‘Civil War’ is a More-Than-Solid Action Film–and Has More Heart than I Expected

[SPOILERS AHEAD.]

If my pre-Civil War rant was any indication, I decided a while ago to go warily into Captain America: Civil War. This approach was based on my knowledge that (a) the film could never match  Iron Man and Captain America’s intense dynamic as it stood before and during the comics’ Civil War arc, and (b) no Marvel film could live up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier in my opinion (this still stands). Plus, the last time we saw our favorite Marvel squad, they were inconsistent and messy characters in an inconsistent and messy Avengers: Age of Ultron.

But I’ll say one thing about the Russo brothers: They bring the magic. Consistently. I left this film totally energized, emotional, and, frankly, satisfied–because I reminded myself that the Marvel Cinematic Universe tells a different story. And the Russo brothers, in tandem with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, did a damn good job telling it.

Here’s My Consensus…

Action and Effects
Civil War does not want for action. Each sequence was meticulously laid out and executed like a choreographed dance. Black Widow’s fight sequences were my favorite in particular; their detail emphasized the kind of fighter she is–quick, slick, operating as if multi-legged–like a spider. The climactic confrontation between Team Cap and Team Iron Man was phenomenal, showcasing each character’s personality, motivations, and style with every move. Overall, the film was paced very well (despite its whopping 146-minute runtime), and, of course, shot brilliantly. I can’t wait until everyone on Tumblr screencaps the daylights out of this film after its DVD release. Every frame has something to say.

As usual, the SFX are off the charts, with the exception of Spider-Man’s costume animation–what is that? I’m no CGI expert, but if there’s little to no observable detail of his suit despite its redness, there might be an issue there. Otherwise, the film is visually stunning. There is a particular iconic shot of Cap and Iron Man in their final fight; comics fans will know to what I’m referring, but even if you haven’t read them, it’s an amazing shot of a well-crafted scene.

Characterization
The film isn’t just an action movie. Bringing together more superheroes than ever is not an easy feat, but Markus and McFeely pull off effective characterization really well (an aspect which faltered significantly in the last Avengers film). Indeed, this movie is a Cap film in name but really is an ensemble effort. And the great thing is, the writers manage to do justice to each character’s motivations and choices throughout the film. They expand upon previous relationships and dynamics (i.e., Natasha’s conflicted loyalty to Steve and empathy for Tony, the Vision’s gradually humanizing nature when it comes to Wanda) while forging new ones–I think my favorite part of the entire film was Bucky and Sam sitting in Steve’s poor excuse for a getaway car, emphasizing their newfound friend-hate-ship:

BUCKY, in the back seat: Can you move your seat up?
SAM: [deadpan] No.

Plusthey flesh out new characters who will get their own movies soon. I’m looking at you, Black Panther. Each character serves a purpose–isn’t just thrown in to say (s)he’s there–with the exception of Spider-Man and Ant-Man who exist essentially for comic relief. They did get their big moments, though, and contributed significantly to the fight. It was interesting–and slightly jarring–to see a Peter Parker who looked and talked his age. (Tobey Maguire, where art thou? Miss you, boo.) Even in the case of these two, though, the writers are unafraid to be self-referential–the amount of times other Avengers and Scott Lang himself question his relevance to the story are enough to breach subtlety: “Thinks for thanking of me!”

Overall Adaptation
Ultimately, yes–the details surrounding the cause for “civil war” in this film differ from those in the original comics. After all, the comics took a whole book and a ton of world-building and at least twice the characters to tell the story. But the film writers both take from and create a cinematic universe where these changes make sense.

Perhaps most important to me are the alterations to Cap and Iron Man’s motivations for the sake of continuity with the rest of the films. As I said in my last entry about this storyline, the “Civil War” comic arc is so effective mainly because Steve and Tony’s strong bond comes crashing down around them. In this film, that bond is different–it’s newer with a touch of a resentment, and frankly, that resentment only grows. They don’t want to fight, necessarily, but they do. Their opposing views on the Superhero Registration Act are based on Steve’s passion for his ideals (and for Bucky, the only remaining connection to his past) and Tony’s wracking guilt, respectively. The film does a great job building up this conflict.

Because there are consistencies. For example, in both instances, I am glad to say, Tony Stark is not portrayed as the villain some fans paint him to be. His position, given all that he’s lost and all the guilt he’s built up over the last near decade, makes sense for his character. There is no real “right” or “wrong” side to this war–yes, Cap physically “beats” Tony in the end, but that doesn’t change the fact that they ultimately strive for the same goal–to keep the world safe. And Cap recognizes that. Both men truly believe they are right and are blinded by these beliefs. And the gaps and ambiguities in both their arguments lead not only other Avengers but Steve and Tony themselves to question their beliefs. If college ethics class taught me anything, it’s that right and wrong are pretty damn subjective. The film does not shy away from this idea. Civil War isn’t just a fight for the sake of fighting–there is emotion and passion and heart behind every decision each man makes, whether or not those come from a good or bad place.

But if you’re like me, waving my Steve/Tony flag in the air for all eternity, the resolution to their conflict in the film–or lack thereof–isn’t exactly neat and pretty. It’s more like a “you go your way, I’ll go mine” kind of break-up. I think that’s exactly what I expected. And it’s okay. Plus, we all know they’ll hook back up for the next Avengers film. I hope by that point they can put aside their differences or at least find a compromise. But that compromise, that forgiveness, will inevitably be attained differently than it is in the comics:

I’m not half as good at–at anything as I am when I’m doing it next to you. And that’s the truth. (Avengers Prime #5. God, just get married already.)
I just hope that reconciliation, whatever it is, at the very least does justice to the characters the MCU has created. Movie-Steve-and-Tony deserve at least that consistency.

Etc
I’ll say that plot wise, there was a lot happening. The film jumped to and from many locations. The ending in which Zemo’s motives are revealed seemed a bit rushed, but I enjoyed that this film very much focused on the civilian perspective (which superhero films rarely do). That said, the film did try to accomplish quite a bit–and while it didn’t fall into chaos as did Age of Ultron, I would’ve appreciated more of a focus on the title protagonist. When Robert Downey Jr is signed onto a film, though, there’s bound to be a battle for screen time. (I love him, so I’m not actively complaining.) I also would’ve appreciated a more consolidated film, one that was less overwhelming to keep up with–but again, the comics were no picnic read. All things considered, the film adapted a complex story and made it unique.

Consensus
Captain America: Civil War definitely entertains, providing a well-stirred combination of action and humor. It also effectively maintained and forged character dynamics that shaped the tone of the film. It could have stuck more closely to a consistent storyline and setting to avoid confusing or overwhelming its audience, but overall, it does a great job executing a new take on a rising classic Marvel story.

Rating: 3.5/5

An Excerpt

Maybe if I post this, in concrete form, on my blog, I’ll be motivated to actually flesh out this little novel of mine…


Amber Elba drummed her fingers on the coffeeshop counter, craning her neck a bit. If she kept her gaze unfocused, it would appear to others she was peering intently at the cash register before her. Really, she was in the midst of watching a businessman about to take a tumble.

Trip. Do it. I know you’re gonna do it.

The man, all-professional in his navy blue slacks and tie, wobbled toward the back corner table with four large cappuccinos. Amber absently reached under the counter for the paper towel roll. In the forefront of her mind, the scene about to transpire repeated itself like a cartoon on loop: a nail-head jutted out of the floorboard in the man’s path; he’d catch his left foot on it, stumble forward, and promptly drop all four beverages on the floor. Splash the lady in the gray suit–no, the girl in the beige one, even worse!

Amber made her way from behind the counter and toward the potential scene. Just as she crept up behind him, the man let out a startled yelp and fell forward.

Annnd–boom.

Hot coffee flew in large droplets all around. The espresso-covered woman promptly swore. Amber gave the players a moment and herself a few seconds to take it all in. Almost missed the beige detail, still. Nailed it.

She tapped the businessman on the shoulder. He whirled around in rage to face her, red-faced and sputtering.

“Here you go, sir,” she said, trying to keep the grin off her face as he snatched the paper towels from her hands.

Just another day at the office.

Falling in (Friend) Love and Why it’s Important

Hi, I’m Jenna, and I’m the single friend.

I imagine you expect a defensive, angry blog post about how I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, how I feel as though I’ve been left behind somehow. And yes, some of that’s true some of the time. Countlessly I’ve been told, “there’s someone for everyone,” or “your time will come.” The pity gets annoying; the relentless optimism from those who have achieved the “ultimate relationship” gets tiring.

But instead of lamenting over what I don’t have, I think it’s important to focus on what I do have: relationships I’ve been able to effectively maintain throughout my life. And I’d encourage those in a similar position to mine to consider this outlook. Because, really–what is the “ultimate relationship”?

The answer, at least to me, is that there isn’t one. Love isn’t like a video game where there’s one route to maximum health points. It isn’t something you win. It’s something you do to varying degrees with various people, pets, even objects or activities. To that end, I posit that friendships can be just as important and fulfilling as romantic relationships. The media doesn’t want us to know that–wants us to sell ourselves to candy hearts and Nicholas Sparks movies–but I’ve found ever since I was very little that I have a tendency to fall into “friend-love,” or platonic love. And I know I’m not alone.

The back flap of Yumi Sakugawa’s “I Think I Am in Friend-Love With You” defines “friend-love” as “that super-awesome bond you share with someone who makes you happy every time you text each other, or meet up for an epic outing. […] You don’t want to swap saliva; you want to swap favorite books. But it’s just as intense and just as amazing.”

The term platonic love comes from Plato’s Symposium and the idea of achieving the ultimate sense of divinity and understanding of truth. It’s a concept that’s been with us for centuries but has been overshadowed by one monogamous (often heterosexual) path. Urbandictionary user Barkwoof posted this definition of “platonic love” which I think describes it best:

[…] a love or special kind of attraction that is beyond physical or carnal desire. Unlike unrequited love or being ‘friend zoned’, in a Platonic relationship both are usually aware and acknowledge the desires they have for one another but this does not manifest in typical romancing or courtship […] thus remain ambiguous. Platonic love may bloom into a full fledged relationship or fade to obscurity.

So essentially: friend-love can become a romantic and/or sexual relationship, but it doesn’t have to. It goes beyond the physical. Sometimes it’s between two people; sometimes you might feel this intensity for more than one friend. Think of Agent Mulder’s love for Agent Scully (which, if you’ve watched the series, transforms into something else altogether, but for the first six seasons is very much platonic), or a mother’s unconditional love for her child. The most fulfilling, wonderful, dynamic, mutually beneficial relationships in my life to date have all been platonic. All the stories and songs claim romantic love makes you feel wanted, allows you to be vulnerable, and requires commitment–but I’ve experienced these things just as intensely with close friends.

You might say, “But you can’t understand romantic love if you’ve never experienced it.”

I’ve felt a strong sense of deep platonic friendship for a few people over the course of my life, and it is as intense as the black-and-white films portray love to be. I do get that swell of joy when “my person” texts me at 2am just to say hello. I get that jolt of happiness pulling them into an embrace. I feel the heartbreak of saying goodbye. There have been a few people with whom I’ve developed extremely strong bonds, and if that bond breaks and I have to let it go, it’s a process for me as any romantic breakup would be.

So I’d say I have a pretty good idea.

For me, best friendships have always embodied everything a relationship should, and in my opinion, the sexual component isn’t necessary for complete happiness. So what if there isn’t one person to fulfill every single one of your needs? If there were someone like that for everyone, we’d have no need to interact with each other. We’d be entirely monogamous in every respect, our lives orbiting around one person only. To me, that doesn’t seem very fun. And it’s frustrating when I watch people with whom I used to be close fall into that mindset. Far too many of them drop everything and everyone else for the idea of the ultimate romantic relationship, the one thing that is supposed to make them complete. There’s the mentality that nothing else matters anymore, and maybe nothing else ever did.

I’m not saying romantic love isn’t important. As humans, we all require different things from each other at different points in our lives. I’m just saying it’s not the be-all, end-all of relationships. In fact, romance might hinder a relationship if it’s forced or unnatural for both parties. Here’s Lauren (coincidentally, one of my oldest friends with whom contact ebbs and flows but always starts again like we’ve never been apart) and her most recent experience with this:

[A girl and I] were best friends over Tumblr. We met last year and started to pursue a romantic relationship. We ended up having sex and quickly found that we just weren’t feeling it. We talked it out and realized that we just love each other as friends and our relationship is better than ever. We root each other on with our love lives and we can talk about literally anything because we literally know each other inside and out.

And what if sex and romance just aren’t your thing? Asexual and aromantic erasure are topics for a different blog post altogether. I know that especially in college I felt the pressure to “solidify” my relationships with some kind of romantic or sexual component (particularly with those of the opposite sex), finding that my peers were constantly searching for emotional fulfillment when it was right in front of them in the form of loyal friendship. Orion‘s relationship with their platonic mate illustrates a bond that is just as powerful:

My best friend and I are getting married when we graduate from college. We’re both ace and we’ve known since we were sixteen that we were platonic soulmates – our love isn’t romantic but it’s the greatest love either of us has ever known and that’s why we’re commemorating it with a marriage.

Again, platonic love isn’t a new phenomenon. But it’s often tossed to the wayside these days. And it’s hard for us who feel it so deeply to be tossed aside with it. Of course, a significant other requires much more doting, affection, and attention than in other relationships–so when those we love tend to wane in favor of zoning in on another type of relationship, it makes sense to us, and we grin and bear it. But significant doesn’t refer to just one type of relationship. For those who regularly experience and give platonic love, significant spans anything from a best friend to a mentor to a soul mate. And it does come with heartbreak. Over the years I’ve come to terms with drifting apart from people I thought were “my person.” People grow and change; it’s inevitable. But it just goes to show that the love songs apply to me, too.

Platonic love is so important. Love doesn’t have to be sexual. As individuals, it allows us to achieve a better understanding of ourselves and what we want in relationships of any caliber. You shouldn’t feel forced to define yourself by your relationships, but to celebrate and grow from their strength. If there is someone in your life (or multiple someones!) who understands you inside and out, who would make sacrifices for you–and you willingly for them–who complements you, who lifts you up: then it’s love. You have love in your life. And if you haven’t found it yet, that’s okay. You don’t have to look for it in the sheets or on a dating site, though you certainly can. Perhaps it’s already in front of you, waiting to be discovered.

And trust me. You aren’t “missing out” on anything. Your “time” is already here. So enjoy it.

This is not a justification or bitter acceptance of my singleness. This is a celebration of those of us who are ever falling in friend-love, those of us who have so much love to give that sometimes we’re kind of overwhelmed with it. I don’t know how long I’ll be “single” in the traditional sense, but in the end, I’ve always felt a commitment to those friends who’ve stuck around to tug at my heartstrings that I don’t think will ever truly fade.

I guess you could say I’m permanently taken (and you all know who you are).

Marvel’s ‘Civil War’ is Trouble in Paradise for Steve and Tony…or just Trouble in More Trouble

Blah blah blah, the new Captain America: Civil War trailer is out today and we’re all gonna die, blah blah blah. To be honest, when I found out that the third CA installment would center around Marvel’s Civil War storyline, I was thrilled at the concept of turning one of the greatest Marvel comics stories into a cinematic phenomenon–and subsequently very disappointed at the thought of how different the characterization would inevitably be.

I will be the first to admit I am not one of those die-hard original Marvel Comics fans. Joss Whedon’s 2012 Avengers film, kicking off the crossover Marvel franchise, inducted me into the Marvel universe. In preparation for the release of the film, I brushed up on as much Marvel Cinematic Universe lore as I could, and after seeing the movie proceeded to pore over any Avengers comics I could get my hands on. The films, like they did with so many newer fans, were a gateway drug into an addiction to some of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy storylines of the twentieth century. Mainstream media never seriously recognized the power of comic books and their combination of realism and escapism–up until the early 2000’s when Hollywood realized they could make a buck off of them, of course. As an avid reader and writer, I found a lot to love in Marvel comics.

Specifically, I found a lot to love in Captain America and Iron Man.

Wow. Get a room, guys.

The history between Steve “Captain America” Rogers and Anthony “Iron Man” Stark is vast and complex. I’m not going to explain all of it here, because it spans decades and a ton of really weird storylines and contradictory information as Avengers comics were handed off from one group of writers to another. But to give you an idea, here’s an entire manifesto somebody made on LiveJournal once. There’s a lot. Skim it if you like, or don’t. But it features tangible evidence of how these two have deeply affected each other’s lives–both positively and negatively–over the course of their friendship. In the original comics, it is Iron Man that pulls Cap out of the ice and into the present day. They fight together from then on, working in tandem with Ant-Man and the Wasp to forge the original Avengers. They’re also big fans of swooping in and saving each other, no matter the cost. Each makes the other get stupid sometimes. Kind of cute, right?

What I didn’t realize until I started delving into Cap-centered and Tony-centered comics (“Demon in a Bottle,” “Extremis,” “Avengers Prime” and of course “Civil War”) is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe completely abandons this relationship.

Now, before anyone gets defensive, I’ll say this: there are a lot of aspects of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America that fit their graphic-novel counterparts perfectly. RDJ’s Tony Stark is practically torn off an Iron Man comicbook page–he’s rash, he’s over-the-top, he’s quick-witted, he’s a genius. Cap is methodical, loyal, sometimes dangerously courageous, and believes in his country to a fault. Overall, I see no issues with the writing of their characters individually. It’s how they interact with each other that perturbs me.

Here’s the thing: conflict between characters is basically essential to the effective pacing and entertainment value of a film. If there’s nothing to aspire to, what’s the point of the film? What motivates the characters? It makes sense to me that Whedon and the Avengers writers made the decision to pit Steve and Tony against each other in the first film for a little while to pique the audience’s interest. They really do come from very different worlds–especially in the cinematic universe in which their origin stories differ slightly from the comics on which they’re based–and it makes sense for them to clash.

But it wasn’t just clashing. It was downright dislike. As an aspiring writer, I think it’d be boring to ensure every Avenger started out and finished the film buddy-buddy, but considering the connection these two characters have (Steve knew and was friends with Tony’s father; Tony practically grew up with the idea of Cap an all he stood for), it’s confusing that the film writers wanted them to be at such deep odds. Even at the end of the film and into Avengers: Age of Ultron, there seemed to be a quiet resignation between them of having to deal with each other.

But, okay. Fine. Maybe Steve and Tony don’t have a bromance in the movies. I can deal with that. Films and comics are very different mediums, after all.

Then I found out Civil War was happening and the disappointment set in. The trailer, if you watch it, sets up what Sebastian Stan (who plays Bucky Barnes) calls “brutal mental annihilation.” Twitter users can hashtag #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan and are forced to pick a side as many of the heroes and heroines in the film must do. Essentially, #CaptainAmericaCivilWar is taking the Marvel fandom by storm, particularly over social media. Dramatic shots abound of Cap and Iron Man staring at each other with contempt, spewing lines about wishing it didn’t have to be this way. And it seems so disingenuous to me.

Because the arc is so much more than an opportunity for a gigantic crossover action film. It’s about the relationships that lie underneath.

In the comics, the Civil War arc is particularly powerful because it pits two best friends against each other. Steve and Tony have taken a decades-long journey together that’s led them to this point. Despite their affection for each other, they stand on opposite sides of an all-out war. And they regret that it’s happened this way. It’s like a bad breakup, but with superheroes and maybe even more feelings.

The comics arc features a number of conversations between Tony and Steve–some ending in bloodshed, others not–about their relationship, about how they forged the greatest superhero team in existence. Their relationship with others is affected–particularly with Spider-Man, who finds his loyalties don’t lie where he thought they might. The wondering where it all went wrong makes sense in the comics, because previously, Cap and Iron Man were almost always aligned. They made each other better. As Cap tells Iron Man, “You gave me a home.” What is it like to face someone on the other side of the war who once knew you better than you know yourself? That’s the tragedy in Civil War.

And the fact that the film is trying to echo these sentiments means that it will fail in doing so.

For a true emotional impact to be felt by the audience, the writers should have set the groundwork for a stronger bond between Steve and Tony. It’s no wonder Captain America: The Winter Soldier did so well–pitting Cap and Bucky, friends in the war and on the streets of Brooklyn since they were children, against each other had an extremely powerful affect on the film’s audience. There is fan discourse galore about Steve and Bucky’s dynamic in the films–because it was effectively built upon. Because their bond was established before their friendship was on the line.

I wish Steve and Tony had been done the same justice. An argument between them this large, now, seems it was inevitable since they never really liked each other to begin with. Where is the heart of their dynamic? The depth? It’s almost as if the writers chose to start Cap and Iron Man out as enemies to save them some time in the writers’ room later. I’m curious to see how this pans out.

Captain America: Civil War will no doubt be an extremely successful film. All I’m saying is–knowing about the original story, about the relationship that was originally forged between characters that balanced each other out so well–I won’t be able to watch this film without a little bit of an ache in my chest for what could’ve been.

I’m gonna go reread my copy of Avengers Prime: Volume 5 and cry into the lovely illustrations…

‘Damien’ starts out slow but delivers a solid pilot

From playing Prince of Camelot to starring as Prince of Hell, Bradley James has certainly built up quite the resume. I tuned into the Damien premiere this week for two reasons: (1) I was (and still am) a total BBC Merlin geek, and (2) I love a good scare. The Omen is a great film and I was very excited to see the new, present-day twist on the story. Overall, I was impressed–the show is well-shot and has great potential, even if it’s a little slow getting started.

Episode 1, “The Beast Rises,” is set 25-ish years after The Omen and follows Damien Thorn, quite literally just-turned-30 and pursuing a very promising career in war photography. It appears he’s kept his job so long–despite getting in trouble on location in Syria in the first five minutes of the episode–because he’s “the only one” who can get so “close” to the action. Why is it, the viewer is led to wonder, that Damien can get so “close”–physically and otherwise–to the ruin and chaos of war? Why does it follow him?

Well, because he’s the Antichrist. He doesn’t really know that yet, though. So the audience is meant to follow grown-up Damien over the course of ten episodes in his discovery of himself.

Remember the creepy kid with the tricycle? He got hot.

What’s particularly gripping about Episode 1 is that, on the outset, Damien appears to lead a very normal life. We learn he’s had love interests, he has friends, he regrets the loss of his parents (even though he can’t remember what really happened to them, or much of his childhood with them, for that matter). But he’s experienced some pretty weird things over the course of his life, too. In this episode, the writers lay the groundwork for his making sense of those pieces that don’t seem to fit–and because of these realizations, Damien’s world begins to crumble. The writers have done a great job in just one episode of creating sympathy for a character about whom we previously knew very little besides the aforementioned creepiness. The show humanizes a classic figure of paranormal horror, which is a hard thing to do, especially with a film that’s been around for so long.

But Damien also pays tribute to its inspiration with a plethora of references (the three hounds lurking in the dark, flashbacks to the iconic hanging scene in The Omen), as well as significantly spooky religious imagery. One of the final scenes in which Damien confronts the crucifix statue in the Church is particularly disturbing and definitely sets the tone for the series. Damien also thrives in cinematography and coloring as a whole. Visually, it’s quite captivating and overall shot very well. Add a creepy old lady speaking Latin and you’ve got the recipe for the significant spooks. Those looking for spidery, subtle scares over hide-under-the-covers tropes will be impressed.

What Damien lacks so far seems to be acting strength and effective pacing. I’m extremely pleasantly surprised with Bradley James as an actor (he’s grown so much since his early days in Merlin–holy American accent, Batman!), but the other actors and characters fell flat to me. I hope these ten episodes allow for recurring characters to grow by the efforts of actors and writers alike. Furthermore, overall Episode 1 is, like most pilot episodes, quite exposition-heavy. Damien faces the challenge of both captivating its audience and providing the Cliffsnotes version of the Omen trilogy’s lore in 43 minutes. So far it seems to focus on the latter, choosing to tell rather than show what Damien’s been up to since we last saw him and winding on about Biblical explanations that just happen to fit what he’s going through. I’m looking forward to what will hopefully be some more creative storytelling, because the premise has such promise. There are many opportunities to expand on Damien’s character and on the lore without getting too dense, and I hope the writers take them up.

Overall, I give the Damien premiere a solid 3 stars out of 5. I look forward to tuning in again next week. Despite my nitpicking, the episode left me with a shudder running down my spine–so I can’t deny it achieved its goal!

You can watch Damien Mondays on A&E at 10pm ET.

Loss Reborn

Loss is never easy. Grief is complex–so much so that we have names for stages of the processes humans experience to handle it. There’s immediate loss, of course: of a family member or friend, a familiar routine, a pet, a job, a wasted opportunity. It rips into us, shards of ice in warm blood. No matter how many times it happens, loss is always new.

But what continues to baffle me is loss reborn–a sensation of the exact feeling washing over you, years after the initial loss happened. I tell myself–I think we all tell ourselves–that it goes away. They say time heals all wounds. I’d disagree.

Today on the train, I was engaging in my usual morning commute activities–reading, listening to music. Typically, people coming in and out and shifting seats don’t really perturb me. This morning was different. A woman probably in her mid-to-late forties sat down beside me, and a wave of simultaneous surprise and nostalgia washed over me.

I’m not sure if it was wishful thinking, or a combination of an array of scents of people and the rainy weather and the places we whizzed past, but I could have sworn she was wearing my grandmother’s exact perfume.

Gramma passed away in 2011. She was essentially a second mother to me. She took something akin to childlike glee in practically everything–a strong, positive force who’d overcome adversity in her home life as a child to eventually, with my grandfather, create a beautiful new home of her own. She raised my mother and uncle with compassion and understanding (and perhaps a touch of overbearingness), and helped shape my sister and me into the young women we are now. She was my childhood best friend, a selfless individual with almost too much to give. She died within my first two weeks of college. I didn’t get to say goodbye–all that remained was an unanswered email from her in my inbox, which afterward I could not bear to open for many months.

I’m almost positive the scent that I grew up with was actually due to my mother–Gramma didn’t really have a sense of fashion (she preferred baking over beauty tips, despite running her own hairdressing business in the basement of her and Papa’s house when the kids were young); so my mom often bought her clothes, makeup, and the like. Whichever this perfume was, it certainly stuck–I don’t think Gramma ever stopped wearing it. From my very first memories of her, the scent matched exactly who she was: sweet, sharp, clean, familiar, a bit like roses (her favorite flower). I could sense when she’d just been in the room, or when the breeze of the scent indicated her walking past. With my eyes closed, I could recognize her in a crowded room.

And apparently now, I still can.

I hadn’t been exposed to the scent in almost five years. Today, jarred and completely vulnerable on a train full of jostling people, I was overwhelmed with it. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. I remembered sitting in the back of Papa’s Toyota Camry (which is now mine), watching her count on her fingers in sheer delight the hours we got to spend together for the day. I recalled one of her last months in which she explored, with great effort but quiet enthusiasm, the hilly Wheaton campus to see where I’d be studying the next four years. I thought how she never saw me graduate, will never see my sister do the same. Will never see my cousins grow up.

There was a slight difference in it, too, but it was enough–at its core, it smelled like my grandmother, but it was missing the soft simplicity that came with the sensation of her hand on mine. There was so much right about it, and yet so much missing that I would never be able to experience again.

Loss reborn. It stung–stings, as if it’s September 2011 again, and I am 18 and wishing with every fiber of me that I had replied to that email. The swelling will ease, the pain will lessen throughout the day and the remainder of the week. But it will remain, humming under my skin, for the rest of my life. It’s hard to imagine it that way, but in moments like these, I realize that’s what loss is. Constant.

We just learn to deal with it.

I think of Gramma often, but it’s been so long since I could put any of my five senses to her memory.

The part of me in which spirituality has been ingrained since childhood said, It’s her saying hello to you. People have been arguing for centuries as to whether or not that’s a valid observation, so I won’t go there. But I will admit–I felt her there. Make of that what you will. I don’t know the name of the perfume, though perhaps I used to. You might ask why I wouldn’t look it up, or ask my mother about it. But truthfully, I don’t want to. Perhaps it’s best that the source of the scent remain a mystery. I don’t want it to be associated in my mind with a mixture of chemicals–but with a person who shaped my childhood and loved her family unconditionally. The kind of person I aspire to be.

For what it’s worth, I’m saying “hello” back.

A Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

Dear 12-year-old me,

I won’t write as if I know everything now–as if ten years have made that much of a difference, forged me into some kind of Buddha in navigating life. But people tend to write these every so often, and I’ve never written one before. So here goes.

You are twelve. You are in sixth grade and for some reason have perfect skin, and will throughout your teenage years when everyone else is acne-ridden (don’t worry–karma will firmly bite you in the ass in your twenties). You got kicked out of music class for refusing to sing High School Musical songs because you’re just that much of a rebel. You like fanfiction more than you like people. You’ve seen the movie Rent more times than you can count, and trust me, that number will only get higher. You’re making friends on the Internet to whom you’re maybe a bit too attached.

You’re quirky. Spoiler alert: that does not change. But let me establish right now that who you are is perfectly, marvelously okay.

I say this because right about now is when you start to believe the opposite. You are twelve and you’re embedded in twelve-year-old drama: who’s no longer speaking to whom in Social Studies class, which sweaty boy should you nab for a slow song at the next dance. But your mind takes it all to the next level. Your brain begins to set off a plethora of false truths that will make up your entire perception of yourself as you enter high school and even college. I am wrong. I am unworthy. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be alive. 

There is a name for what’s happening to you. It’s scientific, a chemical imbalance. You don’t know this yet, though. And I wish you’d known sooner. Right now, at twelve, your mind is creating an internal environment where negativity will fester. You are learning to isolate yourself. You do little experiments here and there at school–disappearing at recess, placing your head on your desk for classes at a time–to see what people will say. What people will do. Will they notice? Will they encourage your behavior? Or–worst of all–will they not react at all?

You go through life this way–falling in and out of love with the idea of people. When they don’t return your smiles, it makes you anxious. It makes you think there’s something wrong with you, even if logic and reassurance tell you otherwise. This is the beginning of years of wearing black because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do to match the feelings you have, of sitting on long car rides wondering what it would be like if you jumped out onto the highway.

You are twelve and you already want to leave your wonderful life behind.

I’m writing this to tell you not to do that.

I’m writing this because, ten years on, you really almost did leave your life behind. I almost did. And I want to tell you that no one–no one’s reaction, or lack thereof, to your existence or your words or your actions, is worth your life. People will disappoint you. You will enter college and come into your own, only to find that even that isn’t good enough for your bile-addled brain. You’ll yearn to be “normal.” But I promise you: no one is. You are just that: you. And you might not believe me now, but people actually do like the you-ness about you.

Perhaps most detrimental, you will wish for the experience of unconditional love in someone who isn’t obligated by blood to love you.

I still wish for that. But the difference is, I know now it isn’t my fault that I haven’t found it yet. The fact that I do not “belong” to anyone else does not mean I am disgusting or unwanted. And it’s okay that I haven’t yet found this one particular thing, this thing that songs and stories are written about. There is still time. You have friends and family that truly care about me. You have a promising future that is not worth ruining.

Here is what’s important: you, in your smarts and your talents and your compassion, complete yourself. This life, this beating heart, is yours to control. Not anybody else’s. I can’t say I’ll always practice what I preach to you now, but I can try. I owe you that much, since you held on. For a decade, you held on. So thanks for that.

We’ll make it. I promise.

Love,

Me

Changing in the Phonebooth: Expressing the “Inner Nerd” in Real Life

Sometimes, I feel a lot like Clark Kent.

In the kitchen at work, a group of my male coworkers are discussing the upcoming DC franchise films, Batman vs. Superman and The Suicide Squad. The magnetic power of the Joker’s character to the actors who play him is discussed. Someone mentions Wonder Woman and that Marvel does a better job of including women than does DC. The tone of the conversation is animated, and I, in my Marvel Comics sweater (it’s casual Friday), am itching to be part of it. Just as I find an opportunity to interject, the talking fizzles out–opportunity missed.

There is much I could have contributed, especially from a woman’s perspective and as someone who’s a big Marvel fan. I felt like Clark Kent, watching everyone talk about Superman’s daring endeavors in front of him. I could have said something, sure. But past experiences have informed my present. I stayed quiet. I listened from afar.

Why?

I’m sure part of it is navigating social situations in a (relatively new) workplace. But most of it, I think, stems from a reason which explains my go-to silence, explains the fact that when I do interject in conversations like these I’m drowned out by louder voices:

Being a nerd is a man’s title.

Of course, there are decades of facts to contradict this. The first Star Trek fans that protested the original series’ cancellation were women; women were very involved in what is arguably one of the first “fandoms.” This Washington Post article from July illustrates with a helpful graphic that Comic Con attendees in recent years are split 50/50 between those who identify as male and those who identify as female.

But there is a long-established mentality that most can’t shake. It’s the idea that, fundamentally, women are not invited into any circle which has been established in history as a “man’s” territory. It dates back to the concepts of “public” and “private” spheres of the 19th century, pinpointing where men and women “belong.” It’s the mentality that roots the “fake nerd girl” meme, which is less prevalent now than it was, say, in the early 2000s, but still pops up on my newsfeed every now and then:

 

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There is the assumption that women (a) flock to “nerdy” things because men like them, and/or (b) don’t have valid “nerdy” opinions on video games, TV shows and movies (particularly sci-fi) because they are “claimed” by a significant male population. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to “let my inner nerd dance in the rain,” as the saying goes, growing up. But being a woman, it was a surefire way to isolate me from my female friends–especially in formative years of elementary school–and to confuse my male friends.

In high school, I had 2,000 tumblr followers and a popular character roleplay account (the character I roleplayed, I should mention, was male). I quite literally became someone else when I was online–I felt like Superman. My friends at school knew what shows I liked and that I blogged, but nobody, not even my family, knew the extent to which I dedicated myself to expressing my fandom love online.

Only when I got to college did I finally let my nerd flag wave publicly, and even then, there was a constant voice in the back of my mind telling me, Tone it down. My whole life, I’ve presented myself as much like a Clark Kent as possible–average, unassuming–before delving into the corners of the Internet at night to express my affinity for all things fandom. Even now, I have different accounts on social media for different purposes–and when those accounts overlap–when, say, a “real-life” friend follows my “fandom” account–it’s like I’ve been found out. I’ve been discovered. And whatever way I’ve been able to present myself, however freely, on those fandom accounts comes to a halt. I close the account and start again. It’s an endless process.

And I’ve come to realize, especially with a broadened perspective and an understanding of gender inequality and social injustice in mind, that while not everything comes down to gender disparity, there is a lot of it rooted in my problem.

Granted, regardless of gender, the word “nerd” has never had the best associations (which I take issue with in general). Stereotypes of male nerds have become quintessential aspects of media portrayals: maybe they live in their parents’ basements guided only by the light of next year’s comic convention. Maybe they’re a little pimply or can’t get laid. This stereotype has faded a bit in recent years, which is good, but for women, nerdiness continues to be something you fake, something you don’t know enough about, or something that makes you unapproachable or undesirable.

For women, everything is about image. Everything is about presentation. The male gaze means women are viewed with potential mating and attraction in mind at every turn. What happens should a woman enter a “man’s” territory, with as much knowledge as he has of a particular topic, if not more? She’s deemed a loser. Unwanted. A “future cat lady.” Yeah, nerds and fanboys might have Halloween costumes made of their stereotypical image. But haven’t you noticed lately how popular it is to let the Nerd Boy “get the girl”? Become successful? (Check out most of John Green’s books for examples of that phenomenon.)

Fangirls, in contrast–i.e. Becky on Supernatural–are portrayed as ridiculous, irrational, borderline-stalkers. Always negative traits. Always traits associated negatively with “being female.” Again, this isn’t to say that men do not experience this problem–it’s just so much more exacerbated when in 2016 women are still chastised for entering “no-woman’s land.”  I have to be afraid of coming on too strong in expressing all my knowledge about something I love, whereas if I were male, it’d be chalked up to charisma. Zeal. Enthusiasm.

This is what’s always drumming in the back of my mind. The back of my mind constantly buzzes with the assumption that if I express my affinity for this or that, I will come on too strong. I will be unwanted. When I go on dates, I try to appear as “normal” as possible–nope, no fanfiction written by this gal! And it shouldn’t be that way. I should be confident in my ability to express myself however I wish.

But I’m not.

Now, in my particular situation today, I’m sure my coworkers would not have minded if I interjected a few comments among theirs. They’re all very nice people on an individual level. And arguably, I stopped myself from speaking up. But that’s just it–I’ve been conditioned to do so. Too many times have I been talked over and chastised for my “nerdy” opinions. I’ve had too many condescending conversations in convention centers with men who presume I know nothing. The amount of times a man has given me an odd look for actually knowing my fan lore, in any fandom I’m in, is countless.

I’m tired of hiding behind my baby-blue suit and thick-rimmed glasses. I want come out of the phonebooth, but who knows if I’ll ever be ready to?

Review: “X” Marks a Solid Premiere

SPOILERS AHEAD! Read at your own risk…

It’s finally here, Philes! Around 16 million people tuned into The X-Files Season 10 premiere on Sunday, January 24th–despite the fact that it began 24 minutes late due to the football game. The long-awaited return of this sci-fi classic continued to blow up Fox ratings on Monday the 25th with the second of the two-part premiere (it rated higher than all the episodes of its 8PM timeslot predecessor, Gotham, put together!). The numbers should say it all, really.

And yet, apparently, they don’t quite. While most fans are flocking to Twitter and Tumblr to pour out their love for the new episodes, critics aren’t as enthused. Many consider the first episode, “My Struggle,” to be rushed, confusing, and full of conspiracy-related jargon. The Entertainment Weekly recap essentially called it a failure. Vanity Fair essentially assured viewers that “it gets better.”

I skimmed a couple of these reviews before I watched “My Struggle,” and I wish I hadn’t. I did not make the same mistake with last night’s episode, “Founder’s Mutation.” Regardless, I will try to present my ideas here with the least outside influence as possible. Here’s my two cents: It may be new. It may even be a little jarring. But especially after last night’s episode, it is The X-Files through and through.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 2.42.32 PM.pngPart of what makes “My Struggle” quintessentially X-Files (which critics took issue with, ironically enough), is that it does not dip its toes in the metaphorical water–it dives right in. Whether you’re a longtime fan or just starting out, the new X-Files takes you immediately on a wild ride without holding back. Lots of speeches made by Mulder about government conspiracies, lots of assumptions and little references about the show’s history–and, as critics pointed out–the episode leaves you with more questions than you had going in.

But isn’t that always what The X-Files does? How many episodes in the original run made you lean back and say, “Wow. I really understand 100% of what’s going on with this alien mythology. Thanks, Chris Carter!” That’s just the thing. Carter, the show’s creator, is notorious for leaving us hanging in many aspects. Are aliens on our side, or against us? Do they even exist at all? To what extent can we trust our government? Frankly, I don’t expect any of these questions to be answered fully in this new season. Why should any fan? That’s part of the fun of the show. It keeps you guessing.

Despite this, the show put forth a couple of established answers they were teeter-tottering on before, which was great to see. For example, we see clearly in “My Struggle” that Walter Skinner is entirely on the side of Mulder and Scully and the discovery of the truth. In the original series, his stance was often very ambiguous til the end, and one might have wondered if time apart from the duo would have turned him to the dark side (read: the FBI’s side) once more. That’s not the case. “There were so many times I wanted to pick up the phone and call you, and I couldn’t,” he laments to Mulder. We also see established very early on that Mulder and Scully have slipped back into their roles as Believer and Skeptic, respectively–though of course there’s always room for development there.

“My Struggle” was also criticized for being too plotty–which I would counter with five simple words: we’ve only got 6 episodes. While “My Struggle” probably isn’t an Emmy-worthy episode on its own–it is necessary to establish the tone and mythology of the season to come. This new season exists, as Carter and Gillian Anderson have reiterated, in a post-9/11 world in which everything we take as fact about the government, about America, about the world is up for debate. In “My Struggle,” we’re introduced to Sveta, an alien abductee, who sets up a series of questions Mulder and Scully will have to attempt to answer this season. Mulder’s beliefs, his trajectory of understanding what his government is hiding, come into question. What does Mulder want to believe in? Is the government deliberately hiding the existence of aliens, or their misuse of alien technology? And how does this all relate to the world we live in today, with its conflicts and wars and inconsistencies? At the end of the episode, Scully vows that she and Mulder have to “get these sons of bitches” who are hurting victims like Sveta, Mulder’s sister Samantha, and, of course, Scully herself. We have a motivation for them both to return to the X-Files despite all they’ve been through investigating them. And that, to me, is a great place to start, especially with such a limited number of episodes.

We’re led from “My Struggle” into “Founder’s Mutation,” an episode which to many critics increases in quality exponentially from the first. I wouldn’t say it it necessarily improved on quality, writing, or acting–those factors were strong in both episodes to me. However, “Founder’s Mutation” represents the true essence of the show: a bit of camp, a decent amount of gore, and engaging from beginning to end. The episode, unlike the first, is fast-paced and has a very “original series” feel, in that it’s a case-of-the-week episode with undertones of the overall mythology of the season. It’s also confirmed that Skinner is 100% Team X-Files (he outright lies to one of his colleagues to cover Mulder and Scully’s tracks followed by an enthusiastic, “Welcome back, you two”).

Perhaps the most important component of “Founder’s Mutation”–that which seemed to resonate most with fans–is the personal aspect. In probably some of the most moving scenes on the show to date, Scully and Mulder, in their respective imaginations, explore what it would have been like to parent William had Scully not given him up for his safety.

What I love about these scenes is that they aren’t just simply an expression of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” on behalf of William’s parents. Rather, they illustrate Scully and Mulder’s separate fears for their son, as well as their separate interpretations of the kind of child he is. Scully, obviously, spent more time with William before she gave him away (Mulder, if you recall, was in hiding). Her made-up memories of William as a child, then, illustrate simple, human things–taking him to school, holding his hand. Despite his “alien” side, Scully, in the short time she raised him, saw him only as her baby boy. Mulder, on the other hand, holds his son close and talks to him about the extraterrestrial, the supernatural. He imagines himself launching a toy rocket with him–always thinking outside of human comprehension.

And when their daydreams take a turn for the worse, we see how they reflect their respective characters. Scully is afraid for William ever having to reconcile his humanity with his extra-terrestrial side. imMulder, on the other hand, fears the one thing he’s been fighting for decades–the secrecy of his government–would take William away from him. In a sequence eerily similar to that of Samantha Mulder’s abduction through her brother’s eyes, we see this fear, this guilt for not keeping William safe, manifest itself.

What a brilliant and moving insight into each character and where they stand in terms of their child together–it’s definitely something I wish had been explored in 2008’s I Want to Believe, that was only touched upon very briefly. Bravo!

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 2.10.35 PMA general critique of both episodes seems to center around the Mulder/Scully dynamic. Fans have expressed their annoyance over Twitter and other social media outlets that the pair’s relationship isn’t quite resolved and feels forced. I’d disagree with this as well. While I’d say the fans probably know more about “MSR” than even the actors do, perhaps it’s best to take a step back before we make too many judgments. Seven years have passed between the last time we saw this couple (in I Want to Believe) and now. Realistically, lot can change for any relationship in that amount of time. Furthermore, we found these two a bit rocky in I Want to Believe to begin with. To me, the logical trajectory would be that Mulder and Scully spend some time ]truly finding their roots again, within themselves and with each other. Remember in the early seasons of the original, when just Mulder’s hand on Scully’s shoulder was enough for fans to analyze? We have that dynamic again–except this time, there’s years of history and emotions attached. I see nothing wrong with that.

Others say, particularly in regard to the second episode, that Mulder and Scully slip all too quickly back into their old rapport. Again, it’s important to keep in mind the time frame. We don’t have 24 episodes to flesh out Mulder and Scully’s dynamic like we did before. So, we are given their fundamental friendship and trust in each other–which will never truly go away. Isn’t that better than starting out the show with them despising each other? There’s resentment and tension, sure (the scene where Scully storms back to her car in “My Struggle” is so tense, I was squirming in my seat as I watched)–but all that will drive new changes in their relationship. I don’t think this season is the death of Mulder/Scully. Conversely, I think it’s a new, exciting chapter to carry the necessary character drama through the season.

I’ve only watched the first two episodes once through, but in short, I’m optimistic about this revival series. Of course it’s different–seven years since I Want to Believe have changed our characters, our actors, our writers, our world. But in my opinion, these first two episodes alone feel so much more like The X-Files than did the choppy, disjointed I Want to Believe. It’s a new age for the show, and anyone who’s expecting what plays on their Season 4 DVDs word-for-word has another thing coming.

I, for one, can’t wait for more.

Conversations

Over the weekend, I finished reading Gloria Steinem’s newest memoir, My Life on the Road. It was a very interesting read, if slightly disjointed–it spoke to the ways in which Steinem’s idea of “home” was uprooted when she was very young and continued to inform her ideas about travel and “settling” throughout her life. Most importantly, she discussed the interesting people she’s met in a lifetime of traveling, and how they’ve shaped her ideals and her understanding of the world. To me–someone who’s only left New England a handful of times and the United States once–Steinem’s journey was something I watched from the outside. As I read, I admired her ability to relax into wherever life–quite literally–took her. I didn’t realize such experiences could happen so close to home.

This morning on the train into South Station, a man probably in his seventies sat next to me a stop after mine. I was absorbed in my latest read (The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller), so I didn’t really pay much attention to him.

Until, that is, we were squished next to each other in a way only the MBTA can muster, after another man took the end seat in our row. The stale smell of tobacco and the sensation of being overly crowded made its way through my senses.

“Excuse me,” he said politely, leaning his McDonalds coffee cup against my coat as he adjusted his many layers of clothing and various belongings to provide room for all three of us.

This is not an atypical occurrence–trains into Boston are notoriously crowded in the morning and evening commutes. So I figured I’d just do what I always did–bury my nose in my book until the train arrived at my destination.

But then the man spoke up again. First it was in regard to the snowstorm we had over the weekend, general topics of that nature. I took this time with my short, polite answers to appraise him. Plaid scarf, dirty dark coat, a worn black messenger bag in the overhead compartment. Smiling, crystalline eyes. Long, unkempt fingernails. A propensity for talking too close. I thought my lean toward introvertedness would keep me from giving this man too much time.

And then, much to my surprise, the conversation took a turn.

We started talking politics. And I don’t mean that the man began ranting at me–he began asking my opinions, quizzing me on my historical knowledge (“When was the last time the United States declared war?”–if you think it’s a trick question, you’re on the right track. My answer to him was another question: “…Officially?”). I found out he’d been a lawyer (which he jokingly attributed to his frequent questions), and he was unabashed about his opinions. It’s fortunate most of his aligned with mine, but either way, I was pretty impressed with his ability to just let go and discuss his honest thoughts. We pored over feelings on Trump, on America’s current economic situation. I realized I had solid knowledge from many a history course in the back of my head which had not been stimulated in years. An intellectual conversation on the train ride to Boston was not something I expected hopping on this morning, but I’m glad for it.

We switched gears and talked about literature. I found out he wrote plays and studied acting as a passion outside of his profession–though he never sold any of his works. He said his biggest inspiration was the renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill, of whom he gave me an extensive familial history. As an aspiring writer, I found this extremely interesting. O’Neill apparently resented the fact that his father “sold” his acting talents when he bought the rights to The Count of Monte Cristo and performed it with a traveling troupe, Vaudeville style. This, the man explained, was why he never wanted to publish his literary works or make money off them. He’d been afraid of “selling out.” It’s a Bohemian, starving-artist mentality I hadn’t quite heard in a while outside the movies.

In the fifteen minutes we chatted, I felt like I’d taken a million semesters’ worth of college courses. Hearing from someone’s personal experience really solidifies so much of what makes up history. I finally introduced myself and he told me his name was John, just as our train came to its final stop.

One of his last remarks to me was a question: “Have you ever heard of Willie Sutton?”

“No,” I said honestly. It was a response I found myself saying a lot in our conversation, but not bitterly–as a student of liberal arts I feel like you’re trained to be a lifelong learner.

“He was a bank robber during the Depression. When he got caught, a reporter asked him why he robbed banks. He said, ‘Because that’s where the money is!'”

It was a silly joke, but as I told him, it was the 1930s in a nutshell if I’d ever heard it. It set the tone for the rest of my morning. I left the train with a smile, with an openness for whatever came my way. My conversation with this surprisingly friendly man was my intellectual warm-up for the day.

I didn’t exactly travel somewhere I’d never been. But in a way, I had. Who knows which parts of John’s anecdotal out-loud musings are based in fact–but for him, they are fact. They make up his understanding of the world, like traveling made up Gloria Steinem’s. This morning, I got a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. It made me realize: Isn’t every conversation with someone new, or about something new, a kind of journey in itself?

Maybe I’ve traveled farther than I thought.