Even diehard fans are experiencing superhero exhaustion. But it's not impossible to do something original.
- I'm a comic book fan 50 years in the making but, over the last few years, even I have found myself with superhero fatigue.
- Then came "WandaVision". The writers have found a way to blunt our expectations about what should happen in this kind of genre.
- Formula fatigue isn't just a problem for the superhero genre. Creators of sci-fi, detective, romance, and buddy-comedies can recapture exhausted audiences by telling a story differently—or telling a different story.
Human beings are, more than anything else, storytellers. It has even been said that stories were humanity's first technology. For most of our time here on Earth, the most important stories—a tribe's myth of creation or an ancient city's central Hero's Journey narrative—were told only at special times like yearly feasts or celebrations. But in the modern era, our capacity for cultural storytelling has exploded through a thousand platform varieties: streaming video services, podcasts, cable TV, blogs, vlogs, and so on. Digital technology means we are now literally awash in so many stories that it seems every genre has been made and remade to the point of exhaustion.
It's against that background that Marvel Studio's latest streaming series "WandaVision" becomes something worth consideration. That's because no modern genre has so saturated modern culture as the superhero.
You don't need me to tell you how prevalent superheroes have become. The Marvel Studio franchise has been dominating the box office since its first Iron Man movies back in 2008. Before that, other studios had found gold with characters like Spiderman and the X-Men. For a long-time comic book (ahem… graphic novel) fan like me, this triumph was a vindication 50 years in the making. I reveled in those first movies, seeing the complex interplay of stories from the Marvel comic universe being brought to life with such joy, passion, and attention to detail. And I count the day director Scott Derrickson asked me to be the science advisor for Dr. Strange as the fourth greatest of my life (just after meeting my beloved wife and the birth of my two children).
But over the last few years, even I have found myself with superhero fatigue. It feels like I've watched so many versions of these stories (way beyond just Marvel) that the very idea of this kind of narrative has become exhausted. Most new shows appear to be rehashing the basic formula ad-infinitum. And this genre exhaustion is not just a superhero phenomenon. Sci-fi, detective, romance, buddy-comedies—with so many venues pumping out so many shows, so many stories, it feels like the possibility of doing anything surprising has become impossible.
Until it isn't.
Like many fans, I came away from the first few episodes of "WandaVision" feeling perplexed. For those who haven't followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe (spoiler alerts!), Wanda Maximoff is a superhero (maybe) who was orphaned as a child during a civil war. Later, she lost her brother when they fought against, and then with, the Avengers. Wanda's powers in the movies were basically hurling red energy bolts around and some mind-y-wimey stuff. In the final Avengers movies, her husband, another superhero named Vision, died twice (it's complicated). One of these deaths was even at Wanda's hands. So, Wanda has experienced a lot of loss.
The first few episodes of "WandaVision" don't really touch any of this. Instead, each is a re-creation of a sitcom from a different era. Episode 1 is a classic "I Love Lucy" 1950s comedy. Episode 2 is straight out of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" or "Bewitched" of the 1960s. Episode 3 goes all "Brady Bunch" including the 1970s groovy architecture. As a fan expecting a superhero story that fit into, literally, hundreds of hours of already existing superhero stories (i.e., The Marvel Cinematic Universe) I was left scratching my head. After each one, I asked myself: "What is this? Where is this going?"
In retrospect, those questions were exactly the point.
The writers had found a way to blunt my expectations about what should happen in this kind of genre. They left me guessing in a way that was all the more interesting because the rendition of the old sitcoms was done with such love and attention, they felt like love letters to the history of TV (the music for each of these fake shows perfectly nailed the vibe of that era). In later episodes—more spoilers!—"WandaVision" would become more of a traditional superhero show, but not without also becoming a vehicle to explore grief and its toll on its super-powered central character. In fact, as Linda Holms at NPR has pointed out, the show missed an opportunity by not going even further in exploring this dark aspect of grief. Still, I came away from the show genuinely excited for the next step in Wanda's story as her powers had grown dangerously beyond those red energy bolts.
In the end, it's about the courage to tell a story differently or tell a different story.
So, in this era where digital technologies dominate every aspect of our storytelling, from their creation (including mind-boggling special effects) to their omnipresent distribution and availability, "WandaVision" demonstrates that there is still a place for art and novelty. In the end, it's about the courage to tell a story differently or tell a different story. This extends to giving people who have been woefully underrepresented in our story-making industries the power to be the storyteller (think "Black Panther" or "Get Out").
So, while we were born to spin tales of our lives and experience, recently it seems like new technologies and commercial interests have driven us into an endless flood of the familiar. What "WandaVision" demonstrates is that in spite of those pressures, there will always remain the possibility to find stories that can delight and surprise us.
Technology of the future is shaped by the questions we ask and the ethical decisions we make today.
- Robots (from the Czech word for laborer) began appearing in science fiction in the early 1900s as metaphors for real world ideas and issues surrounding class struggles, labor, and intelligence. Author Ken MacLeod says that the idea that robots would one day rebel was baked into the narrative from the start. As technologies have advanced, so too have our fears.
- "Science fiction can help us to look at the social consequences, to understand the technologies that are beginning to change our lives," says MacLeod. He argues that while robots in science fiction are a reflection of humanity, they have little to do with our actual machines and are "very little help at all in understanding what the real problems and the real opportunities actually are."
- AI has made the threat of "autonomous killer robots" much more of a possibility today than when Asimov wrote his three laws, but it's the decisions we make now that will determine the future. "None of these developments are inevitable," says MacLeod. "They're all the consequences of human actions, and we can always step back and say, 'Do we really want to do this?'"
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: Best science fiction show ever. That is a pretty audacious claim and it means I've got some explaining to do. But with 58.5 years of nerdom behind me, including years of watching "Star Trek", "UFO", "Space 1999", "Battlestar Galactica" (the original one that sucked except for the special effects), "Stargate", "The X-Files", "Farscape", "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one that didn't suck) and Firefly I have seen a thing or two concerning science fiction on TV. That's why I'm here ready to stand my ground and proclaim for all nerdom to hear…
"The Expanse" is the greatest science fiction TV show ever. EVER!
For those of you who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system (slight spoiler alerts follow). Based on an amazing book series by SA Corey, in this future there are three major political factions in constant conflict with each other. First, there is Earth which remains powerful but is stretched thin by climate change and overpopulation. Then there is Mars, a former colony of Earth, that's now an independent militaristic republic whose technology generally outpaces that of humanity's homeworld. The final faction is "The Belt" which refers to the asteroids and moons of the giant planets. Belters are resource extractors, and they are the oppressed underclass. After generations living on ships and in low-gravity environments, their bodies have changed, making it impossible for many of them to handle the crush of gravity on the inner planets.
The story begins with all three factions at each other's throats. Mars and Earth are in the midst of a long cold war that, occasionally, turns hot. What Earth and Mars have in common, however, is keeping their boot on the neck of the Belters who are, themselves, poised for bloody rebellion. This simmering political, social and military conflict would be enough for a hundred episodes but it's into this pile of dynamite "The Expanse" drops an alien artifact that changes everything and propels the narrative.
Now, the individual elements in what I described above are not really that original. You can find many versions of them in many TV shows across many decades. So, what does "The Expanse" do with these elements that makes it so special? For me the excellence of the show manifests in three distinct ways: characters and acting; universe building; science.
The level of attempted scientific realism in the show is wonderful, extending even to little details like how whiskey spirals out of its bottle due to the Coriolis effect when poured on a rotating space station.
Let's start with characters and acting. No matter how good your science fiction ideas may be, you have to tell your stories through actors pretending to be characters interacting with each other. By its nature, science fiction shows can ask a lot of actors. They have to stare at green screens, pretending to be in awe of an alien mothership that won't get added till post-production CGI; or they dangle from wires emoting through a screen set in the weightlessness of space. It takes serious acting chops to maintain the gravity (or levity) that makes it all believable or better yet relatable. That's why the depth of performances in The Expanse is its best surprise. The recent season, for example, had actor Dominique Tipper killing it across three episodes as Belter engineer Naomi Nagata. Nagata is caught alone on a booby-trapped ship, exhausting herself trying to signal her friends to not attempt a rescue. It's a solo performance reminiscent of Tom Hanks' great work in "Castaway".
Across the seasons, other actors have also filled out their characters with an empathy that's comparable to anything else in any other genre on TV. Thomas Jane's detective Josephus Miller was an epic noir depiction of a man broken by circumstance but still moving towards something better. Shohreh Aghdashloo's foul-mouthed UN leader Chrisjen Avasarala is a skilled politician who will kick your ass and save your world at the same time. And, perhaps best of all, is Wes Chatham's Amos Burton. Born in the worst the streets can offer he became a killer then escaped to become a spaceship mechanic. Chatham plays Burton as simultaneously dangerous, kind, and slightly bewildered, always wanting to do the right thing if he just knew what that was. And don't even get me started on how good Cara Gee is as Belter captain Camina Drummer.
Next, we come to what's called 'universe building' in science fiction. All the great acting needs a fully fleshed out, lived-in world to ground it. How, for example, do the trams work on a hollowed out, spinning asteroid like Ceres that's used as a space settlement? This isn't a physics question. Instead, it means if you arrived on Ceres, where would you find the tram station? What do the maps look like that would help you get around? These are the kind of details that fall both to the writers and the art department. Getting these details wrong means the world your show inhabits will either look cheesy or, worse, sterile, as if all your expensive sets never had anyone live in them.
Happily, everything in "The Expanse" looks lived in. Everything looks like part of an organic whole. The sets and scenes give us a world built by humans for human purposes even if it's a city built into the side of a Martian cliff. From visions of New York City under siege from climate change to the claustrophobic interiors of Belter ships (all webbing, ductwork and grimy computer screens), the universe of "The Expanse" is endlessly rich, interesting, and believable (Adam Savage has a great set of videos on production design in "The Expanse").
Finally, we come to the science, because, after all, this is science fiction. I am not one who demands that my science fiction always get the science right. What matters is that the writers create a self-consistent universe where whatever "science" is invoked remains constant as constraints imposed to provide obstacles and make the story work. But, to my joy, for the most part the "science" used in "The Expanse" is the science I teach in my physics classes. For example, there is no imaginary "artificial gravity" babble. Instead, there is thrust gravity when the engines are on, accelerating spaceships. There is also spin gravity when you're on the inside of something rotating. Other than that, you are "on the float." Just like what will happen in real spaceships and space stations in the future.
The level of attempted scientific realism in the show is wonderful, extending even to little details like how whiskey spirals out of its bottle due to the Coriolis effect when poured on a rotating space station. Most importantly, the writers use the real physics real people will really encounter in real space travel as a kind of extra character in the show. During space battles, as ships roll and pivot, Newton's first law (inertia) means unsecured tools are sent flying across the cabin. That makes them dangerous projectiles our brave heroes must dodge while fighting evil and advancing the storyline. It all makes my physicist's heart weep in gratitude.
Of course, not all the science in "The Expanse" is valid or accurate or correct. But that's OK. No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building. I often rewatch episodes of "The Expanse" just to get a sense of "Oh yeah, that's how it might look." In a way, the show is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy
Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a Rotten Tomato average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.
Legendary cartoonist John Groth's pictorial map captures LA's film factories in their Golden Age.
- Maps are the safest way to travel during the pandemic - old maps even allow for time travel.
- This 1930s view of Hollywood captures the film factories of Los Angeles in their Golden Age.
- But it's not all glitz and glamour: look to the margins for the hard work done by immigrants.
Maps as time machines
Dancer and actress Ginger Rogers on horseback in Hollywood, 1937. Perhaps her galloping around town is why there are so many horses on this map.
Credit: Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
If maps allow our imagination to travel without care or trouble, then maps of the past do one better: they are time machines into a different era. And pictorial maps, which offer the perspective and subjective detail that mere road maps or city plans don't, add a bit of couleur locale as extra seasoning. Like this one, of Hollywood in its Golden Age.
The humming of 1930s Hollywood street life almost bursts off the page – this is the age of the talkies, after all.
A vignette straddling Beverly and Vine sets the scene: A slightly cockeyed map of that slightly cockeyed community, Hollywood, executed by that slightly cockeyed topographer ... John Groth.
A 'cockeyed' view of Golden-Age Hollywood.
Credit: Public domain, via David Rumsey Map Collection.
Chicago native Groth (1908-1988) was a cartoonist who became art director of Esquire in his twenties. He would go on to have a brilliant career as a war artist for the Chicago Sun. In 1944, he rode the first Allied jeep into newly liberated Paris. If he'd be any closer to the front, "he would have had to have sat in the Kraut's lap," joked Ernest Hemingway.
After WWII, he reported from Korea, the Belgian Congo, and Vietnam, among other places. But back in 1937, when he produced this map of Hollywood for Stage magazine, that was all still in the future.
Credit: Public domain, via David Rumsey Map Collection.
The 1930s was a time when Hollywood was dominated by the old studio system. Old? That's relative. To be fair, many of their names still sound familiar today.
- There's 20th Century Fox, on Pico Boulevard, right next to the West Side Tennis Club.
- Just to the south is MGM, near Venice Boulevard. In between: a fair bit of golfing. And, inexplicably, a Bedouin leading a camel down the boulevard.
- Paramount can be found on the corner of Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Right next door are RKO and NBC. And right across Santa Monica Boulevard is Columbia.
- Further down Santa Monica, there's United Artists, a more elaborate operation than Chaplin Studio, right across the street.
- To the north, on the other side of the Beverly Hills, there's the gigantic Universal Studios on Cahuenga Boulevard. It's big enough to contain an entire village – and attract a herd of elephants, coming down the Santa Monica Mountains.
- Warner Brothers is also on the other side of the mountains – Mount Hollywood, as it so happens; no mention of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign (the LAND was dropped in 1949). It's also gigantic: they're filming a sea battle in the back lot. Astride the roof is a Warner Brothers 'g-man': a reference to movie detectives, or to the studio's real-life enforcers?
Fine dining options available, but perhaps not if you're a Mexican immigrant.
Credit: Public domain, via David Rumsey Map Collection.
If you liked fine dining, there were worse places to be than Golden-Age Hollywood.
- Halfway between 20th Century Fox and United Artists, there's the chefs of the Victor Hugo and the Beverly Wilshire, competing for your attention.
- In the 1930s, Lamaze was a fancy Hollywood restaurant, not a child-birthing technique; right next door were the Trocadero and the Clover Club – all pretty close to the Hollywood Bowl. By the look on his face, the chef at the Lamaze may be going over to the Clover when his shift is over.
- Other restaurants of note: Perinos, at Wilshire and Western; Levy's, at Santa Monica and Vine; and Lucey's, on Melrose.
- Sprinkled across town were Brown Derby restaurants. Named after the first of the chain, which opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926 and was shaped like a semicircular derby hat, the restaurants were a fixture of Golden-Age Hollywood.
Leisure and entertainment
Warner Brothers is organising a sea battle in the back lot.
Credit: Public domain, via David Rumsey Map Collection.
Even outside the glamour of the studios and the high life of fine dining, Hollywood is portrayed as a city of leisure and entertainment.
- People in bathing suits are diving into the Pacific along the coast-hugging Speedway, from Malibu via the Bel Air Beach Club and Santa Monica all the way down to Santa Catalina island.
- Masses of cyclists–yes, cyclists–are cruising down the city's boulevards and avenues. Could Thirties LA have been a cycling paradise?
- But then what's with all the horses, not just polo-playing outside of town, but also racing through the center – their riders showing off with their hats in one hand? Surely, this can't have been a common sight.
- Buses overflowing with tourists are driving around town, perhaps already then being shown the homes of the stars.
- Perhaps a star has been spotted near the Carthay; that would explain the rush of onlookers.
Chinese laborers digging away behind the back of a movie director.
Credit: Public domain, via David Rumsey Map Collection.
In the northeast corner, the Santa Anita racetrack is giving punters a run for their money – literally. Closer by, Mickey Mouse waves to passers-by from his home on Riverside Drive, not far from a well spouting oil. Huge crowds gather at the American Legion stadium in the center. Elegant ladies and gentlemen striding around town complete the picture of a city as elegant and attractive as any in the world.
Yet Groth wouldn't be a perceptive–or 'cockeyed'–observer if he didn't also look beyond the glamour. Check the bottom right for a Native American couple and their child making their way into Hollywood, looking for opportunity. Two streets down, a Mexican immigrant is doing the same, his donkey laden with wares he will be hoping to sell. And on the corner of La Brea and Venice, Chinese laborers are moving earth right behind the back of a movie director, seated in the classic folding chair, loudspeaker in hand.
All these figures are placed near the edge of the map, a textbook demonstration of what it means to be 'marginal'.
Strange Maps #1070
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Words of wisdom from H.P. Lovecraft, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dr. Temple Grandin, Hannah Gadsby and more.
- Autism (commonly referred to as ASD, autism spectrum disorder) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.
- The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms can be very different in each person. Additionally, these things can also change over time. This is why it's considered a spectrum.
- Many people with ASD gift the world with inventions or new ways of thinking. Judy Singer, for example, is the woman who coined the term "neurodiversity" in the 1990s.
What is autism?
Autism (commonly referred to as ASD, autism spectrum disorder) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is the concept that there are many different variations of human functionality and that each and every variation needs to be better understood and respected.
Previously (and in some places, currently), neurological differences such as autism or ADHD were considered medical deficits. They were classified as things that need to be treated and cured.
Neurodiversity is an alternative approach to learning and disability that shifts the focus from treatment and cures to acceptance and accommodation. The neurodiversity movement began in the late 1990s, when sociologist Judy Singer (who is on the autism spectrum), came up with the word to describe conditions such as ADHD, autism, and dyslexia. This ideology recognizes that neurological differences are the result of natural variations to the human genome.
What does it mean to be on the autism spectrum?
The "official" term for the diagnosis is ASD (autism spectrum disorder). While the days where things were viewed as black and white aren't too far behind us, the world is slowly gravitating towards understanding that many things (from mental health conditions to gender) can land on a spectrum. The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms can be very different in each person. Additionally, these things can also change over time. This is why it's considered a spectrum.
There are several people throughout history who have been rumored to be on the autism spectrum, from infamous author Lewis Carroll, to iconic mathematician Isaac Newton. Many people with ASD gift the world with inventions or new ways of thinking. In fact, the first entry on the list is the woman who coined the term "neurodiversity" in the 1990s, Judy Singer.
"I think the concept of Neurodiversity has been world-changing, by giving us a new perspective on humanity, but it needs to mature to the point where we see that human nature is complex, and nature is beautiful but not benign."
- Judy Singer to Autism Awareness
"There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself."
- Hannah Gadsby, Marie Claire
Credit: World Travel & Tourism Council / Flickr
"And I know that the younger generation is doing things that are so ingenious. And for them it's not a matter of a political belief or an environmental stance. It's really just common sense."
- Daryl Hannah, NBC News
"There are enough people in the world who are going to write you off. You don't need to do that to yourself."
- Susan Boyle, "The Woman I Was Born to Be: My Story"
"We float around and we run across each other and we learn about ourselves, and we make mistakes and we do great things. We hurt others, we hurt ourselves, we make others happy and we please ourselves. We can and should forgive ourselves and each other for that."
- Dan Harmon
Dr. Temple Grandin
"When I was younger I was looking for this magic meaning of life. It's very simple now. Making the lives of others better, doing something of lasting value. That's the meaning of life, it's that simple."
- Dr. Temple Grandin, WECapable
"Recognizing and respecting differences in others, and treating everyone like you want them to treat you, will help make our world a better place for everyone."
- Kim Peek, All That's Interesting
"What a man does for pay is of little significance. What he is, as a sensitive instrument responsive to the world's beauty, is everything!"
- H.P. Lovecraft
"I would play with numbers in a way that other kids would play with their friends."
- Daniel Tammet
Sir Anthony Hopkins
Credit: gdcgraphics on Flickr
"My philosophy is: It's none of my business what people say of me and think of me. I am what I am, and I do what I do. I expect nothing and accept everything. And it makes life so much easier."
- Sir Anthony Hopkins
John Elder Robinson
"It does not matter what sixty-six percent of people do in any particular situation. All that matters is what you do."
- John Elder Robinson, "Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers"