I love to pick apart stories. Not to criticize or poke holes in them, but like tearing down a machine, I want to see how they work. Or don’t. How setups are paid off. How motivation is sold. Or isn’t.
We watched The Batman. I liked some of it. I didn’t like other parts. That’s not really important. I’m not going to review the movie or give it some sort of a score. If you want to want to watch something and be entertained for a couple hours, you could do worse than watching The Batman. When you open it up and start looking at the parts, there are some places I think they could have done better.
When I hear or read a critique of a story where it becomes clear that the person forwarding the criticism simply wanted a different story than was being told, I always bristle a bit. I’m not going to do that. I think the story, as they were telling it, is fine. But it could have been much better. The problem they have is with familiarity.
At this point, there should be very few people who would go to see a Batman movie who don’t know who Batman is. In fact, this movie is counting on it. They make reference to the Wayne family in ominous tones, but they never explicitly say what happened to Bruce Wayne’s parents. Because they don’t have to. They know that you know. They know that you know this character. They know that you know minute details about the crime families of Gotham. They need you to know, or this story doesn’t work. The success of this story, of this movie, depends on it.
And then they somehow forget.
I’m going to point out three scenes, three key moments, and this will get very spoilery. I’ll toss in a fourth for good measure.
The opening monologue is overwrought and emo, but it’s done in a fun and knowing way. I can let all that pass. It establishes that we are in a heightened reality. What you are about to see can be corny in an earnest way and as long as you are on board with that you might be in for a fun ride. That’s great. It establishes that tone and sets up the audience for the story to come.
During the opening monologue, Bruce Wayne as Batman tells us how he uses the shadows and fear as a weapon. We see miscreants scatter at the sight of his bat signal. Good stuff. Batman stuff. They know that we already know this and are attempting to meet our expectations. So far, so good.
We see a group of thugs accosting an innocent man. The writers also know that we know, Batman will always defend the innocent. That’s what he does. Our expectation is that he will show up to protect this man. They meet our expectations, but there is something wrong with this scene.
Batman does show up, but he pretty much just walks forward and punches them all. Fair. It’s a well done action scene. The punching looks sufficiently punchy. But we just heard how he uses the shadows and fear as weapons. This guy just marched forward and punched. More important, we as the audience know who Batman is. We know that isn’t what Batman does. He darts around, he uses the environment to his advantage. He fights smart. We have to know that he could just march forward and punch, and that would be enough, but that isn’t Batman. Batman isn’t strong, he’s smart. That’s the character.
Now, we can wave this scene off. Maybe this was put in to establish that he isn’t quite what he needs to be yet. He doesn’t fight smart yet. Plausible. Except the police already have a bat signal set up, specifically to instill fear in exactly this sort of miscreant. So the scene is very at odds with everything the storytellers want us to think.
Anyway, let's move on to the next scene. A crime scene. The Mayor has been murdered and Batman shows up to the crime scene to, we can only assume, help with the investigation. When he arrives, Detective Jim Gordon vouches for him and the phalanx of officers lining the hall let him pass. This is a good detail. It establishes a history and a sense of trust. The officers don’t trust this masked vigilante, but a very senior detective does. That could only have happened if they had some history, if Batman had proven useful in previous investigations. This is the sort of welcome that you would expect from a Sherlock Holmes type character. A person who, while onerous, is extremely useful in exactly these circumstances. That’s good. That’s the Batman that we as an audience already know. The Batman that they need us to know for any of this to make sense.
Then they have him sort of stand there, in the way, and Jim Gordon tells him everything. Absolutely wild. It’s like whiffing a T-Ball. Had he walked in and immediately pointed out all the crime scene details the investigators were missing, put together the missing puzzle pieces, and basically did the job, it would have made sense to have him there. It would have made sense that Gordon vouched for him. He would have been acting like Batman. They had all the runway laid for this masked weirdo to be a superhero, and they just didn’t. Very strange.
Again, nothing else about the story would have to have changed for this to be added to the scene. The investigation would still go on because the riddler would still be ahead of them and the next plans were already in motion. But the character would be acting like the character. The one that they, as writers, need us to know before we started watching for any of this to work.
Next we have another scene with Batman and Jim Gordon. They are searching an old orphanage for clues. It has been abandoned for some time, and junkies hooked on the trendy new drug are squatting there. The two investigators are walking through darkened hallways, Gordon with his gun at the ready, and Batman skulking behind in the shadows. Good. That’s how these two men move through the world. That is their characters.
Suddenly, out of the dark, a junky runs into the beam of Gordon’s flashlight. That just sort of happens. He’s startled, but nothing else comes of it. Again, we have the opportunity for Batman to show who he is. Gordon is the grizzled detective who might raise his gun, and he might even fire. Batman would be the man who would stop him. These are junkies, but they are innocent. They are the type of people that Batman would protect. Him simply grabbing the gun and pushing it down would be enough. This is the guy that reacts faster than everyone else, who thinks faster than everyone else. He is the scary thing in the hallway, not the junky. We know that because we know this character. When given the opportunity to prove it, the filmmakers simply let it pass.
Again, we could be charitable. We could imagine that they intended this Batman to be young, unseasoned, early in his development. But that read falls flat. The film depends so much on the audience being familiar with this character and this world, that having him act counter to what we know is jarring. If this was a new superhero, if this was a new world, if this was a new story, by all means, write them any way you want. But it’s not, and we know that, and they know that we know that.
Those three scenes alone are enough to make me scratch my head, but, like I said before, I’ll toss in one more.
Near the end of the movie, the Riddler has amassed a reactionary army of disenfranchised and angry young men. Topical and mildly haunting to be sure. When Batman figures out the plot, he rushes off to intercept them before they can shoot a bunch of innocent people trapped in a building. There is an assumption made that there is no way one man, no matter how well-trained, well armored, or fanatical, in the pursuit of protecting people, could possibly stop all of these terrorists. It is assumed, but never voiced. Did it need to be voiced? Maybe not. Just running into danger with the intent to help is enough to prove that Batman is the hero in this situation. But there is also the assumption that he thinks he will win. There is an exchange omitted. Let me attempt to fill it in.
Batman moves to leave, the room. He and a police officer have just figured out Riddlers plan to have terrorists attack hundreds of trapped and defenseless people.
Cop - Where are you going? There are dozens of them. Even you can’t fight that many. What do you think you are going to do.
Batman - I’m going to give them something else to shoot at.
As the scene plays out, that is pretty much what happens. Batman acts as a distraction more than an actual assailing force. The terrorists are occupied long enough for people to start escaping, and for backup to arrive. The scene could be read that way, but it’s important for it to be voiced, or at least presented unambiguously. Why? Because we already know this character, and acting selflessly is what he does. It is always what he does. And you absolutely need to drive that point home at every opportunity for this story to work. Maybe that line is a bit cheesy. That would not have been out of place in this movie.
At no point did I expect a different story or tone than they delivered. The pacing could have been sped up significantly, but overall The Batman is competently made and assembled. It works. But for a movie that depends so heavily on the audience filling in blanks, they deviate from the main character that we already know quite well in strange and almost careless ways.
Superheroes are, at their core, deeply goofy. Not much of it makes any real world sense. But they are archetypes. Characters that act and react in a steadfast way. They are always that character. They have to be. It comes with the genre. It’s what people expect. Sometimes, meeting people’s expectations is just as important to telling a story as subverting them. It’s not always twists and character growth arcs. Sometimes these people just have to be who we already know they are. That’s the bar. That’s the assignment. Comic books understand that. We are getting to the point that most comic book based movies know that too. Apparently not all of them.
So, I have false teeth. I spent most of my life playing a lot of hockey, and I have found that pretty much everyone assumes it’s due to that. Fair enough. If the sport is associated with anything, it might be missing teeth. Nothing so gruesome happened. Honestly, in all the games I have played, I think I have only been hit in the mouth with sticks a couple of times, and pucks never. Well, maybe only once. Or twice. Who keeps track of these things. Nope, it’s the mundane genetic reason. I have hypodontia.
Hypodontia, if you are not familiar, is naturally missing teeth. I am specifically missing the lateral incisors. It’s so common that I have noticed it in a lot of other people. I have also noticed that most of them don’t like other people pointing it out. Oh well.
The long and short of it is that I have had false teeth since I was about fifteen. I try to take very good care of them, so I am only on my third set. This last set, they didn’t last as well as others. Yep. I broke my teeth.
Here’s the other thing about me. I’m that weirdo who will fix his own teeth. I’m also that weirdo that has acquired all the skills necessary to fix his own teeth. Life casting with alginate and plaster. Done that. 3D modelling and printing to make my own dental impression tray. Can do. Working with acrylics and acrylic solvents. Literal years of experience. Handy with a dremel. Sure.
I printed my own dental tray, got some alginate and plaster from one of those hobby hand impression kits from the dollar store (trust me, it’s exactly the same stuff), and got some acrylic powder and solvent from denture repair kits (also, trust me, exactly the same stuff). I made a positive cast of my upper teeth and mouth and used that to align my denture and teeth.
The first time I broke these teeth, I was able to put them back together, but I hadn’t mastered getting the bite right.
The second time they broke, I got them fitted really well, but the connections between the teeth and the plate were too thin. There was no way they were strong enough to last.
This time, I put them all back together, but the original plate has been taken apart and put back together too many times. I know what happens to acrylic when you repeatedly apply solvents to it. I don’t have a lot of confidence in it anymore. Also, I ran out of acrylic powder.
Even though I am exactly that weirdo who will fix his own teeth, it’s now time to call in the experts.
I’ll go in and get a new set of teeth made. Hopefully they last for another ten years or so. If they don’t, I suppose I could always fix them again.
Best Games - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
The resolution of the gameboy advance screen is 240 x 160. That isn’t a lot of space. In the english version, a single font character is about six pixels tall by four pixels wide. That is extremely efficient for a font, but it also means that you can’t put pages of text on the screen. There just isn’t enough room for all of it. That’s why the menu system for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is amazing.
I just finished looking at some old reviews of the game. Time capsule takes from the early 2000s. There were a lot of people praising the game, but the menu system was either not mentioned or maligned. I think a lot of people just didn’t know what they had on their hands. Or, in their hands.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is part of a long-ish series of strategy rpg game put out by Square. It is charming as hell, and mostly joyful. The art takes beautiful advantage of all 240x160 pixels of a Gameboy Advance screen. Subtle touches make the character designs and landscapes appear more detailed than they actually are.
The story, though slow to get going, is interesting and nuanced for a game like this.
The missions are fun and work like a multilayered puzzle, where you can sway the constraints and advantages in your favor even before your first attack.
Strategy games like this live and die on their interfaces. There is usually a lot of complicated machinery and statistics that the player needs to be aware of at all times, and 240x160 pixels is just not enough room to display it all. Rather than attempting that, the devs of FFTA decided to tuck all the relevant menus and UI away under a few button clicks.
I think this is what reviewers were complaining about. They would have rather had all information visible at all times. That would never have been possible on such a small screen. Instead, they made every relevant menu one click away.
Now this might sound obvious, or simplistic. Every PC game has pop out menus. Most PC apps have pop out menus. They are context aware so that only the stuff you truly need at the moment is available. You would think that game menus would be exactly the same. Except they aren’t, and back in 2003 on a handheld system, they super weren’t. Menus would commonly be stored in subscreens where you had to press the start or select button first, and then navigate around to what you were looking for. Or you would press ‘Attack’ and all of the relevant attack menus would become available.
FFTA uses true, context aware menus. For everything. No feature of the game is more than two or three button presses away. And as soon as you get used to navigating it, you can just fly around those menus. And that is where the interactivity of a strategy game lives. A series of menus and button presses.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is one of the best games, and it’s not because of the story or the art or the music or even the complex but satisfying strategy. It’s because they did menus so very, very well.
I started a story about two years ago. Best I can figure, anyway. The first date on the original document is April 11, 2020. I didn’t really know what the story was going to be about when I started it. That’s how it usually goes. I start with one image or idea and sort of figure it out from there. By the time I have a few pages typed up, I start to understand who the characters are and what they want. After that, I gradually walk my way to an ending.
That story, All Legacy Hardware, is now published in the sci-fi and fantasy magazine, Cossmass Infinities - issue 8.
Before it landed there, that story was all manner of things. Eventually it was whittled down and refined into what it is now. It had no title, and then a placeholder title, and then a different placeholder title for a bit. It was always about an athlete getting a spine replacement, but as soon as I added the sister character, the story became about two sisters. The order of the events changed. It was much longer, then only a little longer, then a tiny bit shorter, and finally the length that it is. Which, I will admit, might be slightly too long. Character names changed, events were rearranged. I did research and got the opinions of a lot of different folks. Some of them, former and current, professional writers, scientists, and athletes. I changed the story based on a lot of different feedback. Hopefully that made it better.
Before it found its home at Cossmass Infinities, I sent it out to a few other places. They all rejected it. I used that time to go back over the story and punch it up in places where it was lacking. I even got some useful feedback from a couple of them, so that was nice. I still think there are some spots that I would like to change, where it isn’t as good as it could be. But I know that when I started the story two years ago, that was the best I could do. Maybe I could write it better now, maybe not, but at the time, I tried to write the best story I could.
In any case, All Legacy Hardware, is my first professional sale, and my first published story.
In the two years between then and now, I have started, and finished, several more stories. Some of them, I have submitted to professional outlets for publishing. Most of them will probably get rejected, at least a few times. I think my writing has gotten better since I started that story, slightly more confident, a little more dexterous.
These posts here, these are stream of conscious things. They aren’t trying to be efficient or punchy. They will probably continue to be just as meandering and clunky as ever. But the stuff I take my time with and put some real work into, there are a few more of those floating around out there just waiting for a place to land. Hopefully one of them will eventually.
If they do, I will be sure to mention it here.