The Avengers

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled IF reviews for this topical superhero discussion. That review of Mentula Macanus is coming soon– er, on its way.]

I’ve been reading a lot of 1960s Marvel comics lately, letter columns and all. I did this once before, with just Spider-Man comics, which was a lot of fun. This time I’m skipping around more from title to title, getting a feel for the way the universe gelled, and how the constant stream of feedback from readers contributed to that process. It’s really given me a sense for what Marvel did differently back in those early days. For a while there, they could almost do no wrong — “what they did differently” was more or less synonymous with “what they did right.”

Know what else I’ve been doing a lot lately? Seeing Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. Well, okay, just twice, but that counts as “a lot” in my movie-watching book. The movie is everything I wanted it to be. It was even more satisfying the second time around. Like those early Marvels, it makes the right call pretty much every time. Really: just like those early Marvels.

Continued stories
In 1961, when the Marvel Universe as we know it began, comic books were disposable, not collectible. There was no expectation that whoever bought issue #41 would necessarily have bought issue #40 or have any intention to buy issue #42. Consequently, each one was required to be self-contained, with one story, or even multiple stories, that began and ended within its covers. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the general expectation was that a comic book contained at least one complete story. Sure, there were motifs that continued from one issue to the next, but they were more or less in the form of an established status quo. Clark Kent always works at the Daily Planet. Lois Lane never gets any closer to figuring out his secret identity. Jimmy Olsen is always just as young and eager and boneheaded as he ever was or ever will be. Stories that deviated from this status quo always made sure to return to it before the issue was over.

Many early Marvels followed this pattern too, though their internal status quo was a fair bit more interesting. However, it quickly became apparent that the stories they wanted to tell were too complex to be contained within a single book. Not only that, they seemed to be attracting older, more sophisticated readers, who might be more reasonably expected to buy a title consistently. So, in many books, “continued stories” became the rule, and whoever read issue #41 might in fact need the previous one or the next one, or several iterations thereof, to get the full tale.

Oh, the complaints that readers sent in about this! The company was accused of greed, insensitivity, poor storytelling, and more. In fact, the hue and cry was so great that at one point Marvel actually abandoned continued stories and tried to keep all issues self-contained. The (predictable) result? Duller, more superficial stories. In fact, it may have almost been a calculated move on their part — by the time they did it, the Marvel Universe had already been established as an enormous tapestry of characters whose lives regularly interwove, collided, and separated again. To write the very kind of stories they had made obsolete may have been their way of saying, “Oh, this? Is this really what you want?” Needless to say, continued stories returned soon afterwards.

In 2012, the majority of movies are self-contained, but there are plenty of franchises in which each sequel moves the characters along a larger arc. However, what we hadn’t seen yet is a movie that ties together multiple franchises in the way that The Avengers does. There are four different lines of movies, each with its own sequel trajectory, that come together in this one. Four sets of stories feed in, and this story will resonate along at least three lines in the future. (I’m not sure if there are going to be any more Hulk movies, though no doubt the success of Avengers makes that outcome more likely. Heck, maybe even Black Widow and Hawkeye will get their own franchises.)

This is an immensely powerful position for a movie to occupy. In the comics, a shared universe gets you several great things:

  • If you’re following multiple lines that come together, you get to feel like an insider when the collisions happen. The more lines you follow, the more satisfying this can be.
  • The coherency of each strand is enhanced by its participation in a greater coherent whole. When Spider-Man bursts into Stark Industries, he may wonder why Iron Man isn’t showing up. Those of us reading Iron Man know that he’s trapped by a villain in another part of the factory, and knowing this lets us feel that both Spidey and Stark are a legitimate part of a larger, grander story.
  • When personalities do come together, especially if they clash, the drama of the encounter is greatly enhanced when each character is fully fleshed out with a detailed background and a story of his own.The Avengers movie inherits each of these advantages, along with the sheer pleasure of seeing a bunch of great actors thrown into an ensemble cast, and an enormous sense of payoff from the most elaborate setup ever.

These people do not get along
As I said, Marvel set up a fictional universe in which its superheroes were constantly running into each other. And when that would happen, inevitably, they would fight at least once. Fans loved seeing the good guys square off against each other, if only from the geeky desire to take the measure of each hero. And so Stan Lee would contrive some sort of misunderstanding or unusual circumstance that would force the heroes into conflict. Letter columns were always full of people eager to know who would win in a fight: Hulk vs. Thor? Thing vs. Iron Man? Spidey vs. Black Widow? Hero vs. hero conflict gave those fans a little satisfaction, though not always as much as they wanted, given that the story often took a left turn before either hero suffered a full defeat.

The Avengers takes this cue and runs with it. And, uh, now it’s probably time for the SPOILERS ASSEMBLE! warning.

The movie gives us so many awesome hero vs. hero matchups:

  • Black Widow vs. Hulk, twice. She dominates him strategically as Banner, he dominates her physically (of course) as Hulk
  • Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America
  • Hawkeye vs. everybody, which was a great way of establishing Hawkeye’s badass credentials. (Casting Jeremy Renner didn’t hurt either.)
  • Stark, Banner, and Cap piercing Fury’s subterfuge, leading to a great 6-way argument and a lovely Whedonesque camera move, inverting the heroes and placing the Staff Of Bad Influence in the foreground
  • Thor vs. Hulk
  • Black Widow vs. Hawkeye

And that’s all before they team up to fight the Big Bad! No wonder this movie had to be 143 minutes long. These matchups do several things for the movie, besides their obvious Big Action Thrill value. I mentioned how turning Hawkeye against everyone, and having him nearly take down the whole shebang, was a great way of establishing him as a powerhouse to be reckoned with, despite his lack of superpowers. Really, that’s true for all the inter-hero fights. In order for us to believe in the enormous victory the Avengers pull off in the movie’s climax, we have to believe in their powers and abilities. Having them establish these against each other is both efficient and effective. This way, we see more heroes in action more of the time, and our belief in one reinforces our belief in the others.

Moreover, the physical conflicts help the movie express the characters’ underlying philosophical conflicts. Superhero stories, at least when they’re done well, are metaphors writ large. So when Thor fights Iron Man, it isn’t just Thor fighting Iron Man — it’s the Mythical/Ancient/Pastoral at war with the Modern/Scientific/Technological, and it’s not accidental that the image of Idealized Patriotism and Selfless Heroism is defeated by neither and brings both together.

Finally, the conflicts move the plot along, which is far from a given in modern action movies. Heroes fighting each other does everything from achieving key turning points (such as when the Widow administers a “cognitive recalibration” to Hawkeye, switching him back to the side of the angels) to subtly filling in explanatory details (such as when Banner finds himself holding the Stick of Psychic Malevolence as he’s getting angry.)

How do you solve a problem like The Hulk?
In fact, this last one helped me understand something about the movie that puzzled me the first time around. I’ve mentioned before that although the Hulk exists in a world of superheroes, he’s not a superhero himself — he’s a monster. Unlike everybody else on the team, he’s not necessarily here to help. This is a hard problem to solve for any story that includes him as a protagonist, and the first time I saw The Avengers, I thought the film hadn’t quite solved it. Why is he all “SMASH BLACK WIDOW!” the first time he appears and then all “SMASH ONLY BAD GUYS AND CATCH IRON MAN AND GENERALLY HELP OUT!” the second time?

Then my friend Tashi suggested this interpretation to me: Banner’s revelation during the climactic battle (“I’m always angry”) indicates that he has figured out that suppressing his anger is the wrong way to go. So instead, he lives with it all the time so that it doesn’t blossom into rage, and tries to atone for his past damage by helping the helpless. (Boy, sounds Whedonishly familiar, doesn’t it?) He believes that he might be able to control “the other guy” now that he’s learned to live with his anger, but he’d rather not take the chance if he doesn’t have to.

Then he gets tangled up with the whole SHIELD thing. He finds himself aboard a massive airship — as he comments when it takes off, that’s a worse place for him to be than even a submarine. Loki’s whole plan is to get the Hulk to wreck everything once he’s aboard the Helicarrier. Well, that and also get Hawkeye to wreck everything from outside the Helicarrier. So, using the remote magic of the Nasty Pointy Spear Of Malefic Intent, he manipulates Banner’s mind (as indicated by the “put down the scepter” scene), weakening his mental control so that when Hawkeye strikes, the Hulk is in rampage mode rather than “I’m at peace with my anger” mode. Then, later, when Banner motors up for the final battle, he’s himself again, and can drive the beast enough to be a hero.

I love this explanation, and I think it’s supported by the film. It’s certainly better than anything Stan Lee figured out in the 60’s. His Hulk was constantly hunted, and his Banner was far from reconciled with his anger. (That is, once it was established that anger is what triggers the change. At first it was actually nightfall that did it, like a werewolf. The anger/stress thing set in pretty early, though.) He tried pills, and he tried locking himself away. He tried staying out of stressful situations. You can imagine how well all that worked out. The comics Hulk was often well-intentioned, but always misunderstood.

There wasn’t a trace in this movie of Thunderbolt Ross-esque anti-Hulkism — on the contrary, the government is looking for Banner to enlist his help, despite knowing he could potentially Hulk out. You don’t get much of that in the early comics, though they repeatedly attempted to cast the monster as a hero. In fact, he was even a charter member of the original Avengers… but he was out of there by the third issue. He’s really not much of a team player.

Homage and better
Having the Hulk be present for the founding of the movie Avengers is just one of the many lovely ways this film pays respect to its source material. Just as in the comics, Loki is intimately involved with the Avengers’ formation. Just as in the comics, the early Hawkeye and Black Widow are a couple, albeit one frequently beset by misfortune. Just as in the comics, the Avengers bicker and argue and crack wise, although the players and personalities are a bit different in the film from how they work in the original stories.

The movie is far from a literal recreation of those early Avengers issues. Instead, like the first Iron Man movie, it faithfully absorbs the spirit of the comics, but compresses, abridges, and enhances to make a coherent story that fits together like an exquisite puzzle. Thank you Joss, for mining the gold from an enormous vein, then shaping and polishing it so beautifully for us. And by the way, that really long sequence shot that went from hero to hero during the third act was JUST AWESOME. Mmmm, I think it’s time to see this movie again.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 3 revisited

Early in my Buffy-watching project, I swore off both DVD extras and Television Without Pity recaps, because they were just way too spoiler-laden. Now that I’ve finished watching all episodes of Buffy and Angel, I’m (slowly!) going back through the whole saga, reading the recaps and watching the extras.

I just finished season three of Buffy for the second time, and am amazed anew. What a marvelous achievement. It’s just such great television, and this time through I found myself appreciating a couple of things that had passed me by the first time:

*** IF YOU’RE READING THIS ON FACEBOOK, BE ADVISED THAT THE SPOILERS BEGIN BELOW ***

1) I liked the Mayor the first time around, just because his milk-and-cookies qualities made such a great contrast to his evilness and batshit insanity. What I appreciated about him this time, though, was the fact that because he really didn’t care about them, he was able to speak the absolute truth to Buffy and Angel. I loved the scene in Choices where he tongue-lashes Angel for selfishness in relation to Buffy. Everything he says is absolutely dead-on, and highlights the fact that even though they don’t look it, Buffy and Angel are a ridiculously May-December relationship. There’s a strong argument to be made that Angel is taking advantage of her — whatever she’s had to go through, she’s still an 18-year-old (if that) girl. The mayor’s genuine disgust with Angel in that scene is a fantastic way of completely dooming their relationship from an unexpected direction.

2) The resonance of the classroom scene in Earshot is just a thing of beauty. The Othello discussion serves the purpose of showing Buffy’s sudden classroom smarts, and her peers’ reaction to it, of course. The teacher’s explication puts focus on Buffy’s anxiety about Angel and leads us in to the attempted mind-reading scene, of course. But let’s take a look at what Buffy actually says about Iago:

“Well, he, um, he sort of admits himself that his motive are… spurious! He, um, he does things because he, he enjoys them. It’s like he’s not, he’s not really a person. He’s a, the dark half of Othello himself.”

The dark half of the protagonist? Doing evil for the joy of it, with spurious motives? Ring any bells about anybody from this season? Oh, right: Faith. Of course.

And listening to the DVD commentary from writer Jane Espenson reveals that this scene was heavily rewritten by Joss. Of course it was.

Angel Season 5

Oh, it’s a sad, sad day. It’s now official: I’ve seen every episode of every Joss Whedon show. I suppose it’s a happy day, really — it’s been a very satisfying journey since the day I saw Serenity (October 1, 2005, as it happens.) Still, I can’t help feeling a little grief at the fact that I’ll never watch another new episode of Buffy or Angel.

Well, at least I had a good sendoff. I was quite pleased with this season of Angel. Like season 7 of Buffy, the show found its feet again after a dreary and depressing previous season. It was both funny and thrilling, with a solid premise that was low on the endless angst and high on the superheroics of old. Not only that, it had a lovely elegiac quality, bringing back moments and characters from previous seasons like some kind of victory lap, or maybe a greatest hits album.

[Psst! If you’re reading this on Facebook, my spoiler protection tags have been stripped out! Spoilers ahoy from this point forward, for all seasons of Angel, and lots of Buffy as well.]

1. From the first scene of the first episode, we get good news: this show is funny again. Hallelujah! In previous seasons, the humor would drop off for long, long stretches, making the whole exercise feel rather dank. This time, though, bright moments of comedy sparkle all the way through. There’s Conviction, of course, which sets the terms. Damn, that Joss is funny. He would be a great comedy writer if that were all he did. Oh, and of course Life Of The Party, the obligatory everybody-gets-mind-alteration episode. Like Spin The Bottle or The Shroud of Rahmon before it, mystically changing people’s personalities leads to hilarious results. Oh, and then there’s Harm’s Way. Harmony is consistently funny to me, and this episode got some great laughs out of her character, even while telling a solid story. I was pleased to see Mercedes McNab appear in the opening credits halfway through the season, even though she never did really emerge as a major character. It was great to see Tom Lenk, too, in Damage & The Girl In Question. I really loved him as Andrew in season 7 of Buffy, and he didn’t disappoint here. Speaking of The Girl In Question, Angel and Spike as nerds getting shown up by the cool kid is a funny premise, executed well.

2. I think this is the first season of Buffy or Angel to have no real “Big Bad.” I suppose it could be argued that the situation itself is the Big Bad, which is a rather ingenious turn of events. The ongoing difficulties of trying to do good from inside the belly of the beast made for a satisfying conflict. It opened up more space for superheroics, without losing complexity.

3. Speaking of superheroics, this season boasted a pleasant abundance of superhero stuff, in both overt and oblique references:

  • The Fred/Spike dynamic at the beginning of the season is a bit like the Reed Richards/Ben Grimm dynamic in the first several years of The Fantastic Four, minus the guilt. She keeps trying to cure him of his condition, and despite her brilliance she continues to fail. In the end, she never succeeds — the solution comes from a left field deus ex machina.
  • There’s a trope in superhero comics, wherein via flashback (or sometimes an entire series), we learn about the adventures of superheroes who fought one or more generations before the ones we’re used to following. The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco felt like an entertaining riff on that “Superheroes of the Golden Age” theme.

Then there were the overt references, all of which were fun:

  • Why We Fight — Hodge: “I’m telling you, he’s some sort of super soldier, l-like Steve Rogers or Captain America.” Spinelli: “Steve Rogers is Captain America, you eightball.”
  • Smile Time — Knox (upon seeing pictures of comatose smiling kids): “Right. Could be the Joker. From the comic books? Just trying to think outside the box.”
  • Shells — Gunn (about Illyria’s time-slowing trick): “Yeah, like she was pulling a Barry Allen. (Angel looks at him, not recognizing the name; Gunn looks around at the others) Jay Garrick? Wally— Like she was moving really fast.”

As in the final season of Buffy, we’ve now collected enough continuity that it’s time for that tried-and-true plot mechanic, the returning supervillain! I quite liked Lindsey’s arc this season (though Lindsey himself was highly irritating), and it was also fun to see Sahjahn again, even if just for a moment.

4. Lindsey and Sahjahn weren’t the only callbacks to earlier points in Buffyverse history — this season was rife with them:

  • Nods to the sappy sides of our bloodthirsty heroes in Hellbound — Angel: “I never told anybody about this, but I… I liked your poems.” Spike (frowning): “You like Barry Manilow.” Oh, and the return of Spike’s poems in Not Fade Away.
  • Beyond the appearance of Lindsey himself, there’s the fact that he calls himself “Doyle”! We even get a bit of Glenn Quinn on the monitor in You’re Welcome.
  • Speaking of You’re Welcome, I’d say the return of Cordelia qualifies as nostalgia at this point. I was less than satisfied with the way said return was handled, about which a bit more later.
  • The Connor guest shots (in Origin and Not Fade Away) were better — it was refreshing to see how appealing the character could be when he wasn’t constantly in a snit.
  • I loved the way that Damage built on the continuity established in season 7 of Buffy. The idea of Spike and Angel encountering one of the many newly minted Slayers was crying out to happen, and having her be a reflection of the victims in their guilty pasts was an excellent twist.
  • Fred’s parents reappearing in The Girl In Question was the best thing the show could have done to make me feel sad about her death.
  • In that same episode, it was fun to get one more whirl with Darla and Drusilla, albeit only in flashback.
  • Same goes for Andrew, minus the flashback part and plus Damage.
  • Then in Not Fade Away we get one more look at Julia Lee as Anne Steele (and I am always more than happy to have another look at her!) and a little shout-out to Gunn’s old crew.

I ended up feeling quite pleased with all these reappearances. Cycling through these touchpoints gave this final season of Buffyverse TV a real sense of closure.

5. I quite like the way that the season kept returning to its unifying theme of “defending innocence.” In the last episode of season 4, Angel warns that if his gang decides to take the Wolfram & Hart tour being offered by Dead Lilah, “before the ride’s even over, before you even cross through their doors, you’ll be corrupted.” Then they do so anyway, and spend all of season five trying to prove that statement wrong. That’s a great tension upon which to base a season, and many individual episodes revisited the question from various angles.

Once again, Joss sets the terms in Conviction. That episode does a brilliant job of interrogating the idea of innocence, choosing to set its main story in the very battleground of innocence, a courtroom. That the gang must keep justice at bay from a man who is clearly guilty, in order to protect the world from the danger posed by that man’s innocent son, is a perfect start to their slog through the moral morass that is Wolfram & Hart. Angel’s vigorous crunch into Eve’s apple is a lovely symbolic moment, setting off an arc that ends in Not Fade Away with his comment to her about being thrown out of the garden.

Eve herself displays an intriguing set of developments, seeming at first to be the snake in the garden, contrary to her name. Bit by bit, though, we learn that she is not nearly as worldly as she at first appears. We get our first glimpse of vulnerability at the end of Life Of The Party — she’s just dismissed any emotional consequence to her mystically-influenced coupling with Angel, but as she turns away from him and towards the camera, her face twists in anger. That vulnerability flowers in her attachment to Lindsey, and in that moment of the final episode, as she (apparently) sacrifices herself to despair, it is clear that she has become the naive one, and the power is with Angel once more.

Speaking of Angel’s “groin buddies”, Nina the Werewolf is trying desperately not to become a destructive monster, mirroring the struggle of our heroes in this season. She also wants to stay closeted from her family, protecting them from the frightening world that has claimed her. In this way, she reflects Angel’s decision to alter reality, erasing the memories of his son and his friends — he decides on their behalf that they are better off not knowing. I appreciated the fact that the show revisited this decision in Origin, and that it never fully resolves the question of whether innocence must be tied to ignorance. For Connor, we suspect (and get confirmation in Not Fade Away) that he is able to integrate the truth about himself without losing his soul to the darkness. With Wesley, on the other hand, I get the sense that once he uncovers the mystery, he wishes he could have remained in the dark.

A number of Little Bad episodes also rung changes on the theme, none more piercingly than Damage, which links the shredded innocence of deranged slayer Dana to that of Angel and Spike themselves, who were, after all, once victims of a horrific fate. Like them, Dana lost her innocence long before the heroes could jump in and defend it — all they can do is deal with the consequences of horror. We get a more hopeful parallel in The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco, in which Numero Cinco represents not only a more innocent time in the fight against evil, but also a parallel to Angel’s essence, on a journey where both rediscover hope and purpose. Smile Time ends in success, too — the demons who are looking to sell the “100% pure innocence” of their victims fail in their gambit, thanks to Angel and company. Why We Fight is closer to Damage — Lawson sacrificed his soul heroically, but there is no way to avoid the consequences of that sacrifice. All Angel can do is euthanize him.

When we see Angel give up the baby to the Fell Bretheren in Time Bomb, alarm bells start ringing. Here, in a season all about the defense of innocence, we see the ultimate symbol of innocence seemingly defenseless against embodiments of evil. Luckily for us, Angel has “gone dark” so many times that now the way to confound the audience’s expectations is to have him actually remain a hero. Thank god! I was getting very tired of that particular groove, and was relieved to see this final season skip it. (Even the surprise-by-staying-good trick was more powerfully done in Enemies, the season 3 Buffy episode.) Still, Whedon never lets us off the hook that easily. Fred’s essence is destroyed for good by Illyria, despite every possible effort being made to save it. Wesley dies too, but he’s shown us plenty of darkness in his heart. Really, the greater loss of innocence happens to Lorne, who finally must turn his back on the “unsavory” (albeit heroic) work of the gang when Angel asks him to commit murder. Although Angel does much to protect the souls of many, including his own, his fight isn’t always successful.

6. Doesn’t it seem like the show is kind of playing fast and loose with the question of whether or not Angel can have sex? It kind of seems like it keeps changing its mind on the topic. I mean, early on (in Untouched, from season 2), Cordelia is all about warning Bethany, “Don’t bone my boss.” Even as late as Origin, Spike says, “Keep in mind, he can’t get laid without maybe going crazy.” Yet not only does he do it with Eve (which, arguably, he didn’t have a choice about), but he also has entirely-consensual-no-mystic-influence-whatsoever sex with Nina in Power Play. Sure, they reference the “happy but not perfectly happy” thing, but it still seems like a lot of slippage to me. Er, as it were.

7. I like seeing Gunn with brains, and I really like that he develops a dependency on them. His position as “the muscle” never made a huge amount of sense to me, what with a superpowered vampire standing right next to him. J. August Richards takes on the “human encyclopedia” persona quite ably, and his panic at losing that power made perfect sense in light of his long history of insecurity about his place on the team.

8. Lindsey with muscles and bad snark is way more annoying than the Lindsey I remember. (Not that the Lindsey I remember was a joy.) His patter is especially bad in Not Fade Away — so much so that I think it must be intentionally irritating, though whether the intentionality is on the part of the character or the writers I’m not sure. It was quite satisfying to see Lorne dispatch him, and I loved Lindsey’s crushing disappointment at being killed by “a flunky.”

9. Gosh, it was fun to see Adam Baldwin again. Hamilton was a great replacement for Eve, and Baldwin is terrific in the part. (And would you believe, I just today learned that he’s not one of the Baldwin brothers? I always just sort of assumed he was. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

10. The “Fred taken over by Illyria” plot is a bit of a rehash of the “Cordelia taken over by Jasmine” plot from last season — the show even acknowledges this in Shells. The fact that it is rehashed is troubling to me. Whedon is certainly known for his strong heroines, but now twice in a row, he has used the violation and destruction of a woman as a central plot point in Angel. Once, okay, but if you’re going to use the same basic motif, did it really need to be Fred as the victim? It seems to me that Gunn, Lorne, Wesley, or even Spike would have been more interesting, less hidebound choices. I don’t like the fact that twice in a row, the show had to build its dramatic capital by having a bunch of men freak out about saving a damsel in distress, not to mention the fact that they fail both times, and the women involved have virtually no agency in the process.

One thing I did notice in the Fred plot is that unlike in previous seasons, where Angel would always, without fail, choose personal attachment over the good of the world, here he allows Fred to be sacrificed in order to avoid the disastrous consequences of saving her. The good of the many outweighing the good of the few, as it were. Is this a different, more evolved Angel? Well, I’m not sure. He’s certainly ready at first to say, “To hell with the world.” In fact, he does say that. But somehow, in a way that the episode never quite makes clear, he either backs off or doesn’t pursue hard enough. Is it Spike that changes his mind? No, I think that he realizes he’s about to do the wrong thing, and stops. What’s still not clear to me, though, is whether he’s grown into a new moral compass or whether the “tens maybe hundreds of thousands” of people who would have been killed rescuing Fred pass some sort of threshold that’s always been there. Given the behavior he displays in the final episodes, where he only pretends to turn into Ends-Justify-Means-Guy, perhaps it’s not too hopeful to think he’s learning from experience.

11. Episode-specific comments:

  • Lineage — I was really pleased when it seemed like Wesley was going to have a reckoning with his father. It seemed like a pivotal moment that his character needed in order to shed some long-held baggage. I was quite disappointed that the reality of it was overturned at the last minute. I wonder — was he easier to kill because this crucial incident was only a fake-out?
  • Destiny — Again, what is with the business of Spike claiming that he fought for his soul? That is revisionist history, is it not? It seems as if the show has accepted this version of events, but that is surely not how I read his behavior at the end of Buffy season 6.
  • You’re Welcome — Okay, maybe I am dense, but this episode made no frickin’ sense to me. So Cordelia is corporeal, seemingly herself in every way except that she doesn’t sleep. So she’s a… what? Not a vampire, clearly. A zombie, except fully alert? A ghost, except totally corporeal (unlike ghost-Spike) and functionally not a ghost in any apparent way? A higher power manifest on earth in a way we’ve never actually seen her be before? I take it that we’re supposed to figure out that she drew the curtains over her own dying body at the beginning, but if that’s so, what body is she walking around in? Then she transfers the visions to Angel, seemingly, and somehow he knows it was a “one-shot deal.” The whole thing was just a big “Wha…?” to me. Or is this supposed to be one of those The-Mysterious-And-Never-To-Be-Explained-Powers-That-Be-May-Alter-Logic-And-Reality-At-Their-Whims-Woo-Woo type of deals? Because, thumbs down to those types of deals. When Angel got that call, it felt like somebody lowering a sign into the frame reading “Note: Poochie died on the way back to his home planet.”
  • Smile Time — At first, I thought I was really going to hate this episode. Ever since I became a parent, I find stories about the seduction and destruction of children almost too upsetting to tolerate. However, once Angel became a puppet, it just got great. I absolutely loved the bit about him having the relative excitability of a puppet.

Favorite moments:
Conviction — Gunn: “We can switch if you don’t like the—you know, the kung pao or whatever.” Wesley: “Feng shui.” Gunn: “Right. What’s that mean again?” Wesley: “That people will believe anything. Actually, in this place, feng shui will probably have enormous significance. I’ll align my furniture the wrong way and suddenly catch fire or turn into a pudding.”
Conviction — Phone menu voice: “You have reached ritual sacrifice. For goats, press one, or say ‘goats.'”
Conviction — Angel: “What? I’m not allowed to hit people?” Wesley: “Not people capable of genocide.” Angel: “Those are exactly the types of people I should be allowed to hit!”
Just Rewards — Spike: (as the remains of a former employee are carried in by the bucketful) “Ol’ buckets here was right. You guys are doing a bang-up job.”
Just Rewards — Angel: “Yeah, well, sharing’s not something Spike does very well.” Harmony: “Preaching to the horse’s mouth.”
Unleashed — Lorne (to Angel): “No, it’s talking you need… or maybe a shoulder to—” Angel: “I’m not gonna cry either.” Lorne: “I was going to a leaning place.”
Life Of The Party — Knox: “And how do you know your spell-casters didn’t screw up the payload?” Wesley: “Because I went over the work and I got that knowing feeling you get when you know something.”
Life Of The Party — Angel (in the midst of making out with Eve): “I mean, do you even have a last name?” Eve: “Do you?”
Life Of The Party — “Positive attitude Spike” is totally hilarious throughout this one. I especially love it when the angry demons burst through the door and he exclaims, “What a fantastic entrance!”
Life Of The Party — Eve: “Angel, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve had sex under a mystical influence. I went to U.C. Santa Cruz.” Also, her abrupt shift of expression as she walks out is very good.
The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco — The whole running gag of the devil’s robot, especially Wesley’s automatic knowledge of it: “El Diablo Robotico.”
Lineage — Wesley: (to Fred, after being “comforted” by Angel and Spike) “If you’re here to tell me about how you killed your parents… perhaps it could wait for another time.”
Soul Purpose — Gunn: “We open a can of Machiavelli on his ass.” Harmony: “It’s Matchabelli, Einstein, and it doesn’t come in a can.” I had to Google it, but once I did: very funny!
Soul Purpose — Harmony: “Also, any time something comes in with runes on it, I’m supposed to tell Angel immediately… and not try and read the runes myself… ’cause that can cause a fire.”
Damage — Andrew (to Spike): “No problem, brother. You’re a troubled hero. Creature of the night. El creatro del noche.”
Damage — Andrew (to Angel): “Think we’re just gonna let you take her back to your evil stronghold? Well, as they say in Mexico… No.”
Smile Time — Angel: “I do not have puppet cancer!”
Smile Time — The whole Angel puppet thing is very funny. I especially liked it when he took his nose off.
Smile Time — Gunn: “These particular devils have a fairly distinctive M.O.” Fred: “They’ve done this before?” Gunn: “You see the last few seasons of ‘Happy Days’?”
A Hole In The World — Gunn’s prank on Wes (and us): “Fred and I are getting back together!”
A Hole In The World — Fred: “Cavemen win. Of course the cavemen win.” A chilling windup to what was just a few moments ago a joke. How very Joss.
A Hole In The World — Spike’s annoyed fusillade of questions towards Drogyn.
Shells — I love that Illyria believes (as do we) that she’s a big apocalyptic monster with an army of doom and she turns out to be wrong.
Shells — Angel’s noble speech about how he would protect Knox interrupted by Wesley, shooting Knox.
Underneath — Illyria (reminiscing about her dimensional travel): “I traveled all of them as I pleased. I walked worlds of smoke and half-truths, intangible. Worlds of torment and of unnamable beauty. Opaline towers as high as small moons. Glaciers that rippled with insensate lust. And one world with nothing but shrimp. I tired of that one quickly.” Awesome Buffy callback.
Origin — The scene of Spike “testing” Illyria is very funny.
Origin — Connor (to Angel): “Do you spend all your time making out with other vampires, like in Anne Rice novels?” Angel: “No. Uh — I used to, but…”
Origin — Lorne (about Cyvus Vail): “He’s powerful. Heads up a large demon empire, has tendrils stretching throughout L.A.” Angel: “Tendril-tendrils?” Lorne: “Metaphor-tendrils.”
The Girl In Question — I quite enjoyed the CEO of Rome’s W&H branch.
The Girl In Question — Demon butler: “Oh, look. The Americans are relying on violence to solve their problems. What a surprise.”
The Girl In Question — Final scene, with Angel & Spike. “Movin’ on.” “Oh, yeah.” “Right now.” “Movin’.”
Not Fade Away — Angel solving the Hamilton puzzle.

Favorite episodes:
Conviction

And thus it ends. But hey: only 74 days to Dollhouse!

Update to the Dr. Horrible Update

Well, that was a downer. I mean, great to avoid cliches and all, but still: kind of a downer.

And I was having so much fun, too.

Plus, the guy’s kinda-girlfriend is dying, and I’m thinking, “Dude! You have a freeze ray! Can’t you stop time until the paramedics arrive?” I guess maybe it was out of power.

I am still filled with love for parts I and II. I am filled with ambivalence about part III.

Angel Season 4

Season three of Angel had a great arc, and a cliffhanger ending. Season four resolved the cliffhanger well enough and managed a couple of strong episodes, only to descend into a disappointing spiral, full of bewildering choices, shredded continuity, and the same kind of personal disintegration that characterized season 6 of Buffy. As a whole, these episodes had less humor and fewer highs than ever before. The show recovered some ground for the final third of its season, luckily, and wound up in a head-scratcher of an ending that certainly piques my interest in the beginning of season 5.

Turgid, supernatural spoilers within

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 7

Season 6 of Buffy was all about degradation — the characters debased themselves, their relationships disintegrated, and the Big Bad herself was a nightmare version of Buffy’s beloved friend. Season 7, on the other hand, exudes synthesis and uplift. “I have so much strength, I’m giving it away,” says Buffy, and strength is what we see, both within and without her. Friendships mend, and it’s once again the strength of Buffy’s team that allows them to fight the forces arrayed against her. The routine of Good vs. Evil battling it out in Sunnydale has become a bit worn by now, and consequently this season can’t quite reach the peaks of the show’s extraordinary middle period (seasons 2-4.) Nevertheless, I was really happy with season 7. It was a satisfying and well-executed end to a terrific journey.

And now, all the spoilery specifics