Wicked Weekends: Power Rangers Megaforce

Power Rangers Megaforce
New era, new team

New era, new team.

EDIT: The premiere episode is available on Hulu if you’d like to see it for yourself!

Somewhere around twenty years ago, I was watching something or other on Fox when a commercial for a new show came on — and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Five teenagers morphing into heroes imbued with incredible power, wielding ray guns and magical weapons and giant goddamned robots against an army of evil aliens. I knew, from that first moment, that I had to see that show, and though my mother always kind of hated it, I was soon one of the biggest Power Rangers fans around. I drifted away from the franchise somewhere around Zeo, found my way back for Dino Thunder, S.P.D. and Mystic Force, dabbled in RPM, and finally came back for good only recently, sinking more money than I care to admit into toys and prop replicas and a kickass old-school Pink Ranger costume that should be here this week (and that I’ll definitely be wearing to PAX East). With the franchise back in the hands of Saban, the very people who originally adapted Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger into Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and Saban and Bandai both going all out to celebrate the unbelievable success of the franchise (seriously, how many kids’ shows have lasted two decades and come back from the dead no less than three times?), it’s never been a better time to be a fan.

I have been waiting for this moment MY ENTIRE LIFE

I have been waiting for this moment MY ENTIRE LIFE.

If Power Rangers Samurai was a love letter to the fans, featuring the return of original supporting character Farkas “Bulk” Bulkmeier and a theme song adapted from the original Go Go Power Rangers, then Power Rangers Megaforce is a big handmade Valentine with glitter and frothy pink trim glued to a box of chocolates and delivered along with the biggest bouquet of roses you ever did see. The Power Rangers fan community was already stoked when it was revealed that Megaforce would be adapting two Super Sentai series at once: Tensou Sentai Goseiger and Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, the latter being Super Sentai producer Toei‘s own love letter to its fans. Gokaiger is built around the premise that all the past Super Sentai teams — all of them — fought together against a massive alien empire, ultimately losing their powers in the process. These powers are rediscovered some time later by a crew of space pirates who become heroes in their own right, tapping into the abilities of past teams to supplement their own. Every past Super Sentai team makes an appearance in some fashion, and themes from each past series are woven into the appropriate episodes of Gokaiger. No one was really expecting Saban to do anything so elaborate…but they totally are. In fact, they had Toei reshoot the Legend War scenes from Gokaiger using American Power Ranger teams just so they could weave that footage into Megaforce at some point. Lots of people, myself included, expected that the Legend War stuff wouldn’t come in until the second season, which will reportedly make full use of Gokaiger…but we were wrong. Oh so deliciously wrong.

In the first episode alone, we’re treated to images of past Ranger teams fighting together against a vast army, thanks to the new Red Ranger’s mysterious visions; the Ranger Keys (used by the Gokaigers to tap into their predecessors’ powers) on prominent display in the new command center; the new mentor, Gosei, telling the Megaforce Rangers that he was appointed Earth’s guardian by his mentor, Zordon; and a brand new hangout named Ernie’s Brain Freeze in an obvious homage to the owner of the old Angel Grove Youth Center. Plus there are callbacks to the infamous “teenagers with attitude” line from the original series and Kimberly‘s joke about refusing to become a Power Ranger because the helmet seriously messes up her hair. Like I said — big frothy Valentine with chocolates, flowers, and probably some stuff I shouldn’t spell out on a family blog.

But enough about the past. Let’s talk about the episode itself. There are SPOILERS ahead, so if you’re going to watch Megaforce at all, go find the premiere episode and then come back. For the rest of you, let me sum up.

We’re introduced right away to the aforementioned Red Ranger-to-be, Troy, who wakes from a weird dream about the past Rangers to find that he’s the only one left on his school bus and he’s going to be late for class. In short order, we’re introduced to Emma, a BMX biker with a passion for environmentalism and photography; Jake, the plucky comic relief; Noah, an obvious geek and total technophile; and Gia, a drop-dead gorgeous blonde with a brilliant mind and a whole ton of self-confidence. We get a brief glimpse into their characters thanks to the science teacher posing a thought experiment: of all the life forms on Earth, which is destined to survive the longest? Emma immediately says it’s the insects, hardy and adaptable, who will survive long after mankind has destroyed the planet. Noah immediately objects in a way that leaves me wondering if his character has Asperger’s (not that this would be a bad thing — in fact, a Ranger on the autism spectrum would be very interesting, if handled with sensitivity — but his behavioral tics beg the question), claiming that robots will become the dominant life form. Gia argues that robots aren’t alive, and Noah keeps muttering that they’re wrong, while his best friend Jake is too busy drooling over Gia to offer any further comment. Troy arrives late, and the teacher immediately pulls him into the discussion; in a revealing moment, Troy optimistically proposes that humans will outlast all other life, because if we work together, we can overcome all our problems.

But all is not well on the planet Earth, and Emma’s theory about insects is about to receive a huge shot in the arm, because the evil Admiral Malkor, leader of an army of insectoid aliens called the Warstar, is about to launch his invasion. In an underground chamber, the guardian Gosei senses this threat, and reactivates his command center, instructing his robot assistant Tensou to recruit five teenagers with the attitude necessary to fight the forces of evil. The five teenagers we’ve already met are duly teleported to the command center, where Gosei explains that they’ve been chosen to carry on the legacy of the Power Rangers and defend the planet from Malkor and his goons. Troy immediately recognizes the Ranger Keys displayed on the wall, and we get another brief glimpse of his visions of war, but he doesn’t really explain and Gosei merely says that the figures represent past teams. Gosei wastes no time in passing out colors and animals: Emma is the Pink Phoenix Ranger, Gia is the Yellow Tiger Ranger, Noah is the Blue Shark Ranger, Jake is the Black Snake Ranger, and Troy is the Red Dragon Ranger and the team’s leader. Troy immediately objects that he’s new in town and he’s only just met the others, but Gosei insists that Troy has the character necessary to lead, that he has already triumphed over adversity (which, of note, is never explained either) and he will lead his team to victory in the face of evil. The new Megaforce Rangers get their morphers and the cards necessary to operate them — more on that later — and head out into the field to bust some aliens. They acquit themselves well while still unmorphed, but ultimately have to use their Gosei Morphers (someone has an ego) when the aliens start pulling blasters and Malkor sends a tougher minion down to fight them. But once they’re morphed, the Rangers adapt to their new powers with no problems at all, and very soon the day is saved. They don’t even have to bust out the giant robots. They meet briefly with Gosei back at the command center, affirm their commitment to the Megaforce, and bump fists before uttering the catchphrase of the series: “Earth Defenders — Never Surrender!” Groan.

Okay, let’s break this down.

Gia and Emma: BFFs

Things I Liked

  • Gia is REALLY hot. Not just physically (though that too), but she has a smirking self-confidence, she’s tall and physically capable, and she’s clearly damn smart. I think she may be beating out Kimberly, Vida and Summer as my favorite female Ranger. Okay, no one can ever beat Kimberly, but Gia is definitely up there. It’s not hard to see why Jake is so interested in her, or why Noah points out that Gia is generally considered the hottest girl in school.
  • Emma is also really hot, but more to the point, she’s extremely charismatic. She’s also obviously intelligent, and while she doesn’t have Gia’s spirit, she still has a lot of confidence all her own. She keeps a cool head and she’s creative in a fight — in the initial battle she uses the flash on her camera to help her take on multiple opponents at once, distracting some with the flash while she takes down their buddies, then cleaning up the rest. This is honestly the first time I’ve liked both of the female Rangers in any given series just as much. I almost always have a favorite, but not this time. Emma’s definitely up there with Gia kicking Vida and Summer’s asses.
  • Emma and Gia together are an unstoppable combination. Their affection for one another is obvious. They’re officially acknowledged as best friends in dialogue and in the press packets Saban and Nickelodeon sent out, but I really didn’t need anyone to tell me that. It was obvious from the first moment I saw them together. Yes, I’m already shipping them. But more to the point, it’s easily one of the most compelling friendships I’ve ever seen in this franchise. You feel warm and fuzzy just watching them. It’s adorable, endearing and easily the best part of the show.
  • Most of the callbacks to the previous series in the Power Rangers franchise are very well done, clever little winks that make it clear that Saban respects and loves the adult fans who are watching the show. Richard Genelle, of course, is no longer with us, and could not have reprised his role as the original Ernie, but it’s genuinely touching to see him memorialized through Ernie’s Brain Freeze. The initial exchange between Gosei and Tensou about the new team recalls the similar exchange between Zordon and Alpha 5 in a cute, playful way. And, of course, Troy’s visions are endlessly fascinating and tantalizing, and my heart felt like it was going to burst from my chest when I saw those tiny figures of all the past Ranger teams lined up along the command center’s walls.
  • The special effects, especially the teleportation effect, are really nicely done.
  • Last, but far from least, the writing and acting are much better than they were on Power Rangers Samurai. There are still some clumsy moments, but I can actually watch and enjoy this show as opposed to cringing my way through it just to see the pretty costumes and weapons and robots. It’s not the best show I’ve ever seen, but it’s on roughly the same level as other teen dramas, like Degrassi and South of Nowhere. It’s nice to see that Saban can produce a show of this quality. After Samurai (which was a disappointing follow-up to RPM, to say the least), I was really worried about the future of the franchise. Now my fears have been laid to rest.
By the way, Tensou is about two feet tall. Yeah.

By the way, Tensou is about two feet tall. Yeah.

Things I Disliked

  • Tensou sounds like Alpha 5 and looks like Johnny Five. There is no excuse for the latter in 2013. When the highly advanced robot assistant looks less advanced than the robot assistant from the show made in 1993, you have a problem. I would have preferred to see a guy in a metal suit. At least then Tensou could have been passed off as an android.
  • The basic minions — who are, I am told, called Loogies, and I would really like to know who came up with that name — are obviously guys in spandex. I don’t think I’ve seen costuming this bad since the original Putty Patrollers. Minion costumes on Power Rangers are usually cheap and of obviously poor quality for obvious reasons: you need a lot of them and the budget isn’t big enough for a hundred or so high-quality costumes on top of the special effects and stuff you’re already paying for. But this is still a new low. Honestly, the first appearance of the Loogies brought my enjoyment of this episode to a screeching halt. I got back into it again, but I’m not looking forward to that unpleasant jolt when they appear in future episodes.
  • Jake and Troy are both pretty poorly defined. Jake is a comic relief jock with a crush on Gia; that’s pretty much all we get. Troy is the new kid in town with some unspecified adversity in his past. While I appreciate the attention paid to Emma and Gia’s relationship, I’d really like to know more about the other Rangers. Hopefully they’ll see some more characterization soon.
  • There is no reason for the Red Ranger to be the new kid in town. It happens in a whole lot of Power Rangers series — Wild Force, SPD and Mystic Force, to name a few off the top of my head — and it just doesn’t work for me. At least in this case, Troy isn’t being promoted over experienced Rangers (as Cole was on Wild Force, and Jack was on SPD), and he even questions why he’s being appointed leader, but it’s still a little grating. Troy could easily have been friends with all the others from the outset. Jason was already part of the gang on the original show. Why couldn’t Saban do the same here?
  • Early in the episode, Emma heads out into the woods to photograph the migration of the monarch butterflies, which she describes as a once in a lifetime event. No, actually, it’s a pretty regular event. I realize valid science is a lot to ask from Power Rangers, but could we please have some valid elementary school science, at the very least?
  • While I’m on the subject of Emma, Gosei mentions her BMX biking as one of the skills that will make her an excellent Power Ranger. I couldn’t help but think of the BMX Bandit, and there was much snickering involved.
  • The morphers. They’re big, unwieldy and used for everything. Even in the middle of battle. See, to morph, the Rangers have to feed these power cards into the things. To summon their blasters, more power cards. To summon their heavier weapons, still more power cards. To combine their weapons, power cards that turn into giant power cards. In Japan, the power cards were sold commercially, used as part of a trading card game. There are power cards on sale with the Megaforce toys here in the US, and a trading card game involving multiple Power Ranger teams to come. Obvious commercialization is obvious. The franchise has always lived and died by toy sales, so I don’t mind a certain amount of commercialization. I do mind that it takes so bloody long for the Rangers to pull out the morphers, pull the power cards from their belt pouches, insert the cards into the morphers, and activate the morphers. It eats into valuable action sequence time, and leaves me wondering why the bad guys don’t simply attack while the Rangers are fiddling with those awful things.

Things I Have Mixed Feelings About

  • The color coding is back in force, even before the Rangers receive their powers. This gets a lampshade (Emma notes that pink is her favorite color), but after previous series in which the color coding was not strictly enforced, I find it jarring. That said, it definitely does feed into the nostalgia, and all the characters wear their colors well. Especially Emma with those little pink shorts and Gia with that yellow tank top. Mm.
  • Similarly, the color coded personalities are back in force as well: Emma is the caring, sensitive ‘heart’ of the team. Gia is the tall, athletic borderline tomboy. Noah is the geek. Jake is the entertaining jock. Still, the personalities do work, for the most part, and Troy isn’t so readily pegged. He’s appointed leader, but doesn’t necessarily seem like someone naturally inclined to take control. His background is still a mystery — and once again, I hope we get some more clues to that mystery soon.
  • The theme song. I love Go Go Power Rangers as much as anyone, and it was nice to see it reprised in Samurai, but I don’t know if I need to hear it again — even if it is pretty appropriate, given Megaforce’s naked nostalgia. After Power Rangers Zeo, the franchise started to mix the themes up a little, writing an original theme for each series. Sometimes there were callbacks — a familiar musical phrase here and there — but generally the songs were brand new. I kind of miss those days now.

Still, despite my qualms, I thoroughly enjoyed the premiere episode, and since pilot episodes are nearly always unsteady, I’m sincerely hoping that the series will only improve from here. I’m excited to see the Legend War (or whatever Megaforce ends up calling it) making an early appearance, and I can’t wait for the legacy of the past Ranger teams to make itself fully manifest. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a new series since RPM. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Power Rangers Rating: 4 out of 5 Power Coins. Morphinomenal.

General TV Rating: 6 out of 10. Good, even great in parts, but not spectacular.

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The Ranting Fangirl: Survival Through Subtext

Lately I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to lesbian subtext.

Now, my friend Katie is, as we speak, rushing to the bottom of this post to insist that I’m always thinking about lesbian subtext, as well as lesbian text, lesbian picture books, lesbian cartoons, and lesbian interpretive dance. Before you go read her shameful libel, let me state categorically that this is not at all true. I spend ten percent of my time thinking about sci-fi and fantasy in general. Five percent of my time goes to thinking about my holy crap adorable niece, another five percent goes to thinking about ponies (including unicorns and pegasi), and another five goes to thinking about my cats. Three percent of my time goes to thinking about how it would be so much easier to find clothes and shoes that fit properly if my feet were three or four sizes smaller and I was six inches shorter and a few pounds lighter. And, last but far from least, two percent of my time goes to thinking about corgis and Shelties, and what I’m going to name any corgis and/or Shelties I’m able to adopt someday (Tinkerbell or Stellabella for girls; Puck, Robin or Casey for boys). So, at most, I spend 70% of my time thinking about lesbian subtext. Math.

But I’ve spent the last day or so thinking about lesbian subtext in somewhat more abstract terms, inspired by a couple articles I’ve read recently. The first, an Entertainment Weekly piece tweeted by Roger Ebert (and then retweeted by a Twitter buddy of mine), asks if Merida – the newest Disney princess, and star of the new Pixar film, Bravemight be gay. Their reasoning isn’t great; Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress takes it on here. But a lot of the people who responded to both Ebert’s tweet and the original article objected to the very idea – not only from the generally anti-gay perspectives you might expect, but from feminist perspectives as well. I can’t say I entirely disagree with the fundamental point that heterosexual women can reject traditional gender roles, too; nor do I disagree with the related point that we are not defined solely by who we’re attracted to, and saying “Well, Merida just isn’t into men at all, is she?” kind of undermines her determination to choose her own fate, no matter what that fate may be or who else it might involve. (Please note that I haven’t seen the film yet. I plan to. Soon. But I’m working from only the sketchiest details.)

And yet…

Subtext is important. At times, subtext is vital. Especially when decent text is so hard to find. It’s getting better, to be sure, but there’s still a dearth of compelling, well-rounded gay characters, particularly in children’s entertainment. Sure, Dumbledore was gay…but that was never truly relevant to the saga of Harry Potter, and it didn’t even come out until the last book was printed. And too often, even those meager scraps can be ripped away.

This brings me to the second article. Now, I should preface this by saying that I don’t watch Adventure Time. But I do follow another WordPress blog called Misprinted Pages, and today Stephanie posted a review of the Adventure Time comic book, touching on a “controversy” connected with the show in the process. Said controversy is recapped here, but in brief: about a year ago, there was an episode showcasing some “light lesbian subtext” between two female characters, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, and the show’s creators posted an online video commenting on the episode, essentially upgrading the subtext to some kind of text, and soliciting fan art and fan responses. That video was later pulled – after an outpouring of support from the online lesbian community in particular –  for reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense. The episode is still in circulation, but heaven forbid the creators openly acknowledge  that two characters in a family cartoon might be gay for each other. (Since the same episode apparently also implies or outright states that another character has been jerking off to a lock of Princess Bubblegum’s hair, I’m not sure how gay characters would cross any lines that haven’t already been left in the dust anyway.)

I know, I know – I’m spending a lot of time talking about stuff I haven’t seen. Insert pithy comment about feeling like I’m hardly ever seen here. I’m pretty sure everyone in the GLBT community is used to this game: go through the hundred or shows on television on any given moment, cringing at the stereotypes and crass humor, bracing yourself for heartbreak whenever a decent gay, bi or trans character happens to emerge, and grasping at subtext wherever you can find it. Hoping against hope that Disney will just admit that the Mystic Force Pink Ranger is gay (short-haired tomboy whose one and only date on the show was with a girl and who openly and enthusiastically agreed with the guys that another female character was hot…come on, people), or that TNT will stop teasing us with Rizzoli & Isles, or that you weren’t just imagining that chemistry between Veronica Mars and Meg Manning. Writing fan fic about Kirk and Spock or Xena and Gabrielle (even if the latter are all but canonical).

I’m not going to say it’s okay, because it’s not. I can count on one hand the number of current TV shows with meaningful gay characters that I actually enjoy. And when it comes to stuff I’d want my future kids to watch? Stuff that would show them that, no matter who they are, there are people like them out there, and they’re beautiful and amazing just the way they are? It falls to just about zero.

I get that it’s annoying at times. I get that sometimes the reasoning isn’t great – sometimes the reasoning is actually insulting. And I guess I’m not really saying that flawed reasoning shouldn’t be challenged. But, at the same time, sometimes subtext is all we have. Sometimes subtext helps us cope. Sometimes it helps us survive. And it’s not enough. Especially not for the gay and bi and trans kids growing up now, struggling to come to terms with who they are, still developing those vital survival skills. But don’t begrudge us our icons. Don’t go telling us our subtext is wrong. Because God knows we need all the heroes we can get – textual or otherwise.

Fangirl Fridays: Tali’Zorah vas Normandy

After time adrift among open stars
Among tides of light and to shoals of dust
I will return to where I began.

The story of the quarians as presented in the original Mass Effect will likely be a familiar ones to fans of the Battlestar Galactica reboot: betrayed by their creations, the robotic geth, they were driven from their homeworld, forced to drift through the galaxy in a ragtag fleet. Oh, sure, there are some key differences – the geth aren’t actively pursuing the quarians, for one, and the Mass Effect galaxy is full of sentient life, so though most other species distrust and mistreat the quarians, there are still opportunities for trade and diplomatic relations. But you might be forgiven for thinking of the quarians as rather derivative, at least as first. As their story unfolds, however, particularly in the subsequent games, we see how complex their history truly is, particularly where the geth are concerned. We come to understand their complicity in truly heinous acts that ultimately led to their exile and near extinction. And, depending on how you play it, we see the quarians as a people step into a bold new future.

None of it would mean a thing if it wasn’t for Tali’Zorah vas Normandy. Though she is ultimately joined by other voices, we first hear the story of her people in her words. When new information comes to light, it is her perspective that illuminates the actions and reactions of the quarian race. And it is her presence on the crew of the SSV Normandy that makes us care. Because during her time with Shepard and the rest of the team, she becomes crew. If you put in the time and effort, she becomes more than that. She becomes family – a fact that both she and Shepard will readily acknowledge.

Quick, careful, and lucky.

When we first meet Tali’Zorah, she’s Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, a somewhat disreputable young woman (solely by virtue of being a quarian apart from the fleet) on her Pilgrimage – a rite of passage all young quarians must undertake in order to prove their worth to the Flotilla and attain adult status in their society. Her information is literally vital to unlocking the next chapters of the story. You can skip meeting Garrus or Wrex if you like, but if you fail to recruit Tali to your cause, that cause is lost.

She’s more than just a key to the rest of the story, though. You may not see that if you don’t put in the effort – you can find her in Main Engineering whenever you feel like talking, but if you don’t go down there, she won’t seek you out. Those conversations are honestly one of the best parts of the game. Through those long talks in Engineering, you begin to see Tali as a whole person: nervous, shy, geeky, unaccustomed to dealing with outsiders, but nevertheless brilliant and caring. Truly, profoundly dedicated to her people, but also devoted to the well-being of everyone in the galaxy, and increasingly loyal to Shepard personally. Occasionally sarcastic, sometimes even witty, with a sly, subtle sense of humor. Every time I play this game – no matter how I’m playing Shepard – I can’t help seeing her as a surrogate little sister, imagining Shep taking Tali under her wing. Maybe that’s just my overactive imagination talking, but I don’t think so. You instinctively want to protect Tali, and more than that, to help her thrive – to shepherd her (pun definitely intended) to her ultimate, glorious destiny.

Tali'Zorah vas Normandy in all her glory.

And what a destiny it is. When we see Tali again in Mass Effect 2, she has returned to the Flotilla, becoming Tali’Zorah vas Neema, a leader among her people. Her team roams the galaxy, ranging far from the rest of the fleet, chasing down missing quarians and elusive scientific data. In fact, to some extent, you might see her as the quarians’ answer to Commander Shepard. She’s an investigator, a troubleshooter, and a staunch defender of her people. Even so, when her immediate duties are fulfilled and the opportunity arises, she readily signs on with Shepard again, rejoining the crew of the Normandy on their mission to save the galaxy…again. This earns her a certain amount of scorn among her own people, some of whom are only too eager to brand her Tali’Zorah vas Normandy – a small but definite mark of shame tied in with fleet politics and the fallout from certain events on the Flotilla. Tali, however, refuses to treat the label as such. Instead, she embraces the name, keeping it even after her path leads her away from the Normandy again and wearing it with pride. Though she loves her people, and would literally lay down her life for them, it is clear that she loves Shepard and the rest of the Normandy crew as well, and looks back fondly on her time with them.

And yet, despite her increasing importance to her people, her evolving and expanding role in the Flotilla, and the confidence and grace that come to her with maturity, she remains humble, open-minded and, yes, occasionally awkward and geeky. One of the sweetest moments in the second game comes when she tells Shepard that she’d gladly join their suit environments if she could – a gesture of intimacy (not necessarily sexual intimacy, but simply the intimacy that comes with any close relationship) among the quarians, whose already-weak immune systems have degraded in exile to the point where they must wear isolation suits at all times – and, predictably, stammers and stumbles over the explanation as the implications occur to her, her blush nearly bright enough to be seen through her helmet. In the third game, she speaks openly with Shepard about her fears and doubts – above all else, her ability to live up to the trust her people have placed in her and to fulfill the duties that come with her role as a leader. And as new information comes to light regarding the quarians and the geth, she adapts to it. It’s not always easy for her, but she’s willing to change her mind. And in the end, depending on Shepard’s actions and the conversations she and Tali have had, Tali’s willingness to change her mind can potentially lead to a new and glorious destiny for all quarians. For all her doubts, for all her fears, for all her insecurity, her power and influence are undeniable, as is the responsibility she takes for her choices every time she exercises that power.

May 30th. Check your local comic book shop.

Idealistic, brilliant, nervous, geeky, sarcastic, funny, sweet, loyal, stubborn, kind and forgiving, Tali is one of the Mass Effect franchise’s most fully realized and sympathetic characters. It’s no wonder that she’s attracted a pretty huge following, and that the quarians in general are widely beloved among Mass Effect fans. It’s unsurprising that fans clamored for the opportunity to romance her (which they got in the second game – at least if they were playing a male Shepard) and that they’re still hungry for more. They’ll soon get it: Mass Effect: Homeworlds #2, out next month from Dark Horse Comics, will give us a glimpse into Tali’s adventures before she met Shepard. Hopefully there will be many more such stories to come, filling in the gaps between her meetings with Shepard in each game, and expanding on the vital work she performed for the Flotilla. I don’t think any of us are quite ready for her story to be over. There’s so much more to tell.

Keelah se’lai.

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Fangirl Fridays: Katniss Everdeen, The Girl On Fire

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed in the UK edition of The Hunger Games

Welcome to the third and final entry in Hunger Games Week on the blog. I’m sure you all saw this particular post coming – really, is it any surprise that my favorite female character is the trilogy‘s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen herself? After all the time we spend in her head, after everything we see her do, after everything she goes through, it’s hard not to feel a deep and abiding sympathy for her.

Of course, feeling sympathy for Katniss isn’t the same as liking her, and I know that a lot of people don’t – or, at least, they feel that she’s deeply flawed, particularly as the series goes on. To be honest, I agree: she is deeply flawed. She has a serious inferiority complex. She breaks down, here and there, under the pressure she faces, the weight that’s placed on her shoulders from the very beginning and only grows as time goes on. Her confused feelings for Gale and Peeta throw a seemingly inappropriate romantic subplot into the midst of a long, hard fight against an oppressive government and a desperate struggle to survive in a world gone to shit. Too often, she is caught up in the plans of others, in the great crashing waves of history, rather than acting on her own initiative and her own behalf.

And here’s what we’re all forgetting: Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl.

She’s a teenage girl, for crying out loud! She’s allowed to be silly! She’s allowed to be distracted by boys! She’s allowed to fall short of the impossible goals that have been placed before her! For crying out loud: could you even survive all the crap she goes through? Because I know I couldn’t. I’ve folded in the face of a hell of a lot less. And yes, I’ve picked myself up again and yes, I’ve grown stronger, but I’m also something like a decade older than Katniss and I haven’t been through half the crap she has as of the start of the first book. So, yes, I forgive Katniss her flaws. I forgive her the occasional teenage girl moment. In point of fact, as with Rose Red, I love her not in spite of her flaws, but because of them.

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence: flawed, but not AS flawed.

In fact, if I have one complaint about Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, it’s this: the film version of Katniss doesn’t seem to have those moments. She’s almost too strong, too capable, too aloof, too stoic. We see her suffer, of course – physically, mentally, emotionally. We see her falter and fail. But where is the girl who forgot herself on stage with Caesar Flickerman, twirling and giggling in her dress and forgetting, just for a moment (and a moment she clearly regretted later), that she had been sent far from home to suffer and die to sate the Capitol’s bloodlust – that every last one of them had? Of course, not all of this can be placed on Lawrence’s shoulders: as I said on Monday, the movie doesn’t put us in Katniss’s head. We don’t hear her thoughts. We don’t see the doubts and insecurities she works so hard to keep hidden from view. And so Lawrence’s portrayal seems to fall short. I still think she embodies Katniss in many ways – but, if anything, she comes off as perhaps too strong. (It is, of course, not fair to blame Lawrence for the lack of giddiness in Katniss’s interview with Caesar Flickerman, either – the scene was clearly just not written to accommodate giddiness or gaiety. The writers and director chose to go in another direction. It’s not a bad direction, but I do feel something is lost.)

But I already reviewed the movie, so let’s get back to Katniss herself, particularly as she’s portrayed in the trilogy as a whole. You know, as I look back on my experience with the books, I can’t help but compare Katniss to other figures central to wars and revolutions and crises throughout history. George Washington springs to mind, of course. Thomas Jefferson, too. Abraham Lincoln. The Roman hero Cincinnatus. One might even draw certain parallels with Joan of Arc. We lionize these people. We make them larger than life. We tell grand, sweeping, epic stories about their deeds. But, in the end, they were simply people. They, too, had deep flaws. In some cases, a close historical reading reveals those flaws; in others, they are lost to time. But all of them, I promise you, were human.

The world will be watching. The world will always be watching.

Katniss Everdeen is much the same way. The generations that follow the revolution in Panem will undoubtedly lionize her, at least to some degree. Certainly they will paint her as a larger than life figure. The finer details of her life, of everything she experienced, of everything she suffered, will be washed away by the relentless tides of history. But we aren’t reading the future history of Panem. We aren’t reading a biography of Katniss Everdeen, the Girl On Fire, the Mockingjay, the fearless leader of the revolution. We aren’t even reading Katniss’s own memoirs – not really. We’re following her present. We’re living her life, moment by moment, as she faces impossible odds, suffers terrible losses, grapples with her own feelings and her own doubts. And that perspective is amazing. That perspective is precious. That is a perspective we so rarely see in actual history. Can you imagine what any historian would give to crack open Abraham Lincoln’s brain and see what he was actually thinking at any given time? Or Washington’s? Or good old Joan’s? In many cases, of course, we have memoirs, we have letters, we have records of conversations…but it’s not the same as actually getting into someone’s head, is it? Even the most impromptu conversation is full of spur-of-the-moment editing and self-censorship. Katniss doesn’t get to edit her thoughts and feelings…and, yes, she comes off just a little worse for it.

One of the film’s taglines is this: The world will be watching. It really will. In truth, Katniss is paraded before two worlds: her world of Panem, and our world that could one day change into something very much like it. To many of the readers of our world, she falls short. To the people of Panem, who cannot see her innermost thoughts, she is a hero, a symbol, something more than a mere girl – or, depending on their particular perspectives, a complete and utter enigma, particularly in light of her actions at the end of the war. Sitting outside of Katniss’s world, we privileged readers see into the very core of her experience. We know better. We know that she’s just a teenage girl.

Too often, we forget that bravery isn’t the absence of fear and doubt – it’s the ability to overcome it, or at least to live with it while you do what must be done. And heroism? We don’t get to define that for ourselves. Others will decide whether or not we’re heroic, and those of us who end up with that label may very well feel unworthy of it. We may be unworthy of it. But, in the end, we don’t get to make that call. Neither does Katniss. The Hunger Games and its sequels show us a heroine from her own perspective. In that, the books succeed brilliantly, and I can only hope that the movies ultimately do so as well. Because I don’t love Katniss Everdeen because she’s a hero – I love her because she’s a human being who does the best she can with what she’s handed, who tries to do whatever good she can in the time that she’s been given. She doesn’t always succeed. But she tries. And that’s what counts. That’s what ultimately leads her to play a central part in the creation of a new future for all of Panem.

So try not to be too harsh on poor Katniss, alright? She did her best. That’s all any of us can do.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Media Mondays: The Hunger Games

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Welcome to Hunger Games week on the blog. In honor of the film’s release, I’ll be posting about The Hunger Games and related matters in every major post this week – Media Mondays, Writing Wednesdays, and Fangirl Fridays. Today’s post is all about the movie itself – how it held up compared to the original book, how well it stands up on its own, and my assorted and sundry thoughts. For the first few paragraphs, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but later on I’ll be discussing specific details.

For those of you who haven’t yet read the book, here’s a summary: Years from now, in the wake of climate shifts and major turmoil, North America has been reinvented as Panem, a highly stratified and oppressive society ruled from a city known simply as the Capitol. Nearly a century prior to the events of the book, the thirteen geographic districts that lie outside the Capitol rose up in rebellion. In the course of the war, District 13 was wiped off the map, and the Capitol successfully cracked down on all the rest. As punishment for the rebellion, the Capitol demands tributes from each district every year – one boy and one girl, selected at random (though others can volunteer to take their places) – who are taken into the Capitol itself for parades and pageantry before they are at last thrown into a vast arena where they must fight to the death in a massive televised event. The last tribute standing wins a lifetime of wealth and comfort, and their home district receives extra food and supplies for the following year. These are the Hunger Games.

The book – and its sequels – follow Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from District 12, which is chiefly responsible for Panem’s coal supplies. In the seventy-fourth year of the Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister Primrose is, by sheer chance, selected as tribute, and Katniss immediately volunteers to save Prim from the Games. What follows is quite possibly one of the harrowing young adult novels I’ve ever read, and a frightening and frequently heartbreaking portrayal of a dystopian future. The story and the world it inhabits are deepened by frequent references to Greco-Roman mythology and history: from the very concept of the tributes (which brings the legend of Theseus to mind) to the frequent use of Roman names, the influence of Roman culture on the nation of Panem (the name itself not only a corruption, presumably, of “Pan-America,” but also a sly reference to the Latin phrase panem et circenses, commonly translated today as “bread and circuses“) is crystal clear. The influence is even more pronounced in the world of the film – but I’ll get to that.

Seriously, Entertainment Weekly?

I have to admit that I was extremely nervous when the film was first announced, and more so when I saw the initial photos of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen – heavily airbrushed and altered, until Lawrence was barely recognizable as herself, let alone poor, unfortunate Katniss – published in Entertainment Weekly. The various subsequent interviews with the cast and crew, coupled with the initial trailers, laid many of those fears to rest. The first few minutes of the film destroyed those fears completely. Jennifer Lawrence embodies Katniss, and the rest of the cast is at least serviceable, if not always superb. (Young Amandla Stenberg is the perfect Rue. Liam Hemsworth is a great Gale, even if we don’t see much of him and the brief glimpses we do get are somewhat overwrought. Elizabeth Banks feels a bit underused as Effie Trinket. And if I keep going, I’ll be at this all day.) District 12 and the Capitol are captured vividly. The film hits many of the major points of the book, and in some places, surpasses it.

That said, it is very, very difficult for a film to capture a novel in its entirety – between limited budgets, limited running times, and the need to draw in and entertain complete newcomers as well as existing fans, the transition from page to screen can be very rough indeed. The Hunger Games does show some signs of this strain. The core of my concerns with the film can be summed up in Mightygodking‘s one-sentence review. The book benefits from the fact that it’s written in the first person. We remain firmly ensconced in Katniss’s head. We see what she’s thinking at all times. The film doesn’t give us that internal monologue, and so, at times, Katniss is inscrutable, and her poor acting and awkward moments come off as failures on Jennifer Lawrence’s part when – in fact – she stays completely true to the character.

As a fan of the books, I enjoyed the film immensely, but I must also concede that it’s an incomplete adaptation in places, and my knowledge of the book may be filling in some serious gaps in the story as conveyed in the movie. I would still recommend the film to viewers who have not yet read the original books – but I would also heartily recommend that they read the books as soon as possible.

Okay. That's more like it.

Let’s look at a few of the specifics. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW.

First, let’s look at one of the central elements of the books: the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta Mellark (her fellow District 12 tribute) and Gale Hawthorne (Katniss’s best friend and partner in hunting and gathering outside District 12’s boundary). Other reviewers have noted that these relationships fall a bit flat and feel a bit hollow, and I have to concede the point – with a caveat: the fact of the matter is that this love triangle isn’t really developed in the first book. It takes Katniss a long time to come to terms with her feelings for both young men – to recognize that she has those feelings at all. In the first book, she is driven first by her need to survive the Games and return to her family; later, she develops some sympathy toward Peeta, and when the organizers of the Games announce a change in the rules which will allow them both to survive, she becomes determined to save his life as well. While it’s virtually impossible not to read between the lines and take note of Katniss’s growing romantic feelings toward Peeta, they’re really not a huge part of the events of The Hunger Games itself. And, frankly, while the love triangle is certainly important, it’s not really the main thrust of any of the books.

The movie makes some missteps here. First, and most notably, a lot of weight is placed on the love triangle, and it doesn’t come off well. Every time Katniss grows close to Peeta, we flash back to District 12, where Gale is staring moodily at the television, watching them getting cozy in the midst of the Games. The audience at the showing I attended laughed every time this happened, no matter what else was going on or what had just occurred. It caused some serious mood dissonance and really took me out of the world of the film.

Second, as I noted earlier, we don’t really get to see into Katniss’s head here. Jennifer Lawrence is playing the character as she was in the books. Fans of the books will undoubtedly pick up on this. Newcomers will not. They’ll see a Katniss who’s acting awkward and cold and strange for no apparent reason. The film does not convey her inner conflict, her true feelings, her innermost thoughts at all. And in that, it fails, and the failure is most notable whenever the love triangle comes into play.

Katniss’s relationship with Peeta – and the way that relationship develops over the course of the Games, and more importantly the things Katniss does to promote that relationship to the Games’ audience – is a vitally important plot point. It had to be included, one way or another. But by shoehorning in Gale’s reactions, by failing to show us what’s actually going on, the film fell short. It was a pretty damn great literal adaptation, but we needed more than a literal adaptation. We needed to see the spirit of the books captured on film. And the movie hasn’t done that – not entirely.

The greatest failure of the movie, however, is this: it fails to convey just how dire the situation in Panem is, and what precisely the Games mean. The movie doesn’t explain that the districts, through their tributes, are literally competing for their survival (or at least a better chance at survival in the coming year) – the true reason for the name “Hunger Games”. The movie spends so much time in the Capitol, with all its garish colors and ostentatious glory, that we don’t even really see how bad the situation in District 12 is, let alone the situation in the rest of Panem. The film shows us the Capitol’s pageantry and cruelty in spades, but it doesn’t go far enough. The moments and the conversations that lay out the history and the present status of Panem simply aren’t there.

Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg - honestly one of the best parts of the film.

That said, there were some absolutely fantastic moments in the film. The death of the youngest tribute, Rue, who had by that time teamed up with Katniss in the arena, is particularly moving. I have to confess that I didn’t really cry at that scene when I read it in the original book. I got a little sniffly, but for some reason my imagination failed to capture the full poignancy of the scene. When it happened in the movie, I broke down sobbing. When, in the movie, the image of Rue lying in a meadow, dead and covered in the flowers Katniss has gathered, prompted open rebellion in District 11 (Rue’s home district, and Panem’s agricultural center), I just started crying even harder. This is a scene we don’t see in the book – District 11 doesn’t rebel at Rue’s death, at least not right away. Instead, they send Katniss a gift (something that sponsors outside the arena can do, but at great cost): a loaf of bread that she recognizes as coming from District 11 because of an earlier, seemingly irrelevant scene in the book. Because that scene, too, was removed from the movie, the riot is a far more effective turn of events…and, honestly, it heightens Katniss’s isolation from her world. She has no idea what she’s done, what effect her actions have had. She doesn’t realize that she is the tipping point for a possible revolution, that Panem’s President and the people who run her society are genuinely afraid of her. And that’s precisely as it should be.

And, while we lose Katniss’s voice, we gain new and truly fascinating perspectives. In a significant subplot, we follow Seneca Crane, the man in charge of the Hunger Games, as he discusses them, organizes them, alters them, and deals with the demands of his audience as well as the demands of those in power, personified in Panem’s President Snow. At the end, Seneca fails to contain the force he has unleashed. He has failed to counter Katniss’s final gambit, the move that breaks the Games themselves. And at the very end of his story, we see him escorted into a room, locked in, and left alone with a dish full of poisonous berries. It’s a perfect moment. It recalls the death of Socrates, and thus, a moment that was only mentioned in passing in the books – and not even in The Hunger Games itself – is given new weight and tied in perfectly with Panem’s Greco-Roman-themed society.

In conclusion, I would recommend the film. I don’t think it’s completely impossible for a newcomer to follow: to the contrary, I think a newcomer could follow it quite well. The changes from the book are largely necessary, and serve to streamline the story. It’s a good movie, any way you slice it. Hopefully it will bring a lot of new fans to the books. And, as I said, as one of the series’ existing fans, I loved the movie. It brought many of the book’s most compelling moments to life, and it offered some very nice bonuses to loyal fans. But it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t complete. See the movie – but make sure you read the books. Trust me. They’re worth it.

Fangirl Fridays: Commander Shepard, SSV Normandy

If you follow basically anyone connected to Mass Effect on Twitter (by which I mean writers, developers, community managers, fans, voice actors…literally anyone), you probably already know that today is FemShep Friday. See, a while back, BioWare promised us a Mass Effect 3 trailer focused specifically on the female version of Commander Shepard, the protagonist of the series. This was pretty huge news, because despite the female Commander Shepard’s large and vocal fan base (most of whom affectionately refer to her as, you guessed it, FemShep), most of the promotional videos and images use the default male Shepard. But BioWare has finally started recognizing FemShep’s many ardent fans, and for the third and final entry in the Mass Effect trilogy, they’re giving her a little more of the spotlight. The Collector’s Edition of the game will feature both male and female Shepards on the box art, for example, and a prominent Facebook poll allowed the fans to select the female Shepard’s appearance in the game’s promo art (more on that later). The highly anticipated FemShep trailer was the latest piece of the puzzle, and it just went online today.

I’ve played a hell of a lot of Mass Effect over the past couple of years, and with one exception (a male Shepard I created to romance Ashley and later Tali), I’ve chosen the female Shepard every time. That’s probably not a huge surprise to anyone who knows me. Given the choice, I will almost always choose to play a female character. I empathize more readily with female characters and strongly prefer to take on that kind of role. But there’s something special about FemShep.

Commander Chloe Shepard, Renegade Spectre

Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a total badass, no matter how you play her. You expect that with the cold, ferocious, trigger-happy Renegade options, but even Paragon Shepard is courageous, uncompromising, and dedicated to her mission. Her compassion is a strength, not a weakness. (It is generally accepted among fans that anyone who doesn’t hug Tali during a certain sequence in Mass Effect 2 – you’ll know it when you see it – is an utter monster. I agree. It’s not a moment of emotional vulnerability, it’s a moment of strength for someone who truly needs it right then and there.) It certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s voiced by Jennifer Hale, a truly talented voice actress who goes above and beyond the call of duty to deliver a Shepard who feels vital, complex, and real. No offense to Mark Meer, who voices the male Shepard, but FemShep steals the show in any scene because Jennifer Hale is just that good. If I wasn’t already inclined to play female characters, I still would have rolled up a FemShep the first time I saw a single clip of her, because her work on this game is so incredibly amazing. Whenever I actually get around to playing Star Wars: The Old Republic for real, I think I’m going to have to roll up a female Republic Trooper just to hear her voice again. And I am not normally a tank at all – not by choice.

I call it "The Shepard Shuffle".

But enough about my massive crush on Jennifer Hale – let’s get back to FemShep. Because there’s a hell of a lot more to like. Like the fact that there is almost complete gender equality in the Mass Effect universe. I can think of one NPC in ME2 that even makes a gender-related crack, and you can shut him down HARD when he does. Ashley Williams? She’s a straight-up Marine who’s also a beautiful woman and first shows up in pink armor, and no one gives her crap about it. (And you can get that same pink armor for the male characters as well, by the way.) And FemShep? She does everything the male Shepard does, certain romance options aside. She can knock back ridiculous amounts of liquor. She can hurl bad guy after bad guy to the floor. She can headbutt a krogan. She even does the same dorky little shuffling dance at various nightclubs in the game, which I absolutely adore. In ME2, you can (with certain DLC) get a formal outfit for FemShep that consists of a black dress and heels – but she keeps walking like a soldier while wearing them. She’s clearly uncomfortable and it’s awesome. The BioWare team could have come up with a bunch of titillating animations full of booty-shaking and swinging hips and mincing around in heels, but they didn’t. They recognized that they were creating a soldier, first and foremost. Someone who has spent her adult life in the military, someone who isn’t always great with social niceties, someone who almost certainly did not put a lot of emphasis on her physical appearance or sexual body language. Oh, she can speak pretty smoothly, sure. She can even flirt. But she is the dorkiest dancer ever, and I love it. It’s adorable.

And that vision of Shepard’s personality bleeds into character creation as well. Sure, you can kind of overdo it with the makeup (and they did overdo the makeup in that trailer), but other than that, the player is offered a selection of short, efficient hairstyles that all make sense for an active soldier. No pigtails or Farrah Fawcett hair here. That might, admittedly, have more to do with the limitations of the graphics engine (and a desire on the part of the animators to avoid dealing with long, freely swinging hair) than anything, but it’s still a nice touch. There’s also a broad selection of facial scars, which you don’t tend to find on your average character creation screen.

Ohhh, Edward...I mean Thane...

The truth is that Shepard can’t help being a badass career soldier. Case in point: a while back, I rolled up a female Shepard just to romance Thane, the one male love interest I had any interest in. Since I tend to be more interested in lesbian romances (obviously) and didn’t really expect to enjoy this playthrough quite as much, I decided my poor, straight, throwaway Shepard would be named Bella and act like a total Paragon Mary Sue. (I think I owe Courtney Stanton the credit for that idea.) But I quickly found it was totally impossible to ignore or dismiss Shepard’s pure awesomeness. Even when she was playing nice, speaking diplomatically, choosing the goody-two-shoes option each and every time, she was brave and bright and occasionally sassy. She still faced her enemies without fear. Jennifer Hale’s voice still brought her to life, bringing depth and meaning to the most straightforward dialogue. I ended up playing well past the point where Bella consummated her relationship with Thane, finishing all the side missions and running through all the DLC. I’ll probably bring her back for ME3, just to see how her story ends.

This is not to say that FemShep is perfect. The level of customization available to the player certainly isn’t. The various options in character creation are pretty white-centric, for example – you can give Shepard darker skin tones, but there’s not a lot of variation in her facial structure. You can’t change her body at all; she’ll always be a fairly slender, fit young woman. Certainly an active soldier would be fit, but it would be nice if you could have a stockier Shepard, or a taller or shorter one. The makeup in that trailer up above is pretty ridiculous, and I don’t love how they’ve made Shepard look younger than before. She’s a grown woman and an experienced soldier who’s lived through the events of two fairly epic adventures – adventures that probably ate up at least a couple years of her life. She doesn’t need to look like a dewy-eyed twenty-something.

And, of course, I’m still annoyed at the lack of same-sex romance options. Unless you hack (and effectively break) the game, you have no same-sex romance options as a male Shepard, and you can only romance asari (who only have one biological sex and only seem to have female gender identities, though that hasn’t been explored in depth) or human or alien men as a female Shepard. We’ve been promised more same-sex romance options for both Shepards in ME3, but we’ve been promised those options before and they’ve been cut each time. Personally, I’m rooting for a Shepard/Tali romance – when Tali tells you in ME2 that she would happily share her suit environment with you (an intimate gesture among quarians), that’s not just subtext, that’s text. And Jennifer Hale reads more than a few lines in conversations with female crewmates and NPCs in a distinctively flirty way. It’s past time those potential flirtations got some follow-through.

This may seem slightly hypocritical – a couple paragraphs ago, I lauded Mass Effect for limiting player choices in certain ways, giving Shepard’s history and personality weight and meaning regardless of the player’s actions. Now I’m complaining that these options are too limited. But the fact of the matter is that the Mass Effect team’s decisions have, to some extent, ended up excluding people who already face exclusion and oppression in real life. A whole lot of us play games like Mass Effect to escape this grim reality – but the Mass Effect series has, thus far, failed to embrace everyone who wishes to escape.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still obsessed with the series, and I’m still psyched for the next installment. Bella, Chloe and Michael Shepard are all waiting in the wings, and I’ll be starting another runthrough soon to reconstruct my gay Paragon Shepard, Moira (who was sadly lost when my previous computer crashed and I was unable to recover the save files). I love Mass Effect, and I love FemShep. I just think there’s room for improvement – and I sincerely hope BioWare seizes the opportunity.