I’m Alexander. Some friends call me Axx. I’m new here. I have a lot of ideas about a lot of things, but most of my ideas are about comics and pop culture. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and my unconventional writing style with you. But before delving into my wild and wacky world of words, I thought I would share a little bit of my origin story of how I got into comics. How I survived as a nerd. If you can relate to anything you read or just like the cut of my jib, maybe you’ll be down to stick around and read more in the future.
Ok, let’s get crackin.
I was birthed into existence in the late 80s, and gained sentience in the era of Power Rangers, Gack, Pogs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Fugees. A few years before achieving a hint of my identity however, my dad had a lot of ideas about child rearing as he attempted to replicate things he did as a child and pass them on to us. He pretty much had a preconceived idea for his children, so tried his best teach us how to act and behave like human children. Does that make sense? Let me give you an example or two.
One year way back when we celebrated Christmas, my brother and I received 1970s Batman and Robin dolls. I was the oldest so I got the Adam West Batman (proud of that) and my brother, who was too young at the time to care, was given the Robin with the little ass shorts. Another time he took us on a hunt for G.I. Joes. We went from store to store (this was before the internet, kids) where he would request the classic action figures. Each time an employee would bring out a 5 inch “All you can be” American plastic man bestowed with the powers of the kung-fu grip, and each time my dad would reject the figure saying it wasn’t what he was looking for. After some time searching, a good samaritan suggested an antique store, which is exactly where he found them. I remember the weight. The attention to detail in the face left an impression. The soldier with brown skin, brown like the color you would find in a crayon box, donned a ruggedly placed beret and looked off into the distance as he snarled at the sunset. He was garbbed in camouflage made out of actual fabric material. I can’t remember much else about it, but holding the G.I. in my hands I could tell it was expensive. Matel at it’s finest.
On the last of our adventures in “things dad did as a child that you should also experience” that I can remember was a trip to a comic book shop. This was a short trip, but it resonated with me. I got to choose one comic to take home. I don’t even remember if I chose it actually. All I remember is that it was an X-Men comic. Mostly B class characters. My favorite from the comic was Morph. He had a blank grey face, could transform into practically anything and would do so for comedic effect more so than for practicality. He was really funny, and different. I tried to google Morph recently to find out that his story- or at least other iterations of his story- lead him down a darker less satirical path.
I wouldn’t pick up another comic book for several years, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of comic book lore. It was the 90’s dude! When 9am to 1 in the afternoon on a Saturday was the best time to be alive. I learned everything I knew about Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman and many other comic book mythos from their animated counter parts. I remember the scheduling gymnastics of channel flipping I had to pull off to catch all of my favorite shows. And from Saturday mornings, I moved on to the cartoon lineups after school. Some movies followed. I stayed with it all, the good and the bad, but still I rarely ever touched the source material. Until this one moment…
There was this golden era in time where all the stars aligned and a beacon of hope and nerdom was created that I frequented every chance I had. The year was 1999; the city was San Francisco, California; the place to be was known only as the Metreon. This place, which could have just been an IMAX theater, had everything! On the first floor alone the Metreon had it’s very own PlayStation store. The second floor consisted of a fully decked out arcade, role-playing board game shop, a Bandai store with it’s own mini theater that would show free screenings of anime, and (drum roll please) a comic book store next door called Things from Another World. There were more things still, but I don’t remember them as much.
Things from Another World was my second introduction into the world of illustrated storytelling. Around this time I was neck-deep in the anime, so at first when I went into the comic shop it was to kill time between anime screenings. First thing I bought there was volume 1 & 2 of the Tokyopop Cowboy Bebop manga series. Combing through the isles, I would look at what they had anime related: single back issues of Evangelion, the Trigun omnibus, and few figurines didn’t keep my attention for very long, but as time went on I found my self staying longer.
Something caught my eye when looking at the seemingly infinite collection of comics that surrounded me. It was a comic cover of Spider-Man web-slinging through New York, but this Spider-Man was a woman. Rocking a get-up very similar to the traditional web-head’s attire. The cover was “Spider-Girl”, and I’d never seen anything like it. Who was she? How did she get spider powers? The idea that the symbol of Spidey could be female, to this day, is one was the dopest things I’ve ever heard. And just like that I got sucked into the world of May “Mayday” Parker.
On that point let’s fast forward. The second Amazing Spider-Man film fails miserably. Wait. No. To far. Go back a bit. Riiiiiiight there. Ok go.
I’m in college. YouTube doesn’t have commercials yet. A friend shows me a comedy sketch about a kid named Jerry who poops his pants in class. It’s the funniest thing on the internet. I laugh til I cry. Later on I find out Jerry is Donald Glover. Nerdy writer/actor/comedian/rapper who makes dope… everything. I instantly become a fan. Not just because I like the majority of his work, but his work ethic itself is something to aspire to. How many artists out there sit on thier couch with a great idea, but no drive to follow through? Glover’s batting average is incredible. He’s able to do the things that he likes and puts himself in his work so much that you can see where he’s coming from, if you’re paying attention.
So the story goes, the Spider-Man film reboot was in talks and someone suggested Donald Glover for the role of the friendly neighborhood super hero. So as expected, the internet chose sides. This continued to kick up dust in the digital world after Donald Glover himself playfully campaigned for the role by dropping “Donald for Spider-Man” in a verse on his song “Do Ya Like”, and by rocking Spider-Man PJ’s in episode one, season two of NBC’s Community. This drew so much dialogue and discussion that it got the ear of Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis, who was completely on board. But instead of Glover becoming our next cinematic web-slinger (dodging a bullet there), Miles Morales was born!
I guess it all boils down to one point. The point in the timeline where I went from casually reading or watching something about comics, to my transformation when I went all in and followed story arch after story arch, issue by issue grabbing stacks of comics every Wednesday. I don’t know when I cried more. When Peter died or when Miles got bit by the Spider. Spider-Man has been big part of my life whether or not I choose to accept it. I assume that the same goes for some of you reading this. As fictional as the world is in a comic, it’s still just that: a world. With characters who have hopes, dreams and fears. Put to the test with trials that we cheer for them to succeed against, but they don’t always win. It’s the story. And the humanity. The same goes for any book, or movie, or sport, or reality show. We as humans love a good story; it’s in our nature.
The point where comics changed into one of my favorite outlets for story was in one page. Miles clings to the ceiling for the first time and the only thing he says is, “Oh no.” This page, this one page. It said so much without saying anything at all. This is in homage to the late Peter who had a very similar page when he first discovered he had spider powers, but Parker’s reaction was quite the opposite. Two boys on the same path with the biggest difference between them not being the color of their skin, but what they thought they knew about the world. Peter was adventurous, and even exited to see what he could do with his abilities. He didn’t think about how the outside world might treat him until it was too late. Time after time, Pete always had to learn his lessons the hardest ways.
Miles on the other hand, was born into a world where people who are different are already persecuted. He has a father that loves him, but shelters him from the world. His dad, who was prejudiced against mutants, wanted to keep him far away from that kind of activity. He had preconceived ideas for what he wanted his son to be. He wanted his son to be better than him, to survive in a world where there were more villains than heroes. And now here he was clinging to a wall upside-down. Miles with all this power. He knew who he was now and what he could do, but wanted none of it. This one page resonated with me more than anything. Growing up, I was always afraid to act how I felt; to say/do/be what I wanted. I had to keep up an appearance and because of that I’m not sure who I could have been, but I have all these mental walls now as an adult that I don’t know how to tear down. I’m stuck, clinged to them just like Miles, unsure of what to do next.
I think in time, I’ll find my own great “power” to get my responsibilities in order.
The following artist represents the word “chill” in all aspects of the word. In some circles he’s known as Ernest Green, but to most he’s known as Washed Out (The guy who did IFC’s Portlandia Theme. If you haven’t seen it’s, it’s available on Netflix). Green released a new album last month fittingly titled Mister Mellow which is presented as a visual album and seems to take “Chilling Out” to the max. Visual albums seem to be on the rise lately (JAY-Z’s 4:44, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Frank Ocean’s Blond, etc…), but you would be mistaken to take Mister Mellow as something made to follow the current trend. The music and visuals aren’t meant to make you necessarily inquire more than what’s presented. It’s something that you can watch and listen to in the background and still be able to focus on other tasks. The blend of visuals and music become your own personal soundtrack, much like Telepopmusik’s Genetic World. This album is quite the departure from Green’s earlier work which had deep dynamics. Instead what we get with Mister Mellow is a burst of warm colors and reminiscence of those good old teenage years where none of us had a care in the world besides what we were doing for the summer.
The imagery shown on the cover includes Big Bird, a panic button, a bunch of bumper stickers that commentate on work/life balance, and a xanax bar. I don’t think this imagery is random. Rather, a clever commentary on how we as people traverse through life with a focus on childhood, to becoming a young adult and trying to find your place in the world, which I’m sure a lot of people can relate to. It’s worthwhile to note that the album’s run time is about 30 minutes which I feel that with the imagery, perfectly emboding the notion that life is short.
While some may find this album off-putting because of it’s chill demeanor, don’t write it off. It’s a great quick listen that you could enjoy on your morning commute or your lunch break. While I do feel this album might be forgotten by many, I think it will become a great find later in your library of music when you need a little reminder to take it easy, enjoy life, and chill out.
In 2004, the words “Dungeons & Dragons” were taboo. Regardless of the lack of general knowledge of the game, every teenager in my high school knew that if someone played D&D, they were most definitely uncool. A lot of that mentality still carries weight today.
“OMG did you catch last night’s episode of Supernatural?”
“Jessica Jones is the best.”
“I absolutely love Star Wars.”
“Oh. Dungeons & Dragons…”
The image everyone gets in their head is the same. The unwashed, all male, neck-bearded, basement dwelling nerds who survive solely on Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew Gamer Fuel. They argue over nonsensical fantasy jargon, spit flying from their pizza stained mouths, glasses falling half way off of their faces. Outside of the actual game, time is spent buying figurines with their parents’ money, and meticulously painting each hobgoblin and archdemon before the next dungeon crawl.
Thanks, 70’s and 80’s television media.
Times slowly changed for the coming years. As nerd culture became more popular in the mid to late 2000’s, everyone began to accept their inner geek. Marvel movies were (and still are) all the rage. Batman and Spider-Man had enough movies to normalize both the large and in charge super hero and the I barely have my shit together teenage dreamer. But that was all comics. Established heroes. Us dungeon dwellers had more conventions and forums and friends, but there was nothing out there representing us to the masses.
Until March 12th, 2015.
Felicia Day, co-founder of Geek and Sundry, had heard that a bunch of nerdy voice actors were running a D&D campaign at home. Since Geek and Sundry pioneers nerd-centric media, she asked the group to become a part of their Twitch broadcast. The group agreed. It would be a fun little thing for a few people to enjoy. They were to go live on March 12th of that year, transitioning their game format to better fit the context of a show, but otherwise keeping the campaign going as it had been for years prior. And so, Critical Role was born. But there was something odd about the show. After a while, viewers began to realize something.
I know these voices.
These weren’t just voice actors; they were famous voice actors. And those who weren’t as well known for their voices had a hand in some high-level content as writers or producers. Matthew Mercer, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, and Orion Acaba. Between them were over 1500 acting parts, and that number has only grown. The scope of their portfolios are huge, but also iconic. They range from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Deadpool, and many Naruto characters, to Shin from Shin Chan, Colonel Mustang, and Ellie from The Last of Us. And although we enjoyed those roles, there was something fresh being born.
The online streaming world would soon get to know a new cast of characters, Vox Machina. The witty half-elf twins, Vax the rogue and Vex the ranger, played by O’Brien and Bailey respectively. Grog, the powerful and intellectually-deficient barbarian goliath, played by Willingham. Scanlan the sharp tongued gnome bard, and Taryon the human artificer, both played by the unlimited talent of Riegel. Johnson takes the role of a kind-hearted (but badass) gnome cleric by the name of Pike. Alongside her, Jaffe plays Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (Percy), the gunslinger. Ray and Acaba played the masters of magic, Keyleth the half-elf druid of the Ashari, and Tiberius the dragon born sorcerer. All led by the humble dungeon mastermind embodied in Mercer.
The world shook.
By 2016, channel subscriptions exploded in number. People who had never heard of Dungeons & Dragons became weekly viewers, tuning in each Thursday to see where these amazing actors would take their favorite characters. Guests joined the campaign for a game or two, adding new flair and personality to an already role-play heavy setting. The long form storytelling gave viewers and fans something to look forward to each week, as the cast delved deeper into relationships and character developments. But Critical Role wasn’t just about acting; they were truly playing the game.
Some episodes were pure combat or preparation for cataclysmic battles. Vox Machina tussled with necromancers and clashed with elder dragons. You could practically hear Grog swing his mighty axe down upon his foes, his eyes glowing red with barbarian rage. You could feel the light of Sarenrae, Pike’s sworn deity, as she healed the wounds of her party. You’d see a grin spread across Vax’s face as his roguish sneak attack would fell an enemy in one go. All of this painted with the brush strokes of Matthew Mercer’s unmatched detailing. And with the final blow to each great enemy standing in their path, he would ask the question that signals the triumph of combat and trigger the sweet release of success:
Each week tens of thousands of people tune in to watch on the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel, and on Project Alpha. But the group hasn’t taken their success to their heads. There have been ups and downs, like the leaving of Orion Acaba. He and the crew both had decided that they should part ways, for private reasons. Acaba later revealed that there were some health issues he had been dealing with, and here at The DesC we wish him the best. On the outside, places like Twitter and Reddit supplied some opposition to some of Mercer’s homebrewed decisions and rules. To this day you can still find hardcore by-the-book players sending angry messages to whoever is willing to read them. And if the players don’t make the absolute perfect tactical move in combat or diplomacy, you’ll be sure to catch angered fans on social media. But Vox Machina makes it clear that they’re all about having fun. Rules and inconsistencies be damned, as long as the journey is worth being a part of.
And that includes us viewers and fans. This journey is one that we’re all in together. The Critical Role production team spends the first part of the broadcast to share fan art that has been submitted to them from around the world. Each cast member shares art, music, and gifts that they receive on social media. But it isn’t limited to online.
The entire cast comes together to support charity, attend multiple conventions, and to do panels across the country. There are scores of opportunities to meet these amazing folks who give so much to love their community.
The reason we love Critical Role isn’t just because it’s a great show run by like-minded creatives. We love it because those creatives constantly remind us that we are no different from them. We have talents and skills and we contribute to this nerdy world just like they do. The old taboo isn’t a realistic representation of the amazingly diverse people that pour their heart and soul into our wondrous community. That’s what makes it work. That’s what makes it great.
With every episode, every panel, and every bit of appreciation they show for us, we bridge that gap between the pedestal we put them on and the reality that we can achieve just as much. They believe in us as much as we believe in them.
At the time of writing this, it’s Wednesday afternoon. It’s a beautiful day in the San Francisco Bay area. I couldn’t ask for better weather or a more comfortable time of day, watching the sun slowly move across the sky. I am endlessly thankful for it all, and I am blessed to even exist in this moment. I get to work towards my passions and spend time with the people I care about. But regardless of all of that, the question constantly lingers in the back of my mind.
Is it Thursday yet?
David “DC” Collins
Rolling back to back natural ones on a 20-sided die trying to save my party. Accidently letting go of a button in Portal 2 and dropping my teammate to his death. Playing 5-6 straight games of Hanabi with two friends, trying to obtain that perfect game. All of these memories thrive on the interactions they create. These interactions leave everyone with fantastic stories. They spawn laughter throughout the room, sometimes with that wonderful hint of friendly frustration. They also leave a powerful impression on our lives and friendships. Interaction is the only reason I play games.
We’ve all had hundreds of life-changing experiences. I know plenty of people will agree with me; games provided me with a majority of them. Most involved interacting with others in ways I couldn’t predict. One of my favorite examples is the experience I had playing Tales of the Abyss. For those who don’t know the series, it is a very long running and popular Japanese RPG franchise that allows multiplayer, which is quite uncommon in the genre. I played through this game with a group during my freshman year of college.
It started with three of us, each becoming our own member of the cast. We’d plug in the PS2 Multitap and play through the great story together. Eventually, we met more friends that were interested and grew into a full six player party. The game maxed out at 4 players at a time, but that didn’t matter to us. We’d switch off, try different combinations of parties, and play for hours on end. We made countless memories playing Tales of the Abyss and forged some of the strongest friendships I have to date. We all took ownership of creating that incredible experience, together. That’s the most important part about gaming interactions: building it for each other.
That’s where game designers come in. It’s very easy to tell when a developer is in it for a quick buck or trying to build a meaningful experience. And I believe the latter is the true job of all game designers. Most designers understand the unofficial “contract” of gaming. That when everyone sits down and the rules begin to be explained, it’s unspoken that we’re all there for fun, even when that fun means competition. They know what it means to be a part of a meaningful interaction. And it’s personally painful to watch the culture of our current generation of gaming shift away from that.
Seemingly infinite season passes muddle up our online stores. There’s a whole generation of kids that are growing up with micro-transactions being ordinary life. Game franchises are putting out yearly titles with less innovation and more glitches and shortcomings. And sadly it’s not getting any better. Some of the most popular games today provide amazing interactive experiences, but they still have some of the pitfalls of the gaming climate. Overwatch has an extremely huge fanbase and the game provides endless fun in a compact and easy way to share with friends. Some play it casually, others play it more competitively, but I’d be surprise if anyone could find a consistent player that doesn’t have a problem with Overwatch’s micro-transaction structure.
Our gaming culture is drenched in these money-making structures that add very little to the meaningful interactions in the game, but they are allowed a pass because the fans continue to support the efforts, willingly or not. The board game industry is oversaturated with countless game expansions. Games like Cards Against Humanity have dozens of expansions. Most deck building games end up the same way. And many fans of the franchises (myself included) collect everything a game puts out. These expansions don’t usually change the formula of the game much at all. Most of them add more of what the fans already have bought. It’s very easy to enjoy a game and allow the gamemakers to just cash in on their players, but it also supports the financial systems that are bringing gaming culture down.
We all get excited when we find a new favorite game, but I think we as the players should remember what we want in a game. For me, that means putting together the foundation for great interactions. I play fighting games for the competition involved. RPGs give me a fantastic story and world to talk about with others. Board games simply bring people together in fun, easy ways. Personally, I love making games. I try to follow the same standard I expect: make games to bring out the best of these interactions. and players want them to be fun. They want a game they can play for hundreds of hours, where they can be part of a grand epic. They want games that let them experience the journey with their friends. And I think we can all use a reminder of what games are meant to be. Content designed for us to share and experience together, without pressuring players to empty their pockets.
Let’s just get right out and say what we all know. My Hero Academia (MHA for article’s purpose) is one of the best things to happen to anime in recent memory. The animation alone has stood atop the popular 3D modeling currently being used in many new anime, as well as the classic 2D style that this show is built upon. Musically you can’t get on YouTube without seeing a “You Say Run Goes with Everything” video. It’s a subtle but powerful soundtrack that highlights the strong character work, impactful imagery and animation, and of course, PLUS ULTRA.
Whether you’re a fan of the show or not, we should all be conscious of the fact that it’s changing shonen into something much deeper than classic titles of the same genre. But don’t get me wrong; it utilizes the same core principles and concepts.
A young boy is seemingly useless or unintelligent or lacks talent. It turns out that (GASP) his determination and unrelenting drive are his key strength, believe it! MHA leans heavily on this framework, as do most shonen. So what’s setting this show apart from it’s predecessors?
As a frequent consumer of the show, the characters are a central starting point. The usual tropes like “the infinitely talented rival”, “the sad genius”, “the straight arrow”, and “the girl who is inspired by/in love with the protagonist” are all there, but MHA turned those overused concepts on their head. A fan favorite character “Shoto Todoroki” is the embodiment of what sets MHA apart. Let’s break it down.
Todoroki is a young boy who has the power of ice on the right side of his body and the power of fire on the other (SYMBOLISM). He refuses to use the fire powers within him because his fire powered father bred with Todoroki’s ice powered mother to produce a weapon (Shoto means sword, just FYI) that would surpass the ultimate hero, All Might. Got it? Cool.
Anyway, Todoroki refuses to use these fire powers because in doing so he is rejecting the person his father is, who Todoroki’s mother hates. For… weird breeding reasons obviously. She even went as far as to splash boiling water on Todoroki’s face, giving him a constant reminder of how much pain and suffering his father sent his mother through.
Already pretty beautiful storytelling, but it goes farther.
Our main character Deku pushes Todoroki to use both of his powers in a battle they have during a tournament. Not because of some need to fight his opponent at full strength. Deku isn’t that kind of kid. He does it because Todoroki has some serious mental issues surrounding his abilities, and wont accept himself because Todoroki feels more like an extension of his father than like his own person. And how could Todoroki choose to limit himself when everyone is giving their all to achieve their dreams?
Todoroki pushes himself, opens the door on the concept of being his own person, and even goes to see his mother who he hasn’t seen since the face scaring incident.
THAT’S SOME GOOD CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT.
So how does this all come together? What’s the point? We all know My Hero Academia is good.
Well, because Deku could undo all of this. Or more appropriately, he has the lowest chance of escaping the tropey framework that shonen are built on. Before you run down to the comments and go absolutely berserk, hear me out here.
Deku is, in his current state, a fairly solid character with a bright future ahead of him. His love of heroes and heroines has lead to a seeming unmatched understanding of quirks, the series name for super powers. Not only their functions, but their applications and weaknesses. He plans ahead carefully and can also react to new situations rather quickly. His love and admiration for his mentor, the number one hero All Might, gives him an extremely high bar to reach as the successor to his quirk, One for All. The accumulated strength of the eight heroes and heroines before him is a huge burden to bear, and here’s where Deku’s character has a chance of falling short.
While Deku does have a multifaceted view on the experiences he’s having both at school and in the real aspect of fighting villains, his reasoning is heavily one dimensional.
He just wants to be All Might.
There’s a strong theme in the show that might go under the radar a bit, but it makes MHA truly brilliant. The kids in the show have these strong ideals and images of what it’s like to be a hero/heroine, but they’re not based in reality. Whenever villains come around, their worldview gets shaken. Real lives are at stake. Using their powers efficiently against seasoned enemies isn’t as easy as they thought. People more experienced than them get hurt, or even die. The message is clear.
Your shonen attitude of “never give up and everything will be okay” means nothing if you don’t put in the work to be a real hero. So how does this reflect on Deku. Well let’s take a look at how he views All Might, and Deku’s responsibility as his successor.
Our protagonist is obsessed with the standard that his master sets for him. Why? Because Deku wants to be a strong person. He wants to help others. He cares about those around him, and the best way to show that compassion is through being a hero. But under the tutelage of All Might, his focus shifts. Deku pushes himself in unhealthy ways to measure up to an ideal. The image of All Might. His perception of All Might. Not the wounded and shriveled man that his mentor truly is. Because of the external pressure from his mentor and the internal pressure he puts on himself, Deku becomes self destructive.
All For One hurts Deku to use, leaving body parts broken several times over in certain instances. Even with warnings from both his teachers and his doctor, he continued to push his body to a point where he almost couldn’t come back.
Holy moley. Slow it down, kid.
At that age, a lot of people wanted to emulate someone that inspired them. It’s natural, and it’s a good way for young people to set themselves in a good direction, but Deku has to face what all people down that path have. You can’t be someone else. The more you try, the more you’ll fail. And the more likely that you’ll end up a disillusioned man-child, like the central villain of the series. Regardless of how large the shoes you’re trying to fill are, you can only be the best you possible.
That’s where traditional shonen fail. Instead of characters having to realize that hard truth that would help them grow into a more mature and relatable character, the answer is just “because I believe”. It’s not a terrible message, because sometimes you do just have to push through without any rhyme or reason. That’s why Gurren Lagann is the shit. But we’re tired of that being the answer for every protagonist we come across.
My Hero Academia does shonen characters a service that we rarely see; providing more depth and reasoning for growth that greater reflect our real world struggles. But Deku is teetering between pushing beyond his shonen predecessors and falling into their failures.
If Deku comes to realize his own identity and value as a person, the show could change the genre for the better. If he fails, we’ll end up with dozens more “I just believe it” anime in the year to come. But I have hope for our young hero. In more recent episodes (and well into the manga), Deku is coming to face this issue more often. But the writers have to be careful with the pivotal choice ahead of their protagonist. Play it safe? Or break the mold?
Film after film, modern geek auteur Edgar Wright has examined through pure ironic comedy what it is that makes his favorite genres tick. Like an expert horologist fine-tuning an intricate system of gears, he’s taken his eyepiece to the likes of zombie cinema with Shaun of the Dead and Bayhem-fueled police action with Hot Fuzz. He’s dabbled in less hyper-focused satire with his other films; notably the third in that “Cornetto Trilogy,” the woefully underrated The World’s End. That film eschews the focused genre magnification of its predecessors in favor of a film focused on character, highlighting the true thread that makes those earlier satires so effective. World’s End is still full of comic energy and action-packed bombast, but what links it to its three-flavors brethren is the emotional connection it illustrates between the characters played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They struggle with real, human emotions.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wright’s other most notable work, similarly avoids any specific genre template (aside from perhaps coming-of-age film, but that’s a bit broad). Instead, it funnels a variety of pop cultural influences into a millennial fever-dream pastiche of video games and garage bands. It’s more founded on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original influences and experiences than it is Wright’s, but it showcases with previously unparalleled focus the horologist’s touch that defines his voice as a director. Like a punk-rock Street Fighter cuckoo clock, Scott Pilgrim flows effortlessly from Battle of the Bands to martial arts showcase, ticking away with Swiss precision and waves of aesthetic confidence. Still, it exists on a level of heightened style that might be impenetrable to some audiences, and it has the box office receipts (or lack thereof) to prove it.
Enter Baby Driver. Like an adrenaline shot to the rhythm centers of the brain, Wright’s latest feels like an elaborate mixtape crafted with passion to woo the heart of Cinema itself. Ansel Elgort dances through its opening sequences, iPod jockeying what must be a playlist on Wright’s own devices titled “Songs I would Rob a Bank To if I Were to Someday Rob a Bank” as the camera rocks back and forth like an invisible partner. From The French Connection to Monsters, Inc., the film exudes a palpable love of the medium, cut apart and placed together with such meticulous rhythm it feels like it can only have been done under a desk lamp with a magnifying glass and tweezers. To see this film on a proper screen with a theatrical sound system is absolutely sublime.
What I find particularly intriguing, though, is how Baby Driver feels like a return to focused genre filmmaking for Wright. Where the early “Cornetto” films are pitch-perfect satire, this film is dead serious in its intent. This is a genuine, honest-to-Mann heist thriller, with characters bandying about snappy dialog with names like Bats, Buddy, and Baby. It’s fun and peppy and full of swagger; and it knows exactly what it’s doing every step of the way. Every shot, be it gun or camera, is choreographed. Like any good mixtape, its pacing is carefully considered.
A prime example of how Wright plays with genre here is how he uses names. Everybody has jazzy code names to disguise their identities over the course of the film. Even Debora, Baby’s love interest, is wearing the wrong name tag when we meet her at the diner. Everybody, whether they mean to be or want to be, is a 100% genre archetype. Like any good heist thriller, however, things start going south. People die, characters we like are put in danger, and the stakes become more personal; more real. As this develops, we start learning their real names. In a tense diner scene, the exact point in the movie it becomes clear that she’s in danger, we see Debora wearing the right name tag. The movie is filled with fun details like this (lyrics printed on the wall during the opening credits, the intricacy of the shootouts, and Jon Bernthal’s last line are a genuine hoot; I hooted quietly to myself the second time I saw it), but it works throughout on its own merits as an action-packed crime thriller.
There’s heart in Baby Driver, but more than even the satires of the “Three Flavors Cornetto,” it feels like pure genre exercise. Even Baby’s heartstring-plucking backstory feels like another note in this particular genre symphony, adding just the right color at just the right time… but that’s about it. I really love this film, but I miss that extra level of character focus that made The World’s End in particular so surprising to me. If Baby Driver is Wright’s wooing mixtape, I hope it’s successful in winning the elusive heart of our lady, Cinema. I’d love to see them come together and discover something truly unique. He’s a master craftsmen who has proven his hand at bringing vibrant life to even a straight-ahead vroom vroom action thriller, but I feel like he’s got even more in him. Edgar Wright is on the verge of surpassing himself, and I can’t wait to see it happen.
Join DC, Ray, and Darren, as they explore how episodic films have had an impact on modern cinema.