Sonya Blade – Badass Lady Fighter

I have a confession to make: I kinda like the Mortal Kombat movie from 2021.

I mean, it’s not as controversial as saying you’re an unironic fan of Battlefield Earth or something like that. But as I understand it, fans of the video games didn’t like it a great deal, even just compared to the 1990s movie.

And I won’t lie – it’s flawed. Cole is a pretty bland lead character who isn’t from the games, though he’s inoffensive and he avoids the whole Gary Stu character aspect. Kano is lots of fun to watch, and I suspect the actor had a ball playing him. Shang Tsung is not really very intimidating, There’s some eye candy for women and a small number of men (Liu Kang is basically this ALL THE TIME). The special effects are pretty decent. Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim are basically perfect as Scorpion and Subzero, and there’s a reason the entire climax is about these two whaling on each other.

But I think of all the characters, I enjoy watching Sonya Blade the most, because she is an example of a warrior woman written correctly. And we don’t have a lot of those anymore – a lot of female characters in current-day action movies are essentially written as power fantasies…. which are okay, as long as it’s acknowledged that they’re nothing better than that. These characters are coldly constructed to maximize feelings of shallow empowerment without risking upsetting anyone by making the character look “weak” by having them be vulnerable, struggle to do anything, or need anything from a man.

Disney, I’m looking at you. You gave us Rey, Live!Mulan and Captain Marvel.

Sonya Blade is literally not like the other girls… and for once, that’s a good thing. The first thing to note is that she is always depicted as a butt-kicking badass – she’s a military veteran who’s good enough to fight in Mortal Kombat, and she’s strong and skilled enough to capture Kano and keep him chained up in her house. When Subzero is chasing down Cole, she’s the one that Jax sends him to to keep him safe.

But it’s worth noting that in raw physical power, she’s not the strongest. On average, men are much stronger than women physically, which many movies and TV shows don’t want to acknowledge because… I guess acknowledging it would be considered misogynistic. But Mortal Kombat does implicitly acknowledge it, because Sonya is shown going toe to toe with physically powerful men not based on raw muscle power, but using her brains, her training, and her agility. Her part of the climax is a wonderfully intense game of cat-and-mouse, where she not only has to battle Kano’s physical power but his laser eye, which she manages through manipulating her surroundings as well as physical attacks.

Which brings me to another aspect of Sonya that many other action heroines don’t have anymore – she struggles. Watch the Disney action heroines mentioned above, and you’ll be lucky if they EVER struggle to take down their enemies.

In the shallow minds of the people writing these stories, I think they imagine that a woman struggling would make her look weak… and that idea is bad storytelling. Seeing your hero struggle is part of the experience of wanting them to triumph – you watch them sweat, get punched, collapse to the ground and struggle to get up again, and lose their initial fights. That makes it all the more cathartic and satisfying when they finally triumph – because you know they worked for their triumph over the bad guys, and all the sweat, blood and tears were worth it in the end.

If the hero’s only flaw is “he/she needs to realize how AWESOME he/she is!”, and they breeze through, effortlessly winning the day without breaking a sweat… the only people who find that satisfying are people who just want a power fantasy.

And yes, Sonya struggles. She follows the arc of HERO FIGHTS –> HERO FAILS –> HERO REGROUPS/TRAINS –> HERO FIGHTS AGAIN –> HERO WINS AFTER STRUGGLE, like Luke Skywalker and other classic heroes. Her ultimate triumph over Kano – and gaining an arcana – is narratively satisfying because we watched her grapple with him right to the end, and it was a near thing. So when she looks at her dragon mark and laughs, it feels earned.

I do not get that feeling from a Captain Marvel, a Rey, a Live!Mulan. They don’t struggle to win, so there’s no cathartic satisfaction when they do win. It’s like watching Usain Bolt outrunning a toddler. Who’d find that satisfying?

I also really like Sonya’s relationships with the men around her. She doesn’t really interact much with the female characters – I think she only encounters Mileena, who skips out on murdering her because she wouldn’t get Mortal Kombat street cred from it. I guess she probably meets Cole’s wife and daughter at the end of the film.

Anyway, throughout the movie Sonya interacts mainly with the male characters, and for the most part… they treat her no differently than if she were a man. The only exception of Kano, who is a walking mass of personality defects, who is sexist to her because he’s casually offensive to everyone (and also he’s salty that she chained him up). But the men on her side treat her with respect and admiration, not considering her any less worthy because she’s a woman, and it’s hard to imagine that, say, Cole would treat her any differently if she were a guy.

That also goes for her relationship with Jax. I’m not sure what the age difference is between them, but it seems like they have a big brother/little sister connection, with a hint of mentor/student.

One thing I’ve noticed about movies in recent years is that women are often not allowed to be the mentees/students of men anymore – a woman must either know everything she needs automatically, or she must learn from another woman. See Rey, Captain Marvel, etc. That makes it kind of wholesome when Sonya admits that when she first entered the military, she wanted to make Jax proud, and that was clearly an important motivation in her training and her service.

It’s also worth noting that in the second act, she also spends a lot of time just supporting Jax. She’s told that she can’t train for Mortal Kombat because she doesn’t have a dragon mark that gives you superpowers, and instead of pouting or kicking up a fuss, she decides to go support her best friend, who just lost both of his arms and has been given little dinky robot ones instead. She doesn’t make it all about her, but about her friend who needs help.

On the subject of Sonya not having an arcana, I also liked that she’s demonstrated to have actual morals rather than a vague sense of goodness that is never challenged or confronted with temptation. You see, Sonya wants an arcana because she wants to engage in Mortal Kombat (DA DA DA, DADADA DA DA DA!), but there are only two ways to gain one. Either you are an elite fighter and vague supernatural powers bestow it on you, or you gain it by killing someone else who has the marking.

Kano has the marking. Now, Kano is a person who has done all sorts of hideous criminal things, and killing him would probably make the world a better place. In fact, he keeps taunting Sonya about killing him, even to the point where she fights him but does not kill him, just to demonstrate that she can in fact beat him. But she doesn’t kill him, because at that point he was technically an ally and wasn’t a direct threat.

Does she kill him? Yes. But only after he turns against the group and tries to murder her twice, in self-defense.

The same way a hero has to struggle for his success to mean anything, a hero’s morals have to be challenged for their morality to have any depth. If the hero is never tempted to do the wrong thing, then their morality doesn’t really mean anything. This is especially true in a situation where doing the wrong thing feels like it might be the right thing, such as killing a loathsome murderer who will get superpowers and probably misuse them to kill even more people.

Anyway, those are my scrambled thoughts on the character of Sonya Blade in the Mortal Kombat movie, and why I liked her far better than most action heroines in current-day films. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s compassionate, she’s skilled, and she fires pink laser beams. Not bad.

Review: The Modern Faerie Tales

Over the past few decades, many urban fantasies with a similar theme came up – some girl discovers that she’s part/all faerie and becomes enmeshed in that world. Success varied.

But of particular note is the trilogy that helped popularize that trope – Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside,” a darkly glittering collection of clever, entrancing urban fantasies that spin up spellbinding stories of the fair folk… and then add a little grime and blood to the mix, without sacrificing any of its beauty.

“Tithe” introduces us to Kaye, a young girl who has spent years traveling with her mother’s rock band… until one night when her mother’s boyfriend/guitarist tries to stab her. With nowhere else to go, Kaye and her mother return to her grandmother’s New Jersey house for the time being, which brings back memories for Kaye of the imaginary faerie friends she had as a child.

… except it turns out that faeries are very, very real, as she finds a wounded faerie knight named Roiben, whose life she saves. Soon Kaye finds herself enmeshed in the secret world of the faeries, and discovers a shocking fact about her own life – she is a changeling, a faerie girl swapped out with a human baby, under a glamour so strong that no one knew what she really is. Unfortunately, finding out who she is comes with a lot more danger.

You might be expecting the second of the Modern Faerie Tales to deal with more of Kaye’s adventures, but instead “Valiant” switches the narrative over to Valerie Russell, who runs away from home when she discovers that her mother is having an affair with Valerie’s boyfriend. She makes her way to New York city, and falls in with a gang of teenage subway-dwellers.

She also finds out about the magical underbelly of the city, since it turns out the kids are friends with a troll named Ravus, who makes a mysterious drug that makes faeries temporarily immune to iron… and allows humans to use magic. Unfortunately, a lot of faerie exiles are being poisoned, and Ravus is suspected of the crime. Only Val can save him by uncovering the true murderer.

“Ironside” returns the action to Kaye and Roiben, as the faerie knight is about to be crowned. But when a drunken Kaye declares her feelings for him, he gives her an impossible task – find a faerie who can tell a lie. Devastated, Kaye tells her mother the truth about what she really is – and then begins a personal quest to find the “real” Kaye Fierch, who was kidnapped as a baby.

Meanwhile, Roiben has become tangled up in Silariel’s schemes, and so Kaye also becomes involved in a forthcoming battle for the throne of the Unseelie Court. In order to be together with the man she loves – even if he seems cruel to her at first – Kaye will need all her wits and strength – but even that might not be enough to stop the Bright Court’s queen.

The Modern Faerie Tales are stories that very much deserve the label “urban fantasy,” primarily because Holly Black’s writing feels like a genuine blend of the fantastical and the gritty. Faerie ethereality and glamour is mingled together with grime, wire and subway tunnels of New York; there’s both a delicate timeless beauty to the stories, and a sort of raw rough punk aesthetic.

The same goes for Black’s writing – it’s dark, it’s wild, and it’s studded with moments of poetry (“red and gold flames licked upward. A sea of burning oil and diesel fuel spread to scorch everything it touched”). And she never turns away from the uglier facets of her world — the faerie courts contain casual brutality against the weak and helpless, and Val ends up addicted to a magical drug.

Her heroines are no less compelling, even if they have little to do with each other. Kaye starts the story feeling a little too edgy, fey and immature, but Black smoothly causes her to grow up as she learns who she truly is, and demonstrates her selflessness and love for her family and Roiben. Val is more of an awkward tomboy than a rock’n’roll girl – a wounded girl losing her way and herself, as she struggles to find a place to belong. And there’s a variety of likable supporting characters, like a hunky troll, the icy knight Roiben, and the nerdy gay friend Corny.

Amongst the stories about “I’m a faerie and never knew it,” Holly Black’s “Modern Faerie Tales: Tithe; Valiant; Ironside” stands out as one of the best – darkly glittering, dramatic and perfectly blending the urban and the ethereal.

Review: Lord of the Rings Movie Trilogy

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was considered unfilmable for a very long time – the story was too big, too fantastical.

But in the late 1990s, New Zealand director Peter Jackson got the green light to shoot the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy: a sprawling fantasy epic that chronicles the tipping point of the mythical Middle-Earth, and the humble hobbits who change the world. The richness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world is translated exquisitely into a movie trilogy full of beauty, horror, hope, humor and vibrant characters.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” introduces us to the hobbits. Eccentric old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) leaves the peaceful Shire at his 111st birthday, leaving all he has to his young nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) — including a golden Ring that makes the wearer invisible. But the grey wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) reveals that it’s actually the One Ring, which is the source of power for the demonic Dark Lord Sauron. So Frodo and his best pals leave the Shire and join a band of elves, men, and dwarves to take the Ring to the only place where it can be destroyed.

“The Two Towers” picks up immediately after “Fellowship” ends, with Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) lost on the path to Mordor, and being stalked by the murderous Ring-junkie Gollum (Andy Serkis). Elsewhere, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) make a desperate stand with the kingdom of Rohan, but must face off against the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his orc armies.

“Return of the King” brings the trilogy to a dizzying head: Frodo and Sam’s friendship is threatened by Gollum’s trickery, leading Frodo into a potential fatal trap. Gandalf and Pippin head for the city of Gondor, while Aragorn summons an ancient army that might be able to turn the tide against Mordor. But no matter how many battles they win, the war will never be won if Frodo is not able to destroy the Ring once and for all.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is one of those stories that is too big to fit into one movie – it’s almost too big to fit into three. While Jackson had to streamline the story considerably, the heart of the original novels is still there, with its message about how misfortunes can become blessings, and even the smallest and least imposing person can change the world. Despite the richness of the world-building and the complexity of the characters, it all boils down to that.

Changes are certainly made, such as altering and adding to the characters of Arwen and Faramir, as well as obviously having to leave a lot of events and characters out. Certainly the trilogy doesn’t need Tom Bombadil. But the overall story is remarkably faithful to Tolkien’s tale, and Jackson’s script with partner Philippa Boyens is a masterpiece of storytelling – full of humor and dramatic moments, adapting Tolkien’s richly-archaic prose into powerful speeches (such as Sam’s powerful final speech in “The Two Towers”).

Furthermore, it’s a beautifully-constructed movie – the exquisite sets and expansive New Zealand landscapes are breathtaking; the battle scenes are bloody and exciting; the different cultures of Middle-Earth feel deep and well-lived-in. All the trappings — clothes, jewelry, even beer mugs — are realistic. And the special effects are almost entirely convincing-looking, especially the gruesome Gollum. He’s the first fully convincing CGI character, and after awhile you’ll forget he is made digitally.

It also has a cast who give the performance of their lives – Elijah Wood as the wide-eyed, wounded Frodo Baggins; Sean Astin as his steadfast best friend Sam, who supports him no matter what happens; and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the mischievous but brave Merry and Pippin. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is the prototypical wizard – kindly and grandfatherly, but capable of anger and fear when confronted by the Ring – and Viggo Mortensen is outstanding as the noble king-in-waiting Aragorn. Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies round out the cast as the elegant elf Legolas and doughty, down-to-earth dwarf Gimli – and there are a bunch of other great performances by actors such as Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto, and many many more.

The extended versions of the movies are even better than the theatrical versions — plenty of cut scenes that fill out the characters and plotline are put back in. As a result, the extended versions cleave more closely to the original books. Not to mention TV specials, featurettes, cast commentary on everything in the movies, Sean Astin’s sweet little short film “The Long and Short of It,” and extensive behind-the-scenes footage that will inform viewers about special effects, sets, direction, and everyday life filming “Lord of the Riings.”

The movie adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy are classics for a reason – while they have some flaws, Peter Jackson managed to adapt a brilliant story into brilliant, beloved movies. Powerful, gripping and full of beauty.

Review: The Old Kingdom Trilogy

Necromancers are usually the bad guys in fantasy. When you can control dead bodies, it’s a given that people might not like you.

But Garth Nix turned that little trope on its head with “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, three interconnected fantasies about a family of necromancers who lay the dead — and forces of evil — to rest. His richly-realized world, elaborate magicks and brilliantly detailed writing give this wry, horrific high-fantasy a special quality that few other fantasy books have. Each of the three books about the Abhorsens is definitely a deserving classic.

“Sabriel” is the story of a teenage girl living happily at a girl’s school, while her necromancer father (the Abhorsen) roams around putting the dead to rest. All that changes when a sending brings her father’s sword and bells, meaning that he is dead or incapacitated. So Sabriel takes on her father’s duties, accompanied by a Free Magic cat and a mysterious young prince, and battles the specter of a horrible evil creature that is reaching out from death to snare her.

“Lirael” takes us to the cold citadel of the Clayr, a race of seers to whom the Sight is everything. Young Lirael is depressed because she doesn’t have the gift of Sight yet, even though everybody else her age does. But things take a sinister turn when she sets a horrifying, bloodthirsty creature loose, and must work — with the help of the mysterious Disreputable Dog — to get rid of it. But what Lirael doesn’t know is that the outside world is in danger too, from a sinister new enemy — and her destiny may take her out of the Clayr glacier, to where Sabriel’s family is struggling to keep their kingdom safe.

“Abhorsen” brings the series to an explosive conclusion. Lirael and her nephew Sameth — along with “cat” Mogget and the Disreputable Dog — are in danger from the invading Dead, and the Destroyer Orannis has escaped from his prison and is being assisted by an evil necromancer and the Dead called Chlorr — and an unfortunate pal of Sameth’s, who was mistaken for the young prince and his now be bespelled. Now Lirael must face her true destiny — not as a Clayr, but as the future Abhorsen.

Garth Nix had only written a couple of books, one of which was an “X-Files” novelization, when the first Old Kingdom book burst onto the fantasy scene. Now he’s one of the most respected, prolific and well-liked fantasy writers in years — and his tales of the Old Kingdom are undoubtedly his best work. They are a perfect example of dark fantasy, with its grotesque dead zombies that occasionally lurch out to attack the heroes, magical bells, and shadowy beasties that can (sometimes) be restrained.

Nix’s invented world is a seamless blend of the modern and the medieval, each ruling one side of the Wall — and he handles this complex world and its magical Charter with the deftness of a master storyteller. He draws everything in exquisite detail, whether it’s the labyrinthine Clayr glacier or the slightly eerie house of the Abhorsen, a bombed-out bunker or a sunny boarding school. And his command of atmosphere is great enough that his depiction of Death’s grey river is enough to chill.

And he comes up with the brilliant concept of the Abhorsen necromancers — who have power over dead and/or magical creatures, manipulate magic with little effort, and bind malignant creatures with Charter marks and a series of magical bells. Got it — binding, not raising.

Virtually all of Nix’s characters are likable, especially the gutsy Sabriel, the strong-willed Touchstone and their nervous teenage son Sameth. Even the annoying Ellimere elicits some smiles. It takes a bit longer to warm up to Lirael, since she spends several chapters in the same-named book moping about her differentness, but once she gets moving she’s unstoppable — and quite likable, once she figures out who she is. And the animal characters are the most brilliant — Mogget and the Disreputable Dog steal the show with their sharp wit and humorous quirks, although we’re constantly reminded that these are magical beings.

Dark fantasy was redefined and reimagined in “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, and these first three books of Garth Nix’s series are a clever, action-packed, magical journey through the Old Kingdom. Definitely a must-read.

Recommendation: Diana Wynne-Jones

I feel like fantasy author Diana Wynne-Jones doesn’t get as much love and attention as she deserves.

Oh, other authors often laud her, like Neil Gaiman, and Studio Ghibli has adapted two of her books into animated movies (one amazing though a loose adaptation, one mediocre). But she’s not a household name despite the charm and imaginativeness of her books, and the movies based on her books are more associated with Studio Ghibli than the original author.

She did experience something of a renaissance several years ago during the Harry Potter craze of the late nineties to late aughts – it was a time when people were hopping on the bandwagon of children’s/young-adult’s fantasy stories, hoping to strike Potter gold. Some of these would-be franchises were good (Artemis Fowl), and some were bleeding-from-the-eyes-bad (G.P. Taylor’s Christian fantasies presented as Potter alternatives).

Diana Wynne-Jones seemed like a natural choice to reprint and promote – she had already written a huge number of fantasy stories, often involving witches and wizards. She was also British, and she had a great deal of the same charm of style and setting that had been presented in Rowling’s books. And she was imaginative – arguably much more so than Rowling – with multiverses, dimensional hopping, twists and even science-fiction woven into the fantasy.

Maybe that’s why she didn’t become as famous as Rowling – her books take more effort to comprehend, and a structure and framework that take more time to comprehend. A school for magic is a little easier to understand than the Chrestomanci universe, which has many different parallel worlds. Or a story based on the ballad of Tam Lin. Or the time-bending antics of A Tale of Time City. Or the plot twists that blow your mind in Archer’s Goon, The Power of Three and Deep Secret.

But obviously, less popular doesn’t mean less good. Jones came up with some wildly clever ideas and plumbed them to their depths, sometimes with clever yet affectionate parodies of the fantasy genre (and many affectionate nods to J.R.R. Tolkien). She was also even better than Rowling at writing twisty mysteries within her fantasy stories.

The Chrestomanci stories are a wonderful series of stories about Christopher Chant, a supremely powerful magician born with nine lives who travels between worlds. He’s not always the center of the stories, because they tend to be focused on the people who become involved with him in these worlds – kids forbidden from using magic, a seemingly ordinary boy whose narcissistic sister is a gifted sorceress, a Romeo and Juliet story, a boy cursed with bad karma, and so on.

Then there are the Magid stories. Sadly, Jones only wrote two of these – Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy, but they are among my favorites. The first one is a bizarre sci-fantasy story set at a scifi/fantasy convention, in which a colorful cast of characters are trying to figure out who the heir of an interstellar empire is. The second is a world-hopping love story between the best character of Deep Secret and a girl from another world, where royalty is magic and a conspiracy may take over magic throughout the multiverse.

I won’t summarize every book she’s written, only say that they involve time travel, Norse gods, a malevolent old woman with supernatural powers, a Goon, a star in a dog’s form, a ghost attempting to solve her own murder, a game diving into everyone’s favorite books, a Celtic-flavored fantasy that I can’t describe without spoiling the twist, and various other things.

So if you like stories with imagination, a dark edge and that clever, slightly quirky Britishness, than her books are a must-read.

Review: Hellboy (2019)

From its very first opening moments, the 2019 reboot “Hellboy” shows us exactly the kind of movie that it is – with a bird eating the liquefied eyeball of a rotten corpse, and Ian McShane throwing a gratuitous F-bomb.

Specifically, it’s the kind of movie that a 13-year-old who thinks he’s edgy would make – lots of swearing, lots of characters being obnoxious, lots of extremely graphic violence shown in lovingly-framed detail, and so on. “Hellboy” seems to aspire to be kind of like “Deadpool” in its mixture of comedy and bloody violence, but the meandering, overstuffed storyline and unlikable lead characters make it a chore to sit through.

After killing a B.P.R.D. agent who had been vampirized, Hellboy (David Harbour) angsts about his status as a monster, and what that means to an organization dedicated to stamping them out. He’s then sent to help the Osiris Club in England with exterminating a trio of giants… only for the Club to try to kill him because he’s destined to bring about the apocalypse. If you’re wondering what all this has to do with the main plot, the answer is: very little.

The actual villain of the piece is Nimue (Milla Jovovich), the legendary sorceress, who was chopped into six pieces by King Arthur and sent to six different parts of England. Not the world. Not Europe. Just England. Now the pig-fae Gruagach (Stephen Graham) is reuniting her various body parts – and if she is fully restored, she will bring down an apocalyptic plague across the entire world, wiping out humanity.

Hellboy is soon called on to stop Nimue, along with ghost-punching medium Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and surly B.P.R.D. agent Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim). But Nimue quickly decides that she wants Hellboy as her king, since she knows of his apocalyptic destiny and wants him her to rule over a new world at her side. Unfortunately for the current world, Hellboy seems quite tempted by the offer.

“Hellboy” was already facing an uphill battle, given that the character’s previous appearances were directed by the beloved Guillermo del Toro. But even if one appreciates it entirely on its own merits, the movie is still pretty terrible – and only part of that is due to the relentless swearing and hyper-graphic gore, which feel like a teen boy’s idea of what an R-rated movie should be like.

One of the big problems is that the story is an overstuffed mess, with subplots unrelated to the main plot. Whole chunks of the narrative could have been easily streamlined out, such as Hellboy’s fight with the giants, which feels like a side-quest in a video game. The cinematography is pretty ugly and grimy, the special effects range from acceptable to “how did this get released in theaters?”, and the dialogue is bad more often than not (“But it’s not going to work, you know, cause I’m a Capricorn and you’re f***ing nuts!”).

It also has a wealth of characters who exist entirely to vomit exposition. Baba Yaga, for instance, is a character who exists entirely to tell people to go places, rather than having any real impact on the plot. Or consider the blind woman with precognitive powers, who is just there to recount baby’s Hellboy’s entry into our world, a bizarre scene that is somehow sidetracked by the appearance of Lobster Johnson. “Who?” you may be asking. The answer: nobody who matters to the plot, so it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the main characters aren’t much better. It’s worth noting that no criticism should fall upon David Harbour, who gives as good a performance as anyone could possibly give. The movie fails him, not the other way around.

Specifically, it fails him by making Hellboy a whiny, passive-aggressive brat who is easily swayed by Nimue and gripes about his father constantly. His angst over monsters not getting to live in the open seems rather hollow as well, considering that we see virtually no monsters who aren’t actively harmful to humans… and since Hellboy himself is hardly a secret, since he goes on a days-long bender in a Mexican bar.

The other characters aren’t particularly likable either – Alice tends towards being smugly annoying, and Daimio seems to be stuck in a combatively bad mood with no particular reason or resolution. No, being revealed as a werejaguar does not count as an arc. The closest to a character who actually feels three-dimensional is Ian McShane’s Professor Broom, although even he isn’t a terribly likable person.

The 2019 reboot of “Hellboy” stumbles badly in its attempt to give us a darker, grittier portrait of our demonic hero – mainly because of the sloppy plot and painfully clumsy script. Stick with the comics or the earlier films.

The Mummy 2017 and Sexism

One of the many changes made to Mummy lore in the Tom Cruise movie The Mummy is that it focused on a female mummy rather than the traditional male ones. Despite Twitter’s beliefs that all gender/race flips are greeted with sexist racist fanboy hatred, the viewing public did not have a problem with gender-flipping the mummy, especially since she was played by the wonderful Sofia Boutella, who gives the character a real sense of wiry, acrobatic physicality.

Unfortunately, the movie sucked for myriad reasons. Among the reasons: the crushing lack of research, the lack of Egypt, Tom Cruise’s midlife crisis, the need to shoehorn a S.H.I.E.L.D.-like organization into the story, the script full of holes, the blatant ripping off of An American Werewolf In London, and so forth. It’s not a good movie, and I didn’t enjoy it.

But the thing that really stuck out to me is that despite deciding to make the mummy female… the movie is actually rather sexist towards her. This is best highlighted when you compare the 2017 mummy, Ahmanet, to her male counterpart in the 1999 movie, Imhotep. And two things really stuck out at me.

One, Ahmanet is weak. I don’t mean she’s weakly characterized – although she is – but that she’s not very powerful for an undead mummy powered by divine sponsorship. About midway through the movie, she’s captured by the troops of Prodigium (the monster-hunting equivalent of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Do they use magical tools and amulets? Do they somehow neutralize the power of Set, rendering her helpless? Do they use centuries of research and knowledge and technology and the supernatural to overwhelm this godlike figure’s godlike powers?

Nope. They use ropes and hooks to catch her, then chain her up with a mercury drip. It isn’t even hard for them.

If that doesn’t sound weak, stop for a moment and remember Imhotep from the 1999 movie. Imhotep was powerful. Ridiculously so. He had his weaknesses (like kitties), but it’s hard to imagine him being completely incapacitated by some guys with ropes. Yet the female mummy is weak and gets taken down almost effortlessly.

And you may be thinking, “Well, it’s to show how amazing Prodigium is! They’re so capable and strong that they can stop a god-powered mummy!”

But no, that isn’t the case. Because that is the second time that Ahmanet is taken down by mere mortal schlubs – the first time was in ancient Egypt right after she murdered her family, and she was newly juiced-up with Set’s power. Not only were the people who caught her ordinary people, but they didn’t have technology, centuries of organized study and gathered magical power. They were just people. Not only did they catch her, but they successfully mummified her alive (which is not possible, incidentally) and transported her to another country before properly imprisoning her in a neutralizing element. That is, for a mummy, quite weak.

For the record, Imhotep also was caught and buried alive by ordinary humans… but that was before he had most of his powers. So it made sense that the Medjai could catch him!

The other part of Ahmanet that struck me as sexist is her ultimate goal. Her initial goal seems to be to rule Egypt, because she apparently was raised with the belief that she would be the queen regnant when her father died, but then his wife had a baby boy so she was knocked out of the succession. For the record, pharoahs had many wives, so the chances of a pharoah having only two children in twenty years is… very unlikely. That’s a more medieval-European trope.

Anyway, she was so upset about not becoming queen that she summoned the god Set, and he gave her… skin text and four pupils, and a knife. So she wandered off and killed her entire family, baby included, and then decides to bring Set into a mortal man’s body because she’s in love with him. When she revives in the present, her motive does not change – she wants Set to incarnate in Tom Cruise’s body.

Now, let’s again compare her to Imhotep.

Imhotep also had romantic love as the centerpiece of his quest. He was the secret lover of the pharoah’s mistress (why not a lesser wife or concubine? Again, very medieval-European!), until she committed suicide so that the Medjai wouldn’t capture Imhotep. So his goal was to bring her back to life. He was captured and sealed away under a magic spell, and when he is revived as a mummy, his ultimate goal is also unchanged – once he has his body restored, he wants to bring his lover’s soul back in Rachel Weisz’s body.

Similar motives, similar goals, similar story progression, yes?

Well, no. Like I mentioned before, Ahmanet’s goal is to revive an evil god, so he can rule the world. She wants to be his queen, not a queen regnant. She even explicitly says this, and she acts like a lovesick fangirl for most of the story.

Imhotep, on the other hand, never gives the impression that he’s going to be subservient to any person, and at no point do you imagine that his lover is going to be the one sitting up on the throne while he’s just the arm candy.

I don’t know much about the production of this movie, but I will say that this motivation feels a little like it was shoved in there. It may be bad writing giving the character inconsistent or poorly-explained motives… or it may be the obviously-insecure-about-his-age Tom Cruise insisting that all women in the movie must be dazzled by his toothy charm. I don’t know.

But either way, the handling of the female mummy was not good, and they should have simply followed this rule: if it isn’t something you can see Imhotep doing, leave it out.

Recommendation: Ghost Hunt

Like many people, I like anime. I’m not one of those people into super-obscure or niche stuff, but I enjoy anime like My Hero Academia, Bleach, Inuyasha, Fruits Basket, Fairy Tail, etc. I used to be into Naruto and Dragonball, until I realized that both of them were ass-numbingly long and I didn’t really like the characters very much.

And one of the lesser-known anime I love is Ghost Hunt, a series that adds a more professional, sometimes more factual aspect to the usual supernatural shenanigans of Japanese urban fantasy. It gets a little silly towards the end (one of the final episodes has a Catholic priest PUNCHING GHOSTS), but it’s an overall enjoyable series that mingles urban fantasy, horror, and a hint of romance.

It follows a young girl named Mai, who accidentally runs into a supernatural detective agency who are investigating a supposedly-haunted building at the school she attends. She accidentally wrecks some of their equipment and injures the assistant, so she ends up working for the paranormal investigator Kazuya Shibuya, whom she nicknames “Naru” because she thinks he’s a narcissist. There are also three other exorcists called in: the not-very-monkly Buddhist monk Hosho, the rarely-successful Shinto shrine maiden Ayako, and the perpetually mellow Catholic priest John Brown. Oh, and there’s a TV medium named Masako, who’s condescending and nasty and can’t take a hint that a man is disinterested in her, and Naru’s assistant Lin, who’s kind of weird and distant from Mai.

As a group, they investigate a number of paranormal cases, including a haunted doll and a child being terrorized, the seemingly-haunted school, a strict school where a girl threatened to curse people, a school game with potentially deadly consequences, a labyrinthine house, and a family being haunted by ancient spirits. There are also some slightly lighter stories, one of them about a child’s spirit possessing Mai, and a ghost that splashes water on couples. The last one is more funny than spooky.

Be forewarned: this series is in fact quite horrific at times, ranging from merely being uncomfortably eerie to having bloody ghosts emerging from walls in a cursed mansion. It’s also a slow-burner for most of its run, with long stretches of talking about equipment, psychic phenomena (and sometimes the fakery of it), psychology, Japanese folk magic, and so on. It’s not boring – there are strange occurrences fairly frequently, and the banter between the characters keeps the energy moving – but it’s not a big splashy anime. It takes its time, as it is a mystery show of sorts.

Eowyn and Feminism: A Rant Part 2

Which also brings me to Griffin and Liang’s complaint about Eowyn having her “happily ever after.” They managed to completely miss the entire point of everything that the good guys do at the end of the war. Eowyn turning away from her fighting days at the conclusion of the story is not just about her becoming a wifey. It’s about her choosing to embrace life rather than death, about creating something new and good and wholesome rather than seeking out martial glory.

Again, this is a thing that all the male characters do. Aragorn is rebuilding Gondor after its devastating war; Faramir is doing likewise to Ithilien; Legolas brings in a bunch of Wood-Elves to help fix the place up, and Gimli brought in Dwarves to fix up the war damage to Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep and build a whole new kingdom. And of course, the hobbits return to the Shire and find it’s been wrecked by Saruman and his human lackeys, so once they drive them out, they have to restore the Shire to its former glory, which Sam plays a big part in, since he has a box of special Elven dirt and a mallorn seed. He literally causes the Shire’s plant life to return.

This is what Tolkien thought should happen after a war: not more fighting, but repairing the damage from the war and building things that are better and more noble. Everybody in his book takes part in this. So why is the woman expected to stay a warrior and keep slaying, when all the men are busy fixing stuff up and moving past the killing and death to peaceful lives?

Eowyn’s character arc is not about how she becomes a warrior and stays one forever because WOMAN FIGHTING EMPOWERED. That way, in Tolkien’s world, just leads to decay, blood, death and loss. Instead she embraces a new life of rebuilding and growth and life, which includes embracing romantic love. She even says at the end,

“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King

Faramir even highlights this plan by saying,

“And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King

Furthermore, a sane person would not see Eowyn getting married as being somehow a bad thing. Not only is it her embracing life rather than her suicidal rush towards death, but her relationship with Faramir is depicted as being one of equals. He respects her both as a woman and as a warrior, seeing no conflict between those two things, but wanting her to be happy and fulfilled in a way that fighting ultimately won’t make her.

Their relationship also makes sense because they were both recovering from similar experiences when they died: feelings of alienation and rejection, seeing their civilizations crumble from the corruption of outside forces, the recent death of father figures, and the Black Breath. Yeah, Tolkien could have outlined their relationship more, but her connection with Faramir goes a lot deeper than Liang’s contemptuous “Tolkien thinks women should get married to ANY man available.” They have a lot of similarities to build on, and unlike with Aragorn, she gets to know him as a person and not just crush on him because he’s an easy way out of a life she can’t stand anymore.

At the same time, Faramir is a more optimistic and sunny person than Eowyn, who tends to be kind of dark and moody. He lifts her up. He also provides a perspective for Eowyn beyond that of the Rohirrhim, where great deeds in battle are glorified. Gondor’s a little more sophisticated, and gives her an opportunity to learn to be something more positive than a warrior.

Faramir makes her a better, happier person by being who he is, and that’s ultimately a sign of a healthy, good relationship. Turning aside from being a shieldmaiden and marrying Faramir are part of a whole “deciding to live” change in Eowyn’s personality. You know, character growth. Something you don’t find in a lot of poorly-written characters that Griffin would define as “strong female characters.”

And even if Tolkien wanted to marry off his characters for a happy ending… so what? Is that so bad? Would Griffin and Liang have preferred it if Eowyn had just been miserable and lonely at the end of the trilogy? I already outlined why the “Eowyn stays a warrior and goes around killing stuff” thing was not going to fly in Tolkien’s world, so precisely why shouldn’t she get married?

This is why interpretation of a text from a particular political perspective is not the sole way you should look at it. Unless you’re very well-informed and dedicated to fairness and research, you can end up attributing motives and attitudes to the text and the author that are not fair or just, and you can end up bitching about things that are not actually problems. Like when you get upset when a female character does something that THE MEN ALSO DO, or when you totally ignore how a character’s actions dovetail with the attitudes and beliefs of the author.

That’s ultimately why I can’t take Griffin or Liang’s outrage seriously. Their feminist analysis is so shallow, so blinkered. They don’t think deeply about why Tolkien would have written Eowyn this way, they just condemn it because it doesn’t slavishly follow “strong woman” cliches and have Eowyn turn into Xena.

Seriously, how am I supposed to take “scholars” seriously when they can’t think outside of an incredibly narrow political viewpoint, or interpret a text by actual analysis? Major fail, you guys.

Review: The Secret of Kells

The Book of Kells is Ireland’s greatest treasure: an ancient book filled with exquisite illuminations.

Technically, “The Secret of Kells” is a fictionalized account about the making of that book. But it’s far more than that — it’s a visual hymn to Ireland’s history, a coming-of-age tale, and a parable about Christianity coming to Ireland. Modern animation is suffused with exquisite Celtic art, music and a sense of fairy magic, and wrapped around a seemingly simple story about a boy learning about the power of art.

Abbot Cellach is determined to save the Abbey of Kells from the Viking invaders, so he’s having the monks (including his nephew Brendan) build a vast wall around the abbey. But when the illuminator Brother Aiden arrives, he brings with him the legendary Book of Iona. Brendan is fascinated by the Book, and ventures out into the forest — against the abbot’s orders — to fetch ink-making supplies for Aiden.

He befriends a strange fairy girl named Aisling, and nature’s beauty inspires his art — until his uncle discovers that he’s sneaking out, and forbids him to have anything to do with the forest or Aiden. But Brendan still wants to become a true master of illumination. And to finish the Book, he must go outside the abbey once more, and snatch away the magical Eye of an ancient sleeping evil…

You can see this movie from many angles — it’s a coming-of-age story, a homage to Irish culture, a story about the importance of art, and a parable about Christianity supplanting Celtic paganism (whilst drawing on its beauty and richness). But however you see it, “The Secret of Kells” is a beautiful story with a calm simplicity, and a slightly quirky sense of humor.

It also tackles some darker, more mature themes — Brendan is exiled to a dungeon for disobeying his uncle, and he ventures into the cave of an ancient god surrounded by wriggling black roots. But directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey drop in lots of beautiful little moments as well, such as Aisling magically “singing” Aiden’s cat into a floating spirit.

It also has a truly unique style of animation: “Kim Possible” style (simple designs with lots of sharp and/or rounded edges) with vibrant jewel-toned backdrops (the sunlit emerald hues of the forests). The best parts are when Celtic symbols and art are woven in, especially since they tend to float through the air like butterflies.

The writers also give great care to sketching out characters — Brendan, the little monk who discovers the “miracles” of the world; Aisling, the elusive wolf-girl who assists him; and the grandfatherly Brother Aiden. On the flip-side we have Abbot Cellach, whose obsession with keeping Kells safe causes him to shut out art and beauty. No, he’s not a 2-D bad guy — he’s just desperate to preserve his community against the onslaught of their enemies.

Obviously it’s not on the level of the Book of Kells, but “The Secret of Kells” is still a beautiful work of cinematic art. Adults will love it, kids will love it, and anyone with the blood of Ireland will marvel.