I’ve been watching, reading, and playing things.. Let’s talk about them!
Audience surrogates are a tricky narrative device to pull off well. If you’re not aware, these are characters inserted into a story to help ask the expository questions necessary (at least in the writers’ or producers’ minds) to fill out the plot so audiences aren’t left with questions about the world or its rules.
Like most tropes, audience surrogates aren’t good or bad, but you can generally find examples of both. Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins are probably two of the most recognizable audience surrogates. They’re thrown out of their little corners of the world into a new life and new experiences, and we as readers experience that through their lenses. Personally, I don’t like “the one” characters so Harry Potter’s not really a favorite of mine, but the way he experiences the world around him with awestruck glee and trepidation is certainly not at fault.
Then there are blatantly awful versions of these characters. Up until 2021, I’d have told you the worst one in recent memory is the John Myers character from 2004’s Hellboy. Look, I love me some Guillermo Del Toro, but the guy and his scriptwriters have often leaned hard on narrative tropes, and Myers is the tropiest. There’s no depth or nuance to him. He exists solely to serve as the surrogate for the audience, and is completely unnecessary to the plot. Seriously. Watch the movie again. Everything is great about that film but the John Myers stuff and had it been excised, you’d be watching one of the better superhero films.
Enter 2021’s bizarre, almost-mediocre movie Mortal Kombat. It starts fantastically well, with two characters that would eventually become Scorpion and Sub-Zero, arguably the game’s lynchpins. The fight scene between them is short and brutal, and you get who they are without having to be spoon fed a lot of nonsense.
Unfortunately, that’s the one and only saving grace of the movie, and that’s largely thanks to the most bizarre reworking of lore since The Dark Tower movie adaptation squirted out from Nikolaj Arcel and Stephen King’s backsides. The backbone to the earliest games is there – Earth and Outworld’s control are determined by a tournament taking place every ten years. That’s not a terribly complex concept, and it’s worked great for movies before – see Ong Bak, Diggstown, Fearless, Warrior, Enter the Dragon, or about a hundred JCVD movies.
But in true head-shaking fashion, someone – probably a committee of someones – decided that wasn’t enough and they needed to spice up the formula for… reasons. In this film, Shang Tsung gets it in his head to attack and kill Earth’s mightiest C-squad of Avengers before the tournament even starts, apparently not caring about the fact that these people’s arcana – whatever the hell that’s supposed to be – keep popping up on other people when they die. It’s a dumb plan that’s given exactly zero minutes of explanation or reasoning. Not one minute.
That’s true of pretty much everything on display here. Want to know anything about anyone’s backstory apart from Scorpion? Tough. Want to spend a minute to get to know any of the fight scene fodder bad guys? Not going to happen. The movie doesn’t even allow itself or the viewer the chance to experience the scenes or the passage of time. Establishing shots were not something the director or editors were familiar with, apparently. There is a scene where three of the fighters parachute out of a plane, land in the desert, and one character immediately says “I’m tired of walking,” despite there only having been a whopping three seconds between them parachuting and that line. It’s amateurish editing on a scale we haven’t really seen in decades.
But the worst plot offense by far is having this huge cast of characters be wasted on establishing the new king of plot surrogates Cole Young. It’s immediately the dumbest plot device in the movie by simple din of the fact that this fighting tournament only happens every ten years, meaning every new fighter to the tournament won’t have heard of it or know what’s going on. Cole’s existence from the very start makes absolutely no sense because Sonya, Kano, and anyone else that could have taken Cole’s vanilla-ass spot would have fulfilled the same role to the audience.
The Cole character is made even more baffling by not actually fulfilling the very simple thing the character is meant to do. The Mortal Kombat video game lore isn’t the most complicated in the world, so it’s already baffling that they would change up the rules of the universe for the film, but then to have an audience surrogate not actually react or ask more questions about this universe is nuts. It’s straight up godawful writing. Sonya Blade throws in a couple lines about other worlds and Liu Kang spouts some stuff about people having arcana – this world’s version of superhuman abilities, I guess – and that’s literally it. Cole has no purpose, no reason for existence. He’s supposed to be Scorpion’s heir but that doesn’t actually matter because Scorpion himself just up and appears and comes back into this universe because… I don’t know, he can?
It’s a dreadful movie. Stick to the more recent games since IX. That first combat sequence is rad, but for God’s sake, steer clear of this stinker. At least the 90s movie was fun in its stupidity.
Right, let’s move on to something I (generally) really like.
Doom Patrol is an oddity of the very best kind. It’s very deliberate in its attempt to appear kitschy and often is. Like a filthy-mouthed Doctor Who, though, the hokey special effects and hammy characters often conceal something much, much deeper and fundamentally astounding.
Doom Patrol hinges on one central conceit – that it’s okay to be weird. The central characters are the Island of Misfit Toys versions of superheroes, and I really love that concept. Every cast member shines, from Brendan Fraser as a washed-up has-been racer living in a robot’s shell to April Bowlby in the role of a lifetime as Rita Farr, a former actress turned into a stretchy mass of flesh that can barely keep it together most days. Perhaps most surprising is Matt Bomer’s absolutely superb voicework as Larry Trainor. I liked Bomer well enough in White Collar, but this allows him to really show his range and he runs with the ball.
The first season is the real highlight. The second, eh… it loses something in its new character Dorothy, whose struggles with growing from a child to a woman could have actually been really impactful if that was the focus, instead of the team kinda shitting on her all the time. It’s a mistake, but a relatively harmless one, as there are enough other fascinating side stories to pick up the slack.
That first season though is whipcrack smart and inventive. Things you’d think would be played off as one-note jokes become great running gags or often times lead to some really smart episodes further down the line. Take, for example, Danny the Street, a character who’s an actual street. They could have been a one-note thing, a means to shuttle the Doom Patrol between two necessary plot points, but Danny winds up becoming a major part of the show in both seasons, largely as a way to celebrate diversity and community.
Also, major kudos to this show for making Flex Mentallo now one of my new favorite superhero characters. He’s brilliantly dumb and like everything else about this show, incredibly heartfelt. Cannot recommend Doom Patrol enough.
Also, I heart you, April Bowlby. Happy sigh.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Just a quick note here since I talk games mostly on Giant Bomb, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses went and did something weird. I kinda came to dread the game by the time the credits rolled. The plot makes absolutely no sense, the character motivations are reliant only on moment-to-moment needs and are just as baffling as the plot, entire plot threads vanish (seriously, what the hell was up with the woman living inside your brain? Anything? Anything at all?), and the plot structure of Dire Things needing immediate attention but also you have to wait a month in between to deal with them is really dumb.
And then a funny thing happened. I saw there was a new Game Plus mode, and jumped back in to see what carried over. As it turned out, happily, a lot of it. Playing this game with the convenience of not caring about the plot and skipping through it is genuinely the best way to go. I could see myself playing this over a few more times to try and maximize stats, recruit everyone, and build up a dream team of recruits. Why? I don’t really know, except the combat grind – it’s chess but with about five character types – kinda has its hooks on me and I like seeing stats go up. It’ll probably be my RPG of choice until Disgaea 6 drops in a month and change.
What I’m Reading
Right now I’m working my way through the Pines novels by Blake Crouch. I took some time off to listen to a smattering of John Sandford and Craig Johnson novels, but am back on it now. Pines is… interesting. The basic plot premise has me hooked, even if it doesn’t stand up under a lick of scrutiny, and I’m invested enough to want to read it to its end. Do I like it, though? I don’t know. I don’t really find a lot interesting about the characters themselves. They largely exist to push the larger ideas at work in the novels forward, and don’t have a lot of character traits to themselves. For example, the lead, Ethan, thinks a lot about abuse heaped on him in his time overseas as a POW, but rarely does it actually affect him in any meaningful way than memory. Everyone kinda feels detached like that.
I don’t want to talk too much about the overarching plot because the books are worth reading, but if anybody does or has read it, I’d be curious about your thoughts on how any of this is possible. I know I need to not look at it quite so analytically and take it for the entertainment it is, but the books are written so clinically it’s hard not to.
And that’s it! Let me know what you’re reading, watching, or playing. Have a good one, folks!