Friday, October 24, 2014

5 Things on a Friday: Age of Ultron & Other Stories

This week's reading is
The Dark Defiles.
I feel like I’ve been a little distracted this week.  I’m reading Richard K. Morgan’s new book, The Dark Defiles, third and final volume of “A Land Fit for Heroes”.  It has sucked up all the time I usually spend writing.  The whole trilogy is an elaborate deconstruction of epic fantasy, and I've enjoyed it thoroughly.  This third volume in particular has been reminiscent of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, save that it’s not nearly as pretentious, thank God.  It's compelling, though, which is why I’ve sort of let the book take over my life this week.
I’ll review the whole series when I get a chance.  In the meantime, there was a lot of movie/comic/TV-type news this week.  Since that news beats the Hell out of news of a more serious variety, let’s talk about it a bit, shall we?
"‘[In] the beginning of the studios, the entrepreneurs who ran the studios were sort of creative guys. They would just take books and turn them into movies and do things like that. Suddenly all these corporations were coming in. They didn't know anything about the movie business."
Lucas said they started hiring ‘kids’ from film schools.
‘They supposedly know how to make films. So suddenly we could get jobs, which was a fantastic thing. But then the studios went back to saying well we don't trust you people and we think we know how to make movies. The studios change everything all the time. And, unfortunately, they don't have any imagination and they don't have any talent…’”
I’ve heard this rant several places recently.  For example, last week’s Major Spoilers podcast also covered the topic, with an eye towards the way digital distribution is changing the business of entertainment and entertainment advertising.  Bottom line, nobody under thirty ever really sits down to watch network television in prime time, and this has completely changed the way network television thinks about itself.  The networks are barely trying to market to anyone under thirty anymore because there’s just not much point to it, and even if they were, the fact is that the kids these days are as apt to watch Play Doh finger-puppets on YouTube as they are to watch high-end scripted content from an actual studio.  That destroys the economics of the network television in its entirety.  
I personally don’t see the appeal of 90% of what’s on YouTube, but I guess that’s the whole point, right?  At 41, if I got it, it wouldn't be cool.
At least with television done along the Netflix model, the network itself is getting some actual revenue from every viewer.  However many subscribers Netflix has, it’s getting nearly $10/month from them.  That represents much better monetization of its existing library of content than what’s offered via free on-air TV.  The pressure to produce on an ongoing basis isn’t quite as powerful for Netflix, either.  Sure Netflix needs to have enough content to keep their subscriber base engaged, but beyond that, who cares how many people are watching, exactly?  Producing a full slate of television every night of the week is hard.  It’s easier, cheaper, and a better use of financial resources to produce a half-dozen shows that keep a smaller number of people much more actively engaged, and on top of that, you do better by letting them watch their shows whenever they want it.  You just have to make it worth $10/month.
This is why many content providers are now—slowly—moving towards this exact model.  HBO has only just announced a subscription service that is exactly like Netflix, only covering HBO's existing content.  The WWE has gone the same way, as well, and it looks like Nickelodeon is headed there, too.  The broadcast networks may lag ten years behind, but there seems little doubt that they will either catch up or eventually die off like dinosaurs.
All of this has the perhaps unintended consequence of making TV relatively more expensive to watch, but what can you do?  Given the choice, it seems obvious that creators and studios would rather have more control than less, and these projects represent an end-around on the studio process.  Smaller budgets, longer projects, less break-the-bank economics.  Sure, if the movie studio were better run, this would perhaps not be necessary, but who knows?  It might be anyway.  Regardless, we are where we are, and life is what it is.  We can all either deal with that and move forward or get left behind.
2.  Arrow vs. Agents of SHIELD Revisited
They did a nice job on the costume.
For what it’s worth, I’ve really enjoying the new season of Agents of SHIELD.  Last year, I ranted continually about how SHIELD wasn’t quite as good as the CW’s Arrow, but this year I think the roles are reversed.  SHIELD has expanded its cast, shifted focus, and become a true ensemble piece.  It’s more gender-balanced and more focused on action and story evolution, plus whenever they show some piece of impossible whiz-bang technology, it really pops.  Last year, they just laid that shit down like wallpaper, as if they were constantly trying to remind us, “Hey!  This is the Marvel Universe!”  It took away from the show’s overall sense of mystery.  This year we see the amazing stuff much, much less often, but whenever they trot it out, it’s for a decided reason.  That by itself is a huge improvement.
Meanwhile, Arrow has gone in exactly the opposite direction.  Oliver is out there firing trick arrows for no apparent reason, they’ve killed off or shunted aside several formerly important characters, and they’ve set in motion so many plot threads that the season premier was actively hard to follow.  Plus, Olly and Felicity finally paid off two seasons’ worth of building romantic tension and went on a date, only for Olly to then scuttle the relationship before it began because (deep, gravelly Batman voice): “It’s clouding my focus…” 
Ugh!  Seriously?
People never act like that!  I know many, many, many soldiers, and not one of them would ever tell you that their romantic entanglements got in the way of their focus during combat.  In fact, the reverse of that is true, and it’s far more compelling.  Combat gets in the way of a soldier’s life; it weighs like a pack that the soldier can never take all the way off.  Some people deal with it better than others, but regardless, the reality of the moment remains, and it changes everything.  

Arrow in particular is a show that’s made much of its characters’ struggles to find balance and a normal life after experiencing combat conditions, so it would have been entirely in keeping with the show’s ethos to play it that way.  Olly wants to commit to Felicity, but his mission is always there, and even when they’re together, he can’t quite shake it off.  He’s always staring off into the distance, looking after sirens, reliving moments he'd rather forget, etc.  He jumps, he’s moody, and he has survivor’s guilt over the deaths of Sarah and Tommy and his mother.  Meanwhile, Felicity wants to love him, has committed to him physically, but it’s starting to look like that might have been a mistake.  Oliver isn’t the most emotionally stable guy she’s ever met--Hello, he dresses up in a hood and shoots street criminals with a bow and arrows!--and while that was fine when they were just partners, now that they’re more, she’s in a tough spot that she doesn’t quite know how to manage…
"We can't."
"Umm...  Because it would screw up the romantic tension in the show."
"That's not a reason!  That's bad writing!"
A real soldier would never (well, rarely) say, “We can’t be together because of my mission.”  A real soldier would say, “We have to be together despite my mission”, and trust me, it would be twice as heartbreaking as what we saw in Arrow’s season premier.  But nobody ever wants to take the time to write about what it takes to make a real relationship work, so instead we get this same truncated crap time after time.
3. Alpine climax for 2015 Tour de France (USA Today)
“In week one, the Tour will again swing through First World War battlefields, this time in the Somme region of northern France, as the race also did this year to mark the centenary of the 1914 start of that terrible conflict.
“On stages 2 and 6, riders will need to be alert to the risk of winds along the Dutch and northern French coasts that could split the race and lose time for those caught unawares.
“The 13 kilometers (8 miles) of cobbled roads on stage 4, the longest stage of the 2015 race, will also be a nervous day for race favorites who'll not want to fall, puncture and lose time on the bumps.
“The second half of the Tour will be decisive, with three days ascending in the Pyrenees and four in the high Alps. The riders will grind up a total of 26 mountain climbs…”
So it’s a climby Tour with only one (very short) individual time trial and one team time trial, several sprint stages, and—if USA Today is to be believed—some potential trouble with cross winds.  At a glance, I’d say that this year’s cobbles stage may again be nearly decisive.  Both primary contenders went down on last year's cobbles stage, and more are liable to be knocked out early again in the coming year.  Whoever survives will then head for the final showdown in what promises to be a punishing but thoroughly entertaining Tour de France.

I love Annie.  Hannah and I already have this one marked on our calendars.
5.  Avengers: Age of Ultron
You've probably already seen this, but it's worth showing again.

This is a film that’s supposed to have a lot of Hawkeye and a lot of the Hulk.  That makes sense in an ensemble piece where one of your best pieces, the Hulk, never really gets to cut loose except as a part of the ensemble.  But then where’s Hawkeye?  If he did anything in this trailer, I missed it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
comes out May 1, 2015.

We've got a Halloween party at Emma's school tonight, a race tomorrow morning, plans for the City after that, kids maybe having sleepovers, and then a day full of various birthday celebrations for Sally, who's turning a year older on Monday.  It looks like a full weekend, but with luck, we'll have a little time to sleep and breathe, too.

Have a good one.


  1. I think network TV's last concessions to youth were in animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy (which is also why most of cable cartoons are equally subversive). Ironically, variety shows that play late at night are relevant to youth, but they're busy doing other things, presumably, at that time. It might behoove NBC to create a Prime Time Show, for instance. The thing cable does every single time it wants to differentiate from the networks is increase the "adult" quotient, but a large part of the reason that they've managed to create most of the water cooler buzz of the last fifteen years is because they can promote fewer shows better than networks can with a much larger slate. That was why Heroes was so successful initially, because it managed to come up with a campaign that helped single it out ("save the cheerleader save the world") and why Lost was much more distinctive before a thousand other shows tried to replicate it. (Never mind that both shows, as all cult shows do with massive early hype, eventually lost significant fan and critical support; the major difference The Walking Dead, say, has is that it started out with relative anonymity and low expectations, and built its reputation and viewership over time. I think its success at the moment will eventually give way to a much smaller audience, the way Image declined over the years in comics.)

    It's great that there are alternative models being considered, but subscription-based services are really nothing more than an evolution of the cable model. They're not competition for YouTube, which is a vehicle for selective randomness (which is again one of the key things Family Guy represents, and what SNL and the late night talk shows have been doing for decades). The difference is a matter of structure. In a traditional format everything is put together in a neat little package and there are fixed limits on how long the programming needs to be because of the need to schedule everything. There is no scheduling on YouTube. That's the mobile device revolution right there. Everyone, in effect, is the executive producer of their own show.

    But I still think that's a fad. People aren't going to be walking around like that forever. Didn't it seem in the '80s like boomboxes would be everywhere forever? Technologies change. People adapt. Certain formats stick around, proven reliable. There's a reason why mobile devise companies come up with something "new" every year. They're desperate to stay ahead of the curve, which is to say, relevant. It would actually be far worse to completely adapt to current trends. It pays to be conservative sometimes, no matter how retrograde it can seem.

    Bottom line, the networks are already adapting. They've been accepted significantly diminished ratings for years. Shows that would've been cancelled in a heartbeat stick around for longer than ever. It also creates the sensation (the Internet effect) of anything that's actually popular being at the same time uncool (The Big Bang Theory).

    What're you gonna do?

    1. I've gotta say, I've never understood the appeal of The Big Bang Theory. That's a weird-looking show.