Paranoia Agent – A Beautiful Critique of Society, the Self, Life and Death

        “Paranoia Agent” is a fascinating anime that pulls you in almost immediately as it proceeds to critique and explore reality through the world it exists in and the characters who inhabit it. My friend had recommended this anime to me and I’m glad that I finally got around to seeing it as any story that explores deep concepts and ideas and does it through complex characters is a story worth watching. It helps that the director Satoshi Con is one of my favorites for his film “Tokyo Godfather.”

     The story takes place in Japan involves Tsukiko, a character designer who created a famous character named Maromi (after her childhood pet)  who is under pressure at work to create the next character just as famous. When she is walking home at night a young boy with a twisted bat and roller skates attacks her leading to an investigation that leads to questions about what really happened as this Lil’ Slugger grows into legend as more attacks occur.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is very much a reflection of our own but with supernatural elements as Lil’ Slugger proves to be a major break from reality beyond the breaks from reality our characters face in the show. This is part of what makes it so fascinating. All our characters are broken and it is through their fractured lenses that we view their world.

The Tone – The tone is dark with an element of unrealness. From characters like toys being able to talk, but only a select few hearing them, a guy who sees life as an RPG where people are monsters to be defeated and an actual monster in Lil’ Slugger. The tone is dark as all our characters are broken in different ways and that is established early.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful and does a great job capturing the twisted reality of our characters and the dark tone. It is beautiful and at times trippy as warped reality scenes appear on multiple occasions.

The Characters – The characters are complex and fascinating, with the Police Chief being my favorite as he is caught up in his old ways but it is in his finding empathy for others and their perspectives that helps him save Tokyo from Tsukiko whose fears and denial created Lil’ Slugger in the first. We get a lot of days in the life of characters too and their relation to the events unfolding and how they react to the Lil’ Slugger incidents.

Gossip and the Creation of Legends – One of the major themes of the episode is Gossip and how it can feed the darker aspects of already horrendous things (like the Lil’ Slugger attacks) we see a group of women isolate and pick on another as each tries to one up what they know about Lil’ Slugger…Through it all there is fear of the other and the woman who is quiet is constantly targeted by the gossiping horde who has turned Lil’ Slugger into Legend.

Consumer Culture and How it Feeds Isolation and Fear – Isolation and the things that feed isolation are a major theme of the show too. From Maromi being the isolating factor of consumerism that gives Lil’ Slugger a feast of people’s insecurities and their avoidance of others and responsibilities. The ending sets up Lil’ Slugger is likely to return as rebuilt Tokyo is just like the Tokyo before meaning the same culture of consumerism is likely to lead to another being overwhelmed and creating another Lil’ Slugger as no one cares about anyone beyond themselves.

Escape versus Obligation and Responsibility – Escape versus Obligation is another theme as all our characters are running away. Whether it is running away from life, suffering, responsibility, etc. The episodes are about reeling them back in and forcing them to confront their obligation or responsibility. IT is only in taking responsibility for the death of her pet that Tsukiko is able to stop Lil’ Slugger from completely destroying Tokyo.

How Denial Can Consume – Denial consumes a lot of our characters…and each instance Lil’ Slugger arrives and kills them or knocks them out. Sometimes he saves, sometimes he arrives after they’ve already done the damage, like the anime worker who kills his entire team or the Police Chief after he’s lost his position. In one instance he has a suicide group who chases him and it is the only time he’s afraid as his power comes from those consumed by guilt and fear and the three who chase him were not. In the end denial destroys Tokyo as even Tsukiko’s guilt was not enough to turn Lil’ Slugger into the darkness that consumes Tokyo.

Isolation versus Relationship in Culture – All our characters are isolated and it is only in moments of connections with others that they find relief and peace. Isolation is what feeds Lil’ Slugger as lack of communication leads to obsession and fear. In the anime the culture of Japan in the story is one where everyone is isolated on their phones and stuck in their jobs and not wanting any responsibility or obligation. It represents the own darker nature of humanity and our own contradictory nature of wanting connection but wanting to be alone. Wanting responsibility but wanting none at all. This anime is great at showing the two sides of wants and desires and does it so well.

  This is easily one of my favorite animes now. Like “Tokyo Godfathers,” Satoshi Con created another classic that gives us complex characters and deep things in an overarching narrative that is willing to push the boundaries of understanding and comfort and in the process creates a masterpiece well worth your time. I’m extremely grateful to my friend for recommending this anime, and I plan to watch it again. There are so many deep themes that are covered and the complex characters are the perfect way to present these ideas. This is a perfect anime that sets out and achieves it’s narrative ends.

Final Score: 10 / 10

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Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Amazing Characters in a Story That Explores War and Responsibility

Captain America Civil War

        “Captain America: Civil War” is easily one of the best films of Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is the film that deals with the fall out of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and the past Marvel Films. At the core this is a film that tackles the nature of responsibility to self and to the larger world and what that means in regards to the Avengers. In some ways it could have been handled better (especially if they’d gone with the “Registration Act” of the comics and had X-Men in this Universe) but for what they have and the conflict at the core of the film, it is handled really well. I also wanted more loss, but that is just me.

      The film was directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and produced by Kevin Feige.

   SPOILERS ahead

    The story involves the United Nations forming the Sokovia Accords so that the Avengers have oversight after a mission leads to a lot of civilian deaths. The Avengers soon find themselves divided on the issue as things escalate when the King of Wakanda is assassinate and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is believed responsible leading Captain America (Chris Evans) and his group going rogue while Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and his team become enforces of the Accords.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and actually manages to be distinct for a Marvel film, which really shows how great the Russo’s are at expressing their vision of these stories. Trent Opaloch did a great job on this.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack feels epic and allows you to feel more fully the events on the screen. It isn’t the greatest of these soundtracks but it still a plus and compliments the film beautifully as it carries elements of “The Avengers” and the past “Captain America” films within the sound. Henry Jackman did good work on this.

The Action – This film has the best action sequences out of all the Marvel films besides “The Winter Soldier.” Part of this is due to the fight having actual meaning and us caring about the players because we’ve got to spend so much time with these characters and have come to care about them.

The Writing – For a movie that has a lot of ground to cover (introducing Spider-Man and the Black Panther) as well as the Civil War storyline and within that both Iron Man and Captain America’s arc…it does it seamlessly. Where “Age of Ultron” and “Batman v. Superman” were cluttered, this one manages to weave together all the elements in this fascinating character drama.

The Characters – The characters are why we keep coming back to these films and here they each have their moments where we get to know them and see how the last films have changed them. The only one who feels tacked on it Sharon Carter.

Thaddeus Ross – We haven’t seen this guy since “The Incredible Hulk” and how he’s running the United Nations…I really like that they did this as he more than anyone knows what the consequences are of letting those with power run around unchecked. For this reason his going to extremes and locking up all those who joined with Captain America makes sense. This is a guy ruled by fear in a Universe full of creatures that could destroy Earth easily.

Crossbones – SPOILERS, I wish he’d killed Captain America like in the comics. He has a small role in this where he is trying to get a bioweapon, and in doing so shows us that HYDRA is still active, and he puts up an awesome fight against Captain America too and nearly kills him when he tries to blow up himself. Disney, this is a character I’d like to see come back, your films don’t have enough good villains and he was a great one.

Zemo – Zemo is the one manipulating everything and turns the Avengers against each other to avenge his dead wife and child. I got his sadness and I’m glad they didn’t kill him off. He’s shown he can be a great villain as his plans succeed, he just needs someone to give him direction for future films.

Peter Parker / Spider-Man – Tom Holland might end up being my favorite Spider-Man. He’s awkward, nerdy and has great quips and conversation during his fight sequence. I’m looking forward to “Homecoming” as I’ve missed seeing Peter Parker and Spider-Man captured so well…he hasn’t been this real since the Rami ones. I like that Tony Stark is his mentor and that he is someone who is poor and does whatever he can to live. Spider-Man is about facing adversity and standing up to those who do too.

Scott Lang / Ant-Man – Paul Rudd gets to stretch his comedic chops in this and is great as the Captain America fanboy who manages to be the best weapon on the battlefield as he makes himself both large and small and wins most of the fights he gets in. Seeing him again reminded me of why I enjoyed his film.

Vision – Vision is really a fantastic character. He is very much the alien and Spock of the crew who doesn’t fully understand humans so looks at things from an empirical and logical point of view. I really liked him and Bettany does a wonderful job in the role.

Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch – Scarlet Witch like Ant-Man is one of the powerhouses in this as once she finds her confidence she saves most of the characters in the battle. She is also the one everyone fears because of how powerful she is and for her being front and center in the fight against Crossbones and her stopping him lead to the bomb he became killing civilians in a building. Her arc is embracing herself and no longer caring what the others think of her.

Clint Barton / Hawkeye – He’s back and he’s alright. I mostly like him for calling Tony Stark out (though he rightfully gets called out too). He’s sarcastic and quippy and you get that retirement didn’t really work out all that well for him.

Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow – Black Widow is the double agent in this as she believes in the Accords and oversight but believes in Captain America more as she helps Bucky and Steve escape in the large battle at the airport. I would have liked to hear more of her thoughts. Scarlett Johansson is once again amazing.

James Rhodes / War Machine – War Machine believes in the Accords and you get why as he military and military is all about oversight and he’s also seen the danger of Hulk and even the villains they’ve fought (and of course Ultron). He gets injured in the escape of Steve Rodgers and has to learn how to walk again. Cheadle is great as usual.

Sam Wilson / Falcon – Anthony Mackie plays one of my favorite characters in this universe and it is wonderful to see the reasons why he follows Captain America as like the Captain he believes in individuals and doesn’t trust organizations (after his experience with HYDRA and SHIELD makes sense). He is captured in the end but broken out by Captain America to end the film.

T’Challa / Black Panther – Boseman has me excited for the “Black Panther” film. In this we get his motivation as he believes Bucky killed his father the King and in turn he dawns the Black Panther armor to avenge his death. This leads him all over the world until he sees how revenge has consumed Zemo so he chooses not too and instead ops to turn Zemo in as he has let go of his rage.

Steve Rodgers / Captain America – Steve is both smart and stupid in this. Smart because the Avengers do need some sort of oversight (you have Gods running around who can do massive damage if something takes control of one of them or they lose control) and his trust of Bucky is dangerous as Bucky nearly kills his friends multiple times in this. I get why he fights this though as Thaddeus locks up the Avengers who joined him in a high security prison showing that he doesn’t care about balance or even using the Avengers to protect, which is the point of them. Chris Evans owns this role and his scenes with everyone are gold as well as what he represents in the fight against Liberty and Security, which in turn is the continuation of the debate started in “The Winter Soldier.”

Tony Stark / Iron Man – Tony is a man consumed by demons (Pepper left him, missing his parents, regret over his wrongs) who realizes that most of the problems the Avengers have had have been caused by the Avengers (creating Ultron, etc.). This leads to him getting behind the Accords and fighting Steve over it. In the end he is able to make peace though as he lets Captain America break out the Avengers Thaddeus had put away as we get the idea he wants the balance that is at the core of the Accords and that he forgives Steve to some degree for all that went down.

Responsibility and Oversight – This also relates to the Social Contract and Liberty v. Security. This is the core issue going on this film and why the Civil War exists in the first place between the Avengers. Oversight makes sense and the dangers of oversight are illustrated too. Who watches the watchers? The film is good at leaving this open too.

War and Consequences – Zemo and the Accords arose from the consequences of the war and the power of weapons. The Avengers are weapons and the collateral damage they cause to save lives goes addressed here. There is no going back from the trauma war brings and in the end you can end up like Zemo seeking revenge or T’Challa finding peace.

Okay: Sharon Carter – She felt shoe-horned in because of her relation to Agent Carter. I liked some of her scenes but her romance with Steve that was thrown in at the end felt tacked on. Her character wasn’t needed and wasn’t as fun as Spider-Man or Ant-Man (on the same subject of characters who weren’t needed to tell the story). It never really shows when they hooked up either.

 The Cons: Scarlet Witch and Vision Romance – Romance is once again this issue and it again feels tacked on! We never get when this love blossomed and they felt more like friends than lovers.

Lack of Loss – I wanted someone to die. We are getting close to the “Infinity War” and the lack of main character death that is permanent is annoying me. This of all films was perfect as Captain America is killed in the comics during this arc, so why not in the film too?

   For me the one thing that really brings it down is that Marvel has not been able to kill off any character for good. I was rooting for Bucky or Steve to die in this one so that Tony would fully feel the cost of what he was doing and so we’d fully feel the hit before the “Infinity War.” So often in these films characters die but not for good, unless they are a villain. This is a Marvel Problem but it is one that doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the film, and this is really the sequel that “Age of Ulton” should have been as it captures the spirit of the first “Avengers” film. “Civil War” is well worth your time and I’m super excited for the “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man” film. I highly recommend this film.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 1 “Water,” Episode 2 – “The Avatar Returns” – A New Quest

ATLA Season 1 ep 2

      “The Avatar Returns” picks up where “The Boy in the Iceberg” left off and is where things really start to change in regards to the main three characters of Aang, Katara and Sokka. It’s a fun episode and some really touching moments, especially at the end, though I think the first episode beats it in quality.

   “The Avatar Returns” was directed by Dave Filoni and written by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger and Aaron Ehasz.

    The story involves Zuko’s arrival at the Southern Water Tribe and defeating Sokka before Aang arrives and after fighting surrenders himself in order to protect the Southern Water Tribe. After Sokka and Katara go to rescue him as Aang confronts the Fire Nation troops and Zuko on the ship.

The Pros: The Action – There are few battles in this, one with Zuko and his soldiers against Aang and one where they fight one on one…what you come to see is just how deadly both airbending and fire bending can be. There is also a little bit of action when Sokka and Katara arrive and when Aang goes Avatar state and defeats Zuko and his men before their escape.

Sokka and Katara – Are aware of the bigger picture and get Gran Gran’s blessing for the coming journey. The two of them help rescue Aang are focused on the quest to learn bending in contrast to Aang who doesn’t want to be the Avatar so is avoiding responsibility.

Zuko – Zuko shows he has honor when he keeps his word and leaves the Southern Water Tribe and shows how good he is at combat when he has Aang trapped in his quarters and duels him. He also creates a fireball with Iroh which ends up crashing into a tower of ice after Aang knocks it away making them trapped. Zuko is now fully aware of Aang’s abilities and promises not to underestimate him.

Aang – Aang is in denial of being the Avatar as he doesn’t want the position. He just wants to have fun and live and he still thinks his people are around and doesn’t believe himself to be the last Airbender. He is smart though and a master at Airbending, even as a kid and is able to get out of most of the fights he finds himself in.

The Cons: Aang and Responsibility – Katara and Sokka should have called Aang out at the end when he mentioned all the things he wanted to do before going to the Northern Water Tribe. They can’t afford to waste time as their father is at war and might get killed, the Fire Nation is conquering and Aang is being hunted. To not realize this, especially after getting captured is a major con in regards to Aang’s character, kid or no.

This was a great episode and great continuation of the last episode. We get to see some fights, get some character exploration and see just how far Aang has to go before he’s ready to own up to his responsibility of the Avatar. This is part of what makes this series so great, the characters change and no one truly remains static.

Final Score: 9 / 10.

Dexter: A Retrospect On a Missed Opportunity for Greatness

Dexter

Showtime’s “Dexter,” was one of the first dark shows I ever saw that wasn’t animated, and suffice to say initially and for a while it impressed me. As the seasons progressed though major problems that the writers had began to float to the surface…for one most of the folks of color were comedic relief and unable to do anything of value in relation to the leads (Dexter and his sister Debra), the fact that most character relationships were not fully realized and that Dexter was a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, a perfect character according the writers who never had to face accountability for his actions.

Before I get into the details and examples, I have no plan to re-watch “Dexter,” so this will be a reflection from memory. The premise always struck me as intriguing. The show is about a serial killer killing bad people and following a code while dealing with the themes of can he never not be a monster. Sadly, this was never fully explored or realized.

Unlike “Breaking Bad,” and other quality shows where I have an interest and plan to watch again regardless of requests…”Dexter” is only a show where I would review individual episodes and seasons with fresh eyes if enough requested it. I have no desire to watch a show that ended up only being “Okay,” when it could have been great. Hell, it isn’t even terrible enough to review as “HERE ARE ALL THINGS NOT TO DO.” It was missed potential on a much larger scale than “Godzilla 2014.”

WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD

How people of color were handled: The first time we see people of color on Dexter and their roles in relationship to him are either in comedic or antagonistic roles, and if their arcs don’t go anywhere they are killed off. The comedic roles are seen in the perverted Asian American character Vince Masuka who flirts and hits on everyone and in Angel Batista, who sometimes has more depth but more often than not is a sweet, funny, well intentioned idiot. Dexter nearly reveals his hand a few times to him, but he is by far the easiest character for Dexter to use.

The antagonist people of color are seen in LaGuerta who is presented as blindly ambitious and whose love for the other antagonist Doakes (who is killed by one of Dexter’s lovers) motivates her to try to bring down Dexter…which never goes anywhere, she is eventually placated by Thomas Matthews, a friend of Dexter’s father and Dexter who also happens to be like every other protagonist on the show. There are also a few serial killers as well such as Miguel, Santos and George King. None of them are fully explored except Miguel who has a connection to LaGuerta. In the end they all die or are neutralized by Dexter…he also doesn’t build any real friendships with them since none of them truly knows he is the “Bay Harbor Butcher.” Some like Doakes are literally just anger directed at Dexter but we never get to know what is behind his anger, so he just becomes the “Angry Black Man,” trope. These writers did not know how to write people of color.

Dropped plot and character arcs: So many character arcs were dropped and didn’t go anywhere. LaGuerta trying to bring down Dexter went nowhere…and her love for Doakes was never fully realized, Vogel the Criminal profiler becoming a mother to Dexter and others like him went nowhere and was simply dropped with them killing her off, Zach being his protege was useless and he got killed off and most of the love stories were that way too. The only one that went somewhere was Dexter and Debra’s relationship and Dexter and Debra and Dexter and Hannah…these relationships actually got mostly fleshed out…sadly the writers didn’t account for the world the characters were in or the fact that they created a Mary Sue/Gary Stu.

Mary Sue/Gary Stu – A Mary Sue or Gary Stu is a perfect male or female character who faces no consequences…everything they do is correct, regardless of what it does to other people. You usually find this trope in the emotionless protagonist in most Shonin animes or most American Action movies (think Emmerich or Michael Bay). It is weak storytelling and it shows that the writers don’t know how to write a real and interesting protagonist. The reason Dexter is a Gary Stu is because he faces no consequences. He is never held accountable, I kept waiting for the police force to find out and for there to be a trial or him having to face the fact that he’d gone against the system that provided him work and who he represented…but they never did. Oh yeah, his sister Debra dies, big woop. He just kills another person and fakes his own death. Yep, that is what happens. He leaves his son, partner and Miami Metro behind and it is seen as a good thing because he is, “A monster who only does harm.” He is still implied to be good though. The last shot we have of him is him up in the mountains, no doubt he is killing bad people there too. He never stops being the good guy. They could have had the trial in season 5 and still do the relationship arc they do with Debra with her coming to accept him. He admits he “Killed his wife,” at the end of Season 4 (the best season that had everything good about Dexter, interesting killer (Trinity) and deals with the consequences of Dexter’s life since Trinity kills his wife while Dexter realized what he did was what put her at risk and that the nature of who he was, was dangerous). He was the savior multiple times, mostly for his sister but that was also a consistent trope within his untouchability.

I really enjoyed the first four seasons of Dexter, even though season 2 had some problems and 3 was a weak season…4 was like the relationship between Dexter and his brother in Season 1 and dealt with what morality and dilemmas were in the show. After that the writers opted for safety and having a “Serial Killer of the Season” which was pretty much a “Monster of the Week,” on a larger scale. Easy outs were taken for making characters not see the shadow serving with them in Dexter and whenever they did, plot armor protected Dexter, the beloved Gary Stu. A trial ending in the death of Dexter could have made this show a masterpiece. It could have been a classic show like “Breaking Bad,” with Dexter a lesser Walter White…but that was not how it goes. The show chose to be safe with poor storytelling rather than a risk taking show with arcs and consequences. In a way, I guess that is the tragedy of Dexter Morgan…the tragedy of “Dexter,” the show that could have been great.

Because of these reasons I would give the show a 6 / 10.