Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Of Names, Talking Trees, and Anthropomorphic Animals

As mentioned before, I participate in a "supposed-to-be monthly" Friday game night. Over the course of the past few years, we've played D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, Cthulhu (of both d20 and Savage Worlds varieties), Warhammer 40K RPG, OSRIC, and Labyrinth Lord.

These games, being on Friday nights after a long week at work, tend to be a little more about just talking about work and every day life versus buckling down and getting straight to playing. We do end up playing, but we have at least a good hour or even two of hanging out and hoisting a pint or two before we take out the dice.

One of the topics that comes up often during the first few hours of hanging out is current TV and movies. For those of us who enjoy the genres of fantasy, science-fiction, and comic books, this is a great time to be alive with the veritable litany of shows and movies right now, especially with Marvel's success at the box office and DC aiming to follow suit with its TV series and recently announced slate of upcoming silver screen adaptations.

It's this Marvel versus DC thing I want to talk about in today's post, but not in the way you might think. It all leads to a bigger point, which is "Why do people think some things are cool, while other things that are almost exactly the same are considered stupid?"

Marvel is sitting pretty right now in the world, not just among self-labeled geeks but also as a pop culture fixture in general. The highest grossing movie this year was Guardians of the Galaxy (which I don't think most people ever saw coming) and that's followed by Captain America: Winter Soldier. It's safe to say that, at least this year, they own Hollywood. Marvel's properties have entered the pop culture lexicon with most people knowing the names of characters that 10 years ago wouldn't have registered with the average American.

"Hawkeye? You mean the guy from M.A.S.H.?" *

This guy is stupid?
By virtue of their success, many ideas that people may have scoffed at before have somehow become "cool." But, interestingly, the lesser known properties from Marvel don't necessarily carry that same cache. The upcoming movie, Ant Man, is a perfect example of this. It's got a pretty big name cast with Evangeline Lilly, Paul Rudd, and Michael Douglas just for starters. It's a story based on a long-standing member of the Avengers and a character who has been around for decades. Among people following the production of the movie, there is some concern due to the multitude of director, cast, and script changes that have occurred during production, and that's understandable. But, to the average person, even those who are fans of Marvel movies, Ant Man isn't something they can get behind.

To quote a friend in my game group (and I'm going to be picking on him a lot as we continue, so hopefully he's got a good sense of humor about this), "Ant Man? ANT MAN? That's stupid."

Just so I understand, Spider-Man is cool, but Ant Man is not.

Is Ant Man not cool because you can't conceive of who he is or what he does, and therefore that's stupid? Is it just that the name seems stupid? Try to imagine that you had no idea who Spider-Man was. You're starting with a blank slate with no idea of his powers or his costume or his origin. Would hearing the name "Spider-Man" make you think the guy is cool, or stupid? Now think about Ant Man again.

But this guy is cool? Really? Have you seen
this movie? It's all about context, folks.
This same friend has been keen to point out to me on several occasions that DC's heroes have stupid names, and cracks up every time I bring up the character Elongated Man. I imagine quite a few of you out there might not even know who Elongated Man is because he's currently not part of the New 52. You might even be chuckling like Beavis or Butthead right now because you think the guy's name is funny. But, as I've said on many occasions, it's not really about the character's powers or his or her name, it's about how the creative team make stories featuring that character. A bad writer can turn a so-called cool character like Batman into a caricature of himself. We've all seen that happen before. You need look no further than the awful Joel Schumacher Batman films (the terrible Batman Forever and the even worse Batman & Robin). So, does a name make a character inherently stupid? Have a read of Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis (with an open mind) and then tell me if you still think Elongated Man is stupid. I'm not arguing that his name couldn't have been better chosen. I'm saying that the character himself is not stupid, nor are the stories in which he appears, just based on what his name is.

My friend, however, doesn't see it that way.

This brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy again. My friend is, when push comes to shove, a Marvel fan. He likes Batman but the rest of the DC Universe isn't for him. His son digs Marvel heroes, and Marvel has admitted done a much better job than DC of bringing their heroes to the masses through the big screen. So, earlier this summer during game night, I asked the group, "Who's seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet?" At the time, no one else in the group had seen it.

"No way. I'm not seeing that. It's so stupid - it's got a talking raccoon in it."

"But.. wait, what? You're not seeing it because it has a talking raccoon? I asked. "Do you even know what it's about? It's just a fun, slightly goofy, popcorn summer action adventure. It's along the same line of the Avengers movie. You liked that one, right?"

"Dude, it has a talking raccoon. Oh, and a stupid talking tree, too. I'm out."

"I don't understand this hatred for the raccoon. They even explain in the film why he is like he is..." I started to say.

"Doesn't matter. I don't do anthropomorphic animals. They're just stupid."

This conversation went on for a while with other members of the group jumping in, but my friend was adamant that talking trees and animals are just stupid.

"Hey, do you like Lord of the Rings?" another friend asked.

"Yes," said my talking tree hating friend.

"That has talking trees in it. Treebeard is a significant character in that series."

My friend stood for a second, not saying anything.

"And what about the Chronicles of Narnia? Do you like those?" we asked.

My friend answered slowly... hesitantly. "Yes."

"Dude, that series is full of talking animals. So, what's this deal with you saying anthropomorphic animals are stupid?"

My friend was quiet for a second, and then finally said, "Good point. Good point." A short pause later, he then proudly announced, "It's a conceit of the genre." He stood there matter-of-factly with a smug look on his face, arms crossed on his chest.

"What? What the Hell does that mean?"

"It means it's a conceit of the genre," he said, just repeating what he'd already said as thought that were the only explanation needed. "Talking trees and animals are part of fantasy literature.  They don't belong in a comic book movie."

"Says who?" I asked, rather loudly. This guy really knows how to push my buttons and I realize that he does it partly just to get a reaction. He's also keenly aware that during this entire discussion I've been knocking back some Imperial Pale Ales with ABVs approaching 9.5 - 10%.

"They don't belong in comic book movies. It's just stupid."

"But this is a space fantasy. You don't even know what the movie is about. So Wookies are okay in Star Wars but a race of intelligent plant-based life in Guardians of the Galaxy is stupid?"

"Yep, exactly. It doesn't make sense."

This whole argument we were having continued for some time, and neither one of us was going to see the other point-of-view. It's very reminiscent of the science-fantasy laser-sharking argument, about which I've blogged before. Some people seem to have a very narrow, limited view of what fantasy, science-fiction, and now comic books should be. Fantasy is dwarves and elves, and I guess, talking trees and animals. Science fiction is starships and lasers and alien races that in no way resemble talking versions of earth flora or fauna. Never the twain shall meet.

And now we have a limited definition of a comic book movie, which apparently should not include any fantasy or science-fiction elements to it, but rather should only feature costumed heroes with cool names that are not based on funny words or tiny insects, and they should be limited in scope to talking place in Manhattan.

What are you thoughts about all this? Was Guardians of the Galaxy stupid because it featured an outer space setting with a talking tree and raccoon? Is Ant Man stupid because he's named after a small insect? Is Elongated Man stupid just because his name makes an easy joke for a pubescent juvenile male?

* Look it up, kids. It was a great show I grew up watching with my dad.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water (Pasadena's finest)
Listening: "Police on my Back" by the Clash


  1. Conversations like this drive me nuts! If you buy into a talking tree in other media, then it should be more than passable in something as lighthearted as GotG. I understand that some people don't like to mix their chocolate and peanut butter (scifi and fantasy) but they should know that scifi (at least) began with whole, heaping handfuls of fantasy! (Thank you very much John Carter!)

    Star Wars, Guardians, et. al., are science-fantasy at its best! :)

    1. I totally agree - I'm a big fan of science-fantasy and "genre-blurring," particular of the Sword & Planet variety as well as the Gamma World Post Apocalyptic variety. I've never really understood why some people are so fixated on trying to put everything into a neat little bucket based on their narrow definitions that don't allow for some fantasy elements being mixed in with their science-fiction.

  2. http://youtu.be/dOyJqGtP-wU

    You know it's true.


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