Tag Archives: film

Starks, Star Trek, and Superheroes: The Role of Death in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Warning: This blog post contains BIG spoilers for both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Game of Thrones Season 3 Episode 9: The Rains of Castamere. Also contains spoilers for season one of  Game of Thrones and the second and third films in the original Star Trek film series (albeit spoilers for movies that have been around for decades, but still).  

The reaction to Episode 9 of Game of Thrones has been all over the Internet lately, and for good reason. As those of us who read the books have been anticipating for some time, the episode featured the infamous “Red Wedding,” scene where Robb and Catelyn Stark, two of the show’s most beloved characters, are unexpectedly executed. The scene in both the show and the books is shocking, and the creators of the TV show added additional horror to the scene by also brutally murdering Robb’s pregnant wife (who survives in the book). Fan reactions have ranged from witty repartee to invective filled rants against HBO, George R.R. Martin (the books’ author), and show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Several fans’ tweets and comments demonstrated a frightening loss of perspective (one particular fan called the episode “Worse than 9/11”), one that has sparked both parody (particularly by readers of Martin’s books who have long waited for their friends to catch up with them) and an honest conversation about the function of death in fantasy in general and particularly in Thrones.


Popular George R.R. Martin meme

In a behind the scenes look at the episode, Benioff and Weiss each spoke articulately about how the show differs from not only other fantasy but from other genres including superhero movies. I’m paraphrasing Benioff a bit here (watch the full video below), but the insight struck me both as a fan of the show and as a human being who has experienced personal loss and the death of loved ones. “This is the rare fantasy that shows just like in real life, that the best of us sometimes don’t make to the end, don’t make it to old age…the sense that the most beloved characters might not make it to the next episode.” Both writers go on to remind fans that this is the show that killed Ned Stark, the beloved central character, in the show’s first season. In contrast to movies like The Avengers where you know none of the leads will die because the sequel is already on the books for 2015 (with the exception of Agent Coulson who gets his own resurrection in the upcoming television show Agents of S.H.E.I.LD.), Thrones presents a fantasy that reads a little closer to reality. A world where bad things happen to good people, where people die randomly and in unexpected ways, where there is no dichotomy of light and dark or good and evil but simply flawed humans making decisions and facing the consequences.

Superheroes aside, the summer entertainment that for me provided the starkest (no pun intended) contrast to the dark fantasy of Game of Thrones was J.J. Abrams’ blockbuster sequel to 2009’s Star Trek. Into Darkness, the film’s subtitle lets us know right away that we are in for act two, for The Empire Strikes Back, basically, that things are about to get real. And real they get. Or do they? The emotional core of the film hinges on a scene where Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) sacrifices himself to save his ship and her crew. In a reversed homage to that giant of Trek films, Wrath of Khan, Spock stands on one side of a glass door watching his friend die of radiation poisoning. The scene is emotional and even provoked a few tears, mostly thanks to Zachary Quinto’s fantastic performance. I myself had that holy @#$% reaction that Thrones fans are (or should be) accustomed to by now: respect for Abrams for evading the predictable Hollywood ending combined with a despair at the loss of our hero, the apparent moral center of the film’s universe.


A darker Trek? Source: AP.

As a sequel to a film where the screenwriters invented a new timeline to avoid being tied down by the Trek cannon, it should have come as no surprise to me that other rules of our own universe don’t apply—in this case, death being, so to speak, the final frontier. One barely has time to mourn for Kirk or root for Spock to avenge his death before we find out that SURPRISE! Injecting him with magic blood from the film’s super villain can save Kirk. It’s a deus ex machina that requires a major leap of faith from the viewer, and this in a genre where resurrection is an everyday occurrence. At least the original Trek films waited until the next film (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), to reveal to the audience that Spock isn’t quite as dead as we initially thought.  But none of this seems to matter because Kirk lives! Cue the standard hospital bedside scene: bright lighting, gallows humor (“You were barely dead,” quips Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy), Spock declaring his undying friendship, etc. Bromance is alive and well, just like our hero.

It’s easy to write this ending off as typical blockbuster fare, unless, like me, you’re left with the question of what Kirk’s sacrifice really means when it comes with no consequences. What emotional weight does Kirk (or any character) hold when they triumph consistently, when the final scene of Into Darkness, like its predecessor, finds the whole family together ready for the next adventure? Admittedly, this scene makes us feel good—comforted knowing that we will see these familiar characters again in a year or two. However, the film’s payoff also brings up more troubling questions. In this age of terrorism and war, in the wake of the Aurora shooting and Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombings, how are fans to accept that in most franchises the hero never dies? Kirk’s fate is especially significant in a film that is dedicated to post 9/11 veterans, those who know firsthand the cost of sacrifice. Yes, it’s just a movie, but what about those who have actually lost a loved one in a random, horrible, tragic way? Are they comforted by the escape into a universe that operates on kinder and fairer principles? Or do they prefer a show like Game of Thrones? Should entertainment provide an escape from death and tragedy, or should it, like all art, cause us to reflect more deeply on our own lives? As Mr. Martin himself said in an interview, “If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?”

In a broad sense, Thrones is our world on a smaller scale where battles are fought with daggers, not bombs, where the instruments of death are arrows and swords, not semi-automatic weapons, where the choices we make for love or in the pursuit of power have consequences. In the interview, Benioff and Weiss go on to remind us that at the end of most films, the hero is still standing. Spiderman is always alive and raring for the next sequel. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where children aren’t necessarily safe in the hallways of an elementary school, where loved ones are taken from us too young by cancer or heart disease, or acts of violence. But it’s that reality, that chance that we could, at any minute, lose everything that gives weight and meaning to our lives, our decisions, and our actions. “It’s the kind of thing that hammers home that everybody’s life is precious and precarious. When you can’t take for granted that a character you love on the show is going to be around forever, it makes you pay more attention to them,” says Weiss in a recent interview. How should we treat our loved ones when we don’t know how much time we have left with them? What are we willing to sacrifice for our beliefs or for the people we love when we know that our choices have consequences? How should our artists and our media, deal with the reality of death? I certainly don’t have the answer, but as a student of culture I find it a conversation worth having.







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It Came True: Seth MacFarlane and a (mostly) Failed Oscar Telecast.

Every year I anticipate the Oscars with all the naivete and optimism of tourists on a whale-watching boat: certain to be disappointed but always hoping to witness a few moments of magic. No matter how bad the telecast or how underwhelming the host, I’m always hopeful. This year was no different: a “fresh” new host, a musical theme, a tribute to James Bond. All of these elements sound great on paper, but unfortunately combined in an odd mishmash that led to one of the most painful and exhausting Oscar telecasts in recent years (and that’s including the odd pairing of a seemingly stoned James Franco and a manic Anne Hathaway). I’ll admit, the challenge of producing an Oscar ceremony that pleases everyone is a daunting one. How do you keep an elite insider feel without alienating mainstream audiences whose cultural touch point this year was  probably The Avengers? How do you reach youth while maintaining the class and old-Hollywood glamor that older audiences expect? I don’t have the answers. The only thing I know is that last night’s ceremony bombed just as William Shatner so ironically predicted it would.

In fact, the bit with Shatner was the only promise that the producers and host Seth MacFarlane would rise above the type of juvenile humor that seems more fitting for the MTV Movie Awards than the Oscars. Although the pre-recorded, “We Saw Your Boobs,” fell flat, the opening recovered with the unexpectedly delightful dance number featuring Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron and the even more delightful song and dance number featuring (swoon) Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe. Even the sock-puppet homage to “Flight” was funny. Without Shatner and pre-recorded bits to interact with, MacFarlane managed to alienate many at-home viewers with a startling lack of charisma and offensive joke after offensive joke. Nothing was off limits: eating disorders, domestic violence, Jewish jokes, gay jokes, and of course sexist jokes (“Jessica Chastain starred as a federal agent who spent 12 years pursuing Osama Bin-Laden, demonstrating the inability of women to ever let anything go”). In a year where strong female roles proliferated and the acting category featured noteworthy performances from both the youngest and oldest nominees in Oscar history, do women really have to be subjected to insult? Unfortunately the fact that  The Onion, in a moment of incredibly misguided humor, posted a tweet referring to nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis using the c-word only added to feeling that even in Hollywood women continue to be minimized and subject to this type of misogyny. Gentleman, don’t you realize that this is the age of Brave and The Hunger Games?

Feminist soapbox moment aside, the rest of the telecast was markedly uneven.

The Good: Adele’s rendition of “Skyfall,” the tribute to movie musicals (particularly Jennifer Hudson and the cast of Les Miserables), Jennifer Lawrence’s graceful recovery from her fall, Daniel Day Lewis’s surprisingly funny acceptance speech, Michelle Obama, and Ben Affleck’s moment in the sunlight (Argo f@#$ yourself Academy!).

The Bad: Aside from MacFarlane there was Shirley Bassey sounding not-quite vintage 007 in quality and a surprising lack of actual Bonds (come on, they couldn’t let us look at Daniel Craig for a few minutes?). Then there were awkward presenters galore: a hobbling and strung-out looking Kristen Stewart, a misuse of the potential humor and mass-market appeal of an “Avengers” reunion, and Mark Wahlberg and Ted.

And I haven’t even mentioned the actual awards! There were the obvious winners (Day-Lewis, Lawrence) and the surprises (Ang Lee for Best Director). But the biggest and most pleasing surprise of all was Argo coming in ahead of Lincoln. Admittedly it’s an odd  night in Hollywood when Ben Affleck is the underdog, but it was nice to see a witty, well-acted ensemble piece edge out the Spielberg machine. Of course I have the utmost respect for Spielberg but it’s nice to share the wealth. Also, in my ideal Oscars the unexpected and innovative film always wins over the Hollywood favorite (Milk instead of Slumdog Millionare, The Social Network in place of The King’s Speech). I enjoyed seeing Affleck choked up with emotion reminding the audience to get back up again anytime they get knocked down (you ain’t never gonna keep Ben down!).

Ultimately though, the painful closing duet “God Bless the Losers,” with MacFarlane and Kristen Chenoweth reminded me how off the mark this year’s Oscars were in terms of tone and mass appeal. My advice to The Academy? Stop trying to appeal to the “younger audience.” We can take care of ourselves. Bring back the class, keep Kristen Stewart and boob jokes at the MTV movie awards where they belong, and chose a host who is actually funny (Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert come to mind along others). Respect those of us who respect the movies and the artists and performers who pour everything into creating movie magic. Let the films speak for themselves. And leave the offensive remarks and talking bears at home.

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