Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 07:47 on 13-09-2015, Axiomatic
That's the one thing I didn't like about Guardians of the Galaxy. Every scene it Darksied or Thanatos? Aren't they the same guy? It's just completely unnecessary and has no payoff whatsoever.
at 03:16 on 13-09-2015, Sunnyskywalker
Maybe having more background/related recent watching makes a difference. The way I felt while watching it was that the Winter Soldier was was barely in the first half of the movie at all and they spent a lot of time worrying about other Hydra baddies. It felt more like setup for something to happen in a sequel. (Which is something that has been bothering me about a lot of the Marvel movies. It feels like lots of the stuff that happens is either a shout-out to something that happened in another movie in the franchise, or something which has nothing to do with anything actually happening but is necessary setup for something a movie or two down the line. I wish they could integrate it better, so that it will also seem relevant to the movie I'm actually watching instead of like some mutant spawn of Filler Nonsense and an advertisement.)
at 17:02 on 02-09-2015, Melanie
Yeah, they really dropped the ball there. What was that thing with her sister? Even when I was actually watching the movie the first time (as opposed to thinking about it later) I was confused about why they were even fighting. Was it... just so they could have an action sequence? They could have accomplished that any number of other ways. It felt like as soon as it was about Gamora, suddenly the writing got lazier.

I'm surprised to see you say that about Winter Soldier, though. The whole thing with Bucky and Steve felt like a big, central deal to me--part of (though not the whole of) the emotional center of the movie. Maybe it's a matter of expectations; I'd previously watched the Earth's Mightiest Heroes cartoon (the recent one... I feel like maybe there've been more than one) and they did the whole "Winter Soldier" bit, too (apparently it's a recurring thing, I mean, with different iterations in the franchise). And by "'Winter Soldier' bit" I mean specifically (spoilers) "good guys, including Steve, have to fight some mysterious scary Hydra-affiliated badass, known only as the Winter Soldier, who then turns out to be Steve's old friend/old sidekick Bucky, who they thought was dead but who was actually captured and brainwashed by Hydra. Cue angst. They/Steve help him break free of that and then he goes off on his own, presumably to show up at some later date". And apparently they'd built up Steve and Bucky's relationship and set the whole thing up in the first Captain America movie. So, I was definitely alert for all that and waiting to see what they'd do with it this time.
at 02:48 on 26-08-2015, Sunnyskywalker
I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy well enough, but every time another bit of Gamora's backstory came out, I kept thinking, "Wow, that is super plot-relevant! Why is that being shoved into the background?" Like, all the villains are either her "family" (as in, killed her original family, kidnapped her, and rebuilt her into a weapon) or someone working with her family, so she's the one with emotional connections to them. Drax has a beef with her because her family killed his family. Stopping her villainous family is her chance to redeem herself for her past crimes. And Peter... has none of that, but more screentime. A bunch of the Peter-centric stuff was obviously sequelbait (hello, Deadbeat Alien Angel Dad!), but had nothing to do with the movie I was actually watching. So the whole thing felt like the center of gravity was just wrong. (More of my rambling here if anyone's interested.

Winter Soldier was also okay, but the title gave me such the wrong expectations. The Winter Soldier was hardly in the thing, and seems like he'll be more important in a sequel. So I spent a lot of the movie going, "What's the Winter Soldier got to do with anything? Did I miss something?" I guess you could see it as Steve Rogers being his own kind of winter soldier since he's also been thawed out and is trying to adjust to a different time period, but it probably should have been called Captain America: The Hydra Conspiracy or something else that reflected what the movie was actually about.

Of course I seem to have atypical viewer reactions to some things, so maybe it's just me.
at 22:00 on 25-08-2015, Robinson L
@Arthur: Fair enough, but I'm afraid for your sake that the current superhero movie fad has not yet hit it's peak, and it's going to be some time now until those particular levers inevitably break.

@Shim: Personally, I enjoyed the action scenes in Winter Soldier; they had a lot of energy, and didn't drag on interminably for me, unlike some other Marvel movies I could mention.

The rest of this post is going to contain a lot of spoilers, and I'm not going to use a tag because the spoilers are the discussion. So if there's anyone here who hasn't seen the movie and wants to avoid spoilers, this is the place to stop reading.

So, the plot of the film is that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, who plan to use three floating doomsday platforms developed by SHIELD to kill a couple million people who are the greatest threats to their goal of world domination. Nick Fury grows suspicious of the doomsday platform project and tries to get it put on hold while he investigates, and HYDRA tries to assassinate him, apparently succeeding. Before his "death," Fury passes a vital clue to HYDRA's plot to Captain America. Captain America and Black Widow follow the clue, dodging HYDRA's assassins along the way, and finally discover the full extent of the plot. They are reunited with Fury, and with the help of Falcon and Agent Maria Hill, team up to take down the doomsday, platforms, HYDRA, and the hopelessly corrupted SHIELD along with them.

To me, this is a good political/spy thriller plot; the premise has some very silly elements, but the film takes its material just seriously enough to make the viewer feel it, but sufficiently unseriously that the silly superhero stuff is still an asset rather than a liability (as was the case in, e.g., Nolan's The Dark Knight). Once you buy into the premise, the character's actions and motivations make sense, and the story progresses organically rather than depending upon artifice or contrivance.

The threat posed by the villains also feels a lot more real than in most of the early Marvel movies. In those films, the heroes - once they got their powers - blew through scores of enemies without breaking a sweat, there was only a 50/50 chance of even the main villain being an even match for them. Whereas in this movie, sure, Cap is a lot stronger and tougher than everyone else, but they establish early on that the Winter Soldier can take him on, and even the regular HYDRA mooks come awfully close to killing him with a combination of numbers, strategy, and sheer firepower half a dozen times. (And, of course, the rest of the cast, though trained fighters, are no more than level with all the HYRDA agents.)

There's also some good character subplots with Captain America and Black Widow finding a way to trust each other even when they have very good reasons not to; and also Cap trying to reestablish his bonds with his old (and presumed deceased) friend Bucky, since brainwashed into becoming the titular Winter Soldier. (I'm also a sucker for the whole "hero refuses to continue attacking antagonist because of their personal connection" and then "antagonist saves hero's life" scenario.)

I would characterize the main message as "people who think the world would be a safer place if they held a gun to everyone's head are either outright fascists or just dangerously naive." Trust is also a big theme, and I would say the message there is something about the need for trust and partnership and the difficulty of building them in a situation where, as you say, distrust and suspicion are often crucial survival traits.

And no, I still don't know why Nick Fury burned all his personal stuff at the end: I chalked it up to one of those instances where a filmmaker will have a character do something because it's symbolically meaningful rather than it being a sensible thing for that character to do under the circumstances. Annoying, but for me it was a minor point.
at 11:00 on 25-08-2015, Arthur B
I'm personally kind of tired of the whole superhero cycle at this point. It's the old story: movie studio finds combinations of levers they can pull which yields major returns; movie studio pulls the same levers over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again until they break.

I mean, they're fun and all, but it's one flavour of fun and to me it's outstayed its welcome and needs to go away for a while to refresh itself.
at 21:15 on 24-08-2015, Shim
I still haven't seen Guardians, but I did see Winter Soldier recently.

Honestly I found it completely adequate as a superhero film, but a bit tedious at times. In particular I felt like the fight scenes were far too long. That wasn't particularly down to the actual combat, I think it's an artefact of modern budgets and special effects. Instead of Thug firing, Guy dodging and something ricocheting somewhere, we get Thug firing, Guy dodging, the shot slamming into a nearby car, which careens into a wall, and another car crashes into it and flips right over the wall trailing flames, and slams down in the path of a bus, which slews across the road hurling lampposts around, and people run around screaming, and thirty seconds later Guy actually responds.

I also wasn't really sure what it was trying to say. Trusting people is both genuinely problematic for intelligence agents and demonstrably unwise in the canon of the film, where half the characters turn out to be untrustworthy Hydra mooks. At the end Samuel L Jackson burns down his secret hospital in what's clearly supposed to be a moving symbolic scene, but I didn't understand why he was burning it down, given that it was a field hospital rather than some kind of sinister archive, and that having a secret fallback base is a genuinely sensible move (in fact, not having one is criminally foolish in his position).

Can you say a bit more and sell me on it? I absolutely didn't hate it, but it didn't particularly speak to me either. I can't honestly remember it very well after quite a short time.
at 20:02 on 24-08-2015, Robinson L
Well ... that backfired spectacularly.

Not much more to say on the puppy ballot, but I'm glad to see Orphan Black getting some love, especially since I'm baffled at seeing "Listen" apparently come in for praise - a profoundly "meh" of an episode, if you ask me. It had some good parts, but only about half of them came together at the end, leaving us with a story which was ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

Ouch on Guardians of the Galaxy, though - ptolemaeus hated that movie, and though I found it enjoyably watchable, it was hardly great. Whereas I think Winter Soldier had probably the best-written and -executed plot of any Marvel Cinematic Universe movie I've seen to date (possibly The Incredible Hulk or Ant-Man are superior, but I'm skeptical. On the other hand, I know she's happy to see Ms. Marvel bring home an award.

As for best novel, I'm a bit surprised to see Ancillary Sword come in third (though I haven't read the winner or first runner up) because I liked it better, on the whole, than its 2014 award-winning predecessor. (And tangent alert: the rest of this post is going to be my rambling thoughts on the series).

Ancillary Justice took more than a hundred pages to really hook me in, but with Sword, I was on board from pretty much the beginning. I guess now that we have the set up, and Ann Leckie isn't playing cagey with her protagonist's goals and motivations, she can plunge the reader in right from the start, rather than keeping her at a distance for a while.

The characters and world-building were engaging and the plot was quite good. I like the way the protagonist is usually several steps ahead of the reader (I've also recently been listening to the first season of the TeXt Factor again, and it's a bit reminiscent of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon), not an easy trick to pull off when you're the first person narrator.

I also think Leckie walks a fine line with Breq, as this character with incredible power and authority coming into a situation righting wrongs and dispensing justice, without turning her into a Great White Savior.

And, of course, there's lots of wonderfully subversive questioning of assumptions that comes with an almost entirely gender-ambiguous cast, who are all referred to by female pronouns.

I was surprised by how small the story was, considering the grand sweeping scope introduced at the end of the previous book. I wasn't disappointed by the story—perish the thought—but there's this massive war going on in the background, which I'm now wondering how Leckie is going to resolve satisfactorily in the final book.

I guess the one real criticism I have is that early in the book, we're introduced to a character who, it transpires,
has been turned into an ancillary of the Lord of the Radch
. Once the
tech which made her an ancillary
has been removed, Breq tells the Medic that the person that character was previously is now dead. Granted, this can be taken metaphorically, that the character has been permanently transformed by her traumatic experience, but given that in every other instance of the
process we've seen so far, the original personality has been definitively killed, I read the "dead" pronouncement as literal (as in, erased memory), and it took me the best part of a highly confusing chapter or two to work out what was going on.

But yeah, other than that, very good book, definitely recommended.
at 22:34 on 23-08-2015, Arthur B
A bunch of puppies got taken out behind the shed and given the Ol' Yeller treatment at the Hugos today. (The sole exception is Guardians of the Galaxy, which if anything demonstrates how a piece can, under the right circumstances, shake off the stink of being associated with the puppies if it's of a high enough quality and it doesn't actually share the politics of the puppies that latched onto it.)

Abigail Nussbaum has one of the better early responses to the story. Whole article is worth a read but I think the take-away quote is this:

The puppies claimed that they represented "real" Hugo fandom, here to take back the award from a politically-motivated cabal that had commandeered it.

But the thing is, if that were true, it would be true. If the puppies had truly represented "real" fandom, then "real" fandom would have turned up to vote for the nominees they put on the ballot. Instead, the people who voted were, overwhelmingly, thoroughly pissed off and eager to kick some puppy ass. The Hugo is a popular vote award, and what that means is that while it can be manipulated, it can't be stolen. It belongs to whoever turns up to vote, and in 2015 the people who turned up to vote wanted nothing to do with the puppies' politics and tactics. Despite the puppies' loudest claims to the contrary, 3,000 voters are not a cabal or a clique. They are the fandom.
at 18:06 on 20-08-2015, Robinson L
New York State, around 50 miles up the Hudson from the city; it's where my parents and my sisters live, and where I'm going back to this weekend. (Then back in Ohio in a month, then somewhere else in October for a new job ...) And yeah, Labor Day definitely wouldn't work - we'll be visiting my the NY State Fair with my mother's family that weekend. Too bad.
at 03:52 on 20-08-2015, Adrienne
Robinson L,

Sadly it'll be Labor Day weekend, so beginning of September. :( Whereabouts did you move to, if it can be told?
at 03:00 on 20-08-2015, Robinson L
Funny you should mention, Adrienne. It's actually more like Central Ohio, between Columbus and Dayton (closer to Dayton). And I moved away last Summer, though I'm out here again for a brief visit right now. As it happens, I'm returning for another visit at the end of September, so depending when exactly you're coming through, yes, that could potentially work.
at 07:26 on 19-08-2015, Adrienne
Robinson L: Am i remembering correctly that you live in Northwestern Ohio somewhere? Because my brute and i will be headed through there in a couple of weeks, and i wondered if you wanted to catch up for a snack or something. Micro-Ferretbrain-meetup? :D
at 13:54 on 07-08-2015, Axiomatic
>Size Matters: Long books are serious books.

As a fantasy reader, I can confirm this.
at 19:58 on 05-08-2015, Jamie Johnston
Meanwhile – you folks have got to check this out – 'Shut down Nouvella! First-ever *reverse* kickstarter':

American publishing has always centered around the Great American Novel, and we believe it should maintain this purity of vision. However, the recent proliferation of the independent publishing scene combined with millennials’ puerile attachment to things that are smaller, lighter and sleekly designed has serious implications for the continued dominance of the Great American Novel.

Nowhere is this disturbing trend more obvious in our industry than with indie publisher Nouvella, which publishes pocket-sized works of fiction between 10,000-40,000 words.

With your help, we intend to shut Nouvella down.
at 19:50 on 05-08-2015, Jamie Johnston
Wow, that's... not even bad in an entertaining way, just in a bad way.
at 12:24 on 03-08-2015, Arthur B
The Dissolve has an excellent article on Sean Connery's weird trainwreck of a final film. Make sure to watch the videos for the full horror.
at 21:10 on 27-07-2015, Craverguy
Even though I'm an American (or maybe because I'm an American; we don't have many legitimately leftist politicians here), I am quite enthused at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour.
at 10:07 on 27-07-2015, Shim
Those both sound reasonably good, though I tend toward's Melanie's. Like any subgenre though, it's hard to pin down exactly. You know it when you see it. There's usually a lot of very unpleasant things happening for no particular reason, to demonstrate to the reader what a grimly-"realistic" setting this is, and how vile various characters are, and how unlike all those other frivolous fantasy books this author is.

I think 40K is the origin of the phrase because it's a good phrase, but is quite a long way from grimdark because it refused to take itself seriously, although I'm not sure that's always the case now. The sheer excessiveness of everything does help though. Only genetically-engineered brain-eating fascist supersoldier monks can save you from the insects that eat planets and the ghost robots that want to annihilate the universe, and maybe you'd be better off if they didn't.
at 02:51 on 27-07-2015, Melanie
I had been interpreting "grimdark" as meaning: "fairly humorless, dark and unpleasant, and proud of itself for being such". Exaggeratedly pessimistic, maybe with claims of being "serious"/"realistic"/"gritty".

...I thought it was just a Ferretbrainism for some reason, but apparently not. Huh.
at 01:24 on 27-07-2015, James D
Could you please clarify how you personally interpret the term "grimdark"?

Now I haven't seen Spartacus, but this question got me thinking about grimdark in general - we can all mention examples of grimdark authors - George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, etc. - but what specifically is it that makes them grimdark? Is there a concise definition of grimdark that doesn't use examples?

The best, shortest description I could come up with was "exploitation fiction without the wink." Like exploitation fiction, the extreme sex and violence is there to titillate the reader (unlike the sex and violence in All Quiet on the Western Front or 12 Years a Slave), but unlike exploitation fiction it's done seriously, without that knowing wink that's often present.

A lot of people cite Warhammer 40K as an example of grimdark, and "grim darkness" is of course in its tagline, but I think it's too self-aware and over-the-top to really qualify, at least in my book. That's where I see the pejorative sense of "grimdark" coming in - if a book is pushing for dark and disturbing levels of sex and violence but instead goes over the top and unintentionally comes across as silly and ridiculous as Warhammer 40K, then you could say it's grimdark.
at 02:21 on 24-07-2015, Chris A
I really enjoyed Sense8. It isn't without some major flaws, but the features that seem to garner the most criticism don't really strike me as problems. Its leisurely start and disregard for some of the rules of episodic storytelling are choices made to take advantage of the Netflix medium, and I think they mostly work or are at least interesting. And the criticism that the show is 'incoherent' is just fundamentally off-base.

On the subject of Spartacus, I do think the world and events it depicts are remote in a way that makes a difference in our ... how shall I phrase it: our moral obligation to approach its subject matter sensitively? I think a series that depicted Nat Turner's rebellion or the Mâle Revolt along similar stylistic lines to Spartacus would be seen as exploitative. As would a film adaptation of Im Westen nichts Neues that aestheticized violence in the way that, say, The 300 did. Yes, some of the characters in Spartacus bear the names of historical figures, and there really was a Third Servile War, but their reality is unrecoverable and has no meaningful point of contact with the present. I would compare it to Game of Thrones more readily than to 12 Years a Slave.
at 21:02 on 23-07-2015, Shim
On a note about as unrelated as it is possible to be, it seems like Tusks is a thing Ferretbrain would talk about.
at 22:36 on 21-07-2015, Robinson L
My apologies, Cheriola. I meant no mockery of Spartacus or the historical events it portrays. I do not use the term "grimdark" as an exclusively derisive term - I view it as a mode of storytelling, not intrinsically better or worse than any other (I don't view misogyny as inherent to the grimdark mode, just sadly prevalent, as it is in so many other forms of speculative fiction). That said, I probably should not have been so flippant to lump an historical drama rooted in real horrific events with the fiction writings of George R. R. Martin, Matthew Stover, Joe Abercrombie, and the like. Especially since the discourse on "grimdarkness" on this site is largely critical.

Everything you say about the show sounds excellent, and mirrors what I've heard/read from others over the years. And I can easily believe that the tone is appropriately serious and depressing given the subject matter - but I'm afraid that's a level of intensity I can't really handle in television/film. Cartoonish hyper-violence I can handle, but high mortality rates among characters I've grown to deeply care about I really can't. Heck, sometimes just one character is enough to spoil my enjoyment of a film/show. Nothing against the series in question, it's just my own personal tolerance levels. Again, sorry for the implied ridicule.

And thanks also for the Sense8 recommendation. I start a new TV show about once every six months or so, but I've kept your previous recommendations in mind, and I may well find my way to them someday. That clip you linked won serious points with me for two reasons: first, by revolving so much around "What's Up," by 4 Non Blondes, which is one of those songs that's highly important to my circle of friends (a bunch of us sang it karaoke at a wedding not long ago); and second, hi Martha Jones from Doctor Who. It does look and sound like a pretty cool show ...