protagonist. Still, consider the boldness of Bioware at least trying for a gay romance option in a Star Wars game in 2003. Liara, due to the particulars of her being a mono-gendered alien species, was a loophole Bioware used to get essentially a lesbian romance option in the first Mass Effect. Was that controversial? Of course, but more for the supposed explicitness of the love scenes, which really weren’t at all.
The first Bioware game to have unambiguous gay options was Dragon Age: Origins, where there was the Bard/Archer/Assassin Leliana and the Inigo Montoya-sounding elf assassin Zevran, the most Latin Lover elf you will ever bear witness to.
A male DA1 protagonist can romance Zevran and a female protagonist can romance Leliana. Oddly enough, I don’t remember there being any outrage about that game’s inclusion of LGBT characters. Maybe because those two can also be romanced by the other sex as well. Bisexuality as a solution in allowing inclusion would continue into Dragon Age II, where all of the romances save one were romanceable by the protagonist Hawke of either sex. Mass Effect 2 kinda had a bisexual option in the Normandy’s yeoman Kelly Chambers, but there is disagreement over whether she is a true romance option or not.
Mass Effect 3 was the first game, possibly anywhere I can remember, that had exclusively gay love interests. Maybe it was that distinction that made the difference. Who knows? Are they good options for a gay Commander Shepard? Yes, I’d say so.
Samantha Traynor is the comms officer and data analyst for the Normandy SR-2 following it entering Alliance hands after Cerberus. She, along with Steve, were never intended to be full time crew members for the ship, but the Reapers beginning their genocidal harvest on Earth has a way of changing plans.
She serves in the same role as Kelly as the person who notifies Shepard about messages and people around the ship who need the Commander’s attention. However, she has a larger role than Kelly, perhaps to offset her falling into the lazy convention of the female crew member being designated to the bridge alone, often called the “bridge bunny.” She is also a code cracker, being able to alert Shepard to special missions that only come out of her initiative, and is responsible for Shepard being able to save a returning Jacob and Jack from a pretty awful fate.
She also assists in improving the Normandy’s targeting and diagnostics settings alongside EDI, making her a much more productive member of the crew. She grows from a shrinking violet who suddenly finds herself surrounded by modern legends, let alone Shepard, to becoming an experienced, confident young woman who is very much at home on the Normandy crew. Her story arc is one of the sweeter ones, whether or not Femshep goes beyond being just a friend to her.
Steve Cortez was originally just the guy overseeing the retrofits for the Normandy’s hanger bay, but again, the flight from Earth drastically changes his role, makes him arguably one of the most important figures in the entire war: being the guy who gets Shepard and their squad to the battlefield. In a scenario where the Reapers are defeated or neutralized, the galaxy owes just as much a debt to one Steve Cortez as they do Shepard, though the entire Normandy crew should get the same treatment as four hobbits from Middle-Earth in that event.
Anyway, aside from being the impromptu shuttle pilot for the Normandy SR-2, he also makes himself the requisitions officer, so Shepard can buy stuff at a mark-up price when not on the Citadel and also manages the armory as co-quartermaster alongside James. Those two have a back and forth that makes it fun just to visit the hanger deck on the off-chance they jokingly bicker at each other.
Unlike Samantha, who has in truth very little baggage aside from uncertainty on the status of her parents, Steve is a grieving widower to his husband, who he lost to the Collectors during the events of Mass Effect2. Shepard can optionally hang out with Steve and help him move on from his grief, and this is accomplished quite well even if you never intend to romance him. Otherwise, it would be impossible for Femshep to help him out.
Getting Steve to move on from his sad past actually saves his life during the final battle against the Reapers on London, Earth. If not helped emotionally, Steve dies ironically in the place he was most useful: his shuttle. Considering the tendency I have to interact with the Normandy crew as much as I can, it is actually hard not to become Steve’s friend and ensure his survival, barring you rushing through the game or letting the Reapers win in the end.
Some have complained that Steve being a love option is awkward due to him being a man grieving his love’s death, when that was the same reason Kasumi wasn’t romanceable in Mass Effect 2 and still isn’t in Mass Effect 3 (though Kasumi would be willing to make an exception for Jacob). I think it’s fine, Bioware wanted to give players, gay or otherwise, a homosexual love interest for Shepard and I think the execution of the romance is done well.
Samantha as a love interest also works. She is one of the few love interests in the series that does not have any real personal issues. This works due to both being refreshing to have by the third game and also acts as contrast to Shepard and her mountainful of shit she must work through from the war alone.
In a time where the fate of sentient life hangs in the balance, Femshep finding happiness in someone that is basically normal and uncomplicated makes sense. Of course, Shepard falling for her means that now she must also worry for Samantha’s safety, but her being almost entirely on the ship during the course of the game means she is possibly one of the safest characters period. Only certain outcomes to the game’s end puts her in any real danger.
I must also commend Bioware on the visual execution of both Samantha and Steve. It’s somewhat apparent that both characters didn’t have a face model based off of them, they were crafted in the model creator that fuels most of the human NPCs. That being said, them not looking overly attractive or sexed up adds to them having a feeling of naturalness. This is particularly potent as Shepard, a character whose default appearences are super attractive, can find love in someone who wouldn’t necessarily be a neck-turner.
So yes, Mass Effect 3, the first Bioware game to have completely gay characters for Shepard to fall in love with work. They are not given any stereotypical affectations, like the flamboyant but still well written, well-layered Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition. Samantha is mostly more feminine than the cliché “butch” archetype and you would not know Steve was gay until he told you so. This is great considering ME3 was one of the first video games to push this progressive message back then.
The other love interests barring a news reporter you can bring aboard the Normandy (and she is really only available for a one night stand), are the returning love interests from Mass Effect 2. They can not rejoin your squad as they have their own work to deal with outside the confines of the Normandy.
Miranda, having defected from Cerberus, is a woman constantly on the run. She is both trying to outlast and hinder the Illusive Man and his plans while also making sure her dear sister Oriana is still safe. In the few moments that she and Shepard can meet up, she comes to apologize for a hypocritical plan she almost put in motion: to have a control chip placed in Shepard’s head to keep them firmly in Cerberus’s command. Ironically, Martin Sheen’s TIM himself was the one that talked down Miranda.
Considering she fled her evil father for more or less the same reasons, Miranda is torn up about it, whether her or Shepard are in a relationship or not. I was never a fan of Shepard and Miranda being together though I can see why some do like the pairing. Not being capable of being back in Shepard’s team for ME3 is part of the reason it’s not easy to choose someone other than Garrus and Tali for Shepard’s heart.
At least Miranda’s storyline culminates in a late game mission where you get to meet her father and learn that if anything she might have been understating how deplorable he is as a person. As for Jacob, his return and development is quite heartwarming and surprisingly deep if you didn’t romance him and kinda messed if you did.
Not the biggest problem considering Jacob might be the least romanced figure in the series. For those who did stick with Jacob going into ME3, it can be quite a jolt to learn that he has moved on in the six month interim to another woman, Dr. Brynn Cole, a fellow Cerberus defector trying to get a whole bunch of like-minded fellows away from Sheen’s hands.
The Citadel DLC adds a moment where when meeting Jacob for a day out on the town, a once romanced Femshep can slap him for what he did. Jacob does feel like he deserved it, but on the other hand, his affections for Dr. Cole are genuine. Jacob sees in Brynn an opportunity he thought he was never going to get while facing dire odds under Cerberus and Shepard: a family life.
He wants to be a far better father than his own, and his commitment is strong enough that he politely declines returning to the Normandy. When you don’t romance Jacob or can’t in MaleShepard’s case, Jacob’s story arc is great.
Jack probably has the best not returning party member romance. She has a great redesign for her character, has become a rough on the outside, tender on the inside teacher to a bunch of biotic students and has certainly become a better person for everyone who isn’t in Cerberus. Her long-distance relationship with Shepard is given the most work and attention and that’s more evident in the extra screentime her love story with Shepard has in the Citadel DLC. I mentioned that if there was anyone else that a male Shepard of mine would romance that wasn’t Tali, it would be either Kaidan or her.
Thane’s fate is set in stone, should he survive the suicide mission. Many fans wanted there to be an optional storyline where players could get Thane a cure for his terminal illness, which in turn would make it possible to return to Shepard’s crew, especially to get back to his “siha.” I admit, I would’ve liked a possible scenario where Thane could’ve made it but having Thane be beyond saving was the point.
Aside from there needing to be party members in Mass Effect 3 that must die to reinforce that the Commander could not save everyone in their life, Thane actually serves a greater purpose in ME3 than he does in ME2. Aside from being a romance option for Femshep and being able to upgrade the Normandy’s probe supply, Thane doesn’t bring a whole lot to the party during the suicide mission. He’s not a tech specialist, not good for leading the second team apart from Shepard’s and he is not a strong enough biotic for a section that requires a great biotic. Also, he’s dying slowly but surely. How much can he really offer Shepard in utility for ME3?
Well, how about protecting the Salarian councilor’s life during a huge battle against Cerberus on the Citadel? All while confronting the Illusive Man’s smug as f**k hitman?
Thane’s heroic defense of the councilor will lead to a katana through the chest that accelerates the fatal diagnosis he has. If Thane isn’t alive for ME3, another fan-favorite character will take the killing blow, much to Shepard’s surprise and horror. If that character is also dead, well, let’s say the councilor is in some serious shit.
Don’t worry, in spite of the many things Kai Leng does to make both Shepard and the player yell “oh, come on!”, his eventual fate by your hand is one of the most satisfying things you can do in the entire series.
Thane knew he never had a chance at survival and was perfectly alright with it. He only ever expresses fear of death if he falls in love with a female Shepard and she falls in love in return. Still, he leaves this life and maybe enters a new one like an absolute champ. Never having been the biggest fan of Thane, his departure and subsequent memorial given to him in the Citadel DLC is some of the most emotional stuff in the trilogy.
Many still think Bioware did Thane wrong by making him incapable of saving. This arc works if you remember that survival was never the point of Thane’s narrative. Never the takeaway of who he was supposed to be to Shepard. As a friend, a comrade in arms or a lover, Thane was meant to be a man who in his last months of life actually lived after living a life in which he mostly did not. Rest in peace.
Part 4: The Wheel of Fire (all the other characters, the story, DLC, endings and final thoughts)
The other surviving party members can be summed up as such.
Wrex and Mordin as talked about earlier are the essential players in the “Genophage Cure” arc alongside Eve, a female Krogan whose newfound fertility can mean that the once elusive cure is now feasible. Giving the Krogan the ability to breed again is essential as it means securing a once impossible alliance between that species and the rest of the galaxy against the Reapers. Aside from the Geth, there is no better class of ground troop than a Krogan and they will be invaluable long term in facing off the Reaper’s more conventional forces.
I already mentioned the stomach churning betrayals you can commit against both Mordin and Wrex, but actually preventing the Genophage cure can be both a pragmatic and even ethical thing to pull off under different circumstances. If Wrex died in ME1, his brother Wreav will take his place and he is very much the wrong Krogan at the wrong place at the wrong time in the event of a cure being undertaken.
He represents the worst traits of his people and only the more open-minded, not bloodthirsty Eve being around to be a fail-safe against him is the only way letting the cure happen here seem right. However, if Eve doesn’t survive the process of making a cure, (which is where Maelon’s blood-soaked research becomes a net positive), you can actually allow Mordin to survive and avoid a terrible backstab by Shepard’s hands and be convinced that at least, the cure can be postponed.
Mordin will fake his death as well as the cure being implemented and Wreav will be too dumb to realize he’s been duped. He will covertly join the team underseeing the Crucible’s construction and you will be able to also secure the assistance of the Krogan, Turians and the cure-hating Salarians in one fell swoop. And all it will cost you is the survival of one beloved Krogan teammate from the first game and a likable new Krogan character. Essentially, it’s a trade: do you want Wrex to live or Mordin?
Speaking of Krogan, there’s also Grunt. He’s not nearly as important as Wrex, but the circumstances of his place in ME3 can still be meaningful. If he survived the suicide mission and was loyal, his mission involving the returning Rachni species can actually give you a fake out heroic last stand. When I first played Mass Effect 3, despite having gotten his loyalty last time, I thought I was in for the first of many sad goodbyes for my crew.
However, a loyal Grunt will make it out of that Aliens inspired mission and will have a very humorous part to play in the already humorous Citadel DLC. You even get to have a cute Cowboy Bebop reference. There’s not much more to Grunt in ME3. If you have his loyalty, he has gained honor among his people by having a respected battlemaster in Shepard and further proved his worth by leading his own team of Krogan. He happily fights the Reapers going forward and it’s implied that he will be one of the few characters in the series who will be satisfied no matter the outcome of the war, just like with the Suicide Mission. In the end, Shepard more than delivered in fulfilling his purpose in life.
Samara’s return ties in with an introduction to one of the most unsettling and toughest enemies in the trilogy: the banshees. Basically, Reaper-transformed Asari where all the sexual aspects of that race are played for straight up horror. Like their name implies, they have a horrific screech which is certainly intended as a demoralizing weapon, not unlike the scream of the Nazgul. What’s worse is that after you kill them, they release one last screech to unsettle you even in victory.
Even with upgraded weapons and abilities, Banshees take awhile to down and if they get too close which is not hard for them on behalf of their teleporting ability, they can one-shot Shepard just like that, not dissimilar to the Cerberus Phantom unit. Depending on your difficulty, banshees are either one of the scariest or most annoying foes Shepard and friends will ever face. The nature of the banshees makes Samara’s mission almost akin to Resident Evil IN SPACE.
It should be noted that all the missions detailing a returning party member will be available even if they aren’t alive to be there. Aside from the replay value due to the member’s absence, there is almost always a consequence. No Jack means that not all of the named biotic students will survive that mission. No Grunt means that the leader of the Krogan squad in his place is doomed to die. Basically, those missions always come with less of a sense of victory because Shepard wasn’t careful enough to keep useful allies alive down the road.
Samara’s possible death in ME2 does involve a difference in the mission where she normally is present, a monastery for Asari who are Ardat-Yakshi, the same succubus-like beings as her daughter Morinth. Obviously, the Reapers can see the value in turning those into weapons.
While I believe you can more or less have a very similar outcome to that mission without Samara, her absence removes one of the more potentially startling moments in the trilogy. A moment where we witness the end result of her Justicar code’s absolutism. You can prevent a really disturbing, sad moment from playing out, but still. It goes to show that deaths in the suicide mission doesn’t just mean losing characters you might care for, but missing out on the fullest extent of future content to boot.
The two remaining characters are the DLC members of Mass Effect 2: Zaeed and Kasumi. Assuming they survived, they return in the form of side quests that involve running around the Citadel, the only hub area in the game aside from the Normandy.
Zaeed’s story ties in with a returning minor character from ME1 and Kasumi’s is actually quite consequential for a couple of species’ fates. It also features a cool as hell reference or two to Alan Moore’s Watchmen of all things. Like the fate of Grunt, having Zaeed and Kasumi’s loyalty will also determine their survival as well. I do wish more of ME2’s party could’ve returned to Shepard’s side, but Bioware wanted a more focused, intimate group of characters for the Commander’s last journey. I would’ve gotten a kick out of Robin Sach’s Zaeed rejoining the team, but here we are.
I have mentioned rather irregularly many of the main plot beats of Mass Effect 3 from the opening hours involving the escape from Earth, the mission on Mars, recruiting Javik, re-recruiting Garrus, Tali, and the VS, as well as the major acts surrounding curing(?) the Genophage and resolving one way or another the Quarian and Geth dilemma. After the…discussed to say the least conclusion of ME3, Bioware released three major pieces of DLC to further highlight the narrative background both of the Reaper War you take part of and to just give you more time with the characters you’ve come to know and love.
For whatever reason, Mass Effect 3’s length without the DLC additions often feels short. It could be that Mass Effect 2 was so big even without its DLC or maybe it was Bioware having some truly great pacing, but I always felt that the conclusion to Commander Shepard’s story wrapped up faster than it should. Unlike the still great DLC additions that made ME2 feel at times bloated, ME3’s DLC makes the length feel more appropriate, more satisfying in terms of content for a single playthrough.
The first addition was Leviathan, released several months after the original game release and I think a month after the Extended Cut. Like the EC, it was meant to give more clarification to the nature of the Reapers, so the contended options to defeating them at the end would make more sense. A better context to what exactly the Reapers’ purpose is.
Many would say that content like Leviathan should’ve been in the game in the first place like with Javik and the mission that accompanies him. The structure of Leviathan feels both stand-alone yet still part of ME3’s narrative, as it should be. What is frustrating about all three of the story expansions is that their placement in the finely tuned narrative direction is hard to figure for the most part. Like ME2’s Arrival, certain expansions on modern versions like the Legendary Edition are made available to the player well before they should be experienced.
Omega, the second DLC about helping Carrie Ann Moss’ Aria take back her criminal empire home of the same name from Cerberus, is easiest to position for placement. I like to play Omega first, soon after the Cerberus coup attempt on the Citadel. Your Shepard should’ve leveled up enough by then and there is a real sense of necessity to it happening right after the Citadel siege, due to it feeling like Shepard is directly getting back at Cerberus after that brazen attack.
Leviathan should be played second, right after the tragic mission on Liara’s homeworld of Thessia. That mission’s outcome is among the darkest in the trilogy and one of the few times Shepard and his crew look and feel broken or nearly so from the result. Some of the best interpersonal drama occurs onboard the Normandy in its aftermath.
Much like taking the battle to Cerberus at Omega, the Reaper history-based Leviathan DLC feels appropriate after Thessia due to Shepard not only learning more than they ever had about their terrible enemy but that there’s an entity out there that can kill them easier than they can. And that contrary to the reaper Sovereign’s claims in Mass Effect 1, they had a beginning and now more than ever, they can have an end.
Leviathan is a mystery that takes Shepard on an investigation based hunt that culminates in one unique as hell encounter with the titular entities. It might in truth contain some of the best content to justify some kind of plot thread for the recently announced in all but name Mass Effect 4.
Omega is both a relative deep dive into the confident and cold Asari crime boss Aria and her connection with an old flame, Nyreen, a female Turian who has been leading a guerilla war against the Cerberus occupation. She is the first female Turian ever seen ingame and also acts as proof that even Aria is not without a soft, romantic side, though she would be loathe to openly admit it.
Omega is the most combat oriented of the three expansions and appropriately so due to it being a bloody campaign to take back a space station built out of a giant asteroid. A place that was plenty bloody before the occupation.
The third and final expansion, Citadel, is the best by far, though many have complained that it’s tone is often at stark odds with the dark war story that is the rest of Mass Effect 3 overall. It is by design a tongue in cheek celebration of Shepard and their potentially large circle of friends, allies and loved ones.
It’s placement is often the hardest, especially due to the happier, care free tone, but for those who want to see the most it has to offer, playing right before the point of no return which signals the endgame is best. Others have decided to actually play it after beating the game, as after the ending you are placed right before that point of no return.
Due to its brighter, more comic feel, it comes across as a more pleasing and ultimately satisfying conclusion to Shepard’s story. There is still a bittersweet note it ends on that, chronologically speaking, it always occurs before the finale and that there is no getting around what will be in store for the Normandy crew. It also marks an end of an era, an era that depending on who you asked, ended with the Citadel DLC, Dragon Age Inquisition or its narrative epilogue, Trespasser, for Bioware itself.
We have yet to have a renaissance that gives us something recalling the Bioware of old. Maybe MassEffect 4 or Dragon Age 4 will give us that. Maybe it won’t.
More so than any other piece of Mass Effect content brought up yet, what occurs in the Citadel DLC I will keep under wraps as it really is a fun even psychologically relieving time to be had with some great surprises and excellent fan-service. Of course, certain events that your Commander Shepard might let happen leading up to that point might make it harder to swallow playing through Citadel.
Certain outcomes for the Genophage and Geth/Quarian war make Citadel even more inappropriate than before to experience. All the DLCS are optional and you’re not forced to play them. That darker than normal storyline for Shepard might even have you willfully ignore it because that Shepard hasn’t earned that kind of adventure. The Citadel DLC is for those who have done their best as Commander Shepard, those that have the most friends still around before the climax. One last moment of happiness before that bell tolls.
Now then. Let’s discuss the moment that for many completely changed their parasocial relationship with Bioware the developer, created new unfortunate implications to how a game’s audience can affect its development down the road and may be in truth one of the most consequential events in gaming history. Strange as it seems, the fallout of Mass Effect 3’s endings had more of an effect on games themselves than they did for it’s world and characters.
The pain of the original endings has numbed, the adversarial discourse is not what it once was as bigger more damning fish to fry arrived in the form of Bioware’s Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem. But the ripples of what occurred in March 2012 are still felt even now.
Shepard’s last act involves them getting onboard the Citadel, taken over by the Reapers, now hovering over Earth right below London. It is the place where a reaper will be created, one born every cycle. It is also the place where the superweapon, the Crucible, will be activated. The thing that triggers the Crucible to turn on and expel it’s reaper destroying energy is the Citadel itself, now known in this context as the Catalyst.
By the time Shepard, forced to leave their team and possibly love of their life behind for their safety, arrives inside the Citadel through a skybeam that was so in vogue in the 2010s’, they are badly hurt, bleeding to death. Even in seemingly the best case scenario where Shep gets the job done, getting back to the people for which they maybe fight for the most seems all but impossible. In the words of one Hunter S. Thompson, all that’s left is to maintain.
Shepard isn’t alone. Anderson also made it aboard and is at first in a better spot than Shepard. Sadly, the Illusive Man in person is also there. He’s the reason the Reapers have the Citadel as he spilled the beans to them. If it wasn’t apparent before, it’s undeniable now that TIM is indoctrinated. All the self-destructive, seemingly pointless even to Cerberus own motive’s actions are now easily explained in that his organization had become brainwashed. A throwaway explanation, but it tracks with how the Reapers insidiously can make their biggest enemies into agents in their service, deluding into thinking it’s all to defeat them.
The final confrontation against Shepard and the Illusive Man is deliberately echoing another indoctrinated opponent, Saren. Even the way Shepard can help the Illusive man break control of the Reapers is basically the same as Saren’s and also requires having enough Renegade or Paragon points. It does seem cheap that it’s the same method, but it does fit into the intended idea that the Illusive Man should not be fought like a typical video game boss through violence but through words: TIM’s own best weapon.
The focus of the drama can feel wonky for the player at least the first time because the player and Shepard’s attention might be focused elsewhere. While the Illusive Man does deserve one final confrontation and resolution, the player is emotionally wrapped up in that (1), Shepard may very well be dying. (2), Anderson’s own life is now in the balance and that distracts from whatever points Shepard and TIM might be making at each other. (3), the player might be very anxious to get back to getting the Crucible activated so they can stop the reapers and save everyone and everything they care about.
Of course, as the Reapers intend, The Illusive Man is one more obstacle for Shepard to personally contend with and there has to be somewhere to resolve this character’s own arc. The emotional considerations of the player might get in the way of appreciating what can be had in this otherwise great final encounter and how it does, whether you like it or not, foreshadow what’s to come immediately after.
No matter what, the Illusive Man will die, either by Shepard’s gun or his own and Shepard will open up the Citadel, the first step in using the Crucible. Before that infamous moment of truth, Shepard and their father figure Anderson have one last talk, before one of their stories comes to a somber end like TIM’s. All while this plays in the background.
As sad as Anderson’s unavoidable passing is, it is fairly predictable. When’s the last time that the hero’s mentor/father figure made it out alive? Sure, there’s Gandalf thanks to being resurrected and I guess there’s Morpheus in place of the hero and love interest dying in his place (until Matrix 4 at least). You probably saw it coming as I did. But it was a well done end for Keith David’s contribution.
All that said, my mind often pondered more about Shepard’s state than Anderson’s. I see my Shepard, bloodied, tired, seeing in his or her face both a desire to wanting it all to just stop while knowing they can’t yet or knowing there is someone out there that needs them to keep going, even if they may never see them again. This part, more than anything, seeing Shepard view Anderson’s passing and then seeing how much blood they had lost, almost broke me.
Many fans who despised the endings to come and may still do, wished that this is where it had ended. Aside from it avoiding those ending options, I don’t really get that. So, when it’s all said and done, you wanted just one ending where Shepard just dies and doesn’t even activate the Crucible, even before you knows if it works or not.
No matter your thoughts on that having been the ending point, Shepard is then delivered to a new portion of the Citadel and meets this.
This ghostly figure calls itself the Catalyst, an artificial intelligence that has been residing within the Citadel this entire time and is also the master of the Reapers. It takes on a form of a child that Shepard could not save during the flight from Earth and represents their guilt over everyone else they could never save.
This unnamed human child also comes to represent potentially people that Shepard could’ve saved but did not. There are a series of three dreams that happen right after a major point in the story. The night after Shepard returns to the Citadel after Earth and Mars, after the end of the Genophage arc and the night before the final run leading to the Crucible activation.
Fans tend to dislike this child being shoehorned as an obvious symbol of Shepard’s survivor guilt or PTSD they have accumulated down the road. Yes, this child does feel forced and I don’t think much of it either. However, during the dreams where Shepard chases after the child in slow motion, you hear the whispers of the party members and other important figures in Shepard’s life that have not made it. The one you left behind on Virmire. Almost always Mordin and always one way or another Thane and Legion. If you are particularly bad at keeping your group of friends and allies alive during the trilogy’s course, it can get deafening how many Shepard ends up hearing by the third and final dream.
It recalls to my mind the River of Sorrow from Metal Gear Solid 3. Snake wades through a knee deep river following after the Spirit of the Russian secret agent, The Sorrow, all while confronting the ghosts of each and every enemy you have killed up until that point. It’s insanely inspired.
In essence, more so than a guilt trip for Shepard, it is a punishment for players who have, intentionally or otherwise, lost too many acquaintances. The dream is longer, there are more voices for the player who has lost more than usual. For the average player, the voices are few if still sad. Either way, Shepard will never forget the lost, even if they had no choice in some of their cases.
So, why has the Reapers’ mastermind taken the form of this child? It’s not that cryptic in interpretation. This is obviously not meant to be the actual appearence (if it even has one) of the artificial intelligence that was created a billion years ago to create and command the Reapers. It takes on this form as a means of persuasion on Shepard through a familiar face, to make the Catalyst’s offers to a weary Shepard easier to advocate for.
The Extended Cut did much to further clarify this entity and its purpose and to also add evidence that a popular fan theory called Indoctrination was incorrect. Many years later, some developers at Bioware would admit that the Indoctrination Theory was actually an awesome concept and wished that at least some aspect of it could’ve been worked into the game.
The Indoctrination Theory was one of the most intricately crafted attempts at grasping for straws ever put forth from a fanbase. Even I was compelled to want it to be true. Even if it’s implications weren’t exactly cheerful, it did do much to make the original execution of the endings feel easier to swallow, because it meant they weren’t real.
Ever since Commander Shepard first encountered something remotely Reaper-like at the start of MassEffect 1, they had been exposed to technology that would overtime weaken their resistance to Reaper control. Many moments throughout the trilogy would have Shepard exposed to a device or a location that was explicitly trying to brainwash you. The derelict reaper you find Legion in. A giant reaper artifact that blasts indoctrination waves in the Arrival DLC. Fighting a whole bunch of Reaper enemies in MassEffect 3 alone probably didn’t help matters.
Finally, at the end of the journey, a weakened, bleeding out, mentally frayed Commander Shepard should be in a position where at long last, this utterly, uniquely strong willed human being is finally, mentally vulnerable. Right before meeting the Catalyst, The Illusive Man himself used the Reaper’s powers to control Shepard like a puppet and shoot Anderson, which leads to the latter’s death.
Now, we have the ruler of the Reapers itself, giving Shepard several options in how to finally end the war. Two of those options keep the Reapers around. One of them in essence accomplishes what the Reapers have been trying to do from the very start. Now, isn’t that awfully suspicious?
The option to “destroy” the Reapers is under this theory, a metaphorical, psychological decision. It is this decision where Shepard refuses the options that benefit the Reapers. According to the theory, right after “Destroy” is picked, Shepard will reawaken back on Earth or at an earlier point, and the real ending should happen. Or, it ends on the note that while you don’t get to see Shepard physically destroy the Reapers, he mentally defeated them. It can be assumed that the Crucible is activated and the Reapers are simply destroyed.
Of course, Bioware never intended this. Those abstract, short and closure-lacking endings which initially felt like you were picking your favorite color (like Monty Python) more than deciding the fate of the galaxy were meant at face value. In spite of Bioware knowing that they had a “mind games” angle to the narrative that could be purposed by the fanbase as it was.
The Extended Cut did all it could to add new scenes which cleared up genuine question marks that were not intended to be left. How did Shepard’s crew get back on the Normandy and then end up crash landing on a jungle planet? Did Shepard actually get up to the Citadel? Are the Mass Relays blowing up once the Crucible is fired, which should mean that no one survives, which would render any option given entirely pointless? What exactly goes in to every use of the Crucible given and what will the state of the galaxy and your collection of friends be like after that decision?
The Extended Cut did answer those questions. You didn’t have to like those answers, but hey you did get them eventually.
The red Destroy ending does accomplish what you and Shepard intended from day one: end those damn dirty cuttlefish forever. But, there’s a catch. It doesn’t just destroy the Reapers, all artificial/synthetic life will die. The non living technology the galaxy has can be repaired like spaceships and the mass relays, don’t worry about that. EDI and the friendly Geth that have taken up arms alongside you. They dead.
So, yeah, the cost of destroying the Reapers and by extension the only way Shepard gets to live and be with the ones they love, is to render EDI and Legion’s arcs moot. This distressing problem given Shepard and the player is entirely on purpose and while it will definitely hurt, it does tie into the series’ philosophy that you must be prepared to make hard choices that will leave something or someone unhappy.
With all the emotional investment fans had gotten with Shepard and friend’s journey over three games, being able to accomplish through hard work a perfect happy ending was much desired. After all, players could be given perfect outcomes to the suicide mission, the fate of the Geth and Quarians and arguably the Genophage cure. Why not the last gasp?
Because it ties into themes that Bioware has been trying to hammer home for several games, reflects one of the core tenets that a person like Commander Shepard cannot have it all and should not expect to. Also, if it were possible for there to be a perfect ending, would it not stand to reason that the player base’s choice of ending would be bottle-necked? Many alternative conclusions with food for thought attached with them would be ignored in favor of that “golden” ending.
At the very end and when facing a complex, extremely powerful enemy like the Reapers, why cheapen the solution by offering one that yes leaves you emotionally the happiest but at the expense of the main antagonist’s presence.
The other two solutions will involve Shepard’s death, no way around it. The blue “control” ending has Shepard transposing his body into a new entity like the catalyst that now becomes the new master of the Reapers. This entity is molded off either the paragon or renegade identity of your Shepard. A paragon Shepard will use the reapers to rebuild the galaxy and will take on a benevolent guardian figure who will be just as committed to the well-being of everyone that Shepard knew and cared for as the protection and prosperity of the galaxy. The reapers will hurt the innocent no longer.
A renegade Shepard will lead to an entity more frightening, dangerous and with plans that could very well lead to a dark future for the galaxy. This entity will likely use the Reapers as nigh unstoppable enforcers of their despotic will and in time, might go back to the same exact conclusion that led to the cyclical harvest.
The third option, the green “synthesis”, is often framed as being the best one, despite also involving Shepard’s sacrificial death. Due to him/her having both organic and synthetic elements, on part of their resurrection from Cerberus, they can themselves act as a catalyst towards merging both types of life into a new one. This effectively ends the problem the Reapers were created to fix: the inevitable conflict between organic creators and the created.
A new unity is born, everyone in the Milky Way, including the Reapers and their transformed minions are now friendly, and can feel and read each other in a way that creates perfect communication and cooperation. Free will is still possible in this scenario, but because everyone has the answers to what to do or can easily settle arguments without violence, it appears to be the best of both worlds.
If you convince EDI and Joker to get together, they are now on a physical level more compatible than ever, possibly capable of having kids now. For everyone except Shepard, who must die for this to happen, it’s apparently as positive a conclusion as can be hoped for.
There is some debate that this is not as cheerful or positive a conclusion as it is framed especially with EDI’s elated narration of this narration. Some have said that the forced merging of both kinds of life will lead to future, unforeseeable problems and that it shouldn’t necessarilly be able to wash away the fact that the Reapers are now all of a sudden pals with everyone else. Even with this vaguely explained “understanding” that has been achieved, that shouldn’t negate the righteous anger and desire for retribution against the reapers that countless survivors would still have. Would Javik be so willing to bury the hatchet, all being said?
Of course, for most people the biggest turn off is that again Shepard must die for what is otherwise the seemingly most positive outcome of Mass Effect 3. Most people like myself, in spite of weighing the benefits and detriments of Control and Synthesis, still choose Destroy in spite of knowing that EDI and the Geth will be wiped out.
We do it because we know, not Shepard, that our commander can only survive this way. Because it still accomplishes what we have wanted to do from the beginning. Because despite the Catalyst’s warnings that the same problem that led to the Reaper’s creation will arise once again, this is the option where the reapers are gone. This is the option where they and their genocidal machinations will plague the galaxy no more. From now on, we for better or worse will make our own fate. It might be a bad one. It might be built on the deaths of friends like EDI and the Geth, but it is still our choice.
Many fans like to think or hope that EDI and the Geth are not beyond saving. Well, if they aren’t beyond saving than so should the Reapers in theory. Mass Effect 4, based on the clues of its teaser seems to be aiming to address those questions and perhaps has the best world state to justify a future story to be told. At least it avoids a world where everyone has green electronic wires and glow on their body.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Most chose Destroy only thinking about getting Shepard back with Tali, Garrus, Liara and everyone else. I sure did. In a sense, it could be a judgment call the game is making on me, deciding on my emotional needs rather than the pragmatic big picture. It’s hardly an invalid stance, but it is one where you will forfeit the standards you likely had for EDI and the Geth as individuals who deserved respect, a chance. To one last time quote Jaime Lannister, in the end it came down to many people for one reason:
“The things I do for love.“
Whether the endings frustrate, anger, satisfy or still confuse you, the impact it left on the series is immeasurable. It affected the direction of the next game, Andromeda, and it will affect the direction of the next Mass Effect. I delved early on into the consequences of how Bioware drew Shepard’s trilogy to an end and now I have expressed how I feel about the endings as they stand in 2021.
I no longer hate them, I started not hating them when the Extended Cut at least added better emotional closure, making me feel as if at least, no matter what you will say, Bioware did something. It stemmed from the fact that more than a few at Bioware must have felt like you did. No matter the artistic or philosophical merit of what these endings are about, they were initially given to the players in a manner that was cold, quick and without feeling. Not the note they wanted to end a hundred plus hour investment on.
As has been brought up by others like Noah Caldwell Gervais, the Extended Cut would not exist if on some level, the people at Bioware themselves didn’t feel let down by their own work. That they didn’t feel that this groundbreaking trilogy didn’t have more of a send off than it deserved. It was a mutual dissatisfaction between creator and consumer that possibly resulted in the beloved Citadel DLC.
Both Bioware and their audience had just as hard a time as Shepard in gritting their teeth and letting go.
This is the end of a lengthy, maybe too lengthy deep dive into one of the most essential pieces of interactive entertainment I have experienced. I appreciate the patience of anyone and everyone who read through it the whole way.
I have a hope that the Bioware that created the imperfect but heartfelt Legendary Edition this year have yet the prowess, the imagination and the determination to craft new, wonderful and thought provoking stories in their vision of the future. I hope this is just as true for what form Dragon Age 4 will ultimately take.
I want to fall in love in again, experience pain, joy, fear, wonder and curiosity in this universe vicariously again. I perhaps am asking too much to have a new set of Mass Effects that can meet or surpass the games of old, it might be impossible.
But Shepard’s story is all about making the impossible possible. It could happen, but I must always ready myself for it to never happen.
I will delve next into my new slice of horror movies watched for the Halloween season. I hope to not take too long into telling you if this crop of 80s’ era horror cinema is effective or not.
Mass Effect 2 remains one of my favorite all time games and the entry in the series that turned me from a Mass Effect player into a Mass Effect fan.
Its release in 2010 came at a watershed period for me recognizing video games not just as an artform but as a potentially emotional piece of media. There are games much older than Mass Effect 2 that could genuinely move me to tears like Silent Hill 2 that arrived nine years prior. But I didn’t play that game back in 2001. I don’t think I even knew what Silent Hill was.
Mass Effect 3 is the king in the franchise for compelling a emotional reaction from me and most people, and contrary to some amount of popular belief, for the intended reasons. Certain moments in ME3 arguably drive me closer to tears than anything in ME2. And yet, ME2 came first and it really showed me how invested one can get in an interactive medium’s world and its characters. Especially since here you have control to extents big and small on where they will be going. There are some outcomes to many characters in the Mass Effect sequels that I will never allow to happen, even under the auspices of viewing it for “replay value.”
Mass Effect 2 opens by throwing the mother of all curve balls to the player: killing Commander Shepard. There remains some debate as to whether it was really necessary or added anything to having the player character killed and later scientifically resurrected. I think it adds flavor to the context you can bring to who your Shepard now is.
With this first sequel, do you continue your Shepard’s moral path as renegade or paragon from the last game? Do you want to change their skillset? Their appearence? Their worldview as expressed by the player? Or as intended by Martin Sheen’s Illusive Man, the leader of Cerberus the shady organization that revives you, do you come back and act exactly as you were left at the end of the first game? It opens up food for thought this development in the narrative and to the trilogy’s credit, it is an element not forgotten as Shepard continues into Mass Effect 3. If they survive.
The conceit of Mass Effect 2 is absolutely brilliant and one of the smartest choices for a sequel to have an escalation not just in scope but stakes: assembling a team for a likely suicide mission.
Cerberus, a human supremacy group which is proven to have both xenophobic beliefs and a share of immoral activities as a host of side missions from ME1 can attest, has a job for Commander Shepard. No matter Shepard and the player’s feelings on that organization, what they are fighting against is incontrovertibly bad and must be stopped: the Collectors.
In the two years since Shepard’s death and subsequent time being brought back to life, that mysterious alien species has been attacking human colonies throughout the Milky Way and abducting thousands of colonists, through means that leave the colonies remarkably devoid of any wrongdoing. Save that all the humans are gone, as if they were raptured.
Given the resources to build that suicide squad including a brand new vessel, the Normandy SR2( which kicks the ever-loving ass out of the original Normandy from the first game) and with it a new crew with a couple of familiar faces, Shepard essentially has no choice but to use Cerberus to find and defeat the Collectors once and for all.
As I opined at the start of part one of this review, Shepard is only as strong as the men and women that serve alongside them. Before we get to all 12 of them, let me give a non-party member his due finally. Jeff “Joker” Moreau, played by the near inimitable Seth Green.
Joker is the pilot of both the Normandy SR1 from the first Mass Effect( which is blown the hell up alongside Shepard) and the Normandy SR2 for both ME2 and ME3. He is the most direct example of comic relief and god bless him for that for as the trilogy progresses, you will need someone to lighten the mood.
He is never at tonal odds with the narrative and is keenly aware of how dire the circumstances his and Shepard’s life get over the games. Could very well be a coping mechanism, as before he became the man who flies a vessel to the most dangerous places in the galaxy, he was born with a real ailment called Vrolik’s syndrome or Brittle Bone disease.
Basically, all of his bones are much weaker than the average person and even the smallest misstep can lead to “CRACK”. Thankfully, Joker lives in the late 22nd century and a combination of medication and bionic augmentations is able to mitigate but not cure the illness. He is most certainly good enough to pilot the Normandy, to the point he is considered one of the best human pilots if not one of the best pilots in the galaxy period.
Joker’s condition and how he perseveres with help from a snarky sense of humor acts as commentary that Mass Effect is remarkably kind to treating those with physical and mental illness with compassion, even stating they can be heroes, and hardly just for one day.
This line of thought probably wouldn’t have made it into this essay had I not read an article by happenstance about how in the article’s words: “Mass Effect is something of a virtual paradise for the chronically ill“. Characters like Joker alongside Tali, Kaidan and to some extent Shepard themselves all have conditions that would bring low other people, let alone people that are tasked with well, saving the galaxy from giant robot cuttlefish. And those aren’t the only examples off the top of my head. One of the ten new party members, Thane, is perhaps most explicit about this thesis holding water.
Tali’s immune system is super weak, which makes even the act of opening up her mask a danger ( more on that later). I mentioned Kaidan’s migraines which the guy never complains about because he’s professional dammit. As for Shepard, the player can choose to give the Commander psychological baggage by giving him/her some messed up origins involving a family lost to alien pirates and his entire squad being decimated by a sandwor—thresher maw, a giant worm-like creature.
Shepard never really shows outwards signs in the first two games of how much those traumatic events hurt them, should the player choose that for them. They are a soldier that made it into N7, the very toughest military training regimen imaginable so their will is clearly strong and perhaps coming to terms with that tragedy helped them find an inner strength to push on.
By Mass Effect 3, it all begins to finally add up with the utterly grave stakes of that game and you will want to give a (paragon) Shepard a hug for how they are approaching and nearly make it to the breaking point. So, yeah, the biggest badass in the galaxy suffers from PTSD eventually and nothing can stop that. But it doesn’t stop Shepard. It doesn’t stop his friends with issues physical and mental. And maybe, it shouldn’t stop you from trying.
The 12 party members all have their issues and in order to increase their chances of getting through the suicide mission, Shepard can lend them a hand and in one powerful instance give them a hug. Let’s meet them.
Miranda and Jacob: the Cerberus operatives
Echoing the first game, the first two team members are human and are both part of Cerberus. Perhaps because you are meant to spend time with them, they are also not as extreme as the organization they are part of. Miranda is in denial about how far they have gone and Jacob is aware and concerned. Like Shepard, he feels stuck to them due to that organization being the only ones willing to save the colonists and fight the Reapers.
Jacob Taylor shares a similar spot to Kaidan in being the male human love interest who isn’t bad as a character but is undeniably not as compelling as many others in the roster. Considering Mass Effect 2 might have the largest lineup of party members in Bioware’s history, someone has to fall through the cracks of recognition. Poor Jacob ends up there.
I feel sorry because barring one real dick move he pulls on Femshep in the following game if he is romanced in this one, Jacob is arguably the nicest character of the bunch. Only Garrus, Tali, Thane and Kasumi come close in terms of genial nature being a notable tenet.
Again, 12 characters plus Shepard and Joker so someone gets overlooked in the shuffle though due to being a member of Cerberus, Jacob is always at the center of the story relating to the conflict against the Collectors. Jacob’s time to shine comes in his loyalty mission. Loyalty missions were another ingenious idea that was borne not only out of ME1 having side quests that were directly related to a party member (Wrex, Tali, Garrus) but were perhaps inspired by one of the most influential and beloved role playing games ever made: Final Fantasy VI.
The loyalty missions in ME2 have a mechanical purpose beyond having a spotlight shined on one of Shepard’s growing team. Like in Final Fantasy VI, they are meant to showcase the character’s greatest regrets, hopes and fears and are the best moments to understand the character, maybe even come to like or love them. I have no idea if FFVI’s quests surrounding party members could lead to an improved or better ending but it definitely did wonders on player investment by the time you confront this guy: basically the Joker having become an evil God.
For such an under-considered character from the playerbase, it is generally acknowledged that Jacob’s loyalty mission, which is often the first played due to how the game prompts it be so, is fantastic. And very, very depressing.
Jacob’s father worked on a merchant freighter going out and about space, not unlike the Nostromo from Alien. Fear not, the kinds of horror Shepard and Jacob encounter is markedly different than a xenomorph. Instead, Jacob’s father Ronald and the crew of the Hugo Gernsback ( named after one of the founders of “science fiction”) crash land on an unsettled planet. For the next decade, things went south, south, south. Overtime, Ronald made himself essentially a king amongst the survivors, taking all the unspoiled food and letting the rest of his crew eat the compromised rations, which in combination with being unused to the planet’s environment and cyclical patterns, drove them insane to the point of mental regression. No better than cavemen in some ways.
Ronald had the opportunity to call for help much earlier and could have spared his crew considerable pain and misery. But for his own selfish desire to play into a power fantasy he was accidentally gifted, he didn’t. He only re-activated a distress beacon once the safe food was beginning to run out and he couldn’t keep the fantasy going anymore.
Jacob is horrified and disgusted at what his father has become and the game gives you three options in how to resolve the matter, all of them satisfying in their own way. More importantly, it ends the least favored ME2 party member’s loyalty mission on a haunting note that is anything but forgettable.
Miranda Lawson, who is both the Cerberus operative who led the project that revived you( appropriately called Lazarus) and the XO of the new Normandy is one big ME character that you either get or you don’t. Out of all the many attractive and sexualized figures in the series, Miranda is the one that stands out the most.
The game handwaves Miranda’s sexed up appearance through her background. She is a test tube baby, genetically the sole product of her evil, evil father, a ruthless tycoon who will do anything to leave a mark on the galaxy. To that end, not only is her daughter not naturally created, but he made sure to have every aspect of her life be controlled. While she got the very best in intelligence, strength, resilience and obviously looks, it was all to serve a sociopath who doesn’t actually have any fatherly love to give back.
Miranda was looking for a purpose free from her father, so Cerberus offered her a place and her inherent set of skills made her into the organization’s best operative. Miranda does have a great background to her story and like with Jacob and every party member, it is best realized in the loyalty mission.
Miranda is not the only daughter of Henry Lawson. There is also Oriana, her genetic twin, though not in appearence or in age. Miranda is just as desperate to insure the safety of her innocuous sister as she is in stopping the Collectors and by extension the Reapers. The loyalty mission involving a rescue of her sister is where my sympathies with Miranda were at their strongest. Not enough to make me love this character but understand her as being genuinely written to be deeper than just eye-candy or the most obvious romance option for a male Shepard.
Miranda is voiced and facially modelled after Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski, who is most well known outside of Mass Effect for being in Chuck. Interestingly enough, that spy comedy also features a super attractive female secret agent.
Miranda is considered a good romance choice by many especially for a Shepard that is framed as falling for the character not for her sexual appeal but everything else including her sisterly struggle and desire to be free of what is one of the most loathsome characters in the series, especially on display in Mass Effect 3. Of course, I imagine many players chose to romance Miranda for the obvious reasons. But I would think it was more satisfying doing it for the more wholesome reasons.
Aside from Miranda’s personal struggles, the best aspect of Miranda is placing her in juxtaposition with another squad member, who is in most respects the inverse of her. Before we get to that character, let’s deal with the next two figures: one that was intentionally made to be a sex appeal character for the ladies in the playerbase (and a successful one at that) and our newest Krogan addition, voiced by the man behind Spike Spiegel of all people.
Thane and Grunt: The Half-Monk/half Hitman and the Orange people-beater
Thane is another popular figure in the Mass Effect series, enough so that he gets to be on the cover of Mass Effect 2 and many were saddened that ,one, he couldn’t be a party member for ME3 and ,two, that he was never given the chance to have a cure for his terminal illness.
At the end of one of the most visually and conceptually impressive recruitment missions in the game: a fight up two luxury skyscrapers under construction in the middle of a Coruscantesque metropolis at sunset, you meet Thane. He has just killed his contract as the master assassin he is. Right after, he starts praying for himself over the hit he committed.
In this instance, his target certainly deserved her fate, but to Thane Krios, he still brought someone to their death. He has started targeting those he and most others would consider wicked and wants to leave the galaxy, in his words, a little brighter before his fictional Kepral’s syndrome claims him. When Shepard tells him they have been searching for him to recruit for a suicide mission, Thane gladly accepts without asking for any money. What better way to end his life and use his ill-used skills than to take one for the galaxy?
Thane is one of those richly written characters that I wish I was a bigger fan of. He has a considerable following among the female playerbase as Bioware intended. Thane’s appearence draws on certain physical aspects that are more appealing to the female inclination than not. His chest being partially open, well toned but not too much, his raspy voice which is both a result of his species way of sounding( the Drell) and that his incurable disease is respiratory. Fish lips and deep black eyes give an exotic alien feel that plays much in the same way that Liara and Tali have alien features that are nontheless attractive too.
Mass Effect 2 gets away with having obvious sex appeal as a factor through the added three-dimensionality for its characters. If it wasn’t enough that Thane is a remorseful hitman and possibly the most religious character in the series, he is also a family man. He deeply loves his estranged son Kolyat, grieves for being unable to protect his wife from assassins out to get him and aside from his commitment to doing good by helping bring down the Collectors, he would very much want to reconcile with his son before it is too late.
Thane emphasizes why the loyalty missions mean so much on a thematic level. The motley crew you acquire overtime have these issues on their chests that can and will distract them from committing to a job that needs to be focused on. It’s both to get to know them better and to help prepare them for a job that is do or die.
When it comes to Thane as a romance option for Femshep, he is a very popular choice. While there is an undeniable appeal I suppose in having Femshep fall for an ailing man who seeks redemption before it is too late, the whole “being a father to a teenage son and already having a wife in his heart” is a turnoff for me. Once you go down the path to have Femshep and Thane fall in love, the latter gradually starts calling the former “siha”, the Drell word for “beloved”.
While the game does a great job of making me believe that Femshep and Thane are indeed falling in love, my discomfort comes down to the fact that Thane already had a deceased wife that he still cares for. Due to Thane’s religious conviction, he believes that upon death, he will re-unite with his lover “across the sea” in the afterlife. Eventually, assuming you move forward with the relationship into ME3, Thane all but says that he will no matter what await Shepard in the afterlife. Awww.
The problem I have is what about Thane’s wife Irrikah? Will Thane reunite lovingly with her too or has Femshep now become his true love to wait beyond death, forget his wife? Because of that, no matter how romantically compelling Thane is as a character, I don’t like the idea of Shepard replacing his wife and the mother of his son in that way, especially since Thane’s loyalty mission is all about getting father and son back together.
Thane is also victim to the fact that he along with three other members arrive after a certain I wouldn’t say midway point but a major threshold in the story where there is generally less time to mess around unless you know a certain trick. The recruitment missions naturally dry up and is replaced with loyalty missions or DLC.
Depending on your preference, Thane may end up late to the party and late to witnessing much in the way of content, though one of my favorite party members period gets that so much worse. Tali is one of those three other recruitable members and obviously my bias and wanting to stick to earlier characters brought in like Garrus may compound that. Again, it could be my subjective preference but I rarely get the chance to hang out with Thane as much as I would like.
Thane, regardless of your interest in him, does have an emotional part to play in ME3 should he make it through the suicide mission. It’s almost enough to make him one of my favorite characters but for whatever reason he rarely gets his due when I’m involved.
Grunt is another character who should also be one of my favorites but for unclear reasons never gets as far as Garrus, Tali and the soon to be talked about Mordin, Legion and Zaeed do in favorite ME2 party members. He seems to be the perfect character for my enjoyment.
He’s a Krogan like Wrex, is even more gleeful in his love for battle than him and he has an interesting setup for being the kind of Krogan he is. Also voiced by Steve Blum and has one impressive deep throated giggle. “Hee, hee, hee.”
Grunt, like Miranda, was artificially created to be something akin to a Krogan eugenics super-soldier. While nothing can remove the Genophage from him, he is in every respect meant to be the perfect Krogan. Genetic traits of all the best Krogan throughout history run in his veins. From birth practically, he is ready to get up, grab a shotgun and raise hell. Now, it’s your job to point his Krogan knack for destruction in a creative, helpful direction.
Grunt gets further brownie points for having a loyalty mission that boils down to getting through a peculiar form of puberty, through killing a whole bunch of monsters to prove to himself and all other Krogan that he is a true specimen of his people, no matter his method of birth. All while making Shepard and friends his battle-tested brother and sisters in arms. If you go through his offbeat loyalty mission, you basically become his mother or father and the Normandy and its crew are the village that raised him.
It’s a darkly comic yet earnest exploration of how to nurture a being who craves battle over all else into something not quite evil, yet not quite good, but still true to itself. Grunt doesn’t care one way or the other about why he is put in Shepard’s squad. So long as he gets to kill something tougher than him or prove himself, he is a happy, happy camper.
Grunt, like Thane, comes close to being in my dream team of ME favorites, but perhaps because of how uncomplicated he is and that there are other characters that cut a more emotional profile, Grunt is a firm member of the B-team and he still looks good doing it.
Jack and Samara: The Master Biotics
Jack is the character that is meant to be the inverse foil to Miranda in almost every way. She is clean shaven unlike Miranda’s considerable perm, mostly naked unlike Miranda’s jumpsuit, aggressive and angry unlike Miranda’s ice queen demeanor, loathes Cerberus due to the horrible wrongs committed against her while Miranda owes much to that organization.
Jack is only out for herself due to her horrifying life having drilled in her that only she can be relied upon while Miranda comes to naively believe she found something that cared about her and her gifts. And yet, both share tragic backgrounds, misgivings about who they are and what purpose they have and both do indeed want something truly meaningful in their lives.
The differences and similarities that connect Jack to Miranda and vice versa have made them one of the fandom’s favorite unofficial couples, with an expansion for ME3 even poking fun at the idea that the vitriol between the two can be resolved with them getting together, not unlike how Star Wars’ Han and Leia yelled at each other initially to hide the feelings they mutually shared. Shepard even brings that up to them and they take that consideration from the fans and laugh at it.
Those two will never be a couple because they’re both straight. But perhaps you can convince them to stop hating each other and recognize where they are alike than not. As for the purposes of their role in Mass Effect 2, you have to compel them to work together instead of working the other over.
Jack is the most explicit example of a warning bell to how actually evil Cerberus is, assuming you forgot, were willing to overlook or didn’t experience related side missions in ME1 or Sheen’s Illusive Man charmed you well enough. Jack’s loyalty mission is simple. She finds out after you let her access Cerberus archives where the facility she was raised in is. From the time she was a young child, she was a lab rat to see how far humanity’s biotic potential could go. She was the best candidate and all the other children kept there were…used to help her realize her potential.
She would become one of the most powerful biotics in the galaxy through a cruel, torturous childhood where she was her happiest lying hidden underneath her bedroom’s desk, hoping that today would not be as painful as the last. An accident occurs at the facility which allows Jack to escape and the program, which went too far even for the Illusive Man, is shut down.
It’s fun bringing along a Cerberus team-member like Miranda to see this appalling side to Cerberus and actually factors quite well in her having an eventual defection from the organization that culminates at the assault on the Collector base.
How Jack factors as a romance option is interesting though some have complained that her story arc and becoming a better person isn’t well realized enough if you don’t have Shepard fall for her. I tend to agree though inbetween the events of ME2 and 3 ( assuming her survival), she becomes a teacher of biotic students and becomes in truth a motherly figure who will do all she can to insure that kids like her never go through the hell she did. So in the long run, Jack goes from a hardened criminal with a “zero f**ks” attitude to the rough around the edges, very rough in combat, but otherwise good-natured person she wanted to be at her core. And this happens with or without her and a male Shepard getting together.
That being said, if there was a no. 2 choice for my M/Shepard’s love of his life, I would choose Jack. She’s interesting enough, uniquely presented enough and does have a very heartwarming story arc that is especially potent if you play Shepard as a paragon. There is a renegade alternative for Shepard and Jack that results in meaningless sex and nothing else.
It’s an interesting dichotomy in how your moral path for Shepard can lead to different relationships that isn’t explored enough or at all with the other romance options in the series save for Miranda. For instance, it can be jarring to have say, a very renegade Shepard engage in a relationship with a character like Tali who is so nice and ethical that that relationship feels harder to accept.
Samara is a frustrating figure for me. She has an interesting background surrounding an absolutist to a fault code of justice, is an impressive biotic character on your team and her own story has an undeniable melancholy to it.
She probably also has the most unique-in-execution loyalty mission in the game. Along with Thane, it is a refreshingly combat free affair. Shepard’s mission to recruit her aligns with what the loyalty mission entails: hunting her serial predator daughter Morinth, more or less a sci-fi succubus. When first encountering her, she was in the latest chapter of what has proven to be a centuries’ long hunt. Her species of Asari (same as Liara’s) live for roughly a thousand years and Samara has reached her final “matriarch” stage of her life. Time is running out to finish the job.
After helping her get more information on her whereabouts, Samara agrees to join Shepard’s mission, all too happy to dispense justice on the Collectors, some of the worthiest in the galaxy for that. However, knowing that she is likely in for a one-way trip, she hopes Shepard can help her find and finish Morinth once and for all.
The loyalty mission is entirely dialogue based and considering Samara’s philosophical mindset that thematically tracks well. After finding clues from Morinth’s latest victim, a poor teenage girl, Shepard and by extension the player must use the information from that crime scene to determine the daughter’s interests, like what her favorite music or art is. At a night club and after causing a ruckus in many humorous ways, Morinth meets Shepard and invites them over to her table. Using those clues properly allows Shepard to express the same interests as Morinth, which in turn will get you invited to her apartment.
Miss the cues or intentionally antagonize her with topics she doesn’t like( like law, order, mommy dearest) and Morinth leaves and Samara loses her chance. If you do get to the apartment, Morinth begins her creepy seductive mind control on you that will result in her burning your synapses out with pleasure. Depending on how high your paragon or renegade score is, Shepard can actually fight the brainwashing and be in a strong enough mind where should the player desire, as Samara and Morinth go toe to toe with one another, can proceed to betray Samara and let Morinth win and kill her.
Due to her uncanny resemblance to her mother, Morinth masquerades as her and takes her place in your squad. It’s a really messed up possibility the player can be rewarded for having a high morality score but it’s not really an appealing option unless you’re playing the douchiest Commander Shepard possible.
Samara’s arc with regards to having bared Ardat-Yakshi, the type of Asari Morinth is, is explored further in Mass Effect 3 when we get to meet her two other daughters of the same biological manner though anything but of Morinth’s nature. What happens there can take the consequences of Samara’s absolutist ideology and make it into one utterly sorrowful scenario in an already sorrowful experience.
So, why do I find her frustrating? Well, take a look again at Samara’s appearence. The giant boob window kinda distracts from the otherwise expert elegance and intrigue that she brings to the table. More so here than with Miranda or Ashley’s appearence in ME3 is where the obvious sexual pandering to a male audience gets too distracting.
I’m not the biggest stickler to saying overtly sexual appearences or content is wrong and sometimes as in Saint’s Row’s case, it can be a part of the near bottomless level of expression you can have in a video game. Why yes, I will create a character with a giant breast size, tiny head and huge muscles. Not just for probable self-gratification but because I can. In that same game, I can make the most comically ugly thing ever in my custom character creator. Expression is not the problem.
It just feels as if Samara’s appearence, namely around her chest and to be fair nowhere else, is at odds with how this character registers to me thematically. Miranda’s sexual appearence is part of her background in a way that feels more intriguing than merely excuse. Samara didn’t need to look that way, but again she’s not my creation so maybe I should shut up somewhat.
Like with Thane, Samara has the misfortune of being a recruitable party member somewhat late in ME2’s overall length. When you combine the awesome surprise party member that comes along later and that Tali is in that wave of squadmates to collect, she is another otherwise interesting character that I often underutilize. She certainly has her share of great banter or ponderings to be had when out on the intergalactic road. In that respect, Samara is a tragic character for unintended reasons. That’s not to ignore or dismiss the many players who did utilize Samara as part of Shepard’s team.
Zaeed and Kasumi: The DLC recruits
Zaeed is a simple, seen-it-before concept done so right. He’s an aging mercenary hell-bent for revenge on the business partner that stabbed him in the back by way of shooting him in the eye and aside from that sees little point to his existence. The more inquisitive player can learn that one of Zaeed’s “retirement plans” is ramming a ship into a space station.
What makes Zaeed one of my unlikely choices for favorite squadmates, enough so that he is featured on my custom art for Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is through the performance of one Robin Sachs. Aside from doing voicework in other Bioware titles like Dragon Age, some might remember him for having played several characters on the 90s’ cult sci-fi series: Babylon 5 ( appropriate considering the telling similarities between B5 and ME). No huge role, but definitely enough that he stands out even under pounds of make-up. It’s his British voice which does wonders on making him recognizable.
Tragically, Sachs died in 2013 at the relatively early age of 61 from cancer and his last work was contributing to ME3’s last and best expansion, Citadel, itself a going away party for an era of the series. At the same time, ME3’s multiplayer held a timed celebration to honor Sach’s contribution to the series.
It’s how Sachs plays this familiar convention and how Shepard can respond to his vendetta that makes Zaeed such a fun character. He is probably one of the most if not the most renegade of the party members Shepard can recruit in the trilogy. He did co-found the Blue Suns, one of the merc groups that Shepard and co. battle throughout ME2. According to him, it was meant to be a nobler class of mercenary company. It was ironically striving to be at least a lesser evil that drove one Vido Santiago, the other founder, to betray and leave Zaeed for dead.
Against all odds, Zaeed survived. He got a new eye and began a new, bitter life as a bounty hunter, hoping that one day he’d get a job that involved a rematch with Vido. In that time, the closest relationship he developed was with an assault rifle he named Jesse.
Zaeed is a DLC team member along with the soon to be discussed Kasumi. For the vanilla version of ME2 back in the day, those who didn’t have an online account like I did, the squad could only number 11, including Shepard. Right before ME3 arrived, I got all the DLC for ME2 and was able to after the fact add Zaeed and Kasumi to the team.
It really sucks that elements as important as party members would be locked behind a paywall and this became absolutely egregious with the DLC character of Javik for Mass Effect 3, a member to the team who is far more narratively valuable to the story than Zaeed and Kasumi are. With the LegendaryEdition, the three DLC characters are available to acquire without getting out your wallet, as it should have been in the first place. One ugly reminder that EA is the one that publishes Mass Effect and I imagine Bioware were not terribly happy with the practice.
Zaeed’s loyalty mission, which along with Kasumi and Legion is accessible immediately after you recruit them, really sees if you are paying attention to the morality path you are choosing Shepard to go down. Midway through the mission which involves bringing down Vido, Zaeed in his fury to finally gut the bastard causes some damage to the fuel refinery the mission is set in.
As you would imagine, the circumstances get a whole lot hotter and now a bunch of innocent workers are at risk of burning alive, all because of Zaeed’s desperation to get revenge. In many earlier playthroughs, my paragon Shepard would agree to let those poor people die to chase after Vido just because I thought there was no way to gain Zaeed’s loyalty without it.
Turns out, you can get his loyalty by saving the people and letting Vido go. If you have enough paragon or renegade points saved up, you can persuade Zaeed to let his grudge go and focus on getting the suicide mission done. This is one area where I think Shepard’s potential social skills are played as contrived.
Considering what Zaeed has been through for decades, a couple of sentences however eloquent, shouldn’t get through to him. And yet, he will not only be loyal to Shepard, he will never ever complain about Vido again, including if he survives the suicide mission and makes it into ME3.
The player can interpret from here on out, if you play as a paragon Shepard, that Zaeed becomes a less cold and more altruistic figure. He still grimly snarks going forward, but helping Shepard face a threat that is supremely grave in the Collectors and Reapers and maybe just being around more positive influences improves Zaeed as a person. It might remind him of the kind of guy he was before Vido ruined everything.
I suppose seeing the things Zaeed would see with Shepard would put everything in a new perspective. The end of sentient life in the galaxy would make even his burning hatred for Vido seem petty and pointless. Besides, Zaeed must figure with the way the galaxy is heading, his old “friend” won’t be around much longer anyway. It is this inferred character growth that makes me like Zaeed so much in spite of being one of the more tertiary party members to the overall narrative. It’s strangely comforting to think that a guy like that can come to fight gladly for the benefit of all at the possible expense of his life.
The other DLC squad member, Kasumi, stands out in that she was made available in an expansion after ME2’s original January 2010 release while Zaeed and Javik were accessible on release day. Again, aside from EA’s questionable business practices or Bioware not being ready to have Kasumi at launch, it makes little sense otherwise why she is excluded initially.
Her loyalty mission is more elaborate than usual, starting with Shepard masquerading as an arms dealer at a swanky ball for a ruthless crime lord called Donovan Hock. You start initially mingling at the party, finding various ways to get through Hock’s security system to break into his vault and steal a treasure that is absolutely personal to Kasumi.
It does a great job of getting what Kasumi is about, both as a character and as a mechanical part of gameplay, but also clues you in to how she can be of use during the suicide mission. Kasumi is a wise-cracking, sly thief archetype, not unlike Arsene Lupin or for video games, Sly Cooper and Nathan Drake. Despite being an unrepentant theft-based criminal, she is one of the friendliest characters you can come across and is also so, so eager to ship you with love interests, especially Tali.
I have wondered how realistic the gentleman/woman thief is to real life, if it’s even possible at all. The trope suggests that figures like Kasumi do it first for the thrill and challenge and the money an often distant second. After all, it’s what she’s good at and do we not often encourage people to play to their strengths? Kasumi also uses her thievery skills to help the unfortunate and needy and never dares steal from people below her. Self-justification or not, it does succeed in making me like her more than despise her.
Kasumi’s stake in the job against Hock that Shepard helps her with to gain her loyalty is due to the dead. Namely, her beloved partner-in-crime Keiji, who if I’m being honest looks butt-ugly. But, I suppose a person like Kasumi would care more about the person inside than the person’s appearence, though of course, she’s quite the looker even if her hood blocks most of her face.
The item that is to be stolen is a “gray-box”, basically a sci-fi gizmo that stores information up to and including a person’s memories and even identity. Or a copy of it. Keiji is dead but with that graybox, Kasumi can “be with him” again. It’s a rather sad conclusion even if Kasumi’s loyalty is always assured no matter how the mission plays out.
Kasumi certainly looks like a romanceable figure but isn’t. The loss of Keiji is too fresh and getting the gray-box back means that she will remain fixated on him rather than move on. Sure, Femshep can get together with an alien widower in Thane but the death of his wife was many years ago, so I suppose that is the reason it’s deemed acceptable.
The other reason is that both Kasumi and Zaeed cannot have conversations with Shepard back on the Normandy like you can with the other ten. All you can do is have them tell you stories or comment on what’s happening on the ship without the dialogue wheel ever popping up. On one hand, having an attractive looking party member never be romancable is commendable on Bioware’s part. Not every person is going to want to be with the Commander. At the same time, I will remain forever curious what could have been if it were possible.
Mordin and Legion: The coolest characters you can never romance
Mordin Solus is awesome. He is a scientist, professor and doctor with a dark past that he’s often in denial about but always, always ready to help someone out, either out of penance or just because he’s so damn good at it.
What makes Mordin immediately lovable is his speech pattern. Likely due to a head injury he suffered while part of STG, his species’ SAS essentially, he always speaks in short, analytical sentences, often speaking longer on the subject than he should while ultimately, intelligently coming to a correct conclusion.
He is effortlessly funny, even when he doesn’t intend to and he’s always ready to give advice to Shepard once he gets aboard the Normandy. The game often stresses that he should be the first party member to recruit due to him being the guy who runs the Normandy’s lab. With the lab unlocked, the player can unlock upgrades for everything from improved defense and offense capabilities to improvements to the Normandy that are MANDATORY if you want everyone to survive. Even without him being one of the easiest characters to love, he has an inherent utility both mechanically and narratively.
So great was Mordin’s popularity, especially when you learned that he knows how to sing patter songs like his own version of “Modern Major General”, that on the pretense of him surviving the mission against the Collectors, he will become an essential player in an act of Mass Effect 3 to be discussed later on. The same also applies to Legion in this respect.
Mordin is unique that in all the characters that are old or are getting on in years, like Samara and Zaeed, Mordin is most apparent in this respect. His species, Salarian, only live to be roughly 40. Mordin is somewhere in his 30s, only somewhat older than Shepard in a literal sense (Shepard, despite having been resurrected from his/her death at 29, is stated to be 31 in ME2).
Mordin’s eagerness to assist Shepard against the Collectors, along with running a free clinic on Omega, ME’s very own hive of scum and villainy, is played as desiring redemption for what he did earlier in life. As much as Mordin patently denies it right up until the end of his story in ME3.
He is responsible for having modified the Genophage, the sterility plague I mentioned in ME1 and that affects every last Krogan. He handwaves it as being necessary, using reasons both old and contemporary for having done the right thing for the galaxy. His pupil, Maelon, vehemently disagrees, and Mordin’s confrontation with him in his loyalty mission, is one of the most consequential.
Without prior knowledge, many won’t realize how deeply important Mordin’s encounter with his former student is. Mordin and Shepard discover Maelon on Tuchanka, the Krogan homeworld. Through a series of brutal experiments that cause both to recoil in disgust, Maelon is attempting to find a cure for the Genophage. He’s hoping that bringing back fertility for the Krogan and by extension giving them a future will make up for the barbaric methods he used and his assistance with the modification with his once adored professor.
In spite of Maelon being clearly framed in the wrong for how he goes about searching for a cure, players are still given the choice to keep the blood-stained research, on the off chance it could be useful later. Oh, you bet your ass it is.
On moral grounds, players could make one of the gravest mistakes in the trilogy, especially if they’re interested in helping Wrex and Grunt’s species from going bye-bye one day. It’s a rare but powerful example that sometimes the paragon or “right” choice may not actually be the right choice at all. It’s here where the title of “mass effect” means something especially well.
Even with Mordin’s grim history, it’s impossible for me not to love him as one of the best characters in the whole franchise. Even without the redemption arc he goes down in ME3 (which the player can sadistically cut short), Mordin is also fun to bring around on excursions that involve your party members bantering. While Garrus and Tali are the ones I bring most often, Mordin is always tempting to bring, not for what he offers in combat but in what he brings to the conversation.
Legion, like Mordin, is an essential figure to an act of Mass Effect 3 and is more important than Mordin for one of the overlying themes of the trilogy: can organic life co-exist peacefully with synthetic life? It’s at the heart of what the Reapers are about and the reason they harvest civilizations every 50,000 years: that no, we can’t or the possibility has not been created.
Legion is a Geth, the artificial intelligence race created by the Quarians( Tali’s race) and one of the major enemy types of the original Mass Effect. His presence and what he or in truth they are about, throws one giant spanner into what Shepard and the player had assumed the Geth were up until that point. And God bless Bioware for that new found complexity.
Legion, up until one possible outcome of the character’s story arc in ME3, is not an individual. He is in fact a physical construct that houses over a thousand programs that are Geth. Essentially, a small town’s worth of people lie within Legion. They have all come to the conclusion that Commander Shepard is the bee’s knees.
After Shepard’s death from the Collectors at the opening of ME2, Legion was the first one on the scene, having been tracking Shepard ever since the inciting incident at Eden Prime at the very beginning. It sustained serious injuries in his quest to meet Shepard in person, and so used the Commander’s N7 armor to help with repairs. It now has Shepard’s old armor as a permanent fixture. Shepard in turn asks why out of all the options to use in repairing it’s body they chose that particular option. They respond uncharacteristically shyly with “No data available.” Aww.
In truth, all the Geth that Shepard fought in ME1 were “Heretics”, rogue Geth that had broken away from the original Geth that Legion is part of. These Geth were seduced by Saren and by extension the Reaper Sovereign with the promise of survival and purpose. Legion’s Geth knew this was a terrible idea but a schism occurred anyway.
Shepard and the player learn that all this time the somewhat 2-dimensional Geth are involved in a civil war and you have the chance to gain the loyalty even friendship of the “good Geth” in the process. Or, once you find them on a super important story mission by happenstance, you can sell Legion to Cerberus. Like destroying Maelon’s data, this is a choice that will give you nothing but pain down the road. But the choice is still yours to have a concerning lack of both foresight and curiosity.
Legion is originally just called Geth, due to the aforementioned 1000+ programs residing, but in order to better communicate with Shepard and the Normandy crew, they choose “Legion” from the Bible, due to that also involving an individual with over a thousand beings residing inside itself. In spite of the ominous correlation, Legion is unequivocally one of the most trustworthy figures Shepard can meet, so long as they express trust in return.
In fact, once you reach the major event surrounding Legion, the Geth and by extension Tali and the Quarians in ME3, you will feel like a rat bastard for turning on him, even if your reasons have an unfortunate understandability to them. I’ll delve more into that moment in the next part, but be grateful there is a way to avoid a binary choice of choosing one species over the other. One choice will leave you feeling awful, the other will leave you crying, especially if you play Mass Effect like I do.
Garrus and Tali: The Semper Fi squadmates
I will be ending each character run-down for each part with Garrus and Tali because, well, they deserve it. These two characters as I mentioned in the first part are the only characters to be in Shepard’s team in all three games. No matter what one can say of other widely loved members like Liara, Wrex, Thane or Miranda, they can never fill the role these two do simply for being able to show up for their best friend Shepard and in time, maybe more than that.
Garrus was having a bad time right after Shepard’s death and not just because Shepard died. Knowing what’s coming with the Reapers and all, Garrus felt utterly helpless. What could he do? His job at C-Sec was just as unfulfilling as it was before Shepard maybe even more so. So, everyone’s favorite Turian said “F**K IT” and became a vigilante.
He assembled a team of 12 other like-minded figures from across the galaxy and of varying species and backgrounds to go to Omega, the worst place in the galaxy and clean it up as much as they could. They made sure to avoid pissing off the “big cheese” of Omega, the Asari crime lord Aria T’loak, played with a delightfully cool passive-aggression by Trinity herself, Carrie Anne-Moss. Instead, everyone else was prime-grade acceptable for some extrajudicial justice.
Considering how lawless and broken Omega is, the wider galactic community shrugged more than anything else with Garrus’ team taking the law into their own hands. Under the new human-inspired moniker of “Archangel”, Garrus was doing great. He pissed off Omega’s underworld so bad by the time you come to recruit Archangel for the suicide mission and learn it’s in fact Garrus, the three biggest crime syndicates have joined forces.
Garrus could’ve handled it without Shepard, but wouldn’t you know it: there was a Judas in the team and it results in all but Garrus dying in an ambush. The traitor, revealed to be a fellow Turian called Sidonis, flees and Garrus fights all by himself against overwhelming odds. Until Shepard comes to the rescue.
It’s a testament to how much Bioware knows the fans love Garrus that they give him possibly the best, most epic recruitment mission in the game with the only other contenders for best going to Thane and Tali. The setup is beautifully considered. Shepard and two of their squadmates sign up to be freelance mercs assisting the three big crime groups in finishing off Archangel. After reviewing the situation with the mercs on the ground (and optionally sabotaging them along the way) Shepard and friends begin the assault on Garrus’ hideout only to reveal themselves to the hapless mercs whose side they’re really on. They enter the hideout and greet Garrus, happy to see he really isn’t alone in the galaxy.
You then assist Garrus in holding off three distinct waves based on each of the crime groups, resulting in a fight against a helicopter that ends in Garrus grievously injured. You win, but nearly lose the fan favorite just as you reunite with him. Garrus’ plight is especially emotional if you plan to have a female Shepard romance him later on.
Obviously, Garrus never dies in this sequence though he does get his face messed up but hardly enough to make him no longer able to join Shepard’s squad. He proceeds to enter internet meme legend by becoming the member of the crew who manages the Normandy’s armaments and he is often unable to chat with Shepard because he’s “in the middle of some calibrations”. That unintentional gag wouldn’t go unnoticed by Bioware and they were damn sure no one would forget it in Mass Effect 3 that he is the “master of calibrations.” The options for adjusting Mass Effect: Legendary Edition even goes so far to call it “calibrations.” How cute.
Aside from Garrus’ commitment to helping his old comrade fight the Collectors, Garrus’ big dilemma relates to the man that betrayed him. Letting Sidonis run around out there definitely becomes a distraction and in order to insure Garrus’ loyalty, he must be dealt with, one way or another.
Like Zaeed, Garrus wants plain old revenge. Unlike Zaeed, it’s more about not being just personally slighted or betrayed, but that 11 other people were betrayed and killed over it. Is it vengeance or justice? Should how Shepard allows Garrus to take care of Sidonis reflect that?
I already elaborated on Garrus as a romancable figure for Shepard in the first part, so if you want my thoughts on that angle to Garrus, go back and check it out. It’s so very sweet and it’s a nice example of Bioware willing to give Shepard types of love interests whose appeal was not just because they look sexy, but that they are attractive for reasons more than skin deep.
Garrus’ appearence is quite alien. Why he is so preferred as a potential lover for Shepard is not.
Tali has become a hero to her people since she returned from her pilgrimage. Helping kill a hell of a lot of Geth and stop Saren has done wonders. And yet, it is not enough, especially for her distant, wayward father. In spite of the whole “collectivist by necessity” nature of the Quarian people, Tali did feel somewhat alone. She had a loving surrogate Aunt, Admiral Raan, but she never knew her mother until her death at an early age. Her father, also an admiral, was obsessed even for a Quarian with getting his people back to their homeworld of Rannoch.
Tali in turn did all she could to get her father to notice her, get him to show her love the way she tried to show him. More so than making her people proud, she wanted to make him proud. Again, countless Geth destroyed, the galaxy spared the Reapers’ onslaught (at least for now), what more will it take?
Much like how Indiana Jones’ estranged relationship with his dad made Indy in turn more self-reliant and independent, Tali became a remarkable machinist, almost a genius. Some mistakes here and there, she was quite capable of being by herself and eventually becoming an invaluable member of the first human Spectre’s team. And yet.
Tali, unlike Garrus, gets to reunite with Shepard well before her recruitment mission, soon after their resurrection. She is leading a team of Quarians trying to find one of their own in a colony hit by the Collectors. Sadly, her entire team is killed and it was not her fault. But she does find the Quarian she was looking for.
When you recruit her on the Quarian colony world of Haestrom, now an outpost for the Geth and also victim to a star that is in it’s last years, making every part of the level on Haestrom that isn’t shaded a lethal hazard, she again gets almost her entire team killed and again it is not her fault entirely. A combination of bad military intelligence, Quarians not being suited for field combat and not knowing the nature of Haestrom at that point being responsible that time.
With help from Shepard, one of her team can survive ,Kal’Reegar voiced by Firefly’s Adam Baldwin. She then happily returns to Shepard’s crew. She’s not leader material. Not yet. That alone makes her a sympathetic figure even if you start with Mass Effect 2 and never played the original.
The nature of Tali’s loyalty mission not only directly ties into the narrative surrounding the Quarians and Geth in Mass Effect 3, it’s where Tali is thrown into one hell of a round of turmoil. First, she learns that she has been accused of treason against her people, something she would never do. The message announcing her treason and to show up for trial won’t even tell her why she’s been charged.
When you arrive to represent Tali at her trial, she’s then told why she has the charge: she’s accused of bringing active Geth parts onto the fleet, compromising the safety of the 17 million that live in the nomadic armada. She’s stunned: again, something she would never willingly do.
In front of both the Admiralty Board, which is the government for the Quarian race, and in front of a crowd, the charges are thrown at her publicly and then if that wasn’t enough of a battering on her self-esteem, is then told that her father’s ship has been taken over by Geth. And everyone on board including her father is almost certainly dead. She doesn’t take it well.
Shepard convinces the Board to head over and clear her father’s ship of Geth, find out if there any survivors and see if Tali is actually guilty of the charges. What she finds there is no comfort. At. All. It’s here, whether you intend to or can romance Tali or not, give her a well-needed hug.
When you get back from the ship, what Shepard can decide to do next can amount to either one of the most heartwarming or sociopathically cold actions in the entire trilogy. It’s safe to say the latter option does not get you her loyalty and if I’m being honest, it might just make Tali’s near certainty of death in the suicide mission to come a case of seeking death. And it will all be on you.
In fact, choosing to screw over Tali as a male Shepard takes on a whole new disturbing level when you factor in the romance that is otherwise possible if her loyalty is gained. Trying for a relationship with Tali (which is a no-brainer if I’m playing a straight Shepard) reveals that she had developed feelings for Shepard ever since their first meeting in Mass Effect 1. Why? Well, I’ll let her explain.
“What could I possibly be suggesting? I mean, a young woman gets saved by a dashing commander who lets her join his crew and then goes off to save the galaxy? How could she possibly develop any interest in him?” Couldn’t have explained it better myself.
Is that one reason why I find Tali the extremely easy if maybe only choice for M/Shepard’s love? Yep, but it’s also that Tali, in spite of almost always having a ludicrous bodycount by the end of the trilogy (goes with the territory of being a video game, yadda-yadda), is one of the sweetest, friendliest and most deserving characters of having a happy resolution to her story.
Having someone that outwardly cares for her as much as she wishes her father did also factors in. Even the best case scenario for how Shepard and Tali’s love story can go is bittersweet but I will wait on discussing that.
Another angle that adds to that romance’s quality is that there is a drama to it that is unique. Due to the circumstances of the Quarian people’s health, the prior mentioned poor immune systems, having a Quarian open their mask or any part of their suit will involve risk. So, it wouldn’t take a genius to guess that any kind of personal relationship Shepard could have with her could be in Mordin’s phrasing “problematic.”
There is an option for Shepard to forgo a physical relationship with Tali both because he cares too much for her safety and/or because there is an already risky mission to destroy the Collectors on the horizon. However, Shepard and Tali can find a way to make this otherwise stupid risk into a case of two people putting trust in one another and going through with it right before the suicide mission. It’s safe to say that a kind of subjective magic takes place with what comes next, where for once I experienced a moment in video games that is as close to perfect as it can be.
And the best part, this magic doesn’t stop at Mass Effect 2. It leads to one of my personal favorite “squee” moments ever in Mass Effect 3. But like the best things about the Mass Effect trilogy, you’ll have to be patient.
So, anyway, that’s 12 characters looked into. Damn, that took awhile. So, um what next? Well before I finally delve into the culmination of all the therapy Shepard can and should commit to, let’s talk about the three big DLC offerings and how they factor into Mass Effect 2’s pacing.
Mass Effect 2, without the DLC is possibly the longest game in the series. Sort of appropriate seeing as how it’s the middle part of a three part story, so naturally the most stuff would happen in the middle chapter. However, the three major expansions: Overlord, Lair of the Shadow Broker and Arrival, can make the best Mass Effect game into a potential pacing nightmare.
It’s hard enough there is a point of no return after a certain portion of the base game, at least if you want to ensure everyone on board the Normandy gets to live. There is a lot of stuff that is crammed in before that point of no return if you’re looking for an entirely loyal squad, which for the average player will be the common approach.
Now, we have the expansions. None of them are terribly long independently, but they can definitely add to the pressure of doing all things Mass Effect 2 in an orderly pace. Thankfully, unlike ME1 and ME3, where the game stops after the end credits, Mass Effect 2 keeps going assuming Shepard survives the suicide mission. They can keep on exploring the Milky Way as much as they see fit.
Once the game opens up a DLC expansion, it can be performed at any time in the game, before and after a survived Collector Base Assault. Two of the expansions actually make more sense if done after the suicide mission. The first, Overlord, makes the most narrative sense before.
The conceit of Overlord is that a Cerberus cell that works on artificial intelligence has gone dark. The Illusive Man wants Shepard to check it out. This cell, run by a very British Dr. Gavin Archer, was running experiments on connecting human cognitive activity to the Geth, perhaps as a way to create a new defense against them. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, you certainly discover what did and it’s one of the most haunting, disturbing adventures in Commander Shepard’s career, possibly the most disturbing before the Reaper’s invasion and the suicide mission. I should take this time to remind my readers I am a high functioning autistic man and that autism is a spectrum. Another high-functioning autistic man could be quite different than the kind I am.
Why did I bring up this personal side to me apparently out of the blue? Well, the heart of the problem, the particular person that was sent to connect with the Geth’s network of intelligence, is an autistic man. Dr. Archer’s poor, poor brother. His side of the spectrum gives him incredible intelligence when it comes to mathematical matters, but he also has the same repetitive behavioral tics I am generally accustomed to and a sensitivity to loud noises, which I am gratefully not.
What happens to David is one of the most f**ked up moments in the franchise. I come the closest to tearing up here in relation to something not regarding the main group of characters than anywhere else. It’s so egregiously awful that a paragon Shepard is rarely as furious at the end of Overlord than at any point in the trilogy. Even a renegade Shepard is put off. It says a lot that a paragon Shepard can pistolwhip Dr. Archer for what he’s done.
In the interest of leaving some shocking things unspoiled, I won’t tell you what Gavin did to David but…..Jesus.
Lair of the Shadow Broker has been called one of the best DLC expansions of all time and for good reason. Even without being a fan of Liara of which it is directly centered around, it’s fantastic. It’s so good, it almost made me a fan of Liara. It puts her in a position going into Mass Effect 3 that is more interesting and appropriate than she was before. At least by this point, I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a deserving friend of Shepard, if I can’t bring myself to elevate her to a lover.
As you can imagine, it’s about Liara hunting for the Shadow Broker, an enigmatic figure first mentioned in ME1 and was actually responsible for getting the dirt on Saren that Tali then gives to Shepard to incriminate the rogue Spectre.
In-between ME1 and ME2, Liara fights tooth and nail to ensure Shepard’s remains following their murder is kept out of Collector hands. She uses the Shadow Broker for assistance and one of it’s agents, a Drell named Feron helps her out. However, the Broker is quite a crafty bastard and has plans for Shepard’s carcass that would not be good, to say the least. Feron turns against the Broker to help save Shepard and is then captured by other agents. Liara gets Shepard to Cerberus where you know what happens then.
Liara goes to the unfettered capitalist nightmare of Ilium, the Coruscant-looking planet and becomes an information broker. In her efforts to avenge what she imagines is now a very dead Feron, she becomes a much colder, grimmer person. When you meet her again as Shepard in the vanilla version of ME2, her change in demeanor is alarming.
The DLC gives Shepard information on the location of the Shadow Broker’s base and they in turn give it to Liara. What follows is not only a chance to finally have Liara temporarily rejoin the crew, but you are also treated to a fun mixture of genres. Noirish mystery, explosive corporate espionage, high speed action and one brutal and memorable fight with a tough as nails (redacted for spoilers not worth spoiling).
You then proceed with Liara to assault the Shadow Broker’s cool as hell floating fortress, inside a stormy gas giant. Once inside the ship, you confront the Shadow Broker, revealed to be a brand new alien species that has a dope design. Then, one of the most cleverly designed boss battles in the trilogy. You celebrate your victory over the Broker with a sweet ship to explore with cool Easter eggs, a chance to talk with Feron and Liara one on one and basically bask in accomplishing a piece of DLC that you can’t quite anywhere else, save for ME3’s Citadel. And for those interested, you can strike up an old relationship with Dr. T’Soni.
A DLC so well made, it has something for almost any discerning Mass Effect player. Hear hear, Bioware. Hear hear.
Arrival is the final expansion, released over a year after ME2’s original launch and after the official announcement of Mass Effect 3 being in development. More so than Shadow Broker, this DLC feels like it’s meant for after the suicide mission once every other thing you want to do or have to do has been accomplished. It ties in neatly with where we find Shepard at ME3’s opening.
So you can imagine how frustrating it can be to have the Arrival DLC not only be unlocked halfway through Mass Effect 2 but the game forces you into a cut-scene where you speak with Admiral Hackett, seen in person for the first time and played in his gravelly best by Lance Henriksen. I wish there was some way to make it so that Arrival is only accessible once the Suicide Mission is accomplished. But in the interest of player freedom, Bioware allows it be playable beforehand.
Admiral Hackett wants Shepard to search for a Dr. Kenson, a friend and colleague of his who was doing something that Shepard wishes all of his/her government was doing: looking into this whole “Reaper” business you won’t shut up about.
What follows is Shepard first rescuing the doctor from Batarians who had captured her for attempting an unusual form of terrorism and then Shepard going to her and her likeminded scientists base of operations: a meteor that is big enough to destroy a mass relay.
Turns out Dr. Kenson not only believes the Reapers are real and coming, they’re coming to our galaxy in a couple of hours. Destroying the relay is the only way to stop the invasion, but even that is a postponement of what will inevitably happen in Mass Effect 3: War of the Worlds for a crap ton of worlds. Doing so has Shepard wipe out a solar system with over 300,000 people. No matter your moral alignment for Shepard, this is one morbid action that you must take.
The only way for Shepard to avoid doing this is if you skip the expansion altogether, which can happen. Somebody else will take Shepard’s place in destroying the relay but nothing can change that it takes 1/3 of a million people to just slow down the Reapers. That is one reason the Reapers rank as one of the best video game antagonists in recent years. No matter what you do or why, they will make you and Shepard hurt. If that wasn’t evident in the first two games, Mass Effect 3 is borderline cruel in rubbing it in.
Now, at long last, the Suicide Mission that concludes more or less Mass Effect 2. For some, it isn’t so much Mass Effect 2 but the Suicide Mission inside the game that is the current peak of the franchise. While emotions can and will run distressingly high in Mass Effect 3, in terms of the narrative and the gameplay being married to capture emotion, the Normandy’s voyage through the ominous Omega 4 Relay to the Collector base is the summit of ME as an achievement. It’s a rollercoaster that will make a player stressed, fearful, awed, thrilled, and in the best case scenario, satisfied in ways few games I’ve played have ever matched.
Let me set the mood with one of the most badass tracks in video game history.
So, it’s time to put your work or lack of it, on the line. Got your squad all leveled up and loyal? As many upgrades made including to your ship? if yes, now it’s a matter of judgement from here on out. If not, prepare to cry and perhaps die.
I will spare you much of the details of what happens or can happen in the Suicide Mission because more than anything else it is an experience you will want to go into as fresh as possible. If you don’t want to actually play Mass Effect 2 or don’t have the time, then I have no gripes with you watching a playthrough. You’ll still get something out of this. Just watching a first time player of this particular moment and seeing how badly or not they can screw up is a fun time in itself.
What makes the Suicide Mission into prime rib melodrama is first that you develop over a lengthy game and even to some extent your experience from the first game a powerful connection to your Shepard and the people in their life. The ups and downs, the triumphs, the failures, who you have decided to have Shepard get together with or not. Well, now it’s time to put your commitment to one hell of a test.
It’s the behind the scenes math of the Suicide Mission’s design that makes it into such a brilliant piece of work. There are certain numbers appointed to each and every party member that will determine if they survive. The highest level is four for a loyal member though this can fluctuate or be lower depending on how strong the party member is individually, who they are in company with and so forth. There are special tasks that Shepard must assign a party member that, loyal or not, must be dependent on their skill sets in relation to the task. Otherwise, you might as well be sentencing a party member’s death warrant.
It can sting bad if you are partial to that team mate or am having Shepard romance them. What makes it worse is that either the manner of death is fast and sudden which gives you and Shepard barely any time to register that they are gone for good and that you never have any time to mourn, only to somberly acknowledge and move out.
It’s in potential moments like this that the power fantasy of wanting to be like Commander Shepard can twist around into being a case of “careful what you wish for.” Especially expressed in the next game, Shepard’s life sucks. And that can and will be the case in the best outcomes.
The Suicide Mission at its core has three basic outcomes: (1) No survivors including Shepard though the Collectors are still defeated for good. (2) Shepard and enough of his team survive to make it possible to continue the journey into ME3. (3) Quoting Christopher Eccleston, “EVERYBODY LIVES. JUST THIS ONCE.” And I cannot tell you how good it feels to get option 3, let alone the first time.
Did I get everyone out my first playthrough all the way back in 2010? Nope. For some reason, I didn’t give the Normandy its upgrades and I lost three of my team before we even landed on the base: Jack, Thane and Legion. No kidding that rattled me. However, once I was in the base, I managed not to lose anyone else.
Following your survival of the Collector base, the game ends with Shepard and the Normandy crew giving The Illusive Man and Cerberus the finger and doing some reconnaissance of the outer edges of the galaxy. What do they see?
So yeah, I did want to play Mass Effect 3 the second I finished 2.
Was the wait worth it?
Actually, yes. And in some particular ways, sort of no. But it’s a “no” that is very much worth experiencing, if only to understand if not feel what it was like when Bioware unintentionally set the Internet on fire in a manner they very much didn’t desire.
Next time, the conclusion of the trilogy, hopefully in less than 10,000 words.
The Mass Effect trilogy, released between 2007 and 2012, is a landmark in interactive entertainment.
Even with all the success Canadian developer Bioware had had with titles prior like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire and especially Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and titles concurrent such as sister series Dragon Age, none have quite left a footprint on the public consciousness like the three-part story of Commander Shepard and friends.
In a very simple explanation, Mass Effect is the realization of the alluring power fantasy of being a space opera hero, more in the veins of Buzz Lightyear than Luke Skywalker but if played compellingly straight. Of being either a bold space captain of comrades human & alien or a gritty, whatever-it-takes antihero whose associations are at best allies if little else. Or more believably, a fusion of both to create a flawed, interesting figure that either fits your ideal space man/woman of action or falls into what you think a predetermined choice of background should and would entail.
This is a sci-fi future space odyssey that will begin with your character looking down onto Earth in the late 22nd century and will, controversially, end with them making an impossible choice with no clear cut happy outcome that was originally more aggravating due to the lack of clarity in what those choices would end your story on. Along the way, the narrative’s flavor, tone and who does and does not get to be with your Shepard on that path were up to you.
You can strive and toil for the strongest bittersweet conclusion possible or you can rush to the finish line and be ruthlessly punished for your haste and lack of foresight. You can fall in love, stay instead married to the job or you can tragically lose the one you chose Shepard to love before the finish line. More than once. You can do many things, but as echoed by a character voiced by Lance Henriksen, none of this would matter if there were no one in this galaxy that you believed in. Up to 19 characters can make up the party that follows Commander Shepard against the unyieldingly horrible menace that are the Reapers.
Six join his/her story in the first game, but only five can survive and you can potentially end up with only four if you’re especially uncareful or worse, indifferent. Ten more join in the sequel, accompanied by two from the original and if you play your cards hilariously wrong, none will survive and neither will Shepard. Your story will end anticlimactically and it will be all on you. The final game will have three more additions with up to four that can return. The continuity of your crew always having some familiar face does wonders on the emotional power of this trilogy.
The Mass Effect trilogy beautifully plays up the idea that you can be a super strong-willed space marine with charm, intimidation, strategical genius and have possibly the best social skills in all the Milky Way. Commander Shepard can appear perfect, nigh superhuman but as the trilogy wears on, especially by the third, you come to see a soldier who has witnessed so much horror, pain and sadness, a lot that the player can choose to add to their background before you even start controlling them, that you see a person slowly breaking down, hiding as best they can the unending weight of being a savior figure.
Without the people at Commander Shepard’s side, there would be absolutely no chance against the omnicidal reapers, who every 50,000 years destroy galactic civilizations and harvest entire species to “preserve” them for some grand purpose. With the group of friends and maybe a lover that Shepard can bring into their life, he/she have yet the greatest weapon against that colossal threat and if the player so decides, his/her true purpose to win.
Part 1: The first steps into a larger world (Mass Effect 1)
In spite of the clear quality of life improvements the Legendary Edition gives to the original Mass Effect from 2007, with improved graphics, better lighting, smoother frame-rate, significantly fewer textures that load in and an all terrain vehicle that handles less terribly, nothing can keep the original from escaping the feel of being the most aged. This is not exactly a criticism, as it is a game of its time that was pushing new ideas into the gaming mainstream with some experiments that to this day, have yet to gel as well as Bioware had hoped.
It’s the beginning of an ambitious planned game trilogy, so many of the rough edges have yet to be trimmed. But playing through with foresight, you know they will be trimmed, so you soldier on and enjoy what ME1 gets right. It’s amazing how well I can put up with one of the least intuitive inventory systems in a mainstream game when I know it will be alright in the end.
The first Mass Effect has you beginning Shepard’s journey to become the unsuspecting savior of a galaxy of trillions. In spite of the backgrounds you can give your Shepard, there is still a Tabula Rasa to who he or she will be in the player hands. You might have given them a background that literally reads “ruthless” but nothing is saying you should follow through on the presumed Renegade path. Maybe strive to be a Paragon, making amends for your past.
More than how Shepard’s moral character is to be shaped for games to come, this is also an introductory phase to an entire universe, where Bioware shows their skill in crafting their own space sci-fi world separate from the one there were given to play in with Star Wars. The famous codex available in the menu is more than happy to fill in the details that playing the game may not tell you or you might miss. So concerned was Bioware with ensuring Mass Effect’s commitment to detail through lore that the main entries boast a narrator who reads in an oratory voice the most important stuff.
At the same time, this is one of the earliest games, maybe the first game, where the player character actually says what the player chooses as dialogue. When it comes to the “investigate” portion of the dialogue wheel, where the player can ask whatever relevant question to a certain individual, Shepard’s manner of asking these questions feels too cookie cutter, repetitive. What do I mean by that?
“Tell me more about your culture.” “How does omni-gel work again?” “Why are the Turians skeptical of us?”
The manner in how Shepard asks just about any question feels too robotic. The sequels would make Shepard’s asking of questions feel much more natural, which in turn would make Shepard feel more natural as a result. For the first go around of Mass Effect, it would be the people in Shepard’s life that would have to do most of the heavy lifting. Let’s meet them, shall we?
Ashley and Kaidan
One of the running issues that may well be hard to fully reconcile is that in a fictional universe full of cool, exotic, fleshed out and of course romanceable aliens, why would Commander Shepard want to spend time with more of his own species? That is to say, why would the player? Of course, there are popular human members to Shepard’s team, more so in the sequels than here, but it’s not surprising that the most fan art, fan cosplay and fan attention is spent with Shepard’s pals and potential lovers from the stars. Nowhere is the comparable flatness of the human party members more present than in the original.
True, when Ashley(left) and Kaidan(right) return to the party in ME3, the weight of past games and Shepard’s evolved relationship with them does make them more interesting. One of the factors that almost naturally leads to them having something interesting to them is that both cannot make it to the sequels. In a famous moment late in the first game, Shepard is forced to leave one of his human squad members behind to die. The other will get to return and the baggage that comes with surviving they carry the whole trilogy. How Shepard feels about it (not well) is one area where I wish I was given more agency over Shepard, like how much he/she is bothered and continues to be bothered about one’s passing and the other’s survival.
Kaidan is the first overall squad member of the entire Mass Effect trilogy and his reputation continues to be mixed, especially with his portrayal in the first. He’s often described as the blandest character, with his defining trait being that he has migraines from becoming a biotic as a youth. Biotics are individuals who are capable of using Mass Effect technology, either biological in some alien cases or artificial in human cases to have blue and purple tinted superpowers. These include telekinetically controlling objects, creating waves of forceful power, weakening various materials, and creating barriers to protect oneself.
Kaidan’s lack of issues compared to the rest of the Normandy crew does make him less dramatically interesting certainly, but it is kinda neat to have a member of the crew with few if any real problems. He’s the normal joe brought into a situation far, far bigger than anything he could possibly imagine and this desire to fight not just for survival but a world with fewer concerns can have a compelling draw. The aspects of Kaidan that work come much more into focus should he make it to ME3 and rejoin the crew.
Kaidan’s most obvious purpose in ME1’s case was being first, an example of a “biotic” member in case the player didn’t choose Shepard to be biotic as well as to be a potential love interest for a female Shepard, endearingly called “Femshep” by fans and critics. In that department, Kaidan is hardly the worst choice and this is arguably the reason given for why someone might choose to save him in the original game.
To me, Kaidan’s most interesting aspect comes from a decision that Bioware made for Mass Effect 3. To make him bisexual. Retcon or not, Kaidan can become a love interest for a male Shepard assuming he was the one chosen to live. What makes this particular gay pairing interesting to me is that not only was it a case of Bioware listening to fans who thought that pairing would be interesting based on subtext from how Shepard and Kaidan can converse in the first two games, but that it is a somber demonstration of two coming together over shared loss, namely for Ashley.
A male Shepard and Kaidan coming together in ME3 is actually a great example of one of the trilogy’s most unique strengths: connections borne over not one epic-length title, but several. M/Shepard can’t get with Kaidan in the first game, most obviously because overt same-sex relationships were a no-go in 2007( Bioware had previously attempted a gay love interest in 2003″s Star Wars :KOTOR but that was, to many a fan’s dismay, scrapped during production).
So, ironically, by holding off on this romantic option being possible the first time around, Bioware creates a heartwarming new drama by having two old friends/comrades in arms reunited and realizing something about each other that they didn’t see before, wistfully wondering what could have been but all too happy with what they found in the present. It’s also possible to romance Ashley and the third ME1 love interest, Liara( more on her later), for the first time in ME3 and the tone is also similar in two friends coming together to be something more than what was there originally. Kaidan is unique because MaleShep never could be with him period in the first game so expressing love for him as a gay Shepard has a charm.
It plays off the idea that one of Mass Effect’s strengths is that there is satisfaction to be had in striving for long term gratification. Some of the best, most natural relationships in the series, including my undisputed favorite, don’t start in the first and can carry over multiple games. Almost as much as being ready to decisively face the Reapers, you have to commit to the people in your life.
Ashley is the other human team member and she is often chosen more to be the survivor over Kaidan. This stems from being the romance option for a male Shepard( the more often played sex initially) and because she is certainly more interesting in comparison to Kaidan off the bat. Whether or not that translates into “likable” is another question. Ashley “Ash” Williams, indeed named in honor of Bruce Campbell’s goofball character from the Evil Dead series, is divisive for reasons different than Kaidan.
She is meant to represent humanity overcoming the inevitable prejudices of co-existing with alien species. She is not a malicious racist towards aliens, though some of her off-color jokes would be concerning if I was an extraterrestrial next to her when she says it. She is the grand-daughter of the first human military leader to surrender to an alien force during the First Contact War, our species’ tumultuous introduction to galactic politics, to say the least.
Her military family took much heat unfairly for this legacy and both her father and herself suffered career wise in humanity’s military, the Systems Alliance. Only by being the sole survivor of a vicious attack in the game’s opening act and becoming the second squad member under Shepard does she finally go down a road that will do her family’s name proud.
As the series progresses and Ashley serves alongside aliens against what turns out to be existential odds does she start to throw away her bigoted side. By ME3, she has no racist inclinations towards any species save the AI Geth, the ones that slew her squad in ME1’s opening hours. She comes to see her alien comrades as brothers and sisters, which says much due to her unwavering commitment for her biological ones.
So, yes, Ashley does have a more interesting background than Kaidan’s and it’s a character arc not without some charm, but it was never enough to make me care about her as much as I would like. The potential role of Kaidan in ME3 is ultimately more engaging and her character design for that game never works for me. She goes from being a understated but tough female soldier to looking like a dolled-up fashion model who unwisely covers half her face with her long hair. Sure, it’s to indicate that she’s such a veteran that she doesn’t need complete spatial awareness I guess but Kaidan’s visual evolution is a lot better at making him feel the most grounded human ME1 character over Ashley.
Alright, enough about the puny earthlings: on to the alien members which for many help define Mass Effect’s appeal the best.
Wrex and Liara
Wrex and by extension his race, the Krogan, are meant to be the “proud warrior race” of aliens. You’ve seen them before. The Klingons of Star Trek, the Mandalorians of Star Wars, the Sontarans of Doctor Who. The difference here is that this “live for battle” mentality has severe consequences on the species itself and not just everyone else.
The Krogan, for reasons admittedly not wholly their own, have ruined their planet. There were given the tools of modern warfare a little too early by other alien species for the express purpose of fighting a monstrous race of arachnids called…the Rachni. Hey, not everything can be cleverly named here. Once they were done helping the galaxy defeat this species, they turned on their new galactic “friends” and on themselves, for the challenge and little else. Their homeworld of Tuchanka became an irradiated wasteworld and thankfully for the Krogan they are just tough enough to survive.
But it was the threat they posed to the rest of the galaxy that led to the extreme measure of the Genophage being brought upon them. A virus is put in the air of Tuchanka that ensures that only one in a thousand Krogan are born. With this brutal and ethically dire blow dealt to them, the “Krogan Rebellions” end. One of the witnesses to the long, horrible history that followed is Wrex.
Wrex, like your average Krogan, loves battle. It’s in the blood. That being said, he is a Krogan who wants a world for his people beyond just finding excuses to kill in combat. He thinks there is more to his people than just becoming a mercenary and spending whatever time remains of a slowly dying species wasting time affirming what everybody else thinks only a Krogan can do.
It’s rather telling that the four alien squad members of Mass Effect 1 have more far-reaching implications on what the galactic stage will become in the games to come than the human members. With Wrex, his survival in the first game and the friendship that he makes with Shepard will well decide not only the fate of his species, it will be instrumental to the galaxy itself. In just the friendship between the Commander and a very weary old warrior does the title “Mass Effect” very much live up to its intentions.
One of the most iconic moments in Mass Effect’s history is a showdown between Shepard and Wrex, right before the fateful choice the former must make to choose between Ashley and Kaidan. Wrex learns that the main antagonist of ME1, the foe you have been pursuing the entire game, is seemingly making a cure for the Genophage. Wrex has acted as if he had given up hope for his people. Here we learn he very much still cares and he’s angry.
In the hands of the villain Saren, these Krogan will be bad news for everyone and you can convince Wrex to stand down and realize that. Helping Wrex out by recovering some family armor by his request or serendipitously while out exploring the Milky Way will do wonders to resolve the conflict. If your paragon or renegade level is high enough, a special dialogue option will also talk him down from aiming a gun at you. Considering how popular, likable and easy it is to feel sorry for the guy, most players will strive for these options.
Or, if your conversation goes on too long, Ashley will shoot Wrex dead to the Commander and the player’s horror. In that moment, not that many players knew it back at the time in 2007, the galaxy’s future just became more grim. You can also shoot Wrex yourself and the reasons for why you choose to do it can’t wipe away the feeling you just made a mistake. Or, if you’re striving for the worst outcomes or are really aiming to make your Shepard a villainous protagonist, it might ironically feel quite good, in an uncomfortable sense.
Wrex is more than just a flashpoint in Mass Effect’s editable story, he’s more than a representative of one of many races you can encounter in this universe. He’s an example of a deconstruction of the trope he represents. The “proud warrior race” convention is copied over and over not only because it leads to enduringly popular fictional races to cosplay as (Klingons, Klingons, Klingons), but that they act as a representation for an undeniably dark yet still present impulse in the human condition.
We love war, we despise war. Klingons and Krogans are meant to represent the side of us that loves that impulse and the enthusiasm of seeing characters like Wrex and Star Trek’s Worf kick ass as those “fight for honor” figures impresses us. A later Krogan party member that originates in Mass Effect 2 takes that exploration of primal joy in combat further. Wrex has a side that does desire at least an alternative that still co-exists with his warrior side. Wrex doesn’t just enjoy fighting.
He wants to fight for more than just the fight. And gaining friendships with Shepard and the Normandy crew is a good place for him to begin his emergence from centuries of a gloomy rut. How Shepard and Wrex’s relationship can conclude in Mass Effect 3 can end up in two vastly different places.
One ends with Wrex proclaiming you a brother/sister to him. The other involves the player stabbing him in the back that is as heartbreaking as it is viciously disgusting on a moral level. It’s one of those moments that even hardcore Renegade players regret letting happen. And that moment is built on another soul-wrenching moment the player can decide to put themselves through. It’s not the most horribly painful “bad outcome” that you can allow in ME3( more on that when we get there), but it’s one moment that will make you feel vicariously like a scumbag. All the worse when you know there is a better alternative.
Liara is to me, the most divisive character in the trilogy. To a lot of people who read this, the biggest question mark pops into their head. Why, she’s a popular figure, don’t you know? She is incredibly important to the narrative of the trilogy, undergoes considerable character development and is a well-regarded romance option for both sexes of Commander Shepard. Hell, the acclaimed Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC for ME2, considered by many one of the best DLCs ever made, was created with the express purpose of allowing Liara to rejoin Commander Shepard’s story, at least for a little while, when she was absent before. Indeed, that DLC is awesome. What’s the problem?
It mostly boils down to Liara being a character that didn’t click for me where she clearly did for millions of others. I can’t entirely nail down why and that is extra odd considering how many times I have played through the trilogy. Her role in the first Mass Effect may have much to do with that. Ali Hillis, who otherwise does a great job with the character, gives Liara in her debut appearence a voice that makes her honestly kind of annoying.
It doesn’t help that during the course of the narrative, Liara essentially mind melds with Shepard to root out the plot of the game up to three times. In every instance, the dialogue feels written repetitively, maybe even copy and pasted between the scenes and when expressing mental fatigue from the meld, has this very unconvincing groan of pain that almost makes me laugh rather than feel sympathy.
I get where they were going with this character and it’s not a bad place. She is a young alien archeologist who is fascinated by the extinct Prothean race, the forerunners to modern Galactic civilization. Her interest in the Protheans and how they relate to Shepard’s hunt for Saren makes her invaluable to the story.
The execution of Liara as a character right out the gate of the trilogy-spanning story dampens my liking of this character even as ME2 and ME3 do a decent job of making her more interesting, easier on my ears and important to the narrative that doesn’t feel as forced. That being said, a lot of indications are present that Liara is the product of creator favoritism on Bioware’s part.
I get it, any creator or curator of a piece of narrative art will have favorites to choose from in the line-up of characters they make. The writers for the Mass Effect trilogy gravitated most towards Liara and found ways to make her integral to the plot of the whole trilogy, in spite of the many different changes Shepard can make to the galaxy. If I must say it, I will: Liara is the most clear cut example of a Mass Effect character having plot armor.
For a series that boasted and for the most part delivered on the idea that your choices as Shepard could have dire consequences, such as who lived or died, having even one character be totally safe from that fate(up until the very, very end, mind you) goes against the grain of that element. Of course, there have to be some characters who must survive to carry the plot forward and there was no getting around that. Maybe if I digged Liara more than I do, I would be more accepting.
I’m also kind of annoyed that Liara can be interpreted as the “default” love interest for Commander Shepard out of the many choices out there. That she can be romanced by a male and female Shepard, that their love story can begin in the first and endure the whole trilogy and her strong connection to the overall narrative supports this idea. Again, if my preferred love interest for Shepard had the same position in place of Liara, I would likely be holding a hypocritical stance. At the same time, it makes me understand the idea that in the world of Mass Effect, “to each their own” is more or less king. I just wish Bioware didn’t make their preference complete with neon signs.
Now, let’s hit you with the really good stuff.
Garrus and Tali
Garrus and Tali, whether you have them get together with Shepard or not, are possibly the most impactful party members in the entire trilogy.
They are most emblematic about what makes the Mass Effect trilogy feel so special to so many people, let alone myself. They are the only two characters who can be in Commander Shepard’s team for the entire trilogy. It probably wouldn’t have happened had they not caught player’s hearts the first time around.
Let’s start with Garrus, who barring a tragic set of choices in Mass Effect 2, either becomes arguably Commander Shepard’s best friend and for a female Shepard, the most fascinating and novel example of an human-alien love story I’ve possibly seen.
On the surface, Garrus is not cut from the freshest cloth. He’s basically a cop on the Citadel, the giant Babylon 5-like space station that acts as the central hub for the trilogy. He has grown tired of how the rules for C-Sec, the police force for the Citadel, often prevent him from exacting justice and protecting the innocent. He’s a Turian, a species that is perhaps the biggest stickler for being “by the book” in all things.
Garrus wants to be a good Turian, to do all he can to make life in the galaxy as safe and orderly as possible, and not just for his own species. But he thinks he can do all that by bending the rules or ignoring them outright so long as justice is served. It’s up to your Commander Shepard to see what kind of rebel he will be. But very little can keep him from being a badass no matter what you do.
It’s Brandon Keener’s voice that really sells Garrus. It has an audio filter that gives a distinctly not-human reverb to his voice, yet it still effortlessly toes the line between sounding just cool enough without risking Clint Eastwood or Seagal levels of self-parody. In tone, Garrus Vakarian miraculously becomes an eighties’ action hero that you can 100% take seriously.
When it comes to Garrus’ character arc and this can really apply to most if not all romanceable figures in the series, there is two maybe three directions. The difference between the default “friendship” arc and the romance arc feels the closest to being the same though that is hardly detrimental. It kinda cements how close Shepard and Garrus will become no matter what happens in the common scenario in that the latter makes it into all three games.
The romance arc for Garrus is also my preferred choice for being my Femshep’s true love, though because it is a romance obviously aimed more at Mass Effect’s considerable female playerbase than not, it doesn’t hit me the same way a romance between male Shepard and Tali does. But it has its moments, make no mistake.
The Garrus and Tali romances that can begin in Mass Effect 2 likely only came out of fan’s confusion over these compelling and likable characters not being romanceable in the first place. So, by popular demand, two of the best interactive love stories of all time( in my not at all humble opinion) were created. Sometimes, appeasing the fans isn’t the recipe for trouble that it often is.
What’s important to recognize here is that compared to most of the romances in the Mass Effect trilogy, especially revolving around Liara and human characters, Garrus and Tali are more tasteful when it comes to the love scenes, where the intimacy that certainly takes place is left almost entirely to the imagination. I don’t know if it’s respect for the characters or if Bioware didn’t want to risk making a roll around in the bed here look…awkward, but letting the emotions of those moments Shepard can share with those two take precedent is part of why they feel the most effective. To me, again to each their own.
As I inferred to earlier, while the love story between Femshep and Garrus is definitely romantic, it can half the time feel like the tightest friendship imaginable. For a lot of people, being in love is the most powerful friendship. Shepard and Garrus here are just as committed as comrades in arms as they are in lovingly embracing each other and this connection of business and pleasure intermingling makes it quite the novel approach.
As the above image suggests, for all of Garrus’ effortless skill with a rifle and all kinds of weapons of war and espionage, he is not as tactful when it comes to letting his guard down, especially due to the circumstances you find him in ME2. He has lost much and he could never forgive himself for screwing up any kind of relationship with the one human he has the most respect for. To see it all work out in the end, based on the player’s own volition as Commander Shepard, is something to see.
Now let’s talk about my easy favorite for Shepard’s true love, assuming I’m playing a straight male Commander Shepard. I often do because of the love story between that Shepard and Tali.
Having Shepard and Tali falling in love would obviously not be as great a story if Tali wasn’t independently a great character. Well, she is my favorite overall character in the trilogy so she already passes that qualification. For those who might be wondering right now, Tali is always in a suit due to her species having weakened immune systems from being space nomads on account of them having been forced off their homeworld by the Geth, the artificial intelligence of their own creation. That does sound an awful lot like Battlestar Galactica, you say. Well, Bioware takes that conceit and runs it in a fascinating direction.
The humans of Battlestar Galactica are banished from their worlds by the Cylons but don’t live in an intergalactic society like the one in Mass Effect. They instead begin a dangerous odyssey to find a new world to colonize and protect against the Cylons: Earth. In ME, the Quarians, Tali’s species, were already part of an interconnected civilization and that same civilization watched the Quarians’ banishment with a mix of pity and bemusement over letting that happen to them.
A massive armada of ships, The Migrant Fleet, became the ever mobile home of the Quarians and Tali was born into a society where everyone depended on everyone. They couldn’t afford not to. Being unable to find a suitable new planet, they lived inside their ships over generations and the already middling immune systems they had back on their homeworld of Rannoch grew weaker. Eventually, living inside body covering suits was the way of life and very few people can appreciate or remember what a Quarian looked like.
In Tali’s culture, everyone else comes first, herself second if there is time for that and rarely there is. Eventually, after coming of age she is sent on a pilgrimage, a rite of passage where a young Quarian goes out into the galaxy to find anything out there that could help the fleet be maintained. It’s safe to say that by the end of ME1, Tali doesn’t just succeed, she excels beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Tali’s introduction to Shepard and co. mirrors Liara in the sense that she is actually in one instance vitally important to the narrative. She comes across information that will reveal to the galaxy that Saren is up to no good and will allow Shepard to begin his journey to defeat him. Without Tali’s efforts in finding that information, without meeting Shepard, the galaxy was likely doomed then and there.
Like with Garrus, Tali is not romanceable in the first entry. This is actually great as it allows the players to come to like even love both characters just as themselves. Shepard can come to see them as compatriots and friends first. Together, they discover and face a threat gravely vast in its enormity. The idea that Shepard knew those two at all for a good space of time before any overt romantic affection is shown actually makes Tali and Garrus one of the more believable and natural love stories as their story wasn’t just meant for courtship opportunities.
In the interest of time due to how crazy long this entry has gotten, the first of three, I will continue on this line of thought involving Shepard and Tali and other romances in the later articles. I’m now going to move it back to the main narrative and what the first chapter boils down to, no matter the decisions you make along the way.
Saren, the Turian big bad of the first Mass Effect, is meant to be an echo of Shepard. They are both Spectres, agents that serve as the most special of special forces for the Citadel Council, the largest governing body in the Milky Way, essentially space U.N. but only marginally more effective due to the Spectres.
Shepard becomes the first human Spectre after finding the evidence(thanks to Tali) that pins him as having attacked a human colony and betrayed the Council. The Council in turn does one of the very few wise things in the Trilogy and makes Shepard not only that first human Spectre but tasks him with finding and getting Saren: dead or alive.
Saren is to me one of the more clumsily handled characters that still sticks the landing in the end. For most of his appearance in Mass Effect, he is not only presented as an obvious bad dude, but his behavior and mannerisms are more B-movie schlocky than his overall character arc would suggest.
There is one honest to God hilarious scene following the opening mission on the colony he attacks where he is evilly brooding aboard his ship when Marina Sirtis’ character comes in, Matriarch Benezia, Liara’s mother. She gives a status report on what happened to the colony after he left and something that Shepard did gets Saren pissed. He makes a bunch of angry noises that sound closer to a dog chewing vigorously on a steak, clomps up to Benezia and commands her to eliminate Shepard in his best Bond villain impression possible. All while we get an uncomfortably good look at Benezia’s cleavage. If you put this scene in a vacuum from the rest of the series, you would imagine it belonged to a lower class of melodrama than what Mass Effect is in.
However, by the third act’s start, once you reach his base on Virmire, the same place where the fates of Wrex, Ashley and Kaidan are made, Saren becomes a better if still overly dramatic antagonist. It’s due to Saren’s motivations being not wholly evil or misguided. If anything, you come to recognize Saren as being something of a victim, if not indeed a victim, of the Reapers.
To date, one of the things that makes the Reapers such intimidating foes isn’t just that they are absurdly powerful, resilient, intelligent and to top it all off, number in the tens of thousands, it’s that they have a very difficult weapon to shield against: Indoctrination.
In a sinister twist on Shepard’s uncanny ability to use social skills to save the day, the Reapers use utterly insidious brainwashing abilities to control their targets and have them work for them. This is especially cruel yet nonetheless effective when they use that skill on those that oppose them. Saren discovers the Reapers’ existence sometime before the game opens and immediately recognizes them as a “Holy f**k” threat to the galaxy. He wants to stop them, that’s his job.
However, the Reapers twist his mind to think that the only way Saren can succeed in saving the galaxy is by working with them. To ensure that some survive the harvest that comes every 50,000 years. The harvest that claimed the Protheans. While there was plenty of evidence that Saren was not a swell guy before indoctrination, such as his racist hatred of humanity and other more than questionable methods he has used as a Spectre, Saren never stopped believing in protecting the galaxy as a whole. On a certain level, he never forsakes what the Spectres are.
He was told by the Council that any means necessary to get the job done are permitted. If the only way to save the galaxy and complete his duty is by the Reapers’ suggestion, why wouldn’t he do it? He doesn’t just act as a dark reflection of Shepard, he also acts as a mirror image of a very Renegade Shepard who has the same absolute rule of whatever-the-cost means. The only real difference there is that Shepard isn’t indoctrinated and will never allow it. So strong willed can you make Shepard that he can even convince Saren there is a severe way of escaping the reapers’ control. With a bullet.
Mass Effect 1’s third act is where the game’s enjoyment factor is at its best. Mass Effect 1 can feel the slowest paced due to the many optional planets you can explore with the all-terrain vehicle the Mako. There are certainly some worthwhile side quests which can pay dividends in surprising ways in later games. But you do have to put with the Mako’s controls( though now less wonky) and a depressing number of copy and paste buildings to venture through. But the good stuff that lies in wait is genuinely good and you will get something out of it not just in this game but the games to come.
That third act begins with the many consequential events I’ve described on Virmire and then comes to involve breaking out your ship the Normandy from dry dock like with the Enterprise in Star Trek 3, a possible night of passion if you pursued the affections of Ashley, Kaidan or Liara( which I rarely have), a daring mission to a planet full of Prothean ruins and insight on their fate and finally a still spectacular climax involving space battles, walking up a skyscraper with magnetized boots in space, all with a giant reaper looming in the background and one hell of a final encounter( or two) with Saren.
The amount of applause moments that comes one right after the other not only makes up for a possibly sluggish pace but also gets you deservedly amped for what Mass Effect 2 will offer. Thankfully, the wait is very. Much. Worth it.
The second part will, of course, be about Mass Effect 2 and its host of new party members as well as delving more into pre-established characters that get more focus and of course more about that trademark Bioware romance.
The success of a motion picture is never one thing. If you consider James Gunn’s soft reboot of DC’s Suicide Squad film series under only a financial lens, it is a tragic failure, an undeserved one.
If you view it in basically any other category, it is a deserving relief of a success. The biggest consequence being that James Gunn, who all but made a bunch of unknown space rogues into household names at Marvel can’t continue exploring his vision of this grittier but no less enjoyable side of DC’s intellectual property catalogue.
Actually Gunn can, but not on the big screen. A spin off series about one of the Squad members, Peacemaker, played perfectly by John Cena, will be having his own HBO Max exclusive show next year. When it comes to the feature length adventures of Amanda Waller’s Task Force X, that time has ended, barring some strange miracle. Then again, getting a rebound from the reportedly atrocious 2016 Suicide Squad movie was kinda of a miracle to begin with.
Many factors play into the sad fortunes of Suicide Squad 2021. The most obvious example being the resurgence of COVID-19 as a deleterious effect in American public life. The Delta and to a lesser extent so far Lambda variants have once again led to a rise in COVID cases/deaths and to those oblivious, stubbornly ignorant or without good faith, the blame is on too much of the American population being averse to receiving a free vaccine.
Be it buying into lies, understandable (to an extent) distrust in American institutions or just selfish to the point of validating ugly assumptions about the American character, we were unable to reach a 70% or higher threshold needed to create herd immunity and largely put COVID behind us as an aspect of life. It’s so bad that the success of the movie theater business is once again in question with major new titles like the next three MCU films, the second semi-promising Venom film, Daniel Craig’s oft delayed final Bond film and perhaps most painfully, the long awaited Dune film by Denis Villenueve being left in a concerning state.
It wasn’t just COVID. There was an understandable confusion over what exactly The Suicide Squad was in light of the 2016 film by David Ayer. The original movie was and remains panned by critics, disliked by audiences and held in low esteem by the DC fanbase. Some consider it one of the worst superhero films ever made. So, a sequel to a bad movie. Sound like fun!
But it’s also not called Suicide Squad 2. Instead, it is called “Suicide Squad” but with a “The” at the beginning. So, it’s a reboot? Sorta yeah. But it also has actors reprising their roles from the prior movie with Viola Davis as Suicide Squad manager Amanda Waller, Joel Kinnaman as Col. Rick Flagg( the field commander of the squad), Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn all returning.
None of this is to suggest it will be a bad movie of course, but then again poor marketing and being a follow-up of any sort to a badly regarded movie in a mostly badly regarded cinematic universe is a recipe for disaster. Even though James Gunn’s Suicide Squad received acclaim and the marketing heavily promoted Gunn himself as a new bright feature of this film, it wasn’t enough.
Of course, The Suicide Squad was also released on HBO Max as part of a strategy Warner Bros. started last year to get their films out in spite of the pandemic, starting with the ill-conceived Wonder Woman 1984. It being available to anyone who had a subscription to the streaming service also cut into box office but on the other hand it does mean the actual viewership of the movie is actually higher than its paltry theater returns would suggest.
Like many cult classic films which fizzled and burned at the cineplex, like personal favorite of mine Big Trouble in LittleChina and by extension most of John Carpenter’s filmography for that matter, The Suicide Squad will likely be seen long term as a success of some sort. It being a good even great superhero picture will make that process easier.
The Suicide Squad as the comics make them out to be, are a group of convict supervillains forced to do black op work for the US government under the aforementioned agent Waller, finding some use for DC’s scum and villainy. They incentivize the super-crooks to do Waller’s bidding with two methods: reduced prison time/and or better standards of living in prison and a bomb implanted in their head that will blow their craniums up if they disobey or try to leave the squad. Persuasion and coercion in equal measure.
Of course, despite having a bunch of villains make up the squad’s makeup, you have to have some in the Task Force who are not wholly evil or perhaps not evil at all. James Gunn already showed his strengths in taking characters who starting off at least were more than a little morally compromised in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Peter Quill/ Star Lord was a thief and former member of a space pirate group called the Ravagers. Gamora was an assassin and the best agent for her adoptive father Space Emperor Thanos, Drax was a criminal who was happy to use violent ends to get revenge on those who had killed his family. Rocket Raccoon and Groot were perhaps the most innocent, with them being bounty hunters.
The only other Guardian barring Nebula( Gamora’s fellow “sister” under Thanos) was Mantis and well, she was a slave of a planet sized, lower-case god. Unlike Captain America and Thor, who essentially start off as heroes, the Guardians of the Galaxy were antiheroes or even probable villains who gradually become irreverent full blown heroes.
If it worked at Marvel, why wouldn’t it work at DC? Well, it does.
Compared to the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, The Suicide Squad is more crass, adult and clearly meant to echo James Gunn’s early career among Troma Entertainment, one of the premiere independent studio success stories. Troma stood out for its gives-no-f**ks attitude and very low brow humor which was still charming enough to allow a cult following to occur.
The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke em’ High are among Troma’s best known contributions to cinema so to speak and Gunn was involved in the fourth Toxie movie, Citizen Toxie, considered by many including Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman to be the best in that series, save for the original. Kaufman has had cute blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameos in Gunn’s movies including the first Guardians of the Galaxy and there’s one here too. Gunn’s biggest movie with Troma and arguably his first real film he did was Tromeo and Juliet.
To an extent, The Suicide Squad is a Troma film with a Hollywood budget, though it is much more than that. It’s not all gross out or sexual humor, some of it is directed in a manner not too dissimilar to a Deadpool film though the self-deprecating humor isn’t as blunt due to DP being a fourth wall breaking figure and not even Harley Quinn goes quite as far in bringing attention to what movie she is in.
It’s a film which juggles many different tones and manages to not slip up surprisingly well. Some moments of violence are definitely played for laughs like an insanely violent sneak-in to a camp of enemies with one gut-busting twist to the end of the scene. Others play the violence more seriously and even sadly, like with the fates of some Suicide Squad members being tragic, sudden and without heartlessness. There’s one moment of violence that actually pans away before the carnage to emphasize this as not funny at all.
Not everyone will appreciate Gunn’s juggle of superhero comedy and military/espionage drama. But at the same time, it’s easy to emphasize with the squad members meant to be liked, to despise the members meant to be despised and to feel conflicted about the members that fall inbetween.
The crazy thing is that not every squad member is necessarilly evil or even criminal: it is the circumstances of who they are and their abilities that make them unable to be among the general population. Poor Polka-Dot man. One of Batman’s dumbest adversaries is played as a guy with an absolutely awful life that was brought upon him rather than by choice.
His abilities, which do involve polka dots in some fashion, were not used for a life of crime but were instead the consequence of having one awful, awful mother with access to STAR Labs technology. For a host of reasons, he’s quite alright being in something called a suicide squad.
Ratcatcher 2 is also a supervillain who hasn’t, as far as we know, done anything wrong to anyone personally. The worst she’s done is that she’s a thief and she steals through proxy by being able to, well, summon rats. Being raised with a drug addict father in Portugal meant she wasn’t raised in a context where she could use her in truth, very useful technology for a clear good. In another world, she would be a superhero and now she is forced to become something she doesn’t mind being.
Then, there’s King Shark, voiced beautifully by Sylvester Stallone. A spiritual analogue to Groot in some ways, Nanuae/King Shark is simple-minded, has a limited but growing vocabulary and he is taught like a dog or the Iron Giant not to eat people willy-nilly, especially if they’re his friends. He’s terrifying when he’s angry, adorable in every other context, strangely enough. Of course, the people that make him angry more or less deserve what comes next.
There are two teams to this film’s Task Force X, one headlined by Col. Flagg and Harley Quinn and the other by Deadshot replacement Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Cena’s Peacemaker. The team led by Flagg has too spoilerific a role to delve into and it is the team led by Bloodsport that is more or less the team for the film.
Waller sends the larger suicide squad/task force X into the Caribbean island nation of Corto Maltese to infiltrate, steal information and destroy the base of a Project Jotunheim, which was once under American control through the puppet government. That government had a coup and now a duo of power hungry brothers want to use what’s inside Jotunheim to get their country into a place of real prestige on the global stage.
The Squad’s mission through Corto Maltese and how they interact with its denizens, both in friendly and aggressive ways, act as commentary on American imperialism and the deep state. It’s hardly a surprise that a story about the American government using hardened criminals to do their dirty work undercover wouldn’t have a positive opinion of that system.
Waller is a cruel, cruel person and you can just feel the cold ruthlessness come off of Viola Davis’ performance almost like a chill. In spite of Task Force X consisting of some who are not whatsoever decent, you still feel sad at them being forced into the position they’re in. It’s almost akin to the teenagers in both Battle Royale and the Hunger Games forced against their will to fight and die all while being monitored by an uncaring and somewhat amused authority.
They’re many different arenas of thought on how TheSuicide Squad’s politics can be extrapolated but it is, dare I say it, much more clear cut in its intent than this year’s Falcon and Winter Soldier show. It’s almost brave in how brazen it’s political intention is though if there is one thing Gunn has more or less succeeded in, it’s getting away with something brazen.
What makes it work is that for all the lowbrow or sometimes middlebrow humor and content Gunn presents here, there is a earnest sense of heart that makes it easy to follow and be invested in the squad’s trials. Much like the thematic mission statement of Ayer’s Suicide Squad, Bloodsport’s group overtime go from being interested in simply surviving their mission to wanting to be more than they are.
Elba’s Bloodsport is especially prone to this positive compulsion due to his mercenary lifestyle all but ruining his relationship with his understandably angry daughter. His talents made him a killer for money but can he use those same skills for something more worthwhile?
Harley Quinn, who has long since dumped his utterly evil boyfriend The Joker, is still an insane individual but one who wants to express her insanity in ways that are helpful, not just to others but to herself. Like Bloodsport, her talents often lead to messy results, but at least she’s there enough mentally to not to express them on victims. After all, she was a victim herself.
The Suicide Squad pulls off the impressive feat of being an entertaining, wacky story that deals in grey morality but with a rare optimistic conclusion. That even people you and I would consider either criminal or to step back from can do the right thing in their own way. That maybe blanket assumptions of certain people and their lifestyles should not doom them to certain fates.
It’s a film that seems nihilistic for its colorful expression of violence and dark comedy. It is anything but a meaningless film about meaningless people and their meaningless actions. It’s a shame that the DCEU’s best film seems destined to be their least profitable.
The film financially, will not survive the mission. Doesn’t mean the mission was a failure.
Due to an error in publishing this article too early, I give you the second part to my sixth part of my 80s movie retrospective. I hope this won’t happen too often. So, let’s proceed to another movie featuring Wallace Shawn in a restaurant.
The second portion of the retrospective was further delayed by me receiving out of the blue a PS5 from my godfather, for which I gratefully reimbursed him the money. I might do a deep dive into my first impressions with the system and several PS5 games I bought for the occasion.
Atlantic City (1980)
I initially skipped Atlantic City for reasons that were very much “by the cover”. It seemed like it would be a period piece set in the hey day of Atlantic City as the gambling mecca of the American East, like in Boardwalk Empire. I was dead wrong in that assumption.
Instead, it is a contemporary crime drama that acts as a bemused contemplation of Atlantic City’s checkered past through the eyes of two denizens: Sally, a young sushi waitress at a casino played by a youthful Susan Sarandon and Lou( Burt Lancaster), an aging gangster who misses the glory days of Atlantic City, not just because it was his time and it’s gone but because he wasn’t quite the Goodfella he wanted to be.
Sally’s pregnant and new-age obsessed sister comes to AC with her morally dubious boyfriend from Philadelphia looking for both a place to stay and also to strike it big with a block of cocaine, though the former doesn’t exactly know that. Sally has all but given up hope of her sister getting her life together, especially considering her poor taste in men. Lou is also burdened by being a caretaker for Grace, once a glamorous diva in the Atlantic City nightlife as well as widower to a big time mob boss.
These two put-upon figures who differ in age greatly come together, both seeking new opportunity and that block of cocaine becomes the catalyst for a string of tragedies, victories and dangers compounding upon further dangers. There is also something of a love story sprinkled in, but like the glitzy façade of Atlantic City, it is more one-sided in its affections than not.
Wallace Shawn does appear here, as promised by the header image, and it is a one scene role as waiter for Sally and Lou. Only now did I realize the connection between this film and My Dinner with Andre wasn’t coincidence. Louis Malle directs both films.
The most curious thing about Atlantic City, aside from its commentary on how Atlantic City is made out to be a much less glamorous and dare I say it honest place than it used to be is what message is meant to be extrapolated by its conclusion, which despite the reasonably long runtime, feels somewhat abrupt.
Does the film end on Sally succeeding, or Lou finding that Mafioso glory he didn’t actually have before? Is it condemnation or a marginal approval for criminal activity? Is it a rather odd way of expressing the idea of “passing the torch” to a new generation, all while the old accepts its fate of being phased out? The last image seems to be blunt about that message as the last shot is of a wrecking ball beginning its demolition of the apartment Sally and Lou lived in.
Or is it best just to view this, intentional or not, as a time capsule of a place known as Atlantic City, as seen in circa 1980 A.D.? For those who can’t make up their minds or don’t care all that much, I’d put my money there. Much like OnGolden Pond for Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, it could also be a swan song feature for veteran Hollywood actor Burt Lancaster who though he lived for another 12 years, feels like he made this film as if it was his last, like it was in Fonda’s case.
The film that started Barry Levinson’s productive career in Hollywood and the first of 4 movies that deal with his birthplace of Baltimore as seen in his teenage years, the 1950s, Diner is also a film that all but introduced audiences to a healthy host of Hollywood talent.
In truth, this wasn’t the first film for all the actors and actresses here, but in terms of them turning heads, it’s as much a start as you can quantify. Here we have Steve Guttenberg, two years before the first of far too many Police Academy movies. Mickey Rourke, almost unrecognizable to how we see him now. Daniel Stern, eight years before he played the wet bandit that suffers the most in Home Alone.
Kevin Bacon, who is the master of appearing in cult classics and having him be separated by six degrees due to his impressive resume. Tim Daly, who I have heard of but am not as familiar of in comparison to the others’ roles. Actually, I have literally heard of Daly due to being the voice of Superman in the 90s’ animated series, though George Newbern’s take from the sequel Justice League series is more recognizable.
The main group is rounded out by Paul Reiser, four years before portraying Burke, the corporate slimeball in Aliens, and Ellen Barkin, whose character isn’t actually with the all-boys club, because it’s the 1950s and those six gentlemen are hardly as mature as their twenty-something ages would infer.
Levinson’s Diner, while definitely having nostalgia for the 1950s, is more critical and maybe even pessimistic over the practices of the time, namely in relation to how men acted and what women had to put up with in return. It’s a group of young men who have life issues which get in the way of what they want to do: eat, drink and shoot the shit at the titular diner. Some of them are married, one is getting married and one is two deep down a debt rabbit hole to even consider any kind of commitment like that if he even cares that much to begin with.
Whether it’s a grown man like Levinson taking the past or his own past to task or simply reflecting like an observer on the past is part of the fun a movie like Diner can offer. None of these characters are bad though their immaturity and being chained to their childhood/teenage habits can make them come across as ungentlemanly to say the least.
They also seem tormented by the cognitive dissonance that comes with living as a man in the 1950s: having so much freedom to do what you want yet having cultural norms or societal expectations keep you from either doing what you want or what you feel is you. Kevin Bacon getting drunk in a Christmas manger might be indicative of that point in particular or maybe I misremember the context.
Diner, for it’s wonderfully, appropriately laid back pace, is yet a complex feast. Six guys and a gal at a crossroads, where change is inevitable even though they give one hearty college try to postpone it. Some come to conclusions which may lead them to happiness, others capitulate to what is expected of them to their family and culture. Nothing stays the same and yet oddly enough, it still somehow does. Now, if that ain’t a still-accurate framing of life, I don’t know what is.
Diner is definitely worthy of the retroactive acclaim it’s gotten, though I struggle to know why some consider it a landmark piece of cinema. Maybe it’s the then unconventional manner of telling the story, it having no main character and yet being entirely coherent.
Maybe it was nice to have a throw back feature to a period that was already receiving surplus attention with rose-colored glasses as evidenced by Grease and American Graffiti. It wouldn’t be the last major feature to do a fun and nostalgia filled romp through the 1950s( Back to the Future) but Diner feels and perhaps gets major credit for being the most grounded of them all.
After a long silence, I’m back to talking about 80s’ cinema I have never seen before and plan to push on over time into the 90s and perhaps even further. I will be doing 4 films at a time from now on and if you’re not up to date on my first five blog entries in the series, please use the search bar and type in “80’s” or “Retrospective” to find them. There’s also “Horrorthon”, which deals with horror films from the same era, done between Mid-September all the way to Halloween.
Fitzcarraldo has been described as a spiritual successor or companion piece to Werner Herzog’s earlier masterwork, Aquirre, the Wrath of God. Both deal with obsession and madness though with starkly different outcomes. Both are set deep in the Amazon jungle, featuring European men of great ambition in a place they don’t understand and yet believe don’t need to. One is an ominous, haunting trek into desolation and failure, the other suggests the same will occur but doesn’t actually end on that note.
Both can be seen as self-commentary for director Werner Herzog, one of the leading figures of the German New Wave of cinema alongside Wolfgang Peterson, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Many of his films deal with human obsession and the lengths we will go for matters that either end in vain or aren’t really worthwhile. Not all of them need be about himself.
As a film-making achievement, Fitzcarraldo is nearly impossible to impeach, though with one distressing caveat. It is about a man played by Klaus Kinski, who even in roles that are comparatively saner than Aguirre always looks like he is both without bedrest or sanity.
Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald(Fitzcarraldo) is an Irishman who due to the film being dubbed in Herzog and Kinski’s German, comes across as a Bavarian businessman. This Irishman living with his bankrupt company in the middle of Peru wants to give both the European colonizers and the native people of the Amazon a common joy he shares: the gift of opera. In his eyes, it is a universal beauty and no one should be kept from it.
So, he manages to convince a rubber baron to help fund an expedition down the Ucayali river to a certain spot that would be perfect to construct an opera house: a section of land inbetween two rivers, on a hill. Ideal for his vision. Of course, for anyone who has watched a film about a journey born out of great ambition like Aguirre or Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong, it has hardly a simple matter.
Fitzcarraldo is best known for the thing you see on all the posters, that of a riverboat being carried onto land. Because the two rivers are so close, it is feasible theoretically, that the riverboat bearing the name of Fitzgerald’s lover played by Claudia Cardinale, can be transferred over land to the other. It just so happens a nearby tribe is willing to help the businessman in his insane venture, at the risk of their own lives, for apparently nothing in return.
What sells the visual madness of this scenario is that Herzog actually did pull an entire riverboat across land. The line between the fictional character’s struggle to do something stupidly inconvenient and Herzog’s actual production is nearly non-existent. What you see is actually what you get.
That caveat I mentioned earlier was the human cost of actually doing the damn thing for real, as it is in the narrative text. Actual Amazon natives, who both played the hundreds of extras in the film and also helped actually pull the riverboat suffered fatal casualties in the production. One number is that four died. It makes the production surrounding Fitzcarraldo more morally dubious as a fictional character’s ethics are not the only one being scrutinized in light of that knowledge.
Werner Herzog is both a revered and criticized figure, more often for his hardline stances, rough temperament among those he works( especially with Kinski, which was an at-times near life or death series of spats) and being kinda of a grump.
He has seemingly lightened up by the time he starred in The Mandalorian, where he was impressed at little Baby Yoda not only being a convincing practical effect to work with, but that a modern Star Wars property even bothered. Maybe the Mouse was afraid of pissing off a guy like him. This guy has heard people getting mauled to death by bears and managed to keep it together though it was in the end still too much for him to hear the whole process.
Herzog is tough and both his work on Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo proves he can take pressure that would probably break other great filmmakers. But does his tough resilience blind him to others that can’t take exorbitant even deadly work expectations from him? In spite of the impressive result of a film like Fitzcarraldo, was it too high a cost when lives were ended for his vision?
What makes Fitzcarraldo a tougher pill for me looking back is that its mindset on certain issues seems at odds with the strong anti-colonialist message that Aguirre: the Wrath of God seemed to have. That film showcased a bunch of Spaniard conquistadors entering an environment they didn’t understand, didn’t try to understand, had this literal holier than thou attitude towards native people that did understand and they all die pointless deaths in a very inhospitable place, the last survivor too addled by madness, grief, hunger and dehydration to even notice how utterly doomed he is.
Fitzcarraldo seems to be setting you up for the same dark “just desserts” message from before. Several moments, such as some members of the riverboat’s crew giving up the journey seem to indicate that Fitzgerald was ever digging his grave further down the river he went. His comeuppance seemed almost inevitable and deserved if it were to follow the same critique of European colonist arrogance. How much more arrogant can a guy get when he wants to make a big honking riverboat cross land?
And yet, Fitzcarraldo does not end with Fitzgerald getting a dark but proper punishment. He gets a reward. He does not get his ambitious opera house in the jungle but he does get a comparatively much more reasonable alternative. He ends the film triumphant, basking in what he has accomplished ultimately: giving the denizens of the Amazon opera.
The image you’re seeing above you for this entry comes from an article that has a venomous condemnation of Fitzcarraldo’s message and the deadly production that made it. It calls for a severe reevaluation not only of the film but of Herzog who has gotten off scot-free for actions as a film-maker that aren’t just illegal but should put him in jail.
I’m not certain if I am 100% behind this article’s take. After all, some reports have stated that Herzog compensated the native help well and that they in return knew ahead of time the risks that were likely to occur during production. Does that act as justifiable excuse? I would say not. Some film productions that killed led to prison time and lawsuit. Some happened which didn’t hamper the production and no ill will was had, rather mournful tragedy with acknowledgement from all, such as a horrible stunt accident in the Bond film Octopussy.
Fitzcarraldo will take you places, that cannot be denied. It will astonish you, it will concern you, it will make you question what is and isn’t too much to ask of in making any product for any reason. In short, it could be the most Herzog of Herzog’s movies based on his most consistent theme. That is a presumptuous claim considering how few of his movies I have watched. But when I remind you that this is the “Riverboat is pulled across land” movie, do you in return think that still inaccurate?
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Chances are very good you have not seen a film like My Dinner with Andre. It’s an experiment that seems simple to pull off but is perhaps far more difficult than it seems. For the majority of an hour and a half runtime, you spend time with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, two real people playing themselves with fictionalization weaved into their personalities and viewpoints.
Directed by French filmmaker Louis Malle, you get to see in apparent real-time as two good friends, one a struggling NYC writer and the other a traveling theatre director with some wild anecdotes under his belt, eat and discuss…stuff.
Wallace is mostly the listener and Andre the speaker and it often reminded me of how domineering I myself can be when it comes to conversations, which I partially blame on my high-functioning autism. That itself may also stem from my fear that if I don’t make a point, I forget to make the point period. The world must know!
I doubt either dinner guest fits on any spectrum and Andre is certainly not neuro-atypical yet his worldview can be bewildering, uncomfortable and at times prescient. Many of his spiels on how human society functions in the then present of 1981 can feel much more relevant today forty years later. If I can sum up what I remember of Andre’s political and cultural ideology, it’s stop and smell the roses/ take a good long look at the world you often unconsciously navigate through. If you don’t, we’re pretty much screwed.
Wallace is often at odds with Andre’s perspective and I was much more willing to side with him than the other. Yes, maybe some of that is bias in favor of Shawn due to his latter work in The Princess Bride and especially in voice acting, like for many Pixar features like Rex in the Toy Story series.
Or maybe despite Wallace Shawn 1981 being a man of his time, I somehow gravitate more towards his side though I had a hard time totally dismissing everything Andre had to say.
It takes a lot to keep a movie consisting of generally two shots with minor variation interesting but it is the combination of Wallace and especially Andre’s compelling, changing topics, their manner of speaking and how there are cues during the portion of the movie to show you time hasn’t come to a halt.
There is a beginning, middle and end to the titular dinner, consisting of seating, ordering, drinks, appetizers, the main course and then basically a wind-down until it’s time for the conversation to end abruptly because the restaurant is closing. The ending is especially poignant, as like many conversations of varying importance or comprehension, it’s often ended by outside factors.
Many will feel impatient with My Dinner with Andre, especially I imagine for those in my hopped up generation. Even then, this is as unconventional as a mainstream Hollywood film will likely ever get. There isn’t even a story, just two real people having a somewhat stream-of-consciousness chat amidst dinner in a swanky Manhattan establishment. You get what you get, on the surface.
I must dare say it, My Dinner with Andre is an almost literal food for thought picture, not just in the concepts and themes being addressed, but in having you ponder what you have said and talked about with a friend, family member, lover or basic acquaintance on and off the dinner table. How often did your discussion be adversarial yet civil? Did it become a fight? Were you both seeing eye to eye or begrudgingly settled for agree to disagree? Was it as interesting or meaningful as Wallace or Andre’s?
That alone be enough to make this a recommendation.
Appropriate to its character, Loki is a quieter, less bombastic show that will still jolt you with a twist and turn, often with something approximating a knife.
For a dare I say it, more low-key experience than is typical for Marvel, it nevertheless manages to capture a sense of scale left to be explored in a cinematic universe that is over a decade old. It’s a sign of Marvel and Disney’s commitment to Disneyplus succeeding where Netflix, ABC and Hulu failed in terms of having this universe be more than just a feature film world.
While Wandavision and Falcon and Winter Soldier end on something significant occurring in its universe, whether it be a woman coming to terms with bearing godlike powers or a man accepting an uneasy mantle with wide-ranging implications and expectations, none of that compares to a moment that has implications among universes, let alone finally affirming a narrative direction that fans have been hoping for for years. It’s a show about getting past smoke and mirrors, both in its own universe and in our own and seeing and knowing what really is around the next corner.
Ironic, considering its titular character’s use of such for his own ends. Loki, or at least, a Loki timecoded from the end of the first Avengers film, tries to shed self-deceptions about himself and what he is and could be, especially when he learns that the path that his nature takes him ends either in failure or tragedy. Loki is unique in respects to its own universe and its rules, while also reminding one intentionally or not of other things.
It brought to my mind the rules of time travel and time itself that Doctor Who has pondered for nearly 60 years. It’s examination of alternate universe or timeline selves as the totalitarian Time Variance Authority defines as “variants” recalls the exhausting existential implications of Rick & Morty and Bioshock Infinite.
In terms of pure set design and it style, it recalls the 2019 video game Control and its supernatural, metaphysical location of the Oldest House, the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a deadly serious Men In Black. In that game from the creators of Alan Wake and Max Payne( who just celebrated his 20th anniversary of this writing, Happy Birthday Maxie!), Control allows you to explore a strange place with the oppressive feel of an American government building from the mid-20th century. Please compare the look of the FBC to the TVA and wonder if Feige and co. didn’t take notes.
Both locations suggest something darker and weirder than what you immediately see and more importantly that the full truth of the place can never be fully known because the location itself won’t allow you to know. It only lets on what it deems necessary for you to know in the immediate.
As a mythological trickster, Loki doesn’t just take umbrage with the look of the place, but the intent. For reasons both selfish and gradually selfless, he detests the mission statement that the TVA must do all in its power to keep other alternate universes from existing, essentially safeguarding against what fans have wildly speculating must come next for the MCU: the multiverse. The show essentially boils down into three ideas, first being that if a bad person by nature can become good by nurture and the second being what is more preferable and even ethical: the supposed comforts of order or the utter freedom of chaos.
For some, freedom doesn’t just mean freedom to do whatever, as is the Loki we know, it is the freedom to be left alone or better to know why you can’t be left alone. Sylvie, the female Loki that soon becomes our Loki’s partner across time and space, wants to know why a little girl who hadn’t done anything wrong in her version of Asgard is forever being hunted. And why they can’t seem to realize that their torment of her won’t come back to bite them.
As much a character study as it is a long-awaited vanguard for the next big thing, Loki manages to stick the landing narratively that its two Disney+ entries couldn’t. The abruptness of the show’s conclusion is buffeted by the dire note it ends on and the quick reassurance that this won’t be a one season affair. Hell, it will be something that effects basically everything coming down the road for Feige’s vision of Marvel.
This Loki becomes our Loki. He starts to recognize faster than the one we last saw choked to death by a madman’s hand that it cannot be all about himself. He wants answers rather than power. He wants connection rather than revenge. He wants to know that someone can trust a person trying to be more trustworthy. Easier to come by that perspective when you realize what exactly is hidden behind the curtain that the other never did or ever will. But can he rid himself of what he was without sacrificing the aspects of who he is that could still favor him?
Loki’s journey for both discovery and rediscovery becomes complicated when he meets his female alternative self. Perhaps Slyvie alone was enough to make him realize faster that is not all about him. There are plenty of other hims/hers/its which felt/feel the same way he used to.
That journey to fight the TVA and who really controls it becomes a question about the third them: deception. What deception is and is not appropriate? Some deception or distraction can in action be altruistic though it can be and often is narcissistic. It can be justified in the moment or after the fact or maybe it can be found unjustifiable. A reveal at the end which sets in motion the creation of the Multiverse suggests that maybe both at the same time can be the case.
When it comes down to how I feel ultimately about Loki as a project, it is confirmation if nothing else to convincingly committing to change. That a major event in the MCU can and will happen on a streaming television show that will affect theatrically released movies is a gamble but one that perhaps only this property will pull off. Much like our green and gold clad antihero, it is a question of whether that change sticks or not.
Author’s Note: Despite declaring this a spoiler review for Black Widow, I don’t feel I need to describe the synopsis of a film that most people will likely watch anyway or read up on. From now on, I might give off my mid-review summaries of plot to properties that are either new like Invincible’s first season or are likely more niche, though doesn’t necessarily denote a lack of popularity like Netflix’s Castlevania.
The last film I remember seeing in theaters was back in 2019: Sam Mendes’ 1917, a brilliantly constructed and exhausting 2-shot WW1 movie that was anything but the worst choice for me to temporarily end my theater experience on.
At the same time, returning to the theater for the long belated first film for Marvel’s fourth phase reminded me of what I was not missing. Too many ads, patronizing self promotions for the theater-going experience and a general whiff of desperation that still lingers in the air and almost makes you feel a little sorry for what might still be a dying method of watching movies.
Of course, the box office success of this film’s opening, a more than welcome $80 million that follows a trend of new successes with F9 and AQuiet Place part II suggests that maybe that existential anxiety is less well-founded than say, what we should definitely fear from climate change nowadays.
I couldn’t help but reflect on that troubling topic while watching Natasha Romanoff’s send off movie in spite of this supposedly being a time and place to forget such things for a couple of hours. Of course, I have a medically diagnosed and medicated anxiety disorder, but that the particular theater me and my family went to near the Greeley Mall( another institution with well founded fears of extinction) had poor air conditioning made it easier for my mind to pick up on certain stressors. No matter what can be said of the state of the world for better or for ill in 2021: It must be said that the heat is on in one form or another.
It wasn’t so distracting that I couldn’t enjoy the 24th film entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is very difficult for me to rank the MCU’s offerings on a best to worst scale. I can easily tell you the entries that are on the lower scale( IronMan 2, Incredible Hulk, Avengers: Age of Ultron, maybe Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel) but it is often harder to rank what is the best for me in this ongoing saga that has changed Hollywood for both the best and worst.
The James Bond series is much the same in my experience. I can tell you the movies I dislike the least with confidence( Die another Day, Spectre, Quantum of Solace, Diamonds are Forever) but to rank my favorites or those in the middle is nearly impossible. Like the MCU, there are the few that don’t work or don’t work well enough and then there’s all the rest of that goodness, so long as you ignore or compartmentalize the problematic nature of OO7 as a character( which I just gotta).
Considering the number entry of this particular MCU title, it feels oddly fitting to be the most upfront about copying from James Bond’s 25-26 numbered filmography. There have been MCU films that aped a spy thriller feel with much success, namely the Captain America sequels and the Disneyplus series, Falcon and Winter Soldier. Yet, I didn’t feel Bond so much as Bourne or more cerebral thrillers like the acknowledged Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men or Enemy of theState. Less about how impressive the main protagonist is of those cat and mouse dramas but about how absolutely stressful it is to be in direct or indirect conflict with America’s deep state.
Black Widow has shades of those “Spy” movies for the MCU, makes sense considering Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow’s been part of two of them. But it is again, the most about reflecting the go-to example of the “Secret Agent” genre, OO7 himself. There is a cute reference to Moonraker, the dumbest Bond film that is also the most enjoyable in spite of being dumb. That’s the one where he goes to space, well before Dom Toretto’s F&F family succeeded in doing so just recently.
It’s not just a reference, it’s a surprising number of plot elements and visual cues that still somehow find themselves conforming pretty comfortably into what is one of the darker and more violent entries in the MCU. There’s a plot device involving “pheromones” that for me recalls two things: Moonraker’s baritone Bond villain Hugo Drax wanting to use a pheromone in a plant to wipe out the population of Earth so he can replace it with his Aryanesque super people. The plot device here isn’t a 1:1, it’s actually the inverse in purpose to a genocidal plant. There’s also this movie’s villain’s secret lair: a floating fortress hidden in the air which is shaped surprisingly close to Drax’s space station in Moonraker.
The film ends with a death defying descent in the air which involves a fight over parachutes much like the incredible cold open for Moonraker where James Bond is thrown off an airplane and wrestles both the evil pilot and iconic henchmen Jaws for a means of landing safely. Speaking of Jaws, the main henchmen of Black Widow may or may not have something of a redemption arc in store like Richard Kiel’s Jaws.
There is a surprising amount of respect for one of the more love it or hate it entries in 007’s career. That I happen to love Moonraker goes a long way in making me also like Black Widow more as a film as well. The film is still a victim of something Kevin Feige, director Cate Shortland or Scarlett Johannsen couldn’t have prepared for nor helped: being delayed a full year longer than anticipated. All thanks to a virus that is still around and can still mess your life up or end it if you aren’t vaccinated.
Due to the arrivals of Disneyplus shows like WandaVision, Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki, audiences are getting a feel for what to expect and what may become the driving force of the saga that follows Thanos and the Infinity Stones. Rampant speculation, often to absurd lengths in regards to Marvel’s very own devil Mephisto, is in vogue.
Despite it being for the most part not the intention of Black Widow to give you more of a view into the “big picture” of what is coming next, save obviously, for one emotional and alarming post credits scene, audiences are conditioned to want that and some have said that can come at the detriment of enjoying what is there in the present. Perhaps the relatively muted audience reception to Black Widow is a consequence of that. Few if anyone is saying Natasha’s one and only solo movie is bad, but it doesn’t give them enough of that itch for what comes next.
It’s an interquel set inbetween the events of Captain America Civil War and Avengers Infinity War. One last major film set before Thanos’ snap and Bruce Banner’s snap back changed everything. I imagine it can be jarring for some of the viewership to be thrust back to before Thano’s big moment on stage or its aftermath, especially with those three aforementioned Disneyplus shows in mind.
Of course, Marvel were transparent in their intentions of what Black Widow as a movie was supposed to be: giving Scarlett Johannsen something that fellow Avengers Downey Jr, Evans, Hemsworth, and sort of-not really Ruffalo had received: their character’s own movie. The only other remaining OG Avenger, Renner’s Hawkeye, will have to make do with a Disneyplus series. Thankfully for him, it is shaping up to be a consequential series at least, if this film’s final moments are any indication.
If you view Black Widow as what it is trying to be rather than what you were conditioned to want it to be, it’s another solid mid-tier effort that is trying to fill in some gaps in the MCU’s history that aren’t exactly needed but feel welcome all the same. Almost all of these regard Natasha Romanoff and her dark past, naturally.
Black Widow does a successful job of finally giving us more insight into who Natasha is as a person psychologically and what made her into a remarkable assassin/international woman of mystery. It somewhat subtly implies that she might actually be superhuman. Natasha survives some injuries and falls that would at the least incapacitate her, as well as her wayward sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). But not unlike Cap’s super soldier serum, which is given a Russian brand with David Harbour’s gloriously hammy Red Guardian, the Black Widows as a program were given something a little extra beyond “psychological conditioning”.
There’s a certain moment in the first Avengers movie where in the final battle in New York, Natasha manages to grab on to a speeding Chitauri vessel in midflight without it breaking her arms and sending her plummeting to her death. Finally, 9 years after that contrivance of a moment, it seems it really wasn’t so contrived. So yeah, Clint Barton/Hawkeye might’ve been the only “normal” Avenger after all. Of course, his upcoming show might also reveal he has some “skills” that aren’t solely the result of training.
What Black Widow accomplishes best in this respect is making all the moments we’ve spent with Natasha have a new context which can make returning to those moments more enriching. This would be especially notable with her story arc in Infinity War and Endgame. Her somewhat controversial or disliked heroic sacrifice in the latter movie will now feel quite different after watching her solo outing. Whether or not it is wholly better now is for enquiring minds greater than mine.
This could’ve been a combination of fatigue on my part and the lack of A/C in the theater, but Black Widow’s pacing felt somehow both fine and sluggish at the same time. It’s not a case of predestination getting in the way with regards to Natasha as her spy family consisting of “sister” Yelena, “father” Alexei the Red Guardian and “mother” Melina had their own unknown fates to mine for drama. It was the feeling that while there was no scene too many or one scene too long, it still felt kind of long.
I couldn’t tell you if the feeling was strictly from external factors or if there was something off in the pacing, but as much as it held my attention, Black Widow could feel a little too sluggish for a generally action-heavy spy drama. It’s anything but a deal-breaker of course, but it’s safe to say the next time I peruse this film, it will be on Disneyplus and possibly not all at once.
While Black Widow manages to do well enough in regards to its own set of characters and their complicated TheAmericans-like narrative, I have been growing weary of some of the tenets of a Marvel action sequence even if the execution isn’t really all that bad. It could be that some of the technical aspects are starting to tire me. Namely, I am growing tired of how MCU films and to be honest much modern blockbuster films seem to have a lack of desire to push for actually good CGI.
While waiting for the film to start through the long litany of ads, one of them was Dwayne Johnson’s Jungle Cruise, which is based off the ride from Disney’s Adventureland( if it worked for Pirates of the Caribbean that one and a half times, then why not?). While I find Johnson’s brand of acting ever charming with its self assured bravado with a lack of irony, the film he is part of is chock full of utterly unconvincing CGI, which much like a theme park ride, just not the one this film is based on, feels like it’s trying to be a ride full of thrills meant to pop out at you, while still feeling very hollow.
For all the crap that is packed on screen, The upcoming Jungle Cruise movie feels both expensive and cheap simultaneously and it is not helped that the set up and execution of what Johnson and Emily Blunt’s wild adventure will be seems even empty and bereft of any apparent cleverness or wit.
Black Widow by comparison is much, much more grounded in reality of course. Plenty of moments, action or otherwise are filmed on something that was real. After all, a notable motorcycle turned car chase through the streets and alleys of Budapest was indeed filmed in Budapest or in other urban locations that can replicate the look of Hungary’s capitol. The compelling and lore expanding story at the heart of it all also does much to forgive when certain moments feel a little more fake than they should.
Of course, some CGI shots, especially involving crashing and flipping vehicles did stand out for their obvious lack of actually being what they are supposed to be. After awhile, it starts to wear on me that I’m seeing a level of quality lesser from a company like Marvel/Disney, which is flooded with money nowadays. I get it, the MCU is producing multiple films a year now, having gone from 1 to 2 a year to three now four. There’s also the resources being partitioned to the Disneyplus series, which have production values that are for the most part commendably higher than most.
There are obviously effect shots regarding sequences that are either far too risky to do for real or too outlandish/ impossible to recreate in real life. The best computer effect shot regards an impressive avalanche as Natasha and Yelena try to extract Alexei from a Siberian prison. The avalanche is brilliantly shot and framed, though the surrounding CG regarding collapsing buildings and the helicopter Natasha and Yelena are flying looks less impressive.
Then there’s the flying villain’s lair where when nothing is happening looks quite incredible in detail. Then, when shit inevitably goes down in a fiery finale meant to reflect the fates of most bond villain lairs, you can find minor forgiveness that the sometime unconvincing CG is representing something that as of yet can’t be reproduced from reality.
This is a minor problem that builds as more and more MCU material comes out but it’s a problem that I don’t know if there is any solution for or if it’s even one with long term consequences. It could have been my mindset at the time or maybe it’s me looking to seem more even-handed so as not to feel as if I give this property too much of a pass over long term loyalty. I was rather critical and even disappointed with WandaVision, almost entirely for its final hours than the overall product mind you and I’m also more open to hearing good faith critique of Falcon and Winter Soldier than I was originally. I’m waiting nervously to see if Loki will end on a more solid note than its two predecessors.
Black Widow, for what it’s worth ends on a note that feels like thorough wrap up for an era over material you might’ve been curious about but weren’t chomping at the bit to have resolution over. Barring the post-credits scene that gives you that teasing for the future you are Pavlovian trained for, it ends on a note both tying up Natasha’s own internal story while clearing up a path leading in to her part to play in Infinity War.
I appreciated it and will as mentioned earlier now have a new lens to observe many past moments in the MCU from now on. It might seem backwards for the first phase 4 feature film of the MCU to be an experience looking back rather than forward but if you felt that Natasha’s last moments and tribute in Avengers Endgame was too slight, well maybe this is the film for you.
It was enough for me. And hey, we only have three more movies and three more shows including Loki to enlighten us further on what comes next to tie it all together. Again.