Review: Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse Book 8)

It’s not a huge secret that I’m a superfan of the Expanse and all the books (and the comics, and the TV show). Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the series, is probably the only book that I’ve ever bought a (signed) physical copy of for myself after getting it on Kindle, because I just wanted to have it on my shelf.

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Review and Reflection: Captain Marvel

I put off seeing Captain Marvel for a while because it seems to be my norm over the past week to procrastinate, but I’ve also been a little less excited to see it because I saw a good mix of positive and negative reviews from critics I liked: I wanted to see it, but I wasn’t willing to put up with a crowded theater to see it.

So I finally went today (actually a couple days before the publication, but at the time of writing it’s only been a couple hours since I actually saw the movie), and I was actually really pleasantly surprised.

Review

I’d say that Captain Marvel is a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie. I normally don’t use numbers, but I think it’s a good illustrative point here.

I actually thought all the acting was really good; I’d heard complaints about stiffness, and there were a couple points in dialogue where things wore thin, but also a lot of moments that were really poignant, humorous, or exciting, so I can’t critique the writing too much overall.

Pacing is definitely an issue. I feel like there’s some sort of Marvel convention that says “Thou shalt have movies be more than two hours long” that drove some of the writing decisions. Upon looking it up, this is not true, but for some reason perfectly correlates with the MCU movies I’ve seen in theaters, as opposed to the ones I’ve seen at home (e.g. Thor).

With that said, there’s a lot of somewhat drawn out exposition and even fight scenes, which is odd because for most of the film the pacing feels really solid. Some early scenes feel over-long, namely the first fight between Captain Marvel (or, as she is known at that point, Vers) and the Skrull.

The movie starts with an amnesia plot; Vers doesn’t remember her prior life as Carol Danvers, and eventually figures out who she is over the course of the film (by about the two-thirds mark she remembers who she really is, courtesy of help from old friends; I’m guesstimating because I wasn’t timing the movie).

The big problem here is that we figure out who she is before she is, and the trailers make it clear too. For some reason, either we’re given a larger glimpse into the character’s mind than they themselves have (which, admittedly, is not impossible), or she’s remarkably stubborn about figuring out who she is despite knowing that she can’t remember anything and then suddenly getting memories or flashbacks.

There is a very small attempt to squelch this when another character mentions that she could have had memories implanted (when she has flashbacks that override the amnesia), but the counterpart to this is that the people who would have implanted the memories seem very keen to find out what they are and also act on information they acquired from those memories.

Or, to put it more simply: It’s the one “idiot ball” moment in the film where a character doesn’t realize everything the audience knows and doesn’t have a good reason to do so, and it’s the main character doing it right in the middle of the main plot. Just a tad frustrating, and one of the reasons why I describe Captain Marvel as a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie: if the audience were kept in the dark, or Carol Danvers had been quicker to re-emerge, it would’ve been great (or at least good). As it stood, it was just a little bit underwhelming in execution, and amnesia plots are overused as a secondary device, much less a primary one.

Ironically, I think it’s probably the final fight scenes that go on too long despite the clear intent to make them epic and flashy. The triumphant battles go beyond what they need to do to show us the power levels of the characters and make a good narrative point, and as much as the eye-candy is up to Marvel’s traditional quality (albeit, a little flashy even by their standards, something I’ll permit because Captain Marvel typically uses powers that manifest as pure light and energy).

A lot of people have argued that it doesn’t feel like Carol Danvers has a personal stake, but I didn’t get that at all. Except in the fight scenes. They drag on and nobody ever seems to really be impacted unless they’re a faceless extra, and even the lesser henchmen take a giant beating and just keep going. It feels like they had a giant CGI budget to use and insisted on using it all, but it just comes across as spectacle. I think if I watch Captain Marvel again, I might actually skip parts of these scenes; they’re well choreographed, but do nothing to actually move the story forward.

I’m not a huge MCU superfan (though I would describe myself as a lesser fan; I’ve liked them all), but I’d rate Captain Marvel in with the others. I don’t think it’s up to the same level as Infinity Wars was, but it’s definitely at the same level of quality as most of the other character origin films.

One thing that did surprise me a little was the fact that the movie was definitely a little crasser than it had to be. I get that they wanted to play up Carol Danvers (both pre-Kree and post-Kree) as someone who would overcome any obstacle, but there were some unnecessary, somewhat crude remarks by male characters that felt forced (particularly a line about “You know why they call it a cockpit?”) and weren’t even as effective at conveying the sexism she faced as some other events that cropped up (scenes where she is told that she’ll never fly as a pilot and where her father is giving her guff do the same without resorting to crudity). I know that Marvel’s moving toward embracing a PG-13 rating, but combining this with some of the other cussing in the film would have put me off of seeing it with young children in tow. I think it could have been as poignant with a little less explicit language and a little more illustration (and, given some of the things that we see fragments of later in the film, I think they may have actually cut out some of those scenes in favor of the more crude ones, which seems a tragedy).

Generally, despite this, I liked it. Other than feeling that it was a little over-long, I thought it was definitely worth watching. If I were the director, I would’ve trimmed it down a little (or added more context to justify the length of certain scenes), but there were a lot of really good moments and I was into it. Samuel L. Jackson was fantastic, Brie Larson did a tremendous job (there were a couple rough spots, but I put them down to the writers), and it was certainly worthy of the Marvel brand.

Reflection

Heads-up: I’ve avoided spoiling as much as possible in my review, but my reflections don’t do that so much.

The strongest points in the film come when we see a heroic struggle; this isn’t surprising, since it’s a point that I seize on all the time, but it’s still one that is quite interesting.

Carol Danvers has a two-fold struggle: the internal struggle of mastering herself and coming to grips with her identity, and the external struggle of figuring out what to do with her life and taking the fight to the Kree, who turn out to be the villains.

That’s quite an interesting side to the story, even if it’s not fully executed.

There’s a moment in the ending of the film where Danvers is being interrogated (for lack of a better term) by the Supreme Intelligence, the Kree AI overlord, and she is thrown into her own stream of memories, watching herself fail over and over again.

Her victory comes when she returns to those memories, watching the next bit: the part when she gets back up after failing.

It’s quite a powerful moment, and perhaps the best in the film, because it sums up what makes Danvers different from the Kree: being willing to get up and keep going, always improving herself, rather than sticking with the situation she’s in. By contrast, the Kree are more involved in their own lives, not wanting to change or grow and suppressing anything that might challenge their assumptions of superiority.


Wrapping Up

Captain Marvel was a good movie, and I’m glad I went to see it. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it certainly is worth seeing if you’re at all interested.

Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (4-5)

Before reading the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books (The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix), my opinion of the series was that it was quite good, but not quite what I would consider to be masterful work. I did quite personally enjoy the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the earlier two were of more academic interest to me: I enjoyed them, but no more than I would any average book.

For more on my thoughts, you can read the previous installment of my review and reflection.

Review

The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix (Amazon affiliate links) are a lot larger and darker than previous books, clocking in at a combined 1400 pages and featuring a lot more peril.

I read The Goblet of Fire in an old-school print format, but I switched over to reading from Kindle on my phone for The Order of the Phoenix, something which helped since the book got a little large to comfortably take with me and I was able to sneak constant little reads of the text.

When I was reading the first three books, my interest was largely satisfying personal and academic curiosity before developing into a desire to actually read the books for their own merit, but I’m happy to say that the fourth and fifth book strung me along quite well. It’s been a long time since I’ve devoted hours-long reading sessions to a book on multiple occasions during a day; I tend to break up reading between little tasks, but The Order of the Phoenix in particular led to a few occasions of me sitting on my couch, my cat in my lap (or beside me, or diligently ignoring me) for hours at a time.

A lot of this comes from how invested one has become in the characters by the time you get to the fourth and fifth books. They’re realistic, deep, and invoke sympathy and vicarious reactions. Even when they jump to wrong conclusions (a trope Rowling uses reliably but sparingly) and “pick up the idiot ball” to borrow an expression I’ve heard used frequently, they still feel like they’re making decisions because of their own motivations, rather than choices that drive the plot.

Much of what I could say about Rowling’s writing I have already said: I consider it to be very vivid and practical; it’s not quite the most deep prose, but for its audience it is sufficient, and I would argue that measuring writing by the depth of its prose is a poor metric. It is generally improved in the later books by any account, even though it did not necessarily need to.

Further, the stories get more archetypal depth as they develop; this is not only a consequence of extended length, but a reflection of the process of Harry and his friends growing more mature and becoming more aware of the reality around them.

Reflection

One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the Harry Potter series is looking at the deep characters and how they’ve grown even deeper.

I mention archetypal characters a lot: through my Loreshaper Games stuff I’ve written a short series on role archetypes, the possible roles that characters can take in a story.

What I love about Harry Potter as I get deeper into it is that there are really deep interactions between the archetypes: Potter as the Hero, Hagrid as the Herald, Harry (and occasionally other characters, like Ginny, as the plot rolls on) as the Underdog, Dumbledore as the Mentor, George and Fred as the Trickster, Hermoine and Ron as the Ally, a plethora of characters as the Villain (at least one per novel, somewhat unsurprisingly), Sirius and Snape as the Shapeshifter, various characters as the Outsider (Harry, Hermoine, Sirius, Lupin, etc), and through it all Voldemort as the Serpent.

It’s patient and willing to develop these interactions and roles quite a bit, and it sets up a Hero’s Journey that is both divided into segments and then later into a longer complete saga of Harry growing up.

I know a lot of people have expressed concern about the darkness of the universe, but I think that this is actually a strength of the Harry Potter franchise. Children know that there are things in the world that they cannot see if they are sheltered from them (and if they are not sheltered, then there is no harm in what is contained in Harry Potter to begin with), but in the series they are directly uncovered and confronted allegorically through the role of the Hero and the development that Harry has to undergo.

Jung speaks of confronting the Shadow, the secret part of us that we choose not to look at, which holds both strengths and sins that we do not want to explore.

Harry Potter’s fourth and fifth book do that wonderfully; Harry is confronted by his own limitations but also his own potential and must rise up to meet the call that he has received. He makes mistakes, and there is real suffering that results both as a result of his action or inaction and forces that extend beyond his control, but his ability to be a compelling and noble figure is drawn from the fact that he strives, not that he always succeeds without loss.

There is death, sacrifice, and loss in these books, and also wanton deliberate evil. That may seem like a dark thing to contemplate, but it is also part of becoming fully human: one cannot accept themselves if they do not confront their Shadow, and cannot be good if they have not realized what it is to be evil.

There’s a point in The Order of the Phoenix when Harry is in a fight with a Death Eater, one of Voldemort’s servants, and he tries to use a Cruciatus curse to inflict unbearable pain on the Death Eater.

He tries, and ultimately fails, not because his execution of the spell was off, but because his heart was not in it: the Death Eater retorts that in order for such a spell to be effective, one must really mean it.

It’s a testament to his nobility, and one which shows this exploration of the Shadow in the most meaningful way: to be in a fight but not wish malice upon one’s opponent requires a control and willpower that is part of the Hero’s journey toward light and away from darkness.

Wrapping Up

I find the Harry Potter books to be growing on me as I read them more; this is probably because I am an adult reading them for the first time and their target audience definitely gets older as the books move on.

There’s a lot of good stuff in here, but it’s also an enjoyable read beneath that, which is quite a merit in its own right.

Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (1-3)

One of the books that I simply never read as a child was Harry Potter, and I never saw the films either. I wasn’t that far away from it in terms of advertising demographic: it was a big deal in my social circles when I was in 4th grade or so, but I’d already read the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia and was moving up to more difficult books.

However, I’ve been studying mysticism and alchemy recently as a way of trying to get an insight into the pre-modern mind, and since Harry Potter is theoretically aligned with that while also being l highly acclaimed and culturally influential in young adult literature, I figured I should jump in and see what all the fuss is about.

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The Rejection of Suffering

This morning I had a thought pop into my head when I first awoke. As such, you should take the following with a grain of salt; I’ve done some light research and I feel called to share this, but keep in mind that I am a lay person and my knowledge of scripture and history is probably flawed.

The thought that popped into my head has to do with two parts of the Bible: the scene where Jesus talks to the rich man and proceeds to tell his followers that it is difficult for the rich to enter heaven and the crucifixion of Christ.

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Being a Hero

One of the things that I often struggle with is explaining to people why literature is important.

It’s not for lack of faith in the topic, or any particular hesitancy to share, it’s just a complex matter.

However, I’ve been doing some reflecting recently and I think I’ve come up with a good explanation.

Stories teach us how to be a Hero. Not a little-h hero, but a capital-H hero; someone who engages with the universe.

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