Though I have no Chinese ancestry or relatives, I was work friends with a Chinese-American student at a digital editing/cameraman job at my college in Florida. Lunar new year celebrations are not limited to China, as there are variations in Korea and I think Japan. I do have a Japanese aunt and through her a Japanese American cousin who now lives in Brooklyn.
Even without any of that background, I imagine there is in truth really no issue in a white dude like me enjoying the most recognized Asian holiday/celebratory period, due to its prevalence in Chinese American communities like Chinatown.
I mean, some might have an issue with it due to it being specific to Chinese culture and as a celebration connected through the family dynamic of that community. At the same time, non-Irish celebrate or partake in St. Patrick’s Day festivities (and not just to get wasted), and as far as I know Jewish Americans aren’t upset if gentiles politely observe some Hannukah festivities.
Basically, it can and does act as excuse for me to do the two things a non Chinese person often does relating to China: eat Chinese food and watch Chinese cinema, especially of the action variety. This year, I have four films to peruse: three from Hong Kong and one proudly American made that is about the Chinese American experience as it was in 1982 and perhaps to some extent still is.
The Victim (Lightning Kung Fu in U.S.) (1980) (HK)
Sammo Hung is a Hong Kong cinema legend that is not as well known as say Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, Jet Li or Michelle Yeoh. It’s a shame considering how distinctive a figure he is when he does appear in an HK production. Your best chance of seeing the portly yet kung fu-fast actor is when he appears in stuff that features Chan or any of the others mentioned above. The Victim is a Hong Kong dramatic comedy that showcases Hung’s talents perfectly and is decent introduction to him, if you don’t mind VHS quality despite being available on Amazon Prime.
Some time in what is vaguely meant to be either 19th or very early 20th century China, there lives a traveling kung fu enthusiast looking for a new master played by Hung. He finds that potential master in Chun-yau, a humble man who helps out with the occasional bout or rough-housing in his village but tries (emphasis on tries) to keep a low profile with his beloved wife Yuet-yee. He has good reason to.
That somewhat fat but no less quick kung fu wannabe apprentice Chan Wing, after seeing his display of awesome martial arts prowess, immediately wants him to become his master, despite already being very good at it. Chun keeps on saying no and a lot of the comedy comes at Chan being basically a comical stalker at the poor guy.
However, Chun’s complicated past comes back to haunt him in the form of his absolutely evil stepbrother, Cho-Wing, who you already know is evil before he does anything because he’s wearing an eyepatch. He proves that foregone conclusion by trying to rape Chun’s newly wedded wife because hey, what’s his brother’s is also his, right?
The wedded couple flee before they can even honeymoon and now Cho’s thugs have caught up. What are a duo of comic and straight man martial artists to do? The Victim brilliantly toes the line between seriousness and comedic fun despite how often stark the contrast between the two tones featured are.
On the one hand, there is the near breathless energy of how the verbal and physical humor makes the fights to come even more exciting and better yet, worth rewatching. Then, in spite of the overly obviously evil appearence of the stepbrother, his backstory in conjunction with Chun makes if not sympathetic at least understandable, as it was jealousy over his birth father, a Chinese Grandmaster, giving more attention and affection to a ratty orphan on the streets.
It’s obvious stuff made more enjoyable through both the ingredients that make martial arts comedies so bouncy and carefree while also lowering your guard to the darker material in store. Because of the VHS quality I had to view through, the great fight sequences lose some punch that later entries to talk about maintain through better visual presentation. It could even be that the latter films also have better fighting in general and for that reason are easier to access through streaming services.
This is ultimately as good an introduction to Sammo Hung as I can think, especially if you want to experience firsthand without Jackie Chan’s presence to compare to.
Chan is Missing (1982)
It is the early 1980s. The culture that we know of that era is basically just beginning to form with some leftovers from the 70s. Synth, neon and mostly bad hair shall become a new normal. Question is, will every American follow suit and why? Obviously not, just consider the continuing anti-establishment punk culture and that in truth, there are always going to be different kinds of groups who present themselves in different ways, occasionally being colored in by changing times.
Chan is Missing is not just a polite critique of the well-meaning but heavily stereotyped fictional figure of Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective who helps out despite his heavily accented Far East voice and endless array of Chinese proverbs to expel. It’s not just a reflection on changing generations within the Chinese-American community and with it changing attitudes.
It’s fundamentally about what it means to be Chinese-American at all, or maybe even just Chinese in the late 20th century. The film’s conclusion ,which is all about throwing its hands up and saying “Whoknows?” is not a cop-out, it’s a melancholic admission that the answer really can’t be found. Due to the film’s presence in San Francisco, I’d say us now discovering who the Zodiac killer is or was is more likely to occur.
Another thing that makes the film’s on-the-surface depressing conclusion not really hurt is that the other takeaway is that it is ultimately not that big a deal. It’s not unimportant to filmmaker Wayne Wang and the uncle and nephew duo who become DIY detectives. It’s not important enough that the lives that they’re living should be disrupted by it.
This deep dive into Chinese-American identity, which can be extrapolated as meaningful to the immigrant experience in America as well all stems from how Jo wants to make his nephew Steve a fellow driver of cabs in Frisco. To do that, his go-between, Chan, has to give Jo that license. Suddenly, Chan disappears, hence the title. All through Chinatown San Francisco and beyond, they search and search, all in indie camerawork black and white framing.
Thinking over it, it actually reminds me of the Italian classic depressor L’Avventura, all about a search for a missing person that ultimately ends up getting nowhere and getting nowhere was the whole point. That film was an addressing of Italian sentiment over existentialism and nihilism following the butchery of WW2. Chan is Missing is less heavy and anxiety inducing over its implications, but it’s likely Wang made the comparison if only for the style of film he intended.
All the while, you are treated to a colorless yet still colorful depiction of SF Chinatown 1982, with American ditties being dubbed over and even rewritten with new meaning in Chinese. Whose being assimilated? America or China?
Jo narrates the experience in a way that reminded me of Wallace Shawn’s narration at the beginning and end of My Dinner with Andre of all things, though this is a more personal story in comparison. The second generation Jo’s conflict with third generation and more explicitly American-like nephew Steve is both frustration over the lack of headway in both figuring out where Chan went as well as figuring out who Chan even is.
Despite being a go-between for Jo, the two have never met in person and the film ends with the intent of an anvil and also the impact of an anvil: the sole photograph of Chan he could find has him in dark shadow and blurry, elusive even when he didn’t mean to.
A number of scenarios for who Chan is/was and what he is about is almost akin to Kurosawa’s oft copied Rashomon. He was a Communist sympathizer, maybe he wasn’t. He was a nice guy, he was a prick. He was stodgy, he was open. He was here when he was actually over here. Rashomon is also famously uninterested in revealing to you the truth, because maybe it really can’t be found.
The way the camera moves in relation to Jo’s narrative gives Chan is Missing a really dream-like feel, as if our minds are trying to process the mystery more sluggishly than usual, maybe as a reflection of Jo and Steve’s. It is a definite article independently made movie, and for its purposes does make the proceedings feel more real. It also makes it really hard to tell who is and is not an actor. The truth is that it could be everyone in the movie, save the many streetgoers on the Frisco streets, are actors, maybe the majority were for real.
There is likely a concrete answer to that question. But back to the point of the movie is how much the players and you yourself actually care. Part of the reason Chan is never found is because these two men, none of which are trained detectives, get tired of the chase, find an alternative to their original problem involving a cab license. Some might be bothered that the main characters give up because the audience generally wants a resolution. It’s the American expectation as a cinemagoer. Rashomon was Japanese. L’Avventura was Italian.
Chan is Missing is American, but it’s also Chinese. What you get is the candid experiences, thoughts and expressions of people living in a real place at a real time albeit sprinkling in a fictional conflict. More than anything else, Chan is Missing is a human production. The real question you should be asking is if the act of “giving up” that occurs is laziness, disinterest or pragmatism. And on top of all that, how much does one conclusion bother you, if at all.
A question for us all.
Duel to the Death (1983) (HK/South Korea)
China and Japan have had beef for who knows how long, rarely ever just experiencing a period of “chillness” in relation from what I know.
This Hong Kong/South Korean co-production acknowledges that long ago the people who make up most of Japan’s population (save the Okinawans and Ainu) were descended from China. Of course, as a lot of time passes and I do mean a lot of time, very distinct cultures formed and China and Japan became alien to one another, not without any shared similarities, but hardly enough to matter ultimately.
In the modern context, the most infamous example of China and Japan having, to put it lightly, poor relations was what is officially called the Second Sino-Japanese War that began with Imperial Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and ultimately became part of World War 2. Statistically, the losses overall in the battle over mainland China would at least meet or surpass the Eastern Front between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
It is a major element to WW2 history that is rarely acknowledged in Western media despite its obvious importance. If I had to bet, it’s that taking the side of the Chinese over the Japanese, despite the former being the victims in this instance could come across as Pro-PRC sentiment nowadays even if unintended. Also, America loves Japan now. I’m one of them, Sugoi! As far as I know, the last time an American/ Western piece of media acknowledged that horrifying side to WW2 or the leadup, it was Spielberg’s overlooked Empire of the Sun from 1987.
Everyone is aware that Imperial Japan invaded China mercilessly for colonial intentions. It was that imperialist ambition that would lead to my country one day fighting them island by island, nightmare by nightmare in the Pacific. The 1937 pillaging/massacre of Nanjing/Nanking, often denoted as a “rape”, is the singular event that marks that aspect of shared Japanese and Chinese history as so notorious.
I really, really wish modern day Japan would come to greater terms with what they did in China and WW2 in general, as it is very concerning that Japanese curriculums often avoid or recontextualize in a less damning way their role in that side of history. It reminds me of my own country’s painfully slow and at times denialist approach to our own sins throughout history, not to mention the sins we commit now. No country, no matter how much they deliver cool even remarkable stuff into global culture, should be exempt from that criticism.
Among many other things, Japan gives us great cars, giant monsters, ramen, video game consoles and a wide range of appliances that are so ubiquitous to American life you might not even realize at first that its origins aren’t American. It took me until my teens, like I imagine most people, to realize that many of the cars and most of the game systems we own are from the land of the rising sun. If nothing else, it creates a new exotically “cool” factor, especially when you see them handle American concepts or characters.
Why have I spent an inordinate amount of time on what might be for some of you a heartbreaking history lesson on two major Asian countries? Because that is what Duel to the Death is all about.
Set in the 16th century, a master Chinese swordsman and a master Japanese swordsman have been ordered by their respective governments to take part in a once-in-a-decade duel of honor: a battle to determine which style of swordsmanship is superior. An entire people’s culture, their “face” is put on the line for this duel. As the title already spoils, it ain’t over until someone keels over.
Ching Wan is the Chinese champion while Hashimoto is the champion for Japan. Their own perspectives on honor and what it entails is also what is on the line. Both recognize that regardless of their standard for honor, being expert swordsmen does not guarantee long lives, let alone easy ones. They have come to grimly accept that dying in peace is not in the cards. If their honor is maintained all the same, what’s there to worry about?
Well, how about that both sides are willing to pull some heinous crap to rig the fight? Ching’s master, who is extremely resentful for his school’s waning recognition, makes a dirty deal with the Japanese Shogun to arrange the fight in such a way that both parties will be benefitted in some way. Instead of Ching, he will have his very talented daughter Sing Lam, fight Hashimoto while Ching is caged up while the Japanese send out bonafide NINJAS to kidnap their very best shaolin monks so they can force them to teach their skills to the Japanese.
As you can expect, both swordsmen are appalled at this horribly dishonorable treachery from both their countries. These two designated sworn enemies ironically become brothers in arms to end the conspiracy that has embroiled them both.
The film’s final bout, the much promised “Duel to the Death” is a bloody affair that is breathtaking in its execution and the amount of expert wuxia (wire fu) that is implemented. As cool as the fight between the two is, it is twinged with sadness that it is ultimately a fight only one of them wants. Ching, not having the suicidal level to commitment in maintaining face like Hashimoto, is all too happy to let bygones be bygones once they both stop the conspiracy.
Hashimoto, however, with his brutally taught interpretation of Bushido, wants a fight and he will get the fight he wants. The film at first ends on an ambiguous note, as technically speaking, both fighters are alive when the credits roll. However, when you realize the sheer punishment they’ve given their bodies, with Hashimoto getting punctured in the heart by Ching and Ching in return losing his whole right arm, you realize that both men are not going to make it.
Hashimoto stops the fight when he realizes he needs not deliver a killing blow. He instead sheathes his katana and looks out to the ocean back towards Japan. Both realize that no side will win, both will die, and in truth what honor was actually won that day? They actually did win honor through their foiling of the plot but then ruined it by performing the duel.
Now, unless you’re hopelessly literal-minded, this does sound very much like allegory doesn’t it? As it was in the 1980s and it is no less true in the 2020s, China and Japan remain very cross toward one another. There is some legitimate grievance that I can read from the current politics between the two. Namely, Japan, despite doing its best effort to put on a better image, being no longer conquest hungry for starters and getting along with almost everyone on the global stage, hasn’t done one thing that would possibly make a difference with regards to the Chinese people: apologize for what they did to them between invading Manchuria and World War 2.
Tragically, as mentioned before, Japan has never made any formal apology for their numerous crimes against humanity on the Chinese people. I don’t know if the same is also true of the Korean, Vietnamese and Burmese people or anyone else they victimized, but it is certainly true here. They’re a number of reasons Japan hasn’t apologized, not all of them are related to racism or stubborn nationalist pride. Due to the balance of power shifting after WW2, with China becoming an Authoritarian Communist nation on the Soviet side of the Cold War, suddenly Japan under initial American occupation was on the American side of things, however nominally.
Eventually, sentiments between American and Japan would drastically improve over the coming decades, mostly due to Japan adopting their own form of American economic and political philosophy while China became the second most noteworthy opponent against the West during the Cold war, barring Cuba I guess. True, Nixon opening up trade and a change of policy following Mao’s death would also blunt that, but to this day, America and China have maintained a passive-aggressive attitude towards one another, that itself blunted by a little thing known as economic interdependence.
Japan, despite America maintaining some perhaps too close to home ties such as controversial military bases, has done more its own thing. For a time, in the 80s and 90s, there was actual fears that Japan would overtake Murica’ economically as the greatest financial superpower in the world, though one heck of a crash in the early 90s would dissipate the reality of anything like that remotely coming to pass. To be frank, a lot of that fear-mongering over Japanese economic, corporate domination might have had some ‘ahem’ xenophobic undertones.
The point that Duel to the Death makes is not just that, despite some genuine and not so genuine grievances either nation might have, it is not worth it to mesh out the divide through violence. It was horrifying enough the last time around. While Japan is not a nuclear power (for depressingly obvious reasons), another such conflict would hurt both more than it would help. Why waste good men and women in such a way?
If all the politics and allegory is too much for you, Duel to the Death, like most HK action flicks, can be enjoyed solely on the visceral level. The aforementioned NINJAS that the Japanese use are of the comically supernatural level. Jumping up high, pulling up martial feats that can’t be done with some behind the scenes f/x, being able to run really fast in procession in a manner that would be utterly in line with the Benny Hill theme. There’s also one hilarious moment where some other Chinese warrior walking along the beach is suddenly attacked by NINJAS flying kites. It’s as technically remarkable as it gut-bustlingly silly. If it that were to happen to me, I couldn’t tell you if I would laugh or scream.
There’s also smaller scale but no less absurd battles between those that are not NINJAS like our two swordsmen and the NINJAS themselves. How the lead NINJA dies is both insanely ridiculous and yet another excuse to guffaw once you process what you just saw happen.
Oh and the more realistic fighting not involving NINJAS is pretty great. In other words, politics or no politics, it’s easy to see why this is an exaggerated martial arts/swordsmanship HK classic, the first directed by the man who would one day give us, wouldn’t you know, A Chinese Ghost Story. A must see, unless you’re sensitive to the kind of sword based violence that almost certainly helped inspire Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Shaolin Temple (1982) (HK)
There were films about Shaolin martial arts before Jet Li’s debut feature in 1982. The legend Bruce Lee showed off the moves in defense of Shaolin tradition in none other than Enter the Dragon itself. Films which had “Shaolin” in the title had been made, some now considered classics of the genre like Lau Kar-Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978).
Shaolin Temple affected the genre significantly with one simple act: featuring the real life Shaolin monastery itself for the first and definitely not last time. This being a Hong Kong production, doing so involved filming on mainland China, which as you can imagine might seem risky. I suppose it was possible by the 80s’ due to an evolving change in policy following Mao’s death as mentioned in the Duel to theDeath section of this article.
That being said, showcasing the honest to God real monastery (though I wouldn’t be surprised if some interior shots were filmed in Hong Kong) was a real turning point in how the martial arts genre went about representing the cultural aspects of this type of cinema, not just “that’s some sweet moves” aspect.
The success of this movie wouldn’t just make Jet Li into a Hong Kong cinema legend over the coming decades, but it would make the actual Shaolin Monastery into one of China’s largest tourist attractions. Chances are fairly good that if you were to decide on visiting China nowadays (barring COVID and your understandable misgivings due to their censor-heavy authoritarianism, among other stuff), the Shaolin monastery located smack dab in central China would be a strong suggestion given to you.
The story is fairly straightforward which works in the film’s favor both as introduction to Li and to the Shaolin itself. During one of the many terrible periods of civil war that plagued Chinese history, Jue Yuan (Jet Li) loses his father to a ruthless general called Wang Shichong, who upon writing this was based on an actual person of the same name.
After fleeing for his life with help from someone who eventually is revealed to be a rebel leader against Shichong, he is given sanctuary in the Shaolin Monastery, and eventually decides to go through the trials of becoming a Shaolin monk, all for revenge. Of course, the Buddhist monks who run the monastery do not train their students to kill for any reason. In spite of how plausible the moves of a Shaolin monk are in killing someone, only non-lethal violence is permitted, always in defense. Sounds similar to the Jedi code, don’t it?
This frustration over the rules of living a proper Shaolin life under the teachings of Buddha leads Jue to having a frayed relationship with the men he will in time call brothers. There’s also Bai Wu Xia, the beautiful maiden who lives in the monastery due to one of the lead monks being her adoptive father. Like the jedi code, shaolin monks do not take up with anyone in intimate relationships. Again, this is sounding like something our boy Lucas took inspiration from.
Eventually, the war that is transpiring makes it way to the monastery. The monks try their best to stay neutral in the conflict, due to their pacifist belief. Eventually, General Shichong’s methods, all to get a prisoner of his, Jue, pushes the monastery’s beliefs to the breaking point.
Of course, it’s easy to see why the Shaolin beliefs would send very mixed messages, as they regularly train and practice with weapons. Swords, spears, sword-spears, daggers with ropes like what you saw in Marvel’s Shang-Chi last year, you name some cool Chinese weapon, the monastery likely has it.
Of course, the use of some quite sharp weaponry is all in the training and mastery of one’s body and spirit. All to improve yourself, not to take the lives of others. The scenes showcasing the cast’s effortless use of those weapons, especially with Jet Li alone in demonstration, are mesmerizing to watch.
What makes it even more impressive is that there’s no fakery to protect the actors and actresses. Li and the others really are using weapons that if you’re not careful can seriously injure yourself or others, even accidentally kill. That is one major reason behind HK martial arts’ worldwide appeal: the characters and stories are fake, the danger is not.
It ultimately culminates in an epic battle on the monastery grounds between Jue, Bai and the monks versus Shichong’s forces. Not gonna lie, seeing the evil general and his forces approaching the monastery reminded me of the Uruk-Hai barreling towards the Fellowship in LOTR, with Howard Shore’s theme for Isengard blaring in my head.
It’s violent but not as violent as the proceedings in Duel to the Death, which had an almost Sam Raimi level of comic excess to lessen the graphic feel somewhat. Here, it’s much more serious, but not without moments of definite levity, more so in the moments where no one is fighting.
Oh, just a warning. Dog/pet lovers should beware as Shaolin Temple showcases the quite different standards the Chinese have towards canines compared to those living in the States. When you understand the background of that culture, the blow of a set of scenes involving a dog are not as severe. Just remember that from a Chinese perspective, how we view dogs and cats might seem strange even off-putting to them.
Jet Li’s first leading film role is a confident start, a confident beginning to the one post Bruce Lee martial arts actor that might give Jackie Chan pause. Others would also bring up Donnie Yen for example, but I rest my case. Shaolin Temple from 1982 is not just historically important, it’s yet another showcase for the breathless imagination of real often dangerous skills coming up to bat for our entertainment, whether you’re from Asia or not.
I didn’t play enough games released in 2021 to create a separate article for best games of the year. Seeing as how I haven’t really delved into critical darling Deathloop well enough yet, there could be a post-article winner for game of the year. On that note, well down the pipe line for my games to cooperatively play with my best friend Angel living in Florida is a little title called It Takes Two, which won the highest honor at last month’s The Game Awards.
An entirely cooperative game with no way to play by yourself, It Takes Two promises to be an experience tailor made to spend time the best way I can with my college friend aside from talking. So, the absence of Deathloop and It Takes Two makes me feel that even the highest ranking game on this list is not necessarily my Game of 2021.
There is one movie that I wish I could have seen last year but due to being available at no theater in my area, I missed the chance to see Guillermo Del Toro’s take on noir classic Nightmare Alley, based on the pitch black novel of the same name. Due to it’s R-rating, it’s safe to say the new version ekes closer to the full content of the novel that a 1947 motion picture couldn’t.
For whatever reason, in eerily the same vein as me not finishing the 2019 HBO Watchmen series, I did not watch the final episode of Squid Game, Netflix’s hottest surprise success, save for an entry appearing in my top ten. This South Korean sleeper hit deserves attention, so I’m going to go ahead and make it an honorable mention that would be a definite placement on the top ten save for having not actually watched the finale for a reason I can’t completely explain.
Speaking of honorable mentions…
Squid Game (2021)
Loki: Season One
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart (PS5)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Number Ten: Hawkeye
I don’t know if Hawkeye is the best MCU show released this year. The guy that once brainwashed one of the two leads of this show probably ekes out as better with his own show featured here as an honorable mention. Hawkeye was the most entertaining and probably the most consistent in sticking to what it was trying to be.
It didn’t get pulled back into the MCU’s baser formula like the up to a point experimental Wandavision. It wasn’t a politically intriguing drama that ultimately couldn’t make its mind up on what it was really saying to the audience like Falcon and Winter Soldier, save that we shouldn’t forget or hide the crimes we committed against Americans that didn’t share the skin color of one Steve Rogers.
Loki, for all it’s literally universe-shaking repercussions, didn’t have the best pace or the highest energy and yet is shielded by further criticism in that it is not the wrap-up of that particular adventure on Disneyplus. What If rarely was as far-out and thought provoking in its alternate universe exploration as it could have been and when there was a story-line like that, it often felt either undercooked or not explored long enough.
The least impressive original Avenger ironically has the best run this year when it comes to sticking to its bullet points and wrapping it all up in a surprisingly expansive but ultimately fitting bow. here we see Clint Barton’s journey to escape or find cantharis in the dark five years he spent murdering ner-do-wells as Ronin. All because he saw no other way to cope with losing his entire family from the other most significant purple figure in the MCU.
While he may have exclusively slain bad people or those who worked for bad people, he didn’t count on getting his happy non-Avenging life back, he honestly was attempting long term suicide-by-criminal organization if we’re being honest. Now that he does, he has created a new list of enemies to harbor his family from as well as get the attention of an old one who has gloriously become canon in the actual MCU. It will take more than one Hawkeye to save the day and as luck would have it, there is.
Portraying Kate Bishop rounds out an era for Hailee Steinfeld’s career that is about the most prosperous as I can see right about now. From getting to reprise the voice of Spider-Gwen in two more Spider-verse movies down the road to beginning to voice Vi, one of the main figures of what could in time be the undisputed champion for video game adaptations( if it hasn’t already), it’s a good time to be Hailee Steinfeld.
Steinfeld’s Bishop taking up screentime from Barton has ruffled some fans much like Natasha Romanoff’s “family” did so in Black Widow and how Shang-Chi’s best friend and sister did for me in his movie. But again, Hawkeye is a title, not a name, and considering that Jeremy Renner has been in the MCU for a decade at this point, are you really surprised the seeds for a successor have been sown?
Hawkeye is funnier more often than it’s not, dark enough when it needs to be but doesn’t sour the Christmas time atmosphere which aside from coming across as refreshing for being a “street level” marvel tale after the operatic excess of Eternals, helps give it a strong enough distinction from the rest of the ever crowded MCU lineup.
Hawkeye, as you would expect, promises much coming later to the MCU as has been the case since day one but it also promises that maybe a replacement character can be more than just a replacement character. Despite sharing mostly the same skill-set as Clint, Kate is her own person, albeit molded by her unlikely idolization of an Avenger.
Hawkeye makes a humorous case for what could happen when you meet your hero, both for why you should and should not at the same time.
Number 9: Castlevania: Season 4
How I feel about the last season of Netflix’s surprisingly great take on the beloved video game series has changed due to the release of Arcane later that same year.
It’s still good if flawed here and there but what is refreshing about Castlevania’s errors is that they’re not tied into the endless pitfalls that beleaguer a typical video game adaptation. This year’s Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil movies continue more or less to follow many of the same mistakes in trying to imagine these video game worlds and their stories in a form that is not interactive. Too much emphasis on bringing attention to references or easter eggs from the games, not enough on letting a still reverent adaptation be its own thing, told in a way that suits linear, traditional models of storytelling. Imagine that.
Well, the four seasons of Netflix’s Castlevania are here to tell you need not imagine anymore. You can witness it. Arcane took the concept that Castlevania for the small screen adopted and has ran away with it to insanely glorious heights. Here, it’s enough that it’s a story of a world changing from the medieval to the Renaissance, of finding the distinction between science’s value and it’s detriments, of deciding how you want to live with the gifts you’re born with or grow into.
Maybe the wisdom that Castlevania uncovered not unlike finding some dusty tome in a mystic library is that maybe it is the story and its players, not the game and its players, that matter first. Once you have the basics down, you can then infuse an infectious anime-inspired style and fury to the fighting, the score and the tone. You can then sneak in the references both obvious and subtle and make it work with the tale to be told.
As much applause as Arcane has earned for finally getting it after nearly 30 years of wallowing in mediocrity or worse since the live action Mario Bros, Castlevania was the stepping stone, the first sign that we were learning to do what was once written off as impractical, impossible even: make a game’s world inviting to those who have never once taken up a controller or keyboard + mouse.
I have played many games. I have never actually played any Castlevania title. You won’t need to to get or appreciate what is offered here and that is the same times a thousand for a latter entry on this list.
Number 8: Resident Evil 8: Village (Played on PlayStation 5)
Resident Evil’s 13th in truth main entry is a welcome reminder not rehash of past franchise glories, such as the venerated Resident Evil 4 from 2005, not unlike how RE7 from 2017 recalled the original PS1 titles. RE8 goes one step further by being a first person version of RE4 that ekes closer to actually being survival horror, with puzzles to solve, fewer resources to use and some monsters that just cannot be killed but outlasted. Also, in one area, being genuinely terrifying in a way I don’t think Resident Evil has ever been for me before.
RE8 yet reflects the pains of staying true to itself while also being drawn to the more explosive, actiony side of itself. RE4 is often derisively called the first “action” entry that eventually devolved the series’ reputation for the next two entries. That said, since the first game ended with you triumphantly blowing up the final monster with a rocket launcher, Resident Evil is a horror phenomenon that has always stood out for its internal conflict in trying to balance the scales between fright and fight and failing.
The cycle begins anew as after RE7 dialed down the manic action considerably, RE8 cranks it back up but still not too much to where it can mostly be called part of a REnaissance for the series so to speak.
Village’s cold, spooky atmosphere and contextualition of gothic horror with a contemporary feel also help it stand out from being just another game in the series and lays the groundwork for what might well be one of the most conceptually intriguing titles with the upcoming Resident Evil 9. Whether that successor wins or loses is beside the point.
It’s fitting that this middle child for this new trilogy of Resident Evil should be all about what we leave for the ones that come after. It’s also important that in and out of universe, the lessons that are learned will not always be the best ones.
Number 7: The Suicide Squad
James Gunn surprised virtually everyone with his out of the blue success in making Guardians of theGalaxy part of the string of success stories for the MCU eight years ago. He probably surprised the actual readers of the comic book team that were reestablished into their modern take in 2008 as well.
It’s a pity that Gunn commercially couldn’t do the same for DC’s go-to example of villains forced to do good or the deep state’s interpretation of “good” with his vastly superior vision of the Suicide Squad.
So many factors go into making the 2021 Suicide Squad’s failure more sad than comically embarrassing. It flips the circumstances from the 2016 film by David Ayers: that film was a commercial success but critically panned, some calling it one of the worst superhero films ever made. This film is a critical success but was financially disastrous.
Disaster is yet a stretch as Gunn is still able to make and release his Peacemaker spin off show with John Cena and Gunn is already hard at work with getting his MCU Guardians of the Galaxy back into the spotlight with their appearance in the Fourth Thor this year as well as a series of Groot shorts, a GOTG holiday special and of course Vol. 3. So, yeah, The Suicide Squad did bomb but I’ve got a feeling that it’s “No hard feelings” all around.
In spite of the poor gross of Gunn’s take on bomb collared villains doing government dirty work and then doing of their rebellious own accord good work, you should see this movie. It’s easy if you try HBO Max and you might wonder why it failed if you don’t account for the factors that were not whatsoever the fault of the film’s quality.
It’s Gunn showing us what would happen if he made GOTG R-rated but not going too hard for the most part as to not alienate you from enjoying the host of characters on their terms. From going deeper into making Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn click in a manner that wasn’t possible the first time to Idris Elba delivering better than Will Smith on the sympathetic killer-for-hire with Bloodsport.
To the surprising, redeeming good nature residing within an individual called “Ratcatcher” to the adorable obliviousness of King Shark to the tragic circumstances of a once purely silly figure like Polka-Dot Man, The Suicide Squad is all about taking would be or were once villains and making them heroic enough or just plain heroes. Just like with the Guardians of the Galaxy, but rougher, edgier.
The Suicide Squad didn’t deserve to be overlooked last year, but then again it is a mission they’re on they’re not expected to survive. It’s meta-ironic no matter how you sliced the results.
Number 6: Dune: Part One
Much like the circumstances young Paul Atreides and his mother Lady Jessica find themselves in at the end of the first of two or three movies, the circumstances of Dune as a new cinematic prospect is a narrow victory, more so with respects to the financial than the critical.
If you looked at Dune’s box office, it may not seem the most impressive, particularly for a new potential franchise. A little over $100 million domestically and a little over $300 million worldwide. But taking into account the HBO Max viewership, positive critical and audience reception and Oscar word of mouth, Dune is able to begin the journey to achieve something that has long been dismissed: a solid cinematic vision.
In terms of vision, Denis Villeneuve is the right man at the right time and in the right place. He got a chance to continue exploring the cyberpunk dystopia of Blade Runner with the excellent sequel 2049 and now he has a chance to show us what happens when a Hollywood blockbuster goes for the thinking man’s jugular rather than the spectacle craving.
Adapting for the most part the first half of Frank Herbert’s long and if I’m being honest, kindof unwieldy landmark piece of literary sci-fi, the first Dune installment by our man Denis inspires awe more so in its confident ability to show the scale of this world than perhaps anything else. Much like how his vision of continuing the dark world of Blade Runner was made to immerse you in its unsettling enormity, the vision of cosmic civilization a long ass time from now suggests you nor I can ever really encompass the full picture.
Those that can or earnestly try partake of the spice melange and they see the past, the present and the future, like Timothee Chalamet’s Paul. His reserved portrayal of the future Duke of House Atreides does not betray laziness or uncertainty of how to play this role but the uncertainty and fear of how he can be a good successor to his father. Following one intense but inevitable attack on his family, it then turns into how to thread the needle between vengeance and justice. On top of all that, how his prophesized (and manipulated) role as a messianic figure could cause more suffering than salvation.
Dune is about a lot of things, a lot of those things perhaps more pertinent to today than it was in 1965. It’s the difficulty not so much in encompassing the content of the book but the context that was the ominous task to be undertaken. You can tell Villenueve and friends love the series of books and clearly take to heart that it is the world and its themes that are most important. Sure, its characters also serve a needed purpose but for once them being secondary to the all encompassing messages of the narrative works here.
It’s rather appropriate, as these characters spend most of their time on Arrakis, a desert planet that might have given George Lucas a few ideas here or there down the road.
On this planet, you adapt or die as like the thematic power of Herbert’s world, it is the deafening size of the place, the apex predator sand-worms and the inconceivable size of the universe itself that caught Denis’ attention. These small people trying to find purpose in a reality that considers them as puny as they are.
As the first of hopefully a healthy number of installments suggests, it’s about what makes a good civilization and what is the cost of doing so? How much can man positively or negatively affect the scales of how the universe is run? What is better to pursue: your own ends however sympathetic or the needs of all around you? And most significantly, can these effects really last or even matter in the end?
For those simply going along with Villenueve’s take, a mixture of optimism and apprehension at Paul and his follower’s trials may be your takeaway, much like the general opinion of the new Dune before it’s October release. But as the story of Dune goes on, you start to realize that Herbert’s views on humanity’s potential were at best bittersweet. That for all our good intentions, we are either too self-destructive or are handicapped by the self limiting nature of who we simply are.
Dune Messiah, the initially polarizing second novel in the series is all about deconstructing or perhaps demolishing all the assumptions you might have made about the cast of characters. In spite of the end of the first novel laying heavy hints that this is not the story you wanted it to be already. Ironically, that might make Dune a less problematic story by modern standards, what with all the initial takeaways of “white savior narrative.”
I look forward if nothing else at seeing if Part Two and the certainly condensed take on Messiah by Villenueve sticks the landing in the ways that matter. With or without the spice, I see no reason to believe that he will fail in the attempt.
Number 5: Spider-Man: No Way Home
The third and not last certainly of the MCU Spider-Man flicks rests at polar opposites of assumptions about the modern blockbuster, particularly in relation to superheroes. It serves up the expected and in this instance desired fan service and nostalgic recognition of roughly 20 years of cinematic Spidey while also taking, on the surface, surprising risks that ultimately turned out to be widely embraced rather than bitterly divisive this turn.
Tom Holland’s tenure as Spider-Man has been both widely praised while also uniquely criticized. Not so much for the actor’s performance as Peter Parker, but for how this Peter seemed markedly different with respects to how he reflects the figure’s iconic status as basically “Batman but poor”.
Being the protégé of one of comic’s most noteworthy rich superheroes in Tony Stark did much to espouse a sense that this was not what the character of Spider-Man is supposed to be, privileged with a rich man’s toys rather than what comes from his own blood, sweat and tears.
Among other things, No Way Home seeks to redress this complaint, like a case of constructive criticism being taken to heart that manifests in the form of what is first a big screen Spider-Man movie easter egg tour that becomes in truth an endearing celebration of the different takes for the webhead we’ve seen.
It’s the first Spider-Man sequel to finally perform the balancing act that Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 failed at: having a lot going on, like with the villain roster, and finally making it work. No Way Home is packed but not crowded, knows what to do to partition the characters, friend or foe, effectively and ironically almost acts as a redemption story for the figures that emerged from the lesser Spider-outings of the past.
It also finds the time to do what the MCU is ought to do, continuing to build itself up with further hints of things to come and matters to be resolved, likely with spectacle involved. It does more than any other MCU property released in 2021 to market the future of itself with enthusiasm and a sense that was mostly lacking that yes, there are still some great things to come, some intriguing things.
Much like how Avengers Endgame wasn’t really the end of the MCU but gave off a sense of finality for something in that universe, Holland’s third solo outing also feels like an end that yet promises more without coming across as cheap for doing so. Like many of the elements of this film, it is exactly what it was trying to be: having a cake and eating it too. 1 and a half billion in gross and counting is the best empirical evidence I can think of for that being true.
Tom Holland will return as Spider-Man but next time, the Spidey you see really will feel as if he has actually come home at last.
Number 4: Invincible: Season One
Robert Kirkman’s Invincible stands out to me in threading the needle for combining the earnest optimism and wonder of a standard comic book story with the deconstructive pessimism or skepticism of the works of Alan Moore, Mark Millar an Garth Ennis.
At the same time, Invincible in both comic and now animated television form embodies why we love, gravitate towards the superhero mythos and why we would also be apprehensive of it were it to occur in real life.
First of all, Invincible uses it’s R-rated license to demonstrate why superhero training is direly important, what happens when mistakes are made. It’s not as pretty as the mistakes of a PG/PG-13 demonstration. It also highlights the much more brutal reality when those same powers, that of super strength, laser eyes and the like, are used for reasons that are to put it lightly, not on the level.
Of course, the live action and so far excellent live action The Boys series has also done that, but seeing that same realistic yet bombastic violence from superpowers come in animated form that hews to the romantic style of comic superheroes makes it that much more stark and for the purposes of the story of Mark Grayson and his friends and family, more effective.
More than any one moment so far in Amazon Prime’s The Boys, the violence that can and will happen in this take on Invincible made me wince, even honestly queasy. A mid season battle that goes pretty poorly for the up and coming titular hero of Invincible and his fellow teenage heroes was disturbing in a way I had rarely felt before.
This was all intentional. Sure Peter Parker and Clark Kent and many other heroes have had rough goes of it before as is inevitable in their line of work but the age limits on what content is permissible in their side of the genre never allows us to see how really terrible it would likely get if super-powers were a real phenomenon. Kirkman’s vision does not spare us what we’ve always perhaps quietly pondered would actually happen in a bout between superhero and supervillain.
It’s not just physical pain in a superhero story that Invincible has been about. it’s about what it means to be a good hero or just a good person with such power. How you weather not just the physical but the emotional and psychological baggage of such a job. Again, less violent superhero faire has dealt with this, it’s basically Spider-Man and Batman’s modus operandi. It’s the far more visceral consequences that happen that puts those same timeless themes into a fresher light.
On the deconstructive side of things is where the early volumes of Invincible the graphic novel and the first season of the show draw upon something newer. About the assumptions made about the role models that these same heroes like Invincible derive inspiration from to be a hero. As it has now become part of pop cultural common knowledge by now, Invincible’s father being the surprise initial antagonist of the story can no longer be really a spoiler.
One of the most iconic images from the show, that of a frustrated Omni-Man talking down to his battered, bloodied son about their real purpose to be on Earth, not like the desires of Jor-El to his son Kal-El, has all but given up the game on that front.
It’s not just a commentary on what a super-powered group of people would seriously want to do if they came upon a comparatively puny species like humanity, it’s about the painful reckoning of most kids growing into adults that your parents are rarely what you wanted them to be or what you thought they were. A betrayal more reaving than an actual blade.
In spite of the heaviness, Invincible paradoxically also contains that down-to-Earth quality that makes the modern superhero so appealing. Mark, like Peter Parker and many coming of age superheroes, has desires and responsibilities outside of saving the city or the world. He has burgeoning romantic affections, doubts on where to go next in education and employment and making sure the ties that bind him stay well wrapped. All the more prescient considering how one tie is strained past the breaking point.
Much like Kirkman’s other seminal comic contribution The Walking Dead, Invincible is not only about Invincible. Great time is given to figures other than Mark like his fellow superhero and eventual love of his life Atom Eve and her own struggles. Of particular interest based off of my comic reading is the fascinating, endearing and in time heart-wrenching love story between two other heroes in Mark’s circle, Robot and Monster Girl. If the first season is any indication, the show is well on its way to not just nailing that side of Invincible’s narrative, it might make it even more devastating than what occurs on the page.
So far, the ship of adapting Invincible into motion seems much surer than the very shaky hand that ultimately undid AMC’s live action take of the Walking Dead. I feel much more certain that Mark’s story of super and not so super woes and victories will reach a proper end, one that might even surpass in time what came before. It certainly doesn’t hurt that for my money, the voice casting is as perfect to my subjective imagining of how these characters sounded in my head as possible. Even the changes aren’t too terrible.
Invincible is the inspiring and thought-provoking superhero tale of our time that is not for the faint of heart and stomach.
Number Three: West Side Story
Steven Spielberg’s latest film has been called his best film in 20 years. I haven’t seen every film of his in that timespan and I likely never will but yet I can heartily endorse that statement as heartily as everyone performs in this remake of the 1961 classic, itself based on the runaway success of the 1957 Broadway show.
Much like how Kurosawa was able to reimagine William Shakespeare’s work brilliantly in Japanese through his masterpieces Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear), Stephen Sondheim, who passed away mere days before the 2021 West Side Story’s release, rethought the Bard’s most ubiquitous work, Romeo and Juliet, into mid 20th century Urban America.
The original 60s adaptation by Robert Wise is seen by some as an acquired taste due to its on the surface goofy hybridization of Shakespeare, singing and city gangs snapping fingers in groovy rhythm. Spielberg’s version remains faithful but successfully makes it seem more plausible even self-knowing at times at how inherently silly a musical can be. I can’t say whether it is darker than the original considering that the beats of the story remain unaltered though with an even greater sense of looming, inevitable tragedy.
Spielberg uses the fact that his version is no longer contemporary but now a period piece to great effect in distinguishing his version without losing the spirit of what it’s about. The foreknowledge that the titular part of Manhattan, the Upper West Side, is destined to change into something altogether different than what it was in the 50s. The inability for either the Caucasian Jets nor the Puerto Rican Sharks to reckon that they have a common nemesis in Robert Moses, an enemy they cannot defeat but could outlast, adds to the subtle pain that makes up West Side Story’s newest conceit.
Like the myopic, dueling Capulets and Montagues from fair Verona, the Jets and Sharks ensnare in their pointless feud innocent youths who ironically would likely never have met each other if not for that feud. The rumble gives, the rumble takes away.
Many have laid some heat at Ansel Elgort’s performance as our Romeo Tony, but I really see it as a decent actor not quite on the same high level as everyone else, including Rachel Ziegler as our Juliet Maria. It makes me feel more sorry for Elgort being dwarfed by everyone else especially Mike Faist as the Jets leader Riff, David Alverez as the Sharks leader Bernardo and Ariana Debose as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita who might well surpass Rita Moreno’s original performance here. Don’t feel too bad, as Moreno gets to play a new role beautifully herself as well as be an executive producer.
West Side Story’s greyer palette is offset by having genuine color being used not to mention a film grain that successfully reminds one of a bygone era of cinema much like Tarantino’s use in Once upon a Time inHollywood. It manages to present itself as a modern production that has not lost the necessary cues from yesteryear to be called West Side Story. If nothing else, it better highlights how deadly serious a story it becomes as well as the frustrating obliviousness of most in the story to its growing peril.
West Side Story was a tragic failure at the box office, with Spider-Man’s release after further eating up potential viewers down the line. Most factors were not Spielberg’s or the film’s fault, namely the rather curious apathy the modern filmgoer has towards musicals on the big screen nowadays. Hamilton is proof that musicals in general can still be hot, but perhaps it’s hard to make appealing a story to younger generations about the silent generation dancing and fighting their issues away.
Of course, being number three on this list, I do recommend the new WSS regardless of your age. You might even find it more accessible and less initially strange an experience than the 1961 entry. It made a millennial like myself honest to God cry and I don’t often get into movies like this anyway, so take that as an endorsement and a reassurance that you won’t be wasting your time with this film the way these New York ruffians waste their lives.
Number Two: Guardians of the Galaxy (Played on PS5)
In 2020, Square-Enix released an Avengers game in the same vein of titles like Destiny and The Division. Always online, co-operative and as it turns out, not that fun or good. It was developed by two studios, Crystal Dynamics, the people behind the most recent Tomb Raider games and Eidos Montreal, best known for rebooting for a time Deus Ex and making the third modern Tomb Raider.
When it was announced at E3 last year that the latter studio were making their own Guardians of theGalaxy title, opinions were quite muted first because of the sour response to their Avengers work and because the game they were making didn’t seem all that impressive, almost imitative of the MCU conception.
Turns out, like in 2014, you shouldn’t underestimate those bunch of heroic A-holes. Eidos’ take on Star-Lord and friends was so good, it might even stand toe to toe or be better than the version we got from James Gunn.
This iteration of the Guardians combines the strengths of the cinematic and the comic into a hybrid that really doesn’t indicate the weaknesses of either. Star-Lord is still a developmentally arrested orphan who still pines for the life he was kidnapped away from in the 1980s, though under even more tragic circumstances. He’s also the son of the king of a planet and a war veteran like in the comics and unlike the movies. Gamora is an adopted daughter of Thanos now without the mad titan or her other adopted sister Nebula, whom she was forced to kill.
Drax is the man who took down Thanos himself, but still finds no peace from having lost his beloved family. Rocket’s douchey attitude comes from not really coming to terms with the traumatic life he lived as a test subject and the guilt over not saving the one he loved. Groot, despite being on the outside the cheeriest of the Guardians also harbors the pain of being the last of his kind. The Guardians are defined by their shared loss and come together ultimately as a Fast and Furiousesque family, and hardly as cheesy.
To add to the prevailing notion that the retooled version of the GOTG first seen in 2008 is based over outsiders coming together as one is that in this take Peter Quill, our Star-Lord, has to face a responsibility that would be hard even on the responsible-minded; of possibly being a father. I always enjoy a story where the Casanova hero not only reckons with genuine love and commitment but the chance to care for the product of his ways.
The twists and turns of this interactive Guardians adventure is not just punctuated by great drama but some of the funniest writing I’ve seen from anything in a long time. The banter between the five Guardians, whether it be onboard their vessel the Milano, exploring and adventuring out and about or in the midst of combat rarely failed to register as anything but pitch perfect not only to their characterization and character growth, but to my funny bone. I was gasping for air at the section where the Guardians have to use the Nova Corps virtual help desk.
The cherry on top of this rousing and surprisingly emotional adventure is the commitment to detail to make this your kind of Guardians adventure from the varied number of costumes you can give all the characters that detail their comic and film history since the 1970s to an excellent if familiar collection of 80s hits that can be played on the ship’s jukebox.
You know the developers really cared beyond a shadow of a doubt about their vision for this side of the Marvel universe when they created up to ten brand new songs for a fictional metal band that Peter Quill listened to as a kid, a band that wouldn’t you know it, was called Star-Lord.
It’s safe to call Eidos Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy the most pleasant surprise of 2021. No one expected anything as remotely as good or investing and yet here we have what might be a version of these space cowboys that I’m more eager for a follow-up to than Gunn’s own great rendition on the big screen. Turn up the radio.
Number one: Arcane: League of Legends
From out of basically nowhere comes Arcane as the best thing of 2021. Based on a video game series you would have to hit up my friend Angel over in Florida to really get a good description of, this animated series out of Netflix finishes what Castlevania started: making not just a great adaptation of a video game, but a masterful one.
This could be my lack of exposure to the series developed by Riotgames but I basically forgot half the time this was even based on a game, so completely it can and will envelop you in its world, characters and emotional stakes. A tale of two cities whose future is decided by the tragic deterioration of two sisters’ relationship.
It doesn’t hurt that Arcane’s art style and animation is practically idiosyncratic with only 2018’s Into theSpider-verse to compare it to in terms of something really new coming onto the screen. It’s so beautiful and detailed that it’s fun to watch and rewatch the show just to see what the animated motion describes to you that words won’t. How the facial and body animations can convey almost better than a real person’s what they’re feeling and where the paths of their lives are taking them, for better and for worse.
It’s themes are both timeless and timely, leaving no small amount of sympathy for those you would call villain and no amount of disappointment for those you would call hero or at least not evil.
The sisters Vi and Powder and their evolution or devolution in the latter’s case make up the main thrust from which most every other conflict is affected. Vi becomes a gritty survivor whose admirable trait of never giving up comes in conflict with recklessness borne out of pride. How her desperation to find her sister Powder is colored in by her regrets in how she treated her in the past. How perhaps she can find a new beginning not with her estranged sister, but from a woman hailing from a part of the world she has every reason to despise.
Powder in turn becomes Jinx, an explosive anarchist who demonstrates the rather chilling lesson that even someone that can earnestly love you for who you are can also corrupt you into something that makes a troubled yet innocuous little girl into a nightmare. a nightmare that is as frightening as it is sorrowful. How trauma enflames the demons that were always there until the person you become is all but unrecognizable from what was once there.
It’s a story really about the two kinds of love, both intimate and familial, behind a background of significant technological change occurring in a world hungering for societal change but being kept from it, much like our own. How love can redeem and corrupt. How the smallest mistakes can be more destructive than you would first imagine.
That is a lot of food for thought for something that could be lazily construed as “video game adaptation.” Arcane is not an adaptation. It is a burgeoning new work of art inspired by a video game but desiring to be its own wonderful thing. Maybe that was what was missing in the nearly 30 years of attempts since the Mario Bros movie of 1993.
Arcane overnight changed expectations over a genre of adaptation that was practically written off for the most part. Now, every other attempt to give a video game brand a new alternative format that fails will be doubly a failure because now we know it can be so much better.
As for what comes next, beats me, probably a new installment in 80s retrospective.
After many delays due to other contemporary topics to write about, I’m back to another of what is destined to be possibly hundreds of entries in this Retrospective series, as I’m doing these movies 4 at a time, with few exceptions. After around maybe the 20th entry, I might denote the normal number along with the Roman numeral, not that there is really any need to read these in order.
Used Cars (1980)
Robert Zemeckis’ second movie, four years before his financial big break with Romancing the Stone and five before cementing himself as one of Hollywood’s new giants with Back to the Future, is a darkly comic sign of things to come.
His first flick, I want to hold your Hand, all about a bunch of Beatles fangirls trying to meet the fab four at Ed Sullivan, mirrors Used Cars as both were kindly received by the critics yet were box office failures. I probably should check out Zemeckis’ first one day but because it was released in the 70s’, I refrained from watching it.
Why this originally failed is what I’m wondering.
Romancing the Stone, which is on my list for 80s’ viewing for this site, likely won people over with it being an action-adventure/rom-com hybrid, a cheeky alternative to the concurrently releasing Indiana Jones movies, funny considering Zemeckis and Spielberg’s friendship and partnership over BTTF. Back to theFuture, well, that is one of Hollywood’s most legendary sleeper hits, coming out of nowhere in the Summer of 1985 to be the year’s biggest film, and oh so deserving of it.
Why couldn’t Zemeckis’ flicks about 60’s fangirls and comically scummy used car salesman engender the same success? Of course, few directors launch themselves into both critical and monetary stardom at the start and maybe it was that factor alone that stymied Forrest Gump’s eventual director early on. Of course, the success of his filmography starting with either Stone or Future made his first two retroactively viewed and re-evaluated, as is want to happen. Similar to how the meteoric success of Final Fantasy VII led to greater attention to the first six games, especially for IV and VI.
Used Cars’ subject matter and mostly cynical depiction of human behavior might’ve also contributed to it being initially a financial clunker. It’s the story of two used car dealerships, located uniquely enough in Phoenix, Arizona. Two aging dealership owners, both played by Jack Warden and both named as a profane joke (Roy L. Fuchs and Luke Fuchs) are ever at odds, wanting the other to fall out of business. The much younger Rudy, played by our boy Kurt Russell, is the one who directly operates the dealership of the “lesser evil” due to the brother on that end being the eldest and having some severe heart issues.
One of the “greater evil” brother’s(Roy) plots leads to the other brother (Luke) dying and what does in the brother is just sad. While both Fuchs brothers are shysters, seeing how Roy’s henchmen kills Luke was plain cruel and hard to watch. Upon realizing what has happened to Luke, Rudy and his fellow dealership workers fake his survival, all so Roy can’t get that dealership and increase his fortunes. a battle of wits, scams and lemons begins between Rudy’s bad and Roy’s worse.
Rudy’s schemes to get people to buy his set of bad cars is always framed as being less egregious than Roy’s more morally damning behavior. Some of it is just mischievous if still illegal, like hijacking a TV broadcast to promote the dealership, leading to a juvenile but still effective gag at their expense.
Eventually, Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) arrives on the scene and both complicates and in a roundabout way later assists in keeping Rudy’s dealership from falling into Roy’s hands. It culminates in a legal battle over the number of cars Rudy claims to possess (a full mile of them) and if Roy wins the case, that will end the war of the con artists on the side of the guy who killed his own brother.
The set piece for how Rudy and Barbara plan to get those cars onto the lot in time to impress the judge( who is so, so eager to give out capital punishments) is pretty audacious and was a sign of how good Zemeckis was as a director who can coordinate a lot simultaneously and also foreshadows the high speed DeLorean antics of the Back to the Future trilogy.
Using hundreds of driving school students, a bunch of abandoned cars are fixed and made drivable( if nearly so) and are driven across the Arizona terrain to the dealership with the timer counting down before the judge comes to measure the length of all the cars. It leads to what is basically “Mad Max as a comedy”. It honestly resembles some of the bigger sequences from Fury Road though far less physically and technically taxing as a sequence.
Your mileage on the dark and bawdy comedy will vary, and I was often rotating between being impressed and disquieted, but it is ultimately an impressive early showing for Robert Zemeckis and friends, an indicator that there was indeed a bigwig in the making. It earns the reputation of being a once overlooked, now proper cult classic, rather than an embarrassing growing pain.
Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980) (HK)
From director Tsui Hark, the man who would eventually give us, in my own words, the Chinese Evil Dead with A Chinese Ghost Story, comes a tale of a group of Hong Kong teens with a penchant for making nonlethal explosives who meet a mentally disturbed teenage girl. A girl who has a penchant for torturing animals. It is as offputting as it sounds but it is yet an arresting dark dramedy.
Those three teen boys, Paul, Lung and Ko are pranksters, performing harmless yet still disruptive gags across town. They meet that demented girl Wan-Chu after running from the scene of their latest prank. She’ll rat out the boys unless they play along with her own extreme series of pranks. All of this while having her brother Tan be part of the HKPD.
The new crazier series of pranks gets them wrapped up in organized crime and a conspiracy involving Caucasian gun runners. The situation is both comical and distressingly dark as it keeps on getting worse and worse and worse and the youthful recklessness of those same kids exacerbates matters that left me struggling between a groan and a laugh. It all culminates in a group of mob hitmen hunting down the kids at a mountainside cemetery with Tan being the only one with any chance of saving their hapless asses.
I was only able to find Dangerous Encounters on Youtube, for free but on copied over VHS quality, the same as when I watched Sweet Home for Halloween Horrorthon. It was intelligible enough but I really wished a better version of this film was available to watch as it really deserves to be seen crisply.
I don’t really know the full extent of Hong Kong politics, not as much as I maybe should, but DangerousEncounters is seen as being a politically charged film, towards the contemporary politics of the British Protectorate in 1980. 17 years away is the giving away of the city state back to mainland China, noteworthy in that the U.K. actually honored the deal.
Of course, HK going back to mainland China eventually led to a slow disintegration of the metropolis’ democratic institutions, as evidenced by the many protests that have made international news in recent years. But how does that actually fit with this movie? At the end of the film, as the last surviving teen fires an assault rifle in the air out of frustration from what had transpired, photos of the 1967 Hong Kong riots scroll across the screen.
Those protests involved pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) advocates using deadly force, including bombs. It was reflective not so much of a yearning from the populace to have a Communist takeover occur, but an expression of frustration over the British government not governing well enough, which they themselves would later admit to.
Is Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind pro-Communist, in favor of the ultimately quelled pro-CCP protesters? I have no idea, and it wasn’t until the very end of the movie that any concrete mention of something related to that history was brought up.
In spite of what is or is not the intended political takeaways, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind is best viewed as a darkly comic crime story with some pretty exceptional set pieces. The three that stand out are as follows.
The first is the girl taking control of a tourist bus, asking them all to strip to their underwear, ordering the driver on a merry chase for the cops. She keeps the driver and tourists in check with threat of setting off a DIY explosive. Not for any political or cultural statement. Because she can, because she’s bored. A dog chasing cars. The boys have the tools, she has the twisted imagination for them.
The second is an underground parking lot meeting that ends up being a run for dear life for the three boys as a seemingly unending number of mooks pour in trying to kill them, all set to this strangely soothing song that I first heard, funnily enough in the radio for Grand Theft Auto IV.
The third is the aforementioned cemetery finale, that is both literally and figuratively, quite gut-wrenching, and probably not for the reasons you might think, mostly.
Rarely has such a dark, ethically upsetting movie felt like an honest to god popcorn entertainment to me. Despite the unfortunate, occasionally obscuring VHS quality, I was having a really great time mostly due to the fact I really had no idea where it was going, what kind of comeuppance for our adolescent characters was or was not lying in wait on the horizon.
While it is quite easy to sympathize with the three boys as they never wanted to go as far as they did, and were all but blackmailed into it by the girl, you keep hoping she gets what’s coming to her, especially due to her being responsible for a grisly end to a poor stray cat. You’re also left wondering if her sane detective brother can make it out of the web of trouble she ends up creating alive.
Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind is not for everyone. I have a generally strong as steel skin for this kind of subject matter and am honestly drawn to stories that can be both morally grey yet entertaining, even better if you add a delicious spice of black humor to make its ironies in play sing to me. If you want a less perturbing Hong Kong experience from Tsui Hark, A Chinese Ghost Story is ready and waiting for you.
If you can find a version of the movie that is better than VHS, hit me up with where it’s at.
Breaker Morant (1980) (Australia)
Renowned Australian director Bruce Beresford (Crimes of the Heart, Driving Miss Daisy) swears up and down that the central, titular figure of his 1980 historical drama was in fact a bad dude. I believe him when he says that but I can understand why it might be hard to parse out the intended authorial intent here.
During the Second Boer War in the 1900s, fought in South Africa, Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) and two of his fellow Australian soldier pals are put on trial for committing war crimes. It is noteworthy for being possibly the first prosecution of war crimes in Britain’s very long military history. The three men are on trial for executing captured, defenseless Boer (Afrikaners, Dutch colonists in Africa) prisoners of war as well as a peaceful German pastor who was by all accounts completely not a threat to Morant’s regiment.
The excuse given is that one of Morant’s friends, Captain Simon Hunt, was killed by Boers during a skirmish at a farmhouse. Despite Hunt dying more or less within the rules of engagement, Morant and his two subordinates, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are pissed off at his death and want some revenge. They claim they were in their rights to commit the war crime due to fighting against a guerilla army.
Due to how creepily effective guerilla warfare can be, more so on a psychological level, Morant believes more “extreme” methods are justifiable. He calls it rule “303”, named after the class of bullets their bolt action rifles use. Maybe something could be said of that rule against the Boers but does it really hold up when some poor German missionary also gets rule 303, under the weak auspices he could’ve been a Boer spy?
The film does draw attention to the idea that the British military had condoned this contemptible practice up to a point and only when it became politically convenient do they now rule it as the atrocity it always was. That being said, Morant and friends did go ahead and ,”ahem”, follow those orders. They are still meant to be held accountable for committing unjustifiable acts, even by the standards of their era.
These “stiff upper lip” gentlemen of the British empire, albeit Australian, let their emotions and paranoia get the better of them and they ultimately pay the price with their deaths or imprisonment. Morant and Handcock are executed ironically through firing squad at sunrise and Witton, due to having a less damning part to play in the crimes, is sent to a penal colony. Considering he’s Australian, that is quite ironic as well.
Fun history fact: In the sequence where Morant and Handcock walk to the two chairs on the bluff where they will meet their ends, they solemnly hold hands and keep holding them into they leave the mortal coil. The filmmakers had no idea while filming that the real Morant and Handcock did the exact same thing during their final moments. They thought it was an “addition” that would be suitably dramatic. What are the odds?
Of course, if justice was fully served in response to the deaths of those P.O.Ws and that German minister, the higher ups that had allowed “rule 303” up until that point would’ve have also been condemned and punished in the military tribunal. More firing squads or penal servitude would’ve been served up. Alas.
So, it can be said fairly that Morant, Handcock and Witton where both perpetrator and victim, not one or the other. No one should call them hero and yet the nature of the trial they went through and that Witton following his prison time wrote a book in sterling defense of Morant and Handcock created a modern Australian myth: that in truth the three men were tragic “heroes”, victims of the powers that be back on the English island.
It all but certainly is tied into Australian nationalist identity, one of the sparks that would in time lead to full-on independence from the British empire. The more understandable grievance that both Australia and New Zealand for that matter would use to support a peaceful separation from the Empire were the ghastly losses they suffered fighting in World War 1 a little over a decade after the Morant trial.
The tragic history of the Australian/New Zealander soldiers (ANZACs) were most noteworthy in the appalling battle of Gallipoli, as dramatized in another Australian film, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson. WW1 was full of lopsided bloodbaths, but Gallipoli stood out in its pure hopelessness and needless loss of men and supplies. It is one of the most recognized failures of Winston Churchill’s career. For more contemporary audiences, 2016’s Battlefield 1 presented Gallipoli as an insanely bloody fiasco. So severe was Gallipoli alone that both nations recognize the conflict that enabled their national consciousness with ANZAC day, April 25th every year.
So, yes, the people of Australia and New Zealand definitely had justifiable beef with the British Empire’s management of their Commonwealths. Thankfully, both stuck around to help out the U.K. during WW2. Hell, they may have still been Britain’s ally out of mutual necessity anyway.
That being said, the pseudo-history surrounding Breaker Morant is unfortunate. Beresford never intended for his movie to add to that mythology. He wanted to show that even affirmed war criminals can have moments of genuine humanity, that before the acts they committed they could be and were agreeable people, with those that loved them and that they loved back. If anything, it should make the criminal behavior they still committed be more disturbing.
If it could happen to Breaker and friends, it could happen to you. Worst of all, in the century that has passed since the Second Boer war, it has happened many, many times, let alone from my own country. Consider the war crimes committed by Americans in both Vietnam and the endless War on Terror. Think about those perpetrators and what good they had lived before those acts. Some might’ve or are sociopaths or psychopaths, not all were. Think about this if you decide serving your country militarily is for you.
Could you do better than Breaker Morant? Could I?
Shaan (with a little bit of Sholay) (1980) (India)
When it comes to bengalcritiques being a more comprehensive deep-dive into 80s’ cinema than most, I do try to mean it. When you think of 80s’ moviemaking, your thoughts are likely drawn mostly to what Hollywood was making at the time. Maybe some English language foreign films can also count, mostly from the U.K.
Well, I have been showcasing some non-American 1980s’ pictures, as is obvious from having just talked about a Hong Kong and Australian flick.
Well, Indian cinema definitely should factor into the equation and Bollywood alone has for damn certain pulled its weight in this decade and possibly every decade since they started making movies. Bollywood makes the most movies every year of any nation and that’s not counting the also lucrative Tollywood and Kollywood markets, which in more recent years have achieved better outside recognition. That being said, when you think of Indian movies, Bollywood is at the forefront of the average person’s understanding.
They are known for being long, full of musical numbers, many subplots to justify lengths that surpass 2 and a half hours or longer, as well as a curious mix of different genres all in one. A Bollywood action movie is rarely just an action movie. It can and likely will include comedy, romance, musicals and cultural/political commentary. Yes, non-Indian films are perfectly capable of mixing genres too, but Bollywood showcases its at times bewildering hybridization of subject matters and tone which likely helped lead to this side of World cinema having an international following.
Before I talk about the first of many, many, many, many Bollywood films to be featured down the road of Bengal’s 80s’ Retrospective, let’s talk about the 1975 landmark title that is arguably the film that patented what Bollywood films would be for decades to come, perhaps even unto present day: Sholay.
If you have already watched a more recent Bollywood movie, a movie that came out after Sholay, you may wonder what the big deal is. Well, a trend in moviemaking has to start somewhere. Sholay was and remains one of the most financially successful Bollywood productions of all time, and by extension might make it one of the most successful motion pictures ever made. The sheer size of India’s population makes a Bollywood success appear far more massive than most Hollywood success stories.
It is the tale of two charming Indian rogues, criminals with a heart of gold. While being taken to prison on a train, they assist the cop who has them in custody with fighting off bandits raiding the train. For their efforts, the cop lets them go, so long as they stay out of trouble, pinky promise.
The two go on a series of merry adventures, where their criminal behavior is more playful and mischievous than anything else, such as intentionally getting in prison so they can troll a Hitler-looking prison warden among other things. Eventually, the cop they helped asks them to come to his valley home: he needs their assistance with helping his home village fight off the notorious Gabbar Singh. Singh is a vicious bandit leader who not only wants tribute from the all but helpless village but loves to torment them as well.
Singh has become one of the most beloved villains in Bollywood cinema, as recognized and remembered as Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter is to American viewers. He has specifically been parodied and referenced in many films made after Sholay. He certainly does more than a few truly heinous things to make me not forget him anytime soon.
The two far more heroic crooks come to the village’s aid, acting as armed guards and scouts, basically Seven Samurai minus five. They do take their absolute sweet time actually trying to fight Singh head on. Why? Well we have almost three hours to fill silly! We have lavish, elaborate musical numbers, budding romances and revelations on how much Singh has personally wronged the cop alone.
Because of the format insisting on a near three hour narrative structure, when the two good crooks do decide to finally stop Singh once and for all, it can feel abrupt and sudden, almost like the movie just realized, “Oh, crap, we got to wrap this up now! Get cracking!” That is a feeling that also registered in a later Bollywood film to be discussed, but not in Shaan.
Shaan is directed by Ramesh Sippy, the man behind Sholay and also stars two of its leads, the ones who played those lovable rogues. In Shaan, we once again initially follow a somewhat overweight but no less badass Indian Supercop, going toe to toe with the scum of Mumbai’s underworld (Bollywood is derived from Mumbai, or Bombay). He remains consistently disappointed that his two younger brothers, both con men, fail to live up to his own lawful standards.
Eventually, the eldest brother’s law-protecting actions makes him a target of Mumbai’s underworld boss and from that moment, he is doomed. Shaakal is the boss and he can be described less like the Kingpin from Marvel comics (despite also being bald) and more like he is a bonafide James Bond villain. I made him the header image for this section for a reason.
Remember how I said Bollywood films can have tonal whiplash almost as a feature of the style rather than a bug? Well, once Shaakal enters the picture, it becomes an Indian James Bond movie, minus all the sexy stuff that remains for the most part a big no-no to Indian cinematic custom. Even the act of romantic kissing is shooed away, as the next Bollywood film I will cover makes an outright joke about. However, the Bond villain, his supercool island lair, offing henchmen that fail him and loving the sound of his own voice, that is beautifully preserved for your enjoyment. Basically, you get to hear Blofeld in Hindu and I think you will like that a lot.
There is no specific James Bond character but instead a band of Indian heroes who decide to take the fight to Shaakal personally. The two con artist brothers and their quasi-girlfriends/love interests, and a remorseful agent of Shaakal come together to first infiltrate the villain’s operations and then confront him directly.
It’s a testament to the flexibility in translation of the Bond movie formula that even a sexual expression prohibitive culture like India can get a knack out of something from England’s most famous secret agent. Of course, the budget of Shaan is not really up to snuff with most if any Bond film, let alone at the time, but the attempt is heartfelt and the production value impressive still, all things considered.
When Shaakal’s base predictably starts blowing up like with the average Bond villain lair, starting all the way back with Dr. No, you might be genuinely surprised at how effective a copy it is of what can be gleaned from what was then nearly 20 years of 007 action.
If the Bond but Indian stuff isn’t enough, there is still plenty of impromptu musical numbers, songs that love repeating the same sentences over and over and of course, the amusing mix of comedic silliness and dramatic self-seriousness that is part of the exotic appeal of a Bollywood movie, even if the ingredients are commonly derived from something Western. Just a reminder of India’s extremely complicated history as being once part of the British Empire.
If you have the spare time for a full on Bollywood experience from decades past, I would probably suggest Sholay first as it is a landmark, trendsetting experience. I saw Shaan first, not realizing it was from the same people that made Sholay. Upon discovering that, I saw Sholay next with my dad before venturing to my next film, Bollywood or not.
Of the two, I actually enjoyed Shaan more, mostly due to the novelty of seeing a 007 film being given the Bollywood treatment at all and solidly. Shaakal alone is worth the price of rental though of course you will have to wait a while because Indian cinema likes them long. It might be a testament to the concept that maybe one of the Indian people’s cultural tenets is that of patience. Not that you will be bored before Bolly-Blofeld shows up.
Next time: A 2021 best of the year countdown and after that, TBD.
I never plan to play League of Legends. I can’t fully describe what kind of game League of Legends is. It’s playerbase has long held the dubious distinction of being among the most toxic in the entire gaming community which further alienates me from trying it.
Yet, it has crafted a new Netflix animated series and its first season is the best thing I’ve seen all year. It’s one of the best animated productions I’ve ever watched. More than anything else expected to arrive in 2022, Arcane‘s second season has rocketed to the top of the list. I wasn’t even aware this show existed until a week ago.
There is only one other adaptation of a video game property that is worth a damn and it’s also from Netflix: the recently concluded anime of Castlevania. For more on that, check out my review of its fourth and final season alongside Invincible’s first. Some would also include the anime adaptations for Persona 3 and 4, but having not fully watched those I’m not at liberty to judge.
Arcane is a tale of a city split into two, facing class strife that relates to a certain Charles Dicken novel: the rich elitist side of Piltover and the poor, mostly underground district of Zaun. Tensions boil over and the poor underclass rises in resistance but is crushed by the ultimately more powerful upper class, their power maintained by the brutal enforcers. Two little girls lose their parents in the strife and one of the resistance leaders, Vander, emotionally broken by the result of his rebellion, takes them into his custody.
Their names are Vi (Violet) and Powder. Vi tries to restrain her vengeful fury at the literal upper class with trying to keep the loved ones that remain alive. Powder wants nothing more than to do right by Vi, her adoptive father and the other orphaned kids that come into her life.
Their surrogate father Vander is trying to keep the peace with the aboveground as best he can but his extremist former best friend and surrogate brother Silco changes everything. Their mutual bad blood puts the orphaned children in harm’s way by way of Vander getting kidnapped and being used as bait for his kids. Vi and Powder’s rescue attempt goes spectacularly wrong in a way that neither of the brothers would have wanted. One brother dies, the other left to grieve.
Powder, under Silco’s wing, takes on the name of Jinx following the horrible incident she caused and in turn begins her journey into becoming one of Piltover’s most feared residents. This is further spurred by the poor girl never really being right in the head, even before the tragedy that ripped her original parents from her. The brokenness of the world she lives in further shatters her mind and forms her into a new nightmare. One I can never fully hate in spite of the terrible things she will come to do.
As for Vi, she is taken into custody by the enforcers following that same catastrophe Powder caused and spends the following years hardening her body and her spirit, yet still trying to never forsake the better angels Vander tried to keep within her.
Vi is freed from prison years later by the enforcer Caitlyn, who is investigating a crime related to her sister’s new anarchic life. Unlike the enforcers Vi grew up despising, Caitlyn wants to be a genuine keeper of the peace, no matter what class you are part of, all the more striking considering her own background, but more on that later.
During the time the sisters spend apart from one another, an aspiring young scientist called Jayce teams up with a handicapped, like-minded inventor called Viktor and together they advance Piltover’s technological prowess centuries forward through the successful harnessing of magic into utilitarian purpose, the “Arcane” if you will.
Years later, Piltover has become a nexus for the world commercially and culturally through the Hexgates, basically teleportation made manifest. Jayce is the symbol of a new era. But can that new era really come into being on the rotten foundation of the old? Can Jayce’s good intentions for all stay that way as he enters hesitantly into the political game that led to Piltover and Zaun’s mutual animosity?
Arcane‘s first season is a beautifully tragic beginning to a story of love(of more than one kind), family, duty, honor and technological innovation with the fear that it musters. It will make you laugh, cry, leave you in awe and apprehension. It’s incredible art design is bolstered by an animation technique seemingly derived from the technology that powered 2018’s amazing Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. It’s mixture of 2D art and 3D motion is mesmerizing.
It’s such a cliché but, yes, Arcane really is a painting come to life.
You can and likely will get swept up in what much there is to appreciate visually alone from the nine episode-long first of hopefully many expertfully made seasons. To say that expectations for video game-to-TV/Cinema adaptations has suddenly gone through the roof is an understatement.
What makes Arcane much more than a pretty face is that it has a complex yet never complicated narrative, all centered on how a sisterhood’s deterioration sets in motion events far graver than anything its world, called Runeterra, has ever seen before.
It’s ripple effects coming from decisions made from its all too human, flawed characters give it a feel to something akin to Game of Thrones though comparatively less adult, but no less mature. For one, the sex scene here would be agreeable to a PG-13 rating, if only just. It’s violence, much harsher than the game it’s based on hovers between PG-13 and an R, often landing between one or the other. What makes the violence hit so well as to elicit either a “Hell yeah!” or an “Oh s**t!” is how the animation exudes emotion brilliantly.
The facial expressions in and out of fighting often felt more real to me than real life. Sadness, rage, despondency, horror, desire, shame, guilt, hope and happiness are colored in splendidly through the French animation studio Fortiche.
The voice acting is also indispensable to Arcane’s success, as well you would hope. Hailee Steinfeld must have the best agent in the world right about now as on top of perfectly voicing Vi, she also voices Spider-Gwen in the aforementioned Into the Spiderverse and portrays Kate Bishop, Clint Barton’s probable replacement as Hawkeye in the now streaming Disneyplus series of the same name.
Elia Purnell’s portrayal of the adult Powder/Jinx is just as compelling, maybe more so. Jinx is clearly inspired by both the Joker and Harley Quinn, arguably as a fusion of the two. While her voice can recall Harley at times, her personality and heartbreaking descent into deeper madness is more similar to the Joker. Rather than being an anarchic force that just wants the world to burn, Jinx was once someone simpler, less destructive.
Again, she might’ve always had some type of mental illness lying beneath the surface, but a less brutal, sorrowful childhood would have at least made her someone with a chance for an untroubling life, especially living among loving people.
In spite of still having people that love her, her mistakes and the mistakes people make in responding to her errors, namely from Vi, unleash her inner psychosis. As Jinx, Powder becomes schizophrenic, finds it difficult to empathize with those that aren’t in her immediate circle of loved ones which in turn make it easier for her to blow up innocents with her colorful collection of explosives. She loves explosives all their own and has found a quite unhealthy outlet for that obsession, pushed by her loving but still corruptive third father Silco.
A concept that I love Arcane for exploring is the nature of relationships, both paternal and intimate. How the result of those relationships can be just as healing or damaging as a decision made by a politician or a crime-lord. As stated above, Silco does actually care for Jinx as an adoptive daughter in a way that is actually heartwarming. But it can’t act as excuse for the terrible lessons and lifestyle he instills in Jinx, all tied up in his vengeful designs for Piltover.
His ends justify the means outlook on how to get the downtrodden people of Zaun free of Piltover is often indistinct from his desire to exact pain on others for what he himself suffered. The classic dilemma of the revolutionary-minded: is it for revenge or justice? You can’t really have both in the end.
This is in reflection with major characters and their own familial ties. Jayce has loving and well adjusted parents who never discouraged him from seeking to technologically uplift Piltover into a new age. He also has a more argumentative but still caring mentor-apprentice connection to Heimerdinger, the adorable yet stately scientist who also acts as a co-founder of Piltover and a member of the city’s council.
Caitlyn (voiced by Katie Leung, Cho Chang from Harry Potter) has two distinct relationships, which are for myself the most investing of the bunch, save for Vi and Jinx’s fraught sisterhood. Despite coming from an aristocratic family, with her mother part of the council, she wants her title of “Noble” to be more than just a title, she wants to be noble full stop.
Against her parent’s wishes, she joins the city’s Enforcer police and shows herself to be a great detective which in turns sends her on a journey which brings her into Vi’s life as well as allow the sisters their reunion. The friendship she effortlessly strikes up with Vi in their search for Jinx is clearly evolving into something that’s more than friends. The subtext between the two is barely subtext from where I’m standing.
This is derived from how in League of Legends the game, the dialogue between the two as playable characters was brimming with hints of something more occurring between the two. I would be surprised and a little crushed if Season Two doesn’t all but completely affirm what was always there. It doesn’t hurt that the chemistry between Steinfeld’s Vi and Leung’s Caitlyn is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Some of the best visual storytelling comes in how you can read so much in how the characters facially express themselves. A certain look that Vi gives to Caitlyn in one episode is where silence being golden most certainly applies.
Another romance subplot also works more in its subversion of expectation than anything else, and based on how the season ends, it’s a romantic arc that seems almost certainly doomed for tragedy. As Jayce rises in prestige amongst Piltover’s higher ups, he meets Mel Adarda, another of the council members and the one that is most interested in his designs for the future being fulfilled.
She comes across in how she interacts with Jayce as a Lady Macbeth-like femme fatale, often whispering and coaching Jayce in how to push forward with his plans for implementing magic as a tool for civilization. Much to my pleasant surprise, Mel herself is not the straightforward, manipulative dame you would think she is.
Her own background shows her as someone with a benevolent, altruistic side. It’s that side of her that got her banished to Piltover from her people due to concerns that it would make her a weak eventual ruler of her country. The relationship she begins with Jayce also reveals her as someone who does care for Jayce in truth in spite of the seemingly seductive tactics she uses for her own ends. Maybe because want she really wants in the end is what Jayce wants. Less a deconstruction of her archetype but a defiance of it.
There is so much more to the characters, their motivations and the placement they are given in the infernal game over Piltover’s, Zaun’s and perhaps the world’s future. What matters is that everyone, including those I didn’t have the time to mention, have a place in this world in its machinations. Few if any characters feel as if they don’t really belong in the story unfolding before us.
That was a trap that Arcane’s creators could’ve easily fallen into considering the huge number of characters to draw from, not to mention the characters newly introduced through this show. League ofLegends has champions, which act as the characters players choose to control in the game. As of now, the number of Champions numbers over a hundred. For the first season of Arcane, Riotgames (the developer of both the game and show) and Fortiche had to carefully consider who among that vast roster was to play a role in this take on LOL’s narrative.
I seriously doubt every champion will appear as a character in the story to come, it would be a terrible choice. As they have now, they should only include characters that contribute to the wonderfully realized tale they are building. It’s less obligation and more necessity when it comes to Arcane’s choice of who is and is not up for screentime and that is wisdom that is often ignored when adapting anything that includes a large cast.
As you would expect, I read up on the video game version of the characters featured in Arcane and was surprised at the great number of changes made to those characters’ background and narrative purpose. Some have entirely new arcs that are distinct from what Arcane is doing so you can view this show as inspired by the world and story of the game, but not a direct adaptation of it.
The fandom has thus far been strangely not enraged by these big narrative changes, perhaps won over by how simply great Arcane comes across in its own telling. It’s an alternate history of the world of Runeterra that has echoes of the original story but is not whatsoever beholden to it. It gives newcomers and veterans of LOL’s world something fresh and excitingly unpredictable.
Speaking of exciting, Arcane’s dramatic moments are some of the best I’ve seen from something in the post GOT world. Moments that left me anxious, terrified by potential outcomes that seemed borderline inevitable. The cliffhanger ending is one of the greatest I’ve seen possibly ever as it leaves me wanting to watch season two immediately.
It’s a saddening, shocking season ender that left me basically dead quiet as the credits rolled, just trying to process that what had happened had happened. No matter where you fall into exposure with regards to its source material, to not call this fantastic television would be a straight up lie, with the potential to be even greater down the road.
Arcane inspires intense optimism that so much more can come of adapting video games into another medium. It frankly leaves me mad that we are approaching the 30th anniversary of the first, awful adaptation for a video game: Super Mario Bros, and only in the last couple of years have we seen successful attempts by people who cared and had the talent to back up their enthusiasm.
In the same year as both Arcane‘s arrival and Castlevania’s conclusion, we also had lackluster or simply bad new attempts at bringing beloved franchises to a different medium. Last April’s Mortal Kombat ( though not without its moments) and this month’s tepid Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Arcane’s subsequent release with the latest “attempt” at a decent RE movie only highlights what we have been missing so badly in the translation process.
An important step is to not pander relentlessly to fans of the original material. To a fresh-faced consumer of something League of Legends related, it was pleasing that I never once felt that I was watching a moment explicitly meant to cater to fans looking for a reference or easter egg. In spite of there being clear callbacks, namely through the characters gaining clothing and equipment like in the game, it felt like it was natural to the plot’s own progression, rather than just “Oh, it’s from the game, better include this.”
It makes Arcane feel welcoming to the lay viewer, not needing to know a single thing from anything before its release. It can honestly be enjoyed separately from the viewpoint of being based on a game. At times, I forgot it was based on a game and even better, I didn’t care.
As has been breathlessly commented on in recent weeks, Arcane is the new standard for properly and imaginatively translating a video game into a new medium. Not that there was much standard at all save Castlevania. It leaves me eager to see if other prospective filmmakers and animators take notes on what Arcane did to not shoot itself in the foot.
Let it lead hopefully to a new wave of adaptations that finally give the relatively young artform of interactive entertainment a new lease on life. To appreciate the world and characters of those games for those without the time, patience or ability to experience them like I do.
I have started to feel that dreaded superhero fatigue as Marvel’s Phase 4 begins over the course of this year. From unsatisfying conclusions to the first two DisneyPlus shows to the overall allrightness of Black Widow, my enthusiasm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe has slowly but surely begun to wane. Maybe it’s just waiting for the next big hook of what will make the MCU come together again or maybe it’s because the formula that Marvel has all but perfected is starting to show its limitations in terms of how to continually impress me.
I’m weighed down by the criticisms that have become harder to ignore as time goes on relating to what the MCU represents in today’s popular culture. An assembly line of entertainment that is often by itself lesser than the sum of its parts. The “assembly line” statement is almost unavoidable to completely dismiss when you consider the load of content that is now being given to this shared universe in just one year, let alone several.
There was a time when Marvel Studio’s ambitions to plan out films years in advance and then advertise them was seen as too much, too reckless. Going from two films a year to three, now four and on top of that several Disneyplus shows combined make the MCU busier but not necessarilly more fastidious.
Next year alone will be four new films: the next Dr. Strange, Thor, Black Panther and Captain Marvel features, on top of TBD releases for Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, She-Hulk and even a continuation of the beloved 90s’ X-Men cartoon, though that is reportedly unrelated to the MCU. With the Multiverse’s official debut in Loki, maybe that’s not as true as you would think.
I’m not saying that none or any of these upcoming projects will be good or great, some do have my rapt attention like Dr. Strange and Wakanda’s next appearances. Others can go either way, though I still hope for the best.
The problem that is compounded by this perceived bloat is that it starts to make individual entries of the MCU seem less important, perhaps lost in the overall picture. The more there is, the less special it can feel, regardless of the quality contained therein.
I still want Marvel to succeed in years to come, if only for the possibility of recapturing some of that earlier MCU magic I have felt in the past. This Christmas, the third Tom Holland Spider-Man film seems to be the best bet in the lineup to do so. But you can’t quite always strike gold and one of the entries on this lineup of MCU to look over is an intriguing strike-out if there ever was one.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Like with Dr. Strange before his first movie in 2016, I read the early classic stories of Shang-Chi, co-created by none other than Thanos’ daddy Jim Starlin. In spite of his stereotypically yellow appearance and his even more stereotypical looking father, literally Fu Manchu, the beginning of one of the more under the radar Marvel figures is actually quite wonderful.
Written in the early 70s, and in spite of the appearences of the Master of Kung-Fu and his father, Shang-Chi’s tale of forsaking Fu Manchu and his evil criminal empire is riveting stuff. The honor-bound hero, while of course full of East Asian philosophical wisdom, comes across as a relatable wanderer. Trying to both outlast and perhaps one day outdo his bad dad, Shang-Chi travels the world, relaying his inner conflict to the reader gratefully not in broken English.
His mental description of how he fights foes big and small is both entertaining and demonstrates effortlessly why we should believe he is the “Master of Kung-Fu.” The artwork for the most part is strikingly beautiful and goes against the assumptions often reality that American comic book art at the time was cheap and poorly constructed. Not here, Shang-Chi is among the best visually of Marvel’s work in the 1970s and as a result manages to be more than an obvious cash-in on the martial arts craze that hit the States following the rise of Bruce Lee.
How does Shang-Chi as a film work compared to his early comic days? Obviously, a lot of comics history has passed since the era I read of. A half-century in fact to borrow and utilize for the MCU’s interpretation. One notable and inevitable change to Shang-Chi’s background is changing the identity of his father.
It was already changed in the comics as Fu Manchu is a character that simply can’t be done anymore, no matter how tasteful the attempt. The character was a result of the xenophobic “Yellow Peril” of the early 20th century. A figure not just meant to be feared as an individual, but a ugly reflection of an entire group of people. Perhaps making Fu Manchu’s son into an unambiguously heroic figure who openly opposes his father was meant almost as apology. See, not all Chinese people are shady, lizard faced, Machiavellian monsters that will commit unspeakable atrocities on you? Shang-Chi, he’s one of the good ones. See what I mean?
Of course, Shang-Chi’s arch-enemy remains his dad and we all love a story every now and then of the son or daughter who are in the moral right showing up their in-the-wrong parents. Luke and Darth Vader are to modern generations the defining example of Generational Divide being translated into a Good vs Evil struggle. Darth Vader as the villainous father taught me an important though hard-kept lesson that was important to a young child: Sometimes, maybe more often than you think, your parents may not just be wrong, they can be evil. Being your parent is no excuse.
I don’t recall who is Shang-Chi’s father in the current comic continuity, but in the MCU he is the result of one of the biggest walk-backs Marvel has ever done in regards to criticism over character translation: The Mandarin.
Iron Man 3’s release in 2013 was met with controversy by the fandom over reducing the titular character’s comic arch-enemy, long expected to one day show up in the MCU, into a joke. It was a funny joke, a twist that landed very well with me. I’ll admit, the third Iron Man was starting to drag when I first saw it and the reveal that Ben Kingsley was merely an actor pretending to be a terrorist warlord gave me one hell of a second wind when it came to my enjoyment of the film. My takeaway was not in the majority.
Iron Man 3’s home release had a short called All Hail the King, which showed what happened to Trevor Slattery, the actor who portrayed the fake Mandarin in the main film. He ends up serving time in prison quite happily, not bothered all that much that he was caught up in trying to kill a freaking Avenger. At the end of the short, he is kidnapped out of prison by agents of the actual “Mandarin”. All this to reassure upset fans that yes, there is a real more or less comics-accurate Mandarin lying in wait to one day end up in this cinematic universe.
It’s a pity that Tony Stark never lived to face his comic book nemesis as having Robert Downey Jr. face down Tony Leung’s version of the character would’ve been quite fun. In the end, if Tony did have a nemesis, he had two: Thanos and himself. Worthy opponents that he both managed to defeat in the end.
Making the Mandarin Shang-Chi’s father was just too perfect. Not only does the Mandarin’s presence along with his terrorist empire The Ten Rings make it tie in with the very beginning of the MCU’s run, it also creates the perfect space to include possibly the highest profile Asian villain in Marvel’s history without any unfortunate implications.
Since the film’s been out since early September, I will give some plot details including over the third act but will continue to leave out one fun surprise in store even though I’m sure you may have learned of it by happenstance by this point.
The Mandarin joins Thanos, Ego and the Vulture in affirming the notion that one of the MCU’s enduring themes is daddy issues. Daddy issues that can have cataclysmic, cosmic consequences. I don’t know if this is a reflection of Kevin Feige trying to air out some of his issues but man the nasty daddies keep on coming.
Before I get to the titular Shang-Chi finally (don’t worry, just reflecting how sidelined he is in his own film half the time), let me just state that the best part of Shang-Chi’s first movie is Tony Leung as Wen-Wu/Mandarin. Leung is considered one of the best Hong Kong actors of his generation, an icon born out of an arguable golden age for HK cinema that bore Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Michelle Yeoh (also starring here), Donnie Yen, Stephen Chow and of course, the guns akimbo master Chow Yun Fat.
I was first exposed to Tony Leung in the fourth and best of John Woo’s “Heroic Bloodshed” features, 1992’s Hard Boiled, co-starring alongside Fat. Hard Boiled is my pick for the best action film I have ever seen with gun based action sequences that are as operatic as they are blood-soaked and stunning in their technical execution. Violent as they are, Hard Boiled and Woo’s The Killer are fantastic introductions to the man who will be Shang-Chi’s dad.
One enduring aspect to Chinese culture is the concept of family and the honor that comes with maintaining it. Virtually every human culture gives some amount of consideration due to it being an instinctual aspect of our species, but Chinese family structures are particularly placed into the forefront when demonstrating themselves to other non-Asian cultures. To some extent, striving on behalf of the family or society over yourself is a wide-spread aspect of all Asian cultures, at least to the ones I am knowledgeable of.
High-context cultures are less individualistic than low context ones like mine and I see both wisdom and issue with that mindset. Having your mind be attuned to the needs of a community is a mindset that would benefit the whole world to no end right about now in 2021. Shang-Chi reflects both an earnest and dark reflection on the family structure. Shang-Chi comes to blows with his father running a thousand year old criminal empire, maintained with the titular Ten Rings that give him both deadly power and eternal youth.
This is much like how Shang-Chi of the original comics was initially devout to his father until he realized what he would have to do to not only serve him but one day replace him. He retreats from his father and tries to live a normal, somewhat boring life in the states, making new friends like Katy (Awkwafina), being a car parker, enjoying after hours karaoke and miracously affording rent in San Francisco.
To take a page out of Cowboy Bebop, which recently suffered an awful live action adaption on Netflix, Shang-Chi tried to outrun his past. But in the end, doing so simply isn’t possible. In return, he has to kung-fu punch his way right back at it.
He ends up embroiled in a plot which gets both his not-love interest Katy and his sister Xu Xialing right back in his father’s presence. Turns out, daddy Wen-Wu plans to extend this big-old family reunion to a member who should be dead: his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother.
Tony Leung’s Wen-Wu is the best character in the movie and pulls off the “approachable yet still villainous” archetype of a figure as well as I had hoped. He elicits a particular specialty seen with Asian characters made out to be badasses: tranquil fury. Things happen to Wen-Wu in his long life that would make you understanding of him being angry, even if you still oppose him ideologically. Yet rarely if ever does Wen-Wu appear pissed or outraged.
An act of vengeance he commits to those that wronged him is witnessed by a child Shang-Chi. He wipes the floor with them in front of his son. He is ruthless in his action but dead quiet while doing it. Perhaps for a man who has lived a thousand years, pure action, not facial expression or words, is all that really matters to him. The point is made to both those he hates and those he loves.
What I find frustrating yet about Shang-Chi as a movie in spite of Leung’s performance and his relationship with his estranged son is that more often than not, the titular character is sidelined for other characters. While I’m not saying that Katy and Xu Xialing are unimportant, considerable time will pass before we see Shang-Chi again on screen. Much is established exposition-wise leading up the third act and time must be rationed accordingly, but a problem occurs if one begins to notice the lead’s absence.
This is a criticism that was made for Natasha Romanoff in relation to her own movie earlier this year. I was more forgiving due to the title of Black Widow meaning more than just one person. Her sister Yelena, her “mother” played by Rachel Wiesz and that the plot centers on the Black Widow spy program itself made it much easier to excuse when Natasha had to share more time with other people. The same applies to the now streaming Hawkeye show, as Clint Barton is not the only one with that moniker now.
Yet, Shang-Chi is not a title, it’s a person’s name and considering this is our first exposure to the character, unlike Natasha and Clint, I expect more of the dude to take center stage. What is set-up with Shang’s two companions is not without merit and in the case of the sister is actually quite important, especially when factoring the future of the story arc regarding the Ten Rings organization. Maybe this is in truth a quibble more than a structural issue, but if I noticed it, I can’t be the only one.
The third act takes us to a Chinese mythology fantasy land, a pocket dimension that runs on more or less the same logic as Asgard. The supposed source of much of Chinese lore and folk stories, which is bountiful considering how simply old China is as a civilized land, this Shangri-La like location is pretty interesting and only let down by how somewhat artificial it is in presentation, though not to a disrespectful degree.
The final battle, which is a near pre-requisite for an MCU movie starts off promising, presented as an honest to god battle between two small but formidable armies, not just a super-powered melee as we are accustomed to. However, after a certain point, the big giant CGI spectacle rears its expensive, semi-ugly head once again and that’s where I just have to put up with it.
Conceptually, how the battle concludes is actually kindof cool. I feel it would’ve gone down much better for me had it been a completely animated sequence as part of an animated movie. Matters aren’t helped when in the aftermath one of the characters literally compares it to an anime.
It distracts from the purpose of it being a personal yet still visually stimulating duel between father and son and with it two opposing moral sides. Smaller scale to be sure, but impressive enough. It’s also a weak denouement to the style of action that up until a point had made Shang-Chi stand out: honest to god great martial arts fighting.
In spite of occasional spotty camerawork and lighting, the actual hand to hand Mortal (Marvel?) Combat that occurs is among the best I’ve seen in the MCU, eliciting if not the reality but the suggestion of physical risk that marks the best sequences done by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. This practical fighting being tweaked with the bells and whistles of a modern Marvel picture, including the much advertised SF bus fight and the skyscraper scaffolding scuffle, helps give new life to what Marvel’s action based entertainment can offer.
It’s there up until a point in the final battle and it rather symbolically ends once Wen-Wu is taken off the board. In spite of my gripes, Shang-Chi’s first outing leaves me quite open to witnessing future adventures with him involved. Seeing how he interacts with other figures in the MCU as the mid-credits of course tease is to be looked forward to.
It’s the most solid introduction to a new character and his stand-alone set of work so far in Phase 4, but I would not call it a black-belt result.
What-If, in terms of promising new exciting possibilities for storytelling in the MCU, very much something on the minds of the average MCU consumer, gets it half-way there. Intriguing ideas are explored or at least on paper given some kind of story to be delved into.
Much like the actual What-If comics, results will vary. Some stories are touching and give off considerations I had genuinely never thought about (the T’Challa as Star-Lord scenario), others are surprisingly dark and yet emotionally harrowing (Doctor Strange goes bad) and others are just not given nearly enough time to be fully explored (Kilmonger meets and befriends Tony Stark).
The first of potentially many seasons for the MCU’s variation on What-If does elicit in me a desire to see more of it, if that is any endorsement. But, at the same time, the handling on a narrative and script-writing level can be frustratingly less than I had come to hope for.
Take for instance the Zombies episode, which depending on who you ask is either among season one’s best or worst episodes. I’m in the middle, as that episode crosses boundaries I didn’t think were possible on Disneyplus, which for me should be cause for celebration in terms of what else can be allowable on the Mouse’s streaming service. On the other hand, the tonal inconsistency between a Return of the LivingDead-like black comedy and a dark horror story can be distracting toward my overall approval.
There is also the idea that some of the episodes like the Zombies one feels like it can and should encompass more than 23 minutes of time.
To once again rag on Netflix’s ill-advised live action take of Cowboy Bebop, it’s a matter of how much time is needed to really sell an idea, too much or too little. The new show starring John Cho and Mustafa Shakir has to take episodic stories from the original anime that lasted between 20 to 30 minutes and stretch it to an hour in length.
The youtuber Cosmonaut Marcus demonstrated that problem by comparing two different scenes of exposition over the same basic plot. The acclaimed anime summed up the conflict of the episode to be addressed in around ten seconds, effortlessly. The exposition in the new show for that same conflict takes over 30 seconds and not succinctly. All because we’ve got to a fill an hour of Netflix somehow.
Here, the reverse is the problem. Some episodes do manage to fit well enough under half an hour and some feel like they deserve a full hour to be properly addressed. The final couple of episodes do tie together into one narrative and much to my surprise, the entire set of seemingly stand alone episodes do come together. That in turn makes the episodes that feel over before they should be come across as more forgivable in hindsight.
What-If’s style of humor can act as a barometer for how funny you find the MCU in general, though I can remember laughing much harder in earlier entries than I had in What-If. One of the lesser regarded episodes, at least by user review on IMDB is the “Thor as party animal” scenario. It’s actually one of the more enjoyable and better written ones in my estimation. The reasons for Thor being a super-powered frat boy are actually well-justified and have an intriguing hook behind it, which makes the “College age but not too College age” humor land better.
What I’m looking forward to when it comes to the further narrations of Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher, aside from more consistent writing quality and perhaps longer episode run-times is seeing if any of the alternate versions of the characters you see in What-If are translated into live action in future MCU installments. Shouldn’t be too difficult and considering the number of upcoming movies like the next Spider-Man, Doctor Strange ,Ant-Man and Loki’s second season, it should be quite a rewarding treat for those who saw through What-If’s first outing. Maybe even a live-Action Uatu the Watcher could be in store.
Despite some standout moments that help make you realize how much further Marvel could take it than they ultimately did, What-If is overall just OK. Like with Shang-Chi before it, I’m up for more of it. And no matter what I say of what’s up next, the same applies there as well.
Eternals, the more I think about it, is such a maddening installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not really because it’s too complex, too expository or that structurally, is far weaker in result than you would expect from the people who made it.
It’s because in some respects, Chloe Zhao’s maligned entry in the MCU is a concept and a story that could have very well been one of this universe’s greatest achievements. It could’ve given so much of what the good-faith MCU nay-sayers have been wanting: not only something that looks more artful, but is more artful.
Budgetary concerns aside, but come on, considering how much money Disney/Marvel have in their coffers now, maybe screw those concerns, Eternals should have been an epic mini-series on Disneyplus. Unlike the other DisneyPlus offerings which are generally of a higher budget than most television, Eternals should have had the budget of a movie or several movies poured into that show. Again, if anyone on this planet could afford to pull off that financial gambit, it’s the company that is swallowing up other companies like it’s the Sarlacc they now own the intellectual rights to.
Eternals is a lengthy movie that is begging to be expressed over the course of quite a few episodes of TV. Based on the structure the movie actually has, being translated and expanded into episodic format is actually quite easy to picture. What makes this need for a different format even more apparent is that two veterans of a mostly incredible TV show phenomenon that adapted a book series that was once thought unadaptable are in this movie: Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington and Richard Madden. The answer was staring them right in the cast listing.
Eternals is based off of one of Jack Kirby’s latter day contributions to Marvel’s comic universe, created around the time when the fandom proclaimed “King” was having an uneasy relationship with the comic company he helped propel into legend.
In the 70s’, inspired by a thought of movement that can be ascribed as “Ancient Aliens”, in which humanity had been visited by extraterrestrial life much in our history, Jack Kirby created two different groups of godlike groups for two opposing superhero comic lines.
Kirby first gave us the New Gods for DC, best known for introducing one of that comic universe’s most iconic and frightening antagonists: Darkseid.
Later on, Kirby gave us the Marvel equivalent to the New Gods in the form of, you guessed it, the Eternals. While the New Gods were too busy waging an endless war against each other far off away from Earth, the Eternals were involved in human history, helping inspire mythical figures across the world. Ikaris=Icarus, Makkari=Mercury, Phastos=Hephaestus, Thena=Athena, Ajak=Ajax, Gilgamesh….Gilgamesh, you get the idea.
The Eternals got up in our business for the most part due to the presence of the Deviants, a malevolent sister race to them who wanted to mess us up and stilt our progress. Those heroes from their Chariot of the Gods said “nuh-uh” to all that and have remained up until modern times at least one of the most covert groups of superheroes in Marvel’s world. The similarly themed Inhumans are more in the open than them.
The cinematic Eternals are called upon by Arashim, one of the Celestials, part of a group of basically God-like entities first glimpsed in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. They are tasked with helping an up and coming sentient species called humanity both get better at growing a civilization and also protecting them from a more predatory, wholly CG iteration of the Deviants. They must do so as long as the Celestials desire, as one day they will be relieved of their duties for Earth.
The concept of the Eternals as suggested through their new major motion picture is one with potential that again should be explored and made part of that cinematic universe we have been experiencing since 2008. The themes Eternals explore is certainly rich enough to justify something. Well, I guess we did get something either way.
What Eternal life does to an individual, psychologically, emotionally and with regard to relationships. What is more important, loyalty to a higher cause regardless of what that cause asks of you or to the people that are with you in life? With great power, comes great responsibility, isn’t that right? Well, what if that aforementioned “higher cause” told you not to use that great power save for only one purpose, no exceptions?
What if in truth, you might have wasted the life you had to live? This is more pronounced than for any one of us considering that the Eternals time on Earth alone measures thousands of years. What if all those millenniums you spent doing your job was for something you didn’t like or want? I mean, come on, this is narrative gold for Marvel and it’s exploration is stunted all because it has to be addressed in 2 hours and 35 minutes.
One of the most pronounced examples of this tragically wasted material is with the relationship between arguably the two most showcased eternals, though that can be occasionally hard to register due to their being up to ten of them to juggle: Ikaris and Cersi.
Richard Madden’s Ikaris and Gemma Chan’s Cersi are two eternals who over the course of 4,000 years fall in love, get married and then break up over irreconcilable differences( a break up that might have been nice to see, by the way).
Even with a well-paced mini-series, it might be impossible to really capture a romance that covers that much time. Considering that no human, no nothing on Earth can live that long, it really is a matter of theory. And yet, it would be fascinating and much more emotional to have more time spent with just this kind of dynamic of two individuals starting off as friends, becoming lovers, spouses, spending a great life together longer than you or I can ever have and then something heart-breaking bringing them apart.
That’s enough for one story in the MCU and yet there are eight other Eternals. To be fair, not every last Eternal needs to have as much attention given as the other, some can fit well as just secondary characters. Ironically, one of my favorite Eternals, Makkari the deaf speedster, is so because the movie allows her to just be a side eternal, not given even more pressure to the narrative by having a back-story to look at.
It could also be a consequence of her being deaf (for some reason) and having to use sign language to communicate, which simplifies her purpose altogether. I’m very aware I might’ve insulted actual deaf people with these words and I apologize. If it’s any further consolation, Marvel is about to give us another deaf character, Echo, to be seen in Hawkeye. Marvel sees so much potential with this hearing impaired character in fact, they’ve already greenlit her own DisneyPlus show. Maybe Makkari has to play a smaller role because of the room she has to share with her cosmic brethren, and the deaf thing was perhaps an excuse.
Ikaris and Cersi’s love story is not the only thing incapable of having the time to be not only explored enough, but to make us feel emotionally attached to. The two other standout eternals in terms of room to explore all on their own is Angelina Jolie’s Thena and Lia McHugh’s Sprite. The latter I am especially aggravated by, as her plight is something that I really wanted to see more time spent on.
Thena, the most warrior like of the Eternals (She did inspire the Greek Goddess of warfare), starts to develop a mental illness which becomes a dangerous liability to everyone in her life including her maybe (?) lover Gilgamesh (Don Lee). It stems from having so many memories in her incredibly long life that she basically experiences a magical form of Alzheimer’s. It reminds me of a mentally deteriorating Vulcan, like Spock’s dad Sarek.
Great idea, especially interesting to be coming from not only a character portrayed by Jolie, but by an otherwise badass female warrior. Her condition does come into play with a pretty dark revelation that helps move the plot forward, but otherwise it is a fascinating idea not given the time to breathe well.
Sprite is an eternally teenage looking Eternal who unlike Makkari does question why her Celestial master cursed her with an arbitrarily cruel impairment. While she can mimic any given thing, including a grown woman, as seen in an early scene with her at a London night club, she cannot actually just be a grown woman. Being thousands of years old, she obviously no longer has the mind of a child, if she had one to begin with, and wishes there was some way to magically augment herself permanently, rather than a temporary illusion.
She also cultivated one hell of a crush into eventually full-on romantic love for Ikaris in the thousands of years she was on Earth. Can you blame her, just look at Richard Madden.
Ikaris’ love for Cersi and the fact she couldn’t become an adult kept her from confessing her feelings so she manages to be the Eternal that does her job on Earth most begrudgingly. Save for one.
Barry Keoghan’s Druig, if for nothing more than his power set and that he is portrayed by a guy that looks like he has an unremovable scowl, is interesting in that he is the eternal that you would expect most to take a villainous turn.
He has the ability to straight up mind control people, an ability that’s very easy to abuse. Keep in mind Druig has been around the block for twice as long since the time of Jesus. Perhaps it was his fellow Eternals that reined him in or some amount of nobility he has by nature, but Druig is the most critical Eternal when it comes to the mission statement preventing them from interfering in human matters.
The other Eternal who is especially beaten down by this “prime directive” is Phastos, who witnesses the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima. All the Eternals are certainly bothered to some extent by the heartlessness of this directive, but only Druig openly rebels against it. Knowing he can’t do much by himself, he becomes a recluse deep in the Amazon, living among other humans in a perfect community. His mental power makes sure everyone behaves.
While you can and probably are called to question Druig’s manner of “retirement” from the Eternals’ mission, his philosophy that questions the Celestials leads him to creating a resistance against their mission for Earth, especially when they learn why they are really there to begin with. Not all the Eternals fall in line with this revolt and the ones that resist the rebels are genuinely surprising, which does give the movie credit at actually being novel in ways that click.
I would talk more about the remaining Eternals, like Phastos( Brian Tyree Henry) with his happy gay family, Gilgamesh being Thena’s minder and Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) awesome Bollywood career, but you know what, I haven’t the time really, much like this movie does not have the time to be what it is trying to be.
In the right framing, in the right format of storytelling, I genuinely believe that Eternals could be one of the MCU’s best installments, perhaps an expansion and evolution of what this long running cinematic universe can be. Visually, when the lighting isn’t obnoxiously low, it can be a beautifully different looking MCU film, another thing that is welcome within a universe that is attempting to stay in the spotlight for another decade.
But as I stated at the end of my thoughts on What-If, I do want to see more of the Eternals as the MCU pushes on. Why wouldn’t I, considering this section is all about lamenting lost potential. Perhaps when in unison with other MCU figures on their own adventures or given a new format to tell their story, the Eternals can succeed as new figures of this franchise.
What the Eternals accomplish at the end does suggest quite a ripple towards the narrative trajectory of the MCU and will be just as interesting when it is in concert with the developing multiverse plot. To say the Eternals debut appearance is unimportant would be a lie. But just because something is or might be important doesn’t always translate as good. The Eternals were striving within their limitations to make humanity grow, be better despite our self-destructive nature.
If they are to make us better, they must first make themselves grow, be better as well.
Next up: Maybe Arcane, maybe more 80s retrospective, I don’t really know yet.
Over the past decade or so, Resident Evil has slowly become one of my favorite game series. Whether it’s trying to legitimately scare you or make you destroy supposedly scary things like a cinematic action hero, Resident Evil finds a way to satisfy me in multiple ways, even in manners that some fans would consider sacrilegious.
Take for example, that on this blog site I have an article dedicated to my apologetics over Resident Evil 6, the least horrifying and most action oriented main entry, often despised for that reason and that yes, there are some gameplay mechanics that aren’t as fully thought out or polished as they should be. I classified RE6 as a mastermess, not a masterpiece. But, my God, what a continuously fun and even more often than not mechanically intelligent mess it is.
I bring up Resident Evil 6, the fandom’s punching bag as the newest entry in the series, in truth the thirteenth not eighth installment in the pioneering franchise, has many echoes to the most divisive or hated period so far in the run. Resident Evils 4-6 is that contested or dismissed middle period though 4 continues to be unabashedly beloved for being, you know, one of the most influential and best video games ever made.
The “action” trilogy as I would call it saw a rising emphasis on players fighting and defeating the terrors that lied in their wake rather than thoughtfully avoiding and outlasting them. By RE6, clearing the area of enemies was the norm, which flies in the face of Resident Evil’s roots that barring some special unlockables that are earned through blood, sweat and tears on the player’s part, you will never kill every enemy in this kind of game. That was the original point. You’re doomed if you try.
More than any other game in the series except for 4, in which this entry deliberately echoes, Resident Evil 8: Village is the best game in regards to mixing a genuine horror atmosphere and the action packed feel discussed. RE8 contains one of, if not the scariest sequence I’ve ever experienced in the series while also having moments that would be right at home with RE5 and 6’s sensibilities, though the absurdity of those same games remains toned down.
A direct follow-up to Resident Evil 7: biohazard, the 2017 entry that brought the series back to its horror roots as well as for the first time into first person view, you continue the story of Ethan Winters as he tries to get over the grindhouse terror of that one insane night in the Louisiana bayou. RE8 cements Ethan’s status as the RE protagonist whose role above all is to suffer. Most will feel very sorry for Ethan’s life story by the time the credits roll.
Conceived as the “everyman” character who is thrust into events that would break almost anyone else, Ethan perseveres through pain, fear, fatigue and psychological trauma all because at the end of the day, he is a really good person. He just wants to have a quiet life with his wife Mia, a fellow survivor of RE7, and their infant daughter Rose.
He’s unlike most other survivor protagonists from REs past like Chris Redfield, his sister Claire, Jill and Leon, who in one form or another dedicate their lives to fighting the pharmaceutical monsters that plague their world. Once Ethan survived the first time, he was perfectly happy wanting to never bother with any of the frightful intrigue that has built up over the course of a series that just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Ethan is often framed as being the most “relatable” of the protagonists of the series through a number of ways. Aside from his young everyman getup who initially had no combat experience, he often simply yet bluntly sums ups his experiences much the way the player would say it. Being a first person protagonist, his face is deliberately kept from view, often to hysterical measures. Ignoring that Ethan’s facial appearance was already datamined from RE7 so we already know what he looks like to begin with….
Well, in RE8’s case, the game goes out of its way to hide a face that is already known. In the opening section taking place in Ethan and Mia’s new home curiously located in Romania, all the mirrors in the house that should show his mug are covered up, for no explainable reason.
The game has cinematic cutscenes, so when Ethan appears in the third person, his face is kept offscreen in a way that is as technically impressive as it is humorously distracting. This becomes funnier considering how emotionally heavy the conclusion of Resident Evil 8 is otherwise. Even the character model viewer that is unlocked upon beating the game insists on covering the poor guy’s kisser in shadow.
I get it on some level: Capcom wants to make Ethan an avatar for the average player, making you and me feel as if we are Ethan Winters. The same reason is given for Gordon Freeman, the beloved mute protagonist of the Half-Life series. Of course, fans of the series now overwhelmingly associate Gordon’s appearence off the promotional material as a brown haired and goateed bespectacled man with an appropriately determined expression.
When I play Half-Life, I don’t think of myself as being Gordon Freeman, I think I’m controlling an individual independent from myself. I am given authorial control over how I think Gordon may be processing the many crazy, bewildering things he encounters on his adventures, but otherwise I don’t think of Half-Life as being my story over Gordon’s in the same way I would imbue Commander Shepard’s. Even then, in Mass Effect’s case, there’s plenty to my Commander Shepard that is and will never be me.
In one department, Ethan is already unlike me: he’s a family man and I, as of now at 28 years old, am not. With the bleak way the world is turning nowadays, I would find it exceptionally cruel and selfish to bring a child of mine into the world. That diatribe aside, Ethan’s commendable fatherly commitment to being the best dad ever is not something I can wholly relate to because I’m not a dad, much like how I’m not nor ever will be a theoretical physicist like Dr. Freeman.
Of course, it doesn’t entirely matter that Capcom’s ham-fisted but conceptually well meaning attempt at player-character synthesis is more awkward than not. What I want in a Resident Evil game and a little bit more is here and that was what I wanted to begin with.
Events transpire to place Ethan back in the world of survival horror no matter how badly he wished he could avoid it. He’s taken measures to protect himself and his family. He volunteered for combat training with none other than series legend Chris Redfield, who escorted him and wife Mia off the plantation setting of RE7 to safety.
He keeps a book around the house about gun and close quarters combat so he can stay honed in case worse comes to pass (which of course it does). He stays in contact with Chris due to him being part of a now seemingly reformed Umbrella Corporation which has become a PMC explicitly to fight bio-organic weapons, a catch-all term for the creatures which are RE’s gallery of enemies. Umbrella was the original antagonist of the Resident Evil series which created the viruses that make the monsters like the iconic zombies.
One night in their new spacious home in Romania, which strangely reminds me of Nathan Drake and Elena’s home from Uncharted 4, gun-shots pierce through the windows during dinner and hit Mia straight on. Ethan can only duck in stunned silence as a new nightmare begins by the very people he thought would protect him, Mia and baby daughter Rose. Chris, now appearing like his normal bulky self again after the despised redesign for RE7, comes in personally and fires several shots right in Mia’s head. Has the hero become the villain, as Aaron Eckhart warned us about all those years ago?
Ethan is dragged out of his house by Chris and his men and little Rose is taken out of her crib as well. Like in the beginning of Ethan’s first journey of survival, he is filled with questions. The one question that is never answered is why Chris would relocate the Winters’ not just to Romania of all places, but within proximity of the titular spooky village, which has managed to avoid outside discovery for a century as we learn. That’s one insane contrivance you are going to learn to accept, as RE8 is generally willing to clear away just about every other question you will have, including some you didn’t even think to ask in the first place.
Ethan eventually ends up separated from Chris and his team and finds himself entering at daybreak the village, with a beautiful Castlevania-like castle in the background. Very soon, like with the Baker plantation from last time, Ethan finds that everything is not fine whatsoever in this hamlet that seems for the most part trapped in the past.
It’s here where the many, many callbacks to one particular entry in the series make their start: for Resident Evil 4. Capcom was transparent about RE8 being inspired by that landmark entry and wanted to not just place players back in an ominous European village trapped in time but to also see it happen in first person and with some changes that are just different enough that it won’t feel like Village is just copying what came before.
It’s allusions to past glories are obvious, but never lazy, feeling like an earned self-congratulation that lands more than not. The opening moment of Ethan exploring the village eventually culminates in confronting one of the two base enemies of RE VIII: Lycans or if you want to be more to the point werewolves.
Fear not, it’s not supernatural, there’s no need when mad Lovecraftian science can take it’s place as explanation anyway. Like with Leon’s iconic arrival in the Spanish village in 4 where once the villagers spot him, all hell breaks loose, soon both the player and Ethan are frantically scrambling to find some modicum of safety as the village’s “residents” start descending upon you.
Leon’s frightening fight against overwhelming numbers in 4 was further punctuated by the arrival of Dr. Salvador, the chainsaw wielding foe that would kill you in one hit if he got close enough to you. The shock of that happening on top of all the other villagers trying to gut you made 4’s opening one of the most remembered opening hours in any game ever made, not to mention one hell of a tone setter.
With Ethan, it takes the player either attacking the werewolves prowling around the village or entering a certain house for the gauntlet to be thrown down. While the novelty is clearly not here, being a homage to 4’s beginning, the insane pressure and momentum, now viewed from the character’s eyes rather than over the shoulder, has been maintained. What makes it a still great opening salvo for Ethan’s time in the village is most apparent the first time playing: what to do?
Where does Ethan and the player go? What items can they grab before risking getting mauled, how long can they hold out, where should they hold out? Like the chainsaw enemy of 4, eventually a giant hammer wielding opponent jumps into the arena out of the blue making matters even worse. Unlike the chainsaw man, Urias the hammer wielding giant won’t kill you in one blow, unless you’re on the truly punishing highest difficulty of “Village of Shadows”, but would you be surprised that getting hurt by him is worse than by a Lycan?
Like with RE4, the endless parade of enemies coming at you ends with a cutscene, some force commanding the horde is compelled to leave you alone right at the darkest moment. As Ethan gets his bearings, I couldn’t help but mutter to myself Leon’s corny response to that situation in his game ,”Where’s everyone going, bingo?”
Very soon does RE8 distinguish itself as being more than just RE4 in first person. It maintains most of the elements that are familiar to the classic formula: puzzles to solve, open-ended areas to explore, item management and so forth.
The village is a nexus for four distinct locations with their own regional boss for Ethan to fight and overcome in his efforts to rescue his daughter Rose who he learns is soon in the main villain’s hands, not Chris’. Led by the enigmatic Mother Miranda who takes on the appearance of a witch with raven like features, she has four lords under her thrall and all representing a cornerstone of gothic horror, which is RE8’s visual aesthetic. The most famous, due to her pre-release attention that took on absurd amounts of fandom, is Lady Alcina Dimitrescu, a 9 foot tall monster of a woman who runs the castle overlooking the village.
It’s kind of a shame that the most iconic of the secondary villains in RE8 is the first up to bat for Ethan to confront. While Capcom had its narrative reasons and also knew players would want to experience her and her castle’s intrigue as soon as possible, it also means that you will after a point have to leave behind one of the most thematically and visually striking locations in the game for good. After Lady D is defeated, there is no return for any reason to the macabre yet beautiful castle she walks the halls of. Again, the game is called Resident Evil: Village, not Castle, and there’s much more to see afterwards, but I make my point.
The castle’s internal appearence is meant to both recall the castellan from RE4 as well as the various mansion like locations that have graced the series since the original. It doesn’t take long for Castle Dimitrescu to forge a visual identity that is distinct enough and give off a history that is as grim as it is sad.
One thing to note about all four of the Lords under Miranda’s command is that there are varying degrees of pitiability to all of them, maybe even Miranda as well. Like how RE7 slowly reveals that the grotesque Baker family that hunts you were originally a warm-hearted group of people (save one) that were tragically victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the Lords all have aspects that will make you feel something other than fright or revulsion.
Lady Dimitrescu is the least pitiable as are her three daughters. They are based off the vampire archetype. They drink blood to replenish themselves as well as ensure their practical immortality. Being bit by them does not make you a vampire because in truth they are inspired by vampires but aren’t literally ones. Again, it’s that insane medical science that exists in Resident Evil’s world.
Like vampires, they like big castles to roam around, the daughters dislike direct sunlight and they take on the aristocratic attributes seen in a lot of vampire popular culture. It is that elitist mindset, that they are entitled to prey and feast on poor Ethan that makes them least sympathetic. Instead, when Ethan confronts Lady Dimitrescu and her daughters one by one while searching for his daughter and a way out, I felt sorry that they could not recognize why other people like Ethan wouldn’t like being prey and are increasingly frustrated at his refusal to curl up and accept death.
It’s also clear that for all their mutual depravity, the mistress of the castle dearly loves her daughters and they in turn love her back. This “resident evil” I dare call it are not evil towards each other in the end.
It is also at the castle that we meet the Duke, a clear successor to the mysterious yet popular merchant of Resident Evil 4. The RE4 Merchant is one of the most entertaining mysteries in the franchise, a mystery that no one in particular actually wants to know the truth about. In Leon’s game from years past, the Merchant pops up out of nowhere, all too happy to assist our hunky hero in his quest to rescue the President’s daughter, for a price of course.
Despite his grim, almost enemy like appearence, the Merchant is never a threat to Leon. You can even shoot him dead and he will show up at a later point in the game, no worse for wear and unconcerned you shot him. What the Merchant mechanically brought to RE4 was so excellent and was such a fun fellow to listen to you with his strange Cockney like accent, that no one was bothered by how out of place he narratively was.
The Duke serves the same function but is actually integral to the plot, assisting Ethan in not just procuring items for him to buy but gives information on where to exactly go to save his daughter Rose. He reminds me somewhat of Vergil from Dante’s Inferno, a guide with some enigmatic qualities.
The Duke also makes Ethan food for free to improve his statistics and health, defense and accuracy, so long as Ethan brings the right ingredients through hunting wildlife throughout the game.
The Duke is not just callback to another facet of Resident Evil 4, he is an expansion of the overall idea and one of the best realized ones. I wouldn’t mind if the Duke returned in a future title, whether that be Resident Evil 9 or not.
After the journey up, down and below Castle Dimitrescu and one Bloodborne-looking final battle with the not so fair-Lady, Ethan’s next location to visit is House Beneviento, home to Donna Beneviento and her creepy as hell collection of dolls. In-between the regions Ethan must visit, the Village itself becomes more and more accessible, mostly to explore for treasures which when sold give you much needed Lei (Romanian currency like with RE4’s Spanish setting having pesetas) to upgrade weapons and buy ammo and equipment.
Once Ethan unlocks the gate taking him to House Beneviento, he and the player then enter what is in my opinion one of Resident Evil’s most terrifying sequences.
When most talk about RE8’s highs and lows, many consider House Beneviento or “the Doll House” to be the highlight of the game, wisely undermarketed to make its presence in the game more striking for the unspoiled player. Many lament that nothing before or after this House near a waterfall has anything close to the sheer rising dread and horrifying release of anticipation waiting for you there. I have rarely found any one Resident Evil to have any one moment that scared me like what I saw and heard in that house.
I feel it best that I spoil the least about this section of the game. What I have already said may be too much. To put it another way, the Resident Evil series has finally captured the same fear experienced in the early Silent Hill games, namely Silent Hill 2. It’s a segment that both torments Ethan and the player as well as make them truly vulnerable. I will say nothing more and simply warn that you are making things harder on yourself if you play this section for the first time with headphones on and the light turned off like I did. Or you’re doing yourself one hell of a favor.
As I espoused earlier, there is a sad sympathy to the Four Lords and Donna Beneviento might be the most sympathetic. Due to having considerable mental illness in combination with the powers she is given by Mother Miranda through the “mold” that is the scientific plot device for both RE7 and 8, she is possibly not fully aware of the awful things she does.
It left quite an impression on me that the Lord that spooked me best is also the one that I would feel most sorry for. Supposedly, it should be the other way around. Not here. Before I tempt fate and keep talking about her and her section and really ruin it for you, let’s move on to the third, least frightening Lord: poor Salvatore Moreau.
While Donna is said to be inspired by ghost stories, Moreau based on his name is inspired by the titular antagonist for The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. I don’t know if anyone would call that classic tale “gothic” but like Frankenstein, it’s about scientific pursuit involving life going so wrong.
Moreau isn’t just pitiable, he’s just pathetic. A hunchbacked figure of limited intelligence save for one grotesque specialty, Moreau is disliked by basically everyone. Ethan doesn’t like him, the other Lords don’t care for him and most importantly, Mother Miranda disregards him. Out of all the Lords, Moreau wants most to be loved by her. He is most keen to make her happy in stopping Ethan.
Moreau’s section involving a series of mines followed by a sunken village with windmills is often called the weakest portion of the game. It’s by no means bad and does involve some clever puzzles and a fun callback to RE4’s own lake section involving one giant fish that wants to make you supper.
The mild derision for this sequence likely stems from it coming right after the best moment of the game in the Doll House. Many would hope that what RE8 is serving up for you next would be just as harrowing if not more. It’s not, though if you have a real fear of dangers which lurk under the water, it might be a bit more effective. Here, it’s simply fun and much of the intrigue here comes from Ethan facing a dangerous entity that is so miserable and lonely.
The boss fight with Moreau does have a clever twist to it but it’s otherwise straightforward. Ultimately, considering the framing of Moreau being the bad guy who sucks, maybe this section in practice is quite intentional in being a letdown compared to Lady Dimitrescu and Donna Beneviento.
The fourth and final lord is Heisenberg, directly inspired by Frankenstein and with motivations that are not entirely beyond player disagreement. In terms of vocal performance, Heisenberg is probably my favorite character. He takes the series’ penchant for having hammy, self-indulgent villains and almost acts as a self-aware parody of that convention, which in turn might be the slyest callback to RE4 yet.
Resident Evil 4, for all of its genuine and successful attempts at horror, was seen as the first game to have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about itself and the series’ own struggle to maintain tonal consistency. Heisenberg is deadly serious about his intentions, but he tries to make a game of his actions more than anyone else in RE8.
As the page header infers, Heisenberg’s voice and temperament reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson or Thompson’s avatar Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’m not the first to make the comparison and it might not have been intentional on Capcom’s part, possibly something that his voice actor Neil Newbon thought would be cool to try out for what on the outside seems to be the most normal of Miranda’s subjects.
Despite me loving Heisenberg, he is still a figure meant to have some amount of player dislike and it comes from how short-sided and egotistical the character is. He and Ethan both have a common goal in truth and had he not been so solipsistic, he might have made RE8 a much less harrowing adventure for both involved.
Heisenberg’s location, a factory, is where Resident Evil Village’s higher emphasis on combat compared to 7 comes into focus. This has left mixed feelings for those in the playerbase not wanting the series to return to an overly action based experience. The escalation from horror to action has been a long-standing issue since jump.
Even in the original glory days for the series on the original PlayStation, there was an escalating focus on action. Though all beloved by fans, the increase in explosive set-pieces overtime made the divisive middle period of 4-6 all but inevitable. After the return to horror with Ethan’s first game with RE7, was it also inevitable that action as a core tenet would return?
RE8, like RE4, does manage to mostly toe the line between the two seemingly at-odds sentiments of the series. There is a section following Heisenberg’s factory which was widely condemned for being a descent into straight up action, a moment of criticism that hopefully has not gone beyond Capcom’s notice in the development of RE9 and anything else on the table.
What makes Heisenberg’s Factory work despite the increased focus on fighting enemies and defeating them is the style of the place. It is a darkly lit, grimy industrial hell where a bunch of modified zombie like enemies attack you with grafted on drills, hammers and knives. I’m not even kidding when I say you are basically playing Resident Evil’s own version of Wolfenstein, namely the modern titles made by MachineGames. That Heisenberg calls his minions “Soldats”, just like the Nazis BJ Blazcowicz lays waste to almost makes me think that unlike the Thompson reference, this might’ve been intentional.
Like RE4, if you’re going to up the action tempo, make it at least awesome, and here it certainly is. There’s even a couple of moments that I did fine genuinely creepy in regards to Ethan’s confrontation with the full metal army.
But once again, perhaps as prelude to the denounced “straight up action” sequence coming right after, the final fight with Heisenberg, while fun and epic, does begin to beggar belief in relation to the relative groundedness of the rest of RE8 up until that point. Perhaps as almost self-confession, there is a cheeky reference to one of the series’ most ludicrous and mocked moments, a certain moment from Resident Evil 5 involving a boulder. The bout with Heisenberg is not nearly as stupid as the moment mentioned, but it’s worth pointing out.
I’ve made a point out of detailing the general progression of RE8 on a structural level. While I’ve tried to omit details for the most part, the section by section breakdown is why I felt the need to mention spoilers in the title at all. That the game has been out since this May and has sold a pretty penny already, I felt comfortable with the format I went with here.
Now for something unrelated to Resident Evil 8. Or maybe not.
There was general confusion that following the underwhelming remake of Resident Evil 3, the next game Capcom would choose to reimagine wouldn’t be the next and possibly last old title in need of some kind of facelift: Code Veronica, originally released as a Sega Dreamcast exclusive in 2000.
It made sense on a number of levels. Due to Resident Evil 2’s wildly successful and excellent remake, players new and old would want to see the next chapter in RE2 protagonist Claire’s story, which is CodeVeronica. For some, CV was the actual Resident Evil 3, and narratively it is actually one of the most important in the franchise, for how much that’s worth.
Aside from getting to see a new spanking game with the Claire Redfield brought to life in face and voice by Stephanie Panisello, we would get to have a new Resident Evil game with a younger Chris Redfield, Claire’s brother, who appears in RE8 nearly 50 years old, not that it’s easy to tell.
Due to to its initial exclusivity on the Dreamcast, a well loved console that ultimately died in the console wars facing the PlayStation 2, original Xbox and Nintendo Gamecube, Code Veronica is one of the more underexposed main entries in the franchise. It did receive an HD remaster for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but that was not quite the same as the remake treatment for the first three games.
I recently for the first time played Code Veronica. It’s overall a great entry but with some hurdles that are deserving of being addressed. It is perhaps one of the most punishing titles in difficulty due to there being certain windows of opportunity that if missed, make the third act of the game either extremely hard if not impossible to complete. Only in hindsight or by looking up a guide did I realize I had missed several things that would make the rest of Code Veronica if not easy, much more tolerable an experience.
If that wasn’t enough, a Remake of Code Veronica could involve genuine improvements in narrative ways, such as making side character Steve Burnside, one of the most gratingly annoying figures I’ve ever had to put up with in a video game, into at least someone that I didn’t want to freeze into carbonite like I would Jar-Jar.
There’s also the Ashford twins, the creepy, blond-haired, incestous aristocrats whose family are one of the co-founders of Umbrella. There is something quite disturbing in how the Ashford siblings can be executed in a remake. Their sociopathic indifference to anyone below their station, their obsessive mad love for one another and them being so, so eugenics happy.
How the original game did the Ashford Twins leaves much to be desired, often suggesting the possibility of something better and more frightening than what we get. The awful, shrill performances of the Ashfords in combination with a plot twist involving the brother’s obsession that would 100% not fly if made today means that this is an otherwise respected RE title that could have definite room to be improved.
Why am I putting so much focus on a game not called Resident Evil Village all of a sudden? Because one of the confirmed upcoming titles for the series other than Resident Evil 9 is the remake for Resident Evil 4. After playing through RE8 multiple times and having seen the many, many re-releases for RE4 through the years, including the very attractive VR edition for the Oculus Quest, I don’t think there’s any real need for it.
In comparison to any of the Resident Evils before it, Resident Evil 4 does not need any real update. It is still very playable and for the most part more user-friendly than any of its predecessors. It set a new template for over the shoulder, third person experiences in gaming across the board. The one area where RE4 could receive a meaningful update would be to completely overhaul the look of the game in the RE engine that fuels the contemporary entries starting with 7. There are many who might be curious to see the voice actor for RE2 Remake’s Leon perform the character in this project, but is that really enough to justify?
There is also the curiosity of how RE4 would be reimagined too, but play RE8 and you already get much of that. I’ve made a point to make note of the many callbacks to RE4 in Village and it makes the case that a spiritual successor should instead take the place of that Remake. Instead, Capcom would take its resources and bring back to life an old installment that could stand to have not just a facelift but a proper updating in Code Veronica.
Me calling Resident Evil VIIIage a spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4 sure sounds like a ringing endorsement of the game and that’s only because it is. While I wouldn’t call RE8 as good a game as RE4, you can call it a game that takes tenets of the installment that brought the series down the rabbit hole of action over horror and give it more of the classic Resident Evil formula.
Resident Evil Village delivers more of the potential of what RE7 established in bringing the series into first person, it also suggests real shakeups in the overall narrative that are as intriguing as they are full of mechanical possibility.
It’s a callback to an older glory while suggesting something promising in the present tense, a repackaging that does not give off a feeling of lack of imagination.
Resident Evil 8: Village is a barometer for what exactly is being sought after by the playerbase and the developers of these games. I can’t quite tell you what Resident Evil 9 will be. But I can tell you that it will be something to experience, even if it turns out a failure.
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.