Sunday, July 30, 2017

Insert Coin.

So, last week was the equivalent of the Super Bowl for pop culture junkies and the geek set: San Diego Comic Con (well, except for the pop culture junkies and geeks who actually like the Super Bowl, but you get what I mean).  There were a number of different announcements made over the course of the con.  However, one that caught my attention was the showing of the first trailer for the movie adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One.

For those who don’t know, Ready Player One is a 2011 sci-fi novel set in the year 2044.  2044 is a world where everything is so bad, that most people would rather spend their time in an immersive virtual reality world called the OASIS.  The OASIS itself is a world designed by a reclusive pop culture obsessive named James Halliday.  When Halliday dies, it’s revealed that he hid an “Easter Egg” within the OASIS.  Whoever finds that Easter Egg inherits Halliday’s company, fortune and control of the OASIS.  Being the pop culture obsessive that he was, all clues to Halliday’s treasure are hidden within references to the pop culture that Halliday loved growing up in the 1980s.  This becomes the quest of the book’s main character Wade Watts (aka Parzival), a poor kid from an abusive home in a trailer park where the trailer are stacked one on top of each other.

I’ll admit it, I am rather fond of the book.  Partly because it was one of the first books I’ve read in months that wasn’t just for reviewing on my other blog (, tell your friends about it).  But I thoroughly enjoyed the book regardless of the reason.

But I am also keenly aware that there are some people who really, really don’t like the book.  Probably because I follow at least one of those people on Twitter and they liked tweets from pretty much everyone else who doesn’t like it after the trailer dropped.  There are a number of criticisms of the book.  The author is accused of using various characters as self-inserts.  The obsession with ‘80s pop culture is seen as grating by some and soulless and self-indulgent by others (after all the main character is mainly interested in this stuff so he can win a contest and get rich).  And there are others.  I think I’ll just link to this article from TheRinger, which sums it up.

But let’s look at the trailer and address one of the more glaring things that might have set off the backlash:

“Ernest Cline’s Holy Grail of Pop Culture”

Sounds like a bit much, doesn’t it?  A whole world of pop culture and a reference stuffed treasure hunt story is what gets branded a “holy grail”?  Really?

The problem is, it might not entirely be wrong.  Not if you consider the possibility that the trailer might be playing the same kind of game the book did.

Consider this situation: a group of knights set out on a quest with high stakes to find a relic belonging to the creator of the universe.  Now imagine that the knights are replaced with video game avatars and the universe in question is a virtual reality game.  The first sentence can describe the quest for the holy grail in Arthurian legend.  The second tweaks it to sound like the plot of Ready Player One.  And that’s just the thing, Ready Player One is more or less a grail quest made out of pop culture (well, part grail quest, part Willy Wonka golden ticket nonsense).  And the book isn’t really shy about this.  Late in the book, the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail plays a big part.  And probably the most on-the-nose bit of all, the main character’s avatar is named Parzival.  For those who don’t know, Parzival (also known as Sir Percival) was the original grail knight.  In many later versions of the story, that role is often given to Sir Galahad, who’s depicted as some sort of perfectly pious knight.  Parzival on the other hand, is often depicted as either a commoner with a lot of potential or as someone of noble blood who was raised in the forest, ignorant of the ways of men.  In either case, he’s meant to be an unlikely hero to find the holy grail.  A poor boy who made good.  And that’s probably what Cline intended with his main character of Wade Watts.

So, there’s the off chance that the trailer is doing the same thing the book frequently does: dropping a reference.  But if it’s not just dropping the reference, then it sounds like some rather big hyperbole.
But now, looking at the book itself, I find myself asking “Is Ready Player One a great, well-written book?

Honestly?  No.

Rudimentary Arthurian references aside, while the book references a lot of things it never goes much deeper than that.  It doesn’t transcend the things it references.  It doesn’t use them to transform into something wholly different.  It also doesn’t embrace any deeper themes from any of them.  The love for past popular culture is essentially a love for these things as artifacts more than anything else.  Overall, it’s just a simple wish fulfillment treasure hunt story starring a young adult everyman protagonist.  There are even moments where I look at things in the book now and think they could have been handled better (for example, his courtship of fellow player Art3mis could have come across as a little less desperate on his part).

The book is flawed, but it’s still a lot of fun.  It’s essentially a beach read for those who don’t read romance novels or cozy mysteries while on vacation.  It’s also a beach read that may introduce you to other stuff you may want to check out.  I had never played Joust or listened to a Rush album before in my life, but I did after reading that book.  And while those things might not be my favorite things ever now, I’m still glad someone put the idea in my head to try them.  And overall, (and keep this phrase in mind, because it’ll probably become the credo of Universes Beckon) it’s okay to love flawed things.

But that’s enough for now.  Here’s hoping the movie is as entertaining as the book.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Smurfing Awesome.

It seems that all the movies I wished I could talk about a while back are coming out on DVD.  So, I now have a second chance.

So, let’s do it.  Let’s talk about Smurfs.

Yes, Smurfs.

Don’t go quite yet.  Here in the United States, Smurfs get a bit of a bad rap.  The two movies featuring Neil Patrick Harris certainly didn’t help.  Even before that though, the Smurfs were regarded as little more than a cutesy ‘80s cartoon made more to sell toys and merchandise than provide quality entertainment.

That’s not the whole story, though.  You see, the Smurfs weren’t always an ‘80s cartoon.  They originally came into being as a Belgian comic book by the cartoonist known as Peyo.  Known as Les Schtroumpfs in French, they first appeared in a comic storyline called “The Flute with the Six Holes” in the series Johan and Peewit (Originally Johan and Pirlouit) about a medieval squire and his foolish sidekick.  They were given their own series later.
The thing is, the Smurfs and Peyo deserve more credit than they get, at least here in the US.  While many of the stories were cutesy comedy stories for kids, Peyo realized the potential of writing about a non-human society.  Namely, that he could introduce concepts from human society into it and play them in an exaggerated manner for the sake of comedy and commentary.  In other words, the Smurfs were capable of being used for satire.

No, really.

One of the most notable satirical Smurfs stories is one entitled “The Smurf King”.  It’s a story about how dictators legally rise to power.  I’m not kidding.  The story starts with Papa Smurf having to leave the village for a few days.  Figuring there’s no need to, Papa leaves without putting anyone in charge, just telling them to be good Smurfs while he’s gone.  With no one in charge, the Smurfs start arguing about what to do and ultimately who should be in charge.  Over time, they come to the idea of an election.  Initially, they all want to run and be in charge, but one nameless Smurf realizes something: if he promises to give people what he wants, people are more likely to vote for him.  So, he starts making campaign promises, even promises that contradict other promises he’s made.  He does win and what happens is that this Smurf starts taking more and more power over the other Smurfs’ daily lives.  One of the first things he does is have the other Smurfs build him a palace.  Things escalate quickly after that.  He starts imprisoning Smurfs just for doing things he doesn’t like.  A revolutionary group forms.  There’s even a rebellion.  Except it all ends when Papa Smurf shows up again.  One line Papa Smurf says is particularly memorable when he’s lecturing his little Smurfs “Aren’t you ashamed?  You’ve been acting like human beings!!”

Not all of Peyo’s satirical ideas hold up, though.  In this case I’m talking about “The Smurfette”.

You’ve probably heard of Smurfette.  You may have even heard of “The Smurfette Principle”.  However, you may not know where Smurfette came from.  The story “The Smurfette” centers on a plot by Gargamel to once again capture the Smurfs for his usual ill-defined purposes (either eat them or turn them into gold.  It varies.  The main point is that he’s there to create conflict).  So, he comes to the notion of creating a Smurfette.  He does this by fashioning her out of clay Galatea-style and bringing her to life.  And what is Smurfette like once she’s alive?  Well, she’s flighty, fickle, vain, flirtatious, easily scared of creepy crawly things and a bit preoccupied with pretty things like flowers and dresses.  In other words, she possesses nearly every negative stereotype lobbed at women over the years.  She is more or less a parody of femininity.  Granted, she was created by Gargamel who doesn’t exactly strike me as a feminist.  He even has this long incantation where he says all the negative traits he’s giving her.  It’s a little much.  You’d think they might have at least given her some of the positive stereotypes associated with women (She could have been Nurturing Smurf.  Or Empathetic Smurf).  Ultimately, it’s supposed to be a story about introducing sexual or gender politics into a society that never had known it before and it kind of takes a dim view of it.  I don’t think Gargamel even checks in on his little blue agent.  He just unleashes her into the world and figures Smurf society will just naturally be destroyed.  The male Smurfs don’t exactly come out of it looking that good either.  They treat Smurfette awful at the beginning when she looks kind of frumpy but fall all over themselves to impress her later when she gets a makeover, making them look awfully shallow.  But still, like I said, it’s a bit much.   And I’m pretty sure Peyo received some flak for this characterization.

Luckily, new people are free to take another crack at the character.
The movie Smurfs: The Lost Village isn’t fantastic by any means.  More of a standard, entertaining kids’ film.  There aren’t an abundance of layers that will appeal to a number of adults.  It even has the things that too many animated movies have like an abundance of pop songs and a dance party ending.  However, it tells the story it’s trying to tell pretty well and provides a rather solid character arc for Smurfette.  Beware, some spoilers lie ahead.

The story of Smurfs: The Lost Village concerns Smurfette feeling out of place in the Smurf Village.  Everyone knows she was created by Gargamel, so she’s different on that front.  But she’s also one of the few Smurfs whose character and place isn’t defined.  Unlike Clumsy, Hefty, Brainy, Handy, Jokey and even Nosey, her name doesn’t say anything about her except that she’s an “ette”.  Anyway, during an escape from Gargamel, they find out about a lost village out beyond a giant wall in a part of the forest they had never been in before.  Knowing that Gargamel knows about the lost village too, Smurfette heads off into the unknown forest to warn them.  She’s soon joined by Clumsy, Brainy and Hefty.  A number of really gorgeous animated scenes happen until they reach the Lost Village, where they discover it is a village entirely of female Smurfs with somewhat Amazonian attributes (Note to DC Comics fans who might be reading this: I am fighting the urge to make a comparison to the Guardians and Zamarons right now).  Anyway, along the journey Smurfette really steps up and shows what she’s capable of, even to the point of saving the day.  Mind you, it helps that the movie Smurfette is written in a more well-rounded manner and not like the flighty flake Peyo first dreamed up.  But the big takeaway is the ultimate message.  When the other Smurfs are asked how to describe Smurfette, they all have a different answer.  The reason ultimately alluded to is that Smurfette doesn’t have a traditional Smurf name because it couldn’t possibly define her.  She can’t be defined like that because ultimately, Smurfette can be anything she wants to be.

So, she went from flakey stereotype to well-rounded feminist (or at least semi-feminist) character.  That is the journey of Smurfette.

So, I hope I got some of my American readers to reconsider those little blue people called the Smurfs.  And if I’ve bored any of my European readers, then I’m just sorry.  If you have any observations, comments or questions, leave them in the comments section below.  If you just want to ask me how an all male society of creatures manages to reproduce, I guess you can do that too.  But if you like what you read, please spread the word on Universes Beckon for more pop culture related content.  It also never hurts to subscribe.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Doctor HER.

You know, I thought I had hit a bit of a pop culture dead spot and writing on this blog would have to be put off for a couple of weeks or even months.  I even considered revisiting some topics I wanted to talk about in the past when I didn't have this blog yet.  But then, the sky parted and the pop culture gods gave me a perfect topic.

You see, the BBC has just posted this video to announce the new actor cast to play the Doctor on their seminal show Doctor Who:

That's right, folks.  For the first time, the character of the Doctor is going to be played by a woman.

Naturally, some sections of the internet have not responded well.  And while some of it may be genuine sexism, a lot of it is probably people feeling kind of weirded out.  The culture we live in has so often tried to reinforce the idea of sexual and gender identities being hardwired that it's hard for some to believe that in some cases it isn't.

The Doctor with his/her ability to regenerate into a completely different person is one of those cases.

But I'm going to tell you that I find this change interesting.  Why?  Because it could possibly bring something different to the character and how they are forced to operate.  Just like the Third Doctor being stuck on Earth and working for UNIT affected the character.  Just like the Ninth Doctor being the last of his kind affected the character.  This change could bring about new elements of story that could be interesting.  And it's probably going to be our culture's preoccupations with sex and gender that'll do it, ironically enough.

While the various alien races that the Doctor encounters may not react to the Doctor any differently, we must also remember that Doctor spends a fair bit of time in Earth's past.  And Earthlings from the past will probably react to a woman Doctor differently than a man Doctor.  Sometimes in little ways, but also maybe in bigger ways.  Imagine the Doctor suddenly having to deal with sexism as an obstacle.  There will likely be some bullish males in the past for whom waving around a piece of psychic paper is not going to get the Doctor a free pass.

Or maybe it won't.  Maybe they'll just act like this Doctor is the same as every other Doctor.  But the possibility is there.

Whatever the outcome, I'm definitely intrigued.  And it's just nice to see roles like this opening up more to women.  And we're seeing it happen more and more.  Wonder Woman had her first blockbuster movie.  We even had female Ghostbusters and a female Mummy.  While those movies weren't particularly good, it was bad scripting and direction that were the problem not the gender of the stars.

Also, you've got to admit, this is probably the prettiest actor to play the Doctor since David Tennant.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Here it is folks!

So, here we are.  I finally did it.  I finally created that auxiliary blog I've been talking about for a while.

The genesis of this blog has come from a number of things.  Mainly the fact that I've discovered that I have opinions about all sorts of pop culture things that are unconnected to fairy tales, legends and children's fantasy books and that I'd like to have a place to express them.

A short list of things in pop culture that made me say "Man, I wish I had a blog to talk about that" include: Wonder Woman, Funko Pops, Universal Monsters, Power Rangers, Super Sentai, Smurfs, the X-Men, Digimon, Pokemon, Andi Mack, manga, retro arcade games, and cooking shows among others (I can't promise I'll get to all these).

I did manage to use my personal Facebook page to talk about Andi Mack as well as the new Mummy and Wonder Woman movies.  But now I have a place set aside just for that sort of thing.

this blog will be updated more on a "drop-in" basis.  Basically, whenever there's something I want to talk about that doesn't fit on Fairy Tale Fandom, it will get posted here.

You might be wondering about the title of the blog, though.  The truth is that I had the hardest time coming up with a title.  That is, until I ended up reading someone else's blog that had a title drawn from a movie quote.  Figuring that approach would work as well as anything, I pulled an old comic book quote from my memory.  It was from the '90s miniseries DC vs Marvel.  Aside from the dual publishing by two different comic book companies, it was your typical '90s comic book event.  Fun, but nothing spectacular.  In the course of it though, DC and Marvel created a new character named Access who had the ability to move between universes.  And at the end of the series, the narration talks about Access and says something like "For universes beckon.  And when universes beckon, which of us can say no?"

Maybe not a perfect title, but I think it'll work.

So, keep checking back in this space.  You never know what's coming up.