Kulipari: An Army of Frogs REVIEW: Lord of the Rings But With Frogs

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Haven’t you heard? Last week Netflix dropped a brand new animated series, Kulipari: An Army of Frogs and it’s actually pretty good!

Although normally I’m willing to give any animated show a chance, this particular series struck me as something special even from the very first teaser that came out months ago. A group of warrior frogs tasked with saving the world? Now that’s something I got to see.

Having slowly making my way through the 13 available episodes the past week, I can confirm that this show is a must see for fans of fantasy as well as family friendly animation. Although nominally based in the Australian Outback, it really is more of an otherworldly adventure where clans of different species struggle for survival, dabble in strange magic, and gear up for epic battles.

The best way I can describe this series is Lord of the Rings with Frogs. In fact many scenes have direct parallels to The Hobbit and LOTR. Whether it’s a group of outnumbered frogs defending their homeland from hordes of enemies from behind a hastily constructed wall in a Helms Deep-like situation or two young frogs traversing enemy territory disguised in armor like Sam and Frodo in Mordor, the similarities are numerous. Despite the use of familiar fantasy tropes, the show does feel rather fresh in a few key areas.

Whereas some animated shows feel rather aimless and lethargic in terms of plot, Kulipari keeps the stakes high and aside from some great character-centric early episodes the conflict between the Scorpions and Frogs looms large over the span of episodes. It helps a lot that the lead protagonist, a homely wood frog named Darel, exemplifies the traits of the likeable underdog. He desires to be a Kulipari, a legendary breed of warrior frogs, despite the fact that he was born to be ordinary.

kulipari-3At the core of the first season revolves this mystery of the Kulipari. These titular soft-skinned warriors who glow with brilliant colors and draw their strength from a powerful poison once saved the Amphibilands from annihilation. They have long since vanished. Do they still exist? Will they come back to fight once more? Can any frog become a Kulipari if they try hard enough? The show keeps you guessing as the truth is gradually revealed.

Perhaps the most brilliant decision the series makes is to create an interesting set of villains for the poor frogs to face. Lord Marmoo, general of the Scorpion Army, provides the primary antagonist. Voiced by the always reliable Keith David, the arachnid leader’s simple desire for conquest is compounded only by his complex alliance with the odious Spider Queen who has plans of her own. This shaky relationship is compounded further by their reliance on a group of fearsome but not-always-reliable reptile mercenaries. Each villain faction contains their own standout characters which make them fascinating to watch avoiding the normal villainous slog that animated series often struggle with.

Speaking of animation, clearly this is more of an independent production than a well-oiled machine. The fluid animation is often interrupted by wooden movement and poorly detailed close ups. It’s not terribly distracting and hopefully the animation will continue to improve in future seasons much as Clone Wars did. I’m sure if it gets enough viewers Netflix might pour more money into improving the quality.

The frog designs themselves are excellent, featuring vaguely humanoid bodies with versatile eyes that react to different situations with expressive features. In fact, all the creatures of this world seem to possess these special eye-shifting ability which adds great depth to the emotions of each scene. And while the juvenile humor may or may not work for you at times, you will find yourself surprised by the sheer amount of characters which inhabit this world and which ones earn your affection.

Originally planned as a set of animated films, the first season of Kulipari: An Army of Frogs fits neatly into the Netflix-style episodic format. Clearly a labor of love from creator Trevor Pryce, the story behind the story is certainly interesting enough. After two Super Bowl wins with the Denver Broncos, the former defensive end created a trilogy of books based on heroic frogs under attack by deadly scorpion soldiers. Pryce went on to self-fund this series claiming in Variety to have spent more money per episode than comparable offerings from Marvel animation. Each episode appears to be written and directed by the same team, a notable rarity in television.

Much like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this ostensibly “for children” program is full of some rather dark themes and bloodless death and violence. I lost count how many times I heard the words “Bring me the head of the Turtle King!” And yes, some characters on both sides don’t make it out alive. This is not the type of show you put on for your young impressionable child while you go to the other room, but for younger kids it might work as something you watch and discuss together.

While the worldbuilding is plentiful, it also feels like merely a foretaste of things to come in later seasons. Although we don’t see much of civilization beyond the wretched wastelands belonging to the Arachnid Empire, the time we do spend in the Amphibilands (home of the frogs) and Turtle Cove (home of the Turtle King) is enough to whet our appetite for more. Plus who isn’t curious about anthropomorphic amphibian cuisine? I certainly am.

If you watched Disney’s Zootopia this year and wondered where all the reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids were hanging out, Kulipari: An Army of Frogs  answers that question for you: they’re right here battling for the fate of the world. Heroes, villains, allies, sorcerer, and warriors, this show has them all.

Check it out only on Netflix.

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Star Wars Rebels: Season 2 Trailer Analysis

SPOILERS for Star Wars Rebels Season 2 as shown in the trailer!

I was not super impressed with the first season of Star Wars Rebels. The animation was a dip in quality from the far superior (and more expensive) Clone Wars series. The characters were much more cartoony than their more serious Clone, Jedi, and Sith counterparts. But I stuck with it believing that they had formed a solid creative team in Dave Filoni (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Clone Wars), Simon Kinberg (the X-Men films), and Greg Weissman (Gargoyles, Young Justice).

It is, after all, more Star Wars. Who could complain about that? Most television shows need a season or two before they really kick into gear and find their sweet spot. And as it turns out, it seems like Rebels was trying super hard to hold back and establish its main cast before letting loose with a ton of new characters and cameos for Season 2. Hopefully this will be a good new direction for the show. Personally I am sick of Lothal and will be glad if we can get out of there and start exploring new corners of the galaxy much like Clone Wars was prone to do.

I want to go through the trailer chronologically and point out some of the major new developments and speculate on what season 2 (and beyond) might hold for us.

The Voice of Emperor Palpatine

The new trailer opens with what appears to be Darth Vader receiving instructions from Palpatine. I’m excited to hear the always excellent Sam Witwer as the voice of the Sith Master. After the sad death of Ian Abercrombie toward the end of Clone Wars’ run, the character was jarringly replaced by Tim Curry. I’m very glad the Rebels team recruited Sam Witwer (voice of Darth Maul and Starkiller) because it seems like his Darth Sideous voice is a huge step up from Tim Curry.

I doubt we’ll see much of Palpatine on the show because again these rebels are still fairly minor in the overall scheme of things. The fact that they have a Jedi (make that two with the addition of Ahsoka) does elevate their threat level a bit but it still seems like they are not yet a major military concern to the emperor, more a nuisance than anything else. I wouldn’t expect this series to showcase Palpatine like they did every other week on Clone Wars.

Much More Darth Vader

rebelsDarth Vader made a little cameo or two in Season One but now it seems like he is going to be a much bigger player. The fact that they were able to get James Earl Jones, the original voice from the films, is pretty wonderful and unexpected. I would temper your expectations though. From a storytelling point-of-view, you really can’t use Vader very much.

We know Vader could pretty much kill any character on the show without breaking a sweat and if the rebels kept escaping him it would diminish the threat he poses. I predict he will pop up briefly in a few episodes but he will continue to be more of a behind-the-scenes character. If they do give him much to do, I doubt he will interact much with the main rebels. The show needs to maintain Vader’s status as an unstoppable and deadly villain, the top force-user in the galaxy. Expect him primarily in a cameo role.

Multiple Inquistors!

I don’t know why I never thought of it before but of course the Sith would have more than one inquisitor roaming the galaxy carrying out their bidding. I guess the whole idea of the Rule of Two made me think that other lightsaber-wielding subordinates would be too much of a threat to their masters. They could too easily become usurpers.

But we have seen Dooku training up Asajj Ventress and a tolerance with the wannabe General Grievous. Sideous himself decided to keep the reborn Darth Maul for his own insidious purposes. The fact that there are more Inquistors out there is a really good sign that Kanan and Ezra will have some mid-level threats to go up against that will allow for some balanced lightsaber battles.

Force Sensitive Children

I keep forgetting that Luke and Leia are not the only force-sensitive kids in the galaxy. In fact, children would naturally be great candidates for future inquisitors. It seems like we already went over this plotline in Clone Wars but we’ll just have to wait and see if they actually want to go there or if this line from the trailer is misleading us. Remember, last time we saw Vader with a bunch of force-sensitive children, it didn’t turn out so good.

Return of the Clones

Now they’re just messing with our emotions. They cancel Clone Wars. They make us believe we will never see our beloved Ahsoka and Rex again. They create a show with entirely new characters and then they pull this on us!

Yes, old Captain Rex is back and it looks like Gregor and Wolffe have survived as well. After the heartbreaking Order 66 arc in season 6 of Clone Wars, I’m really happy to see a few clones not only survive all the way until the events of Rebels but somehow manage to resist their programming and stand up to the Empire. Well, they are probably more in hiding than anything else but it looks like they might finally be ready to take on the Empire along with the crew of the Ghost and their favorite ex-Jedi.

Captain Rex of course is the most developed clone character from the first show. He was Anakin’s right-hand man. But look who else is with him. Wolffe is from Plo Koon’s squad, nicknamed the Wolfpack. He is the one-eyed clone who showed up in a couple different arcs. Notably he was one of the clones who tried to arrest Ahsoka when she was a fugitive.

The other clone with them is Gregor who you might remember as the commando from the Droid Arc that featured R2-D2 and the rather annoying Colonel Gascon. Gregor ended up sacrificing himself in an awesome one-man showdown that allowed the droids to complete their mission. I don’t think anyone thought Gregor was still alive so it’s pretty interesting that he avoided Order 66 and found his way to Rex.

I have a bad feeling that these clones are not going to survive their decision to help the rebels, but I’m excited that the writers have found a way to revisit some of these wonderful clone characters that often times were the best part of Clone Wars.

The Empire Strikes Back

Briefly in the trailer we see an AT-AT in action, which reminds me. The creators have said that they are going for an Empire Strikes Back tone, which is what everybody says when they want something to be awesome. In this case, they might actually be able to do it since the rebels are in a very similar place to how Luke and the gang were after they blew up the Death Star.

The Ghost crew has struck some minor but effective blows against the Empire and it makes total sense that Vader is going to respond with decisive action. I’m sure the Emperor is not going to tolerate a resurgent Jedi presence anywhere in his galaxy and I think that means people are going to die this season. Maybe even a main cast member. RIP Kanan Surely some side characters like the clones, a crewmember of the Ghost, a rebel ally, or possibly Ahsoka herself.

The thing to keep in mind is that this series is not open-ended. It’s heading toward some very dark days. All the Jedi except for Kenobi and Yoda presumably need to be extinguished by the time of A New Hope. Kanan, Ezra, and Ahsoka can’t really succeed at their mission beyond helping set up a viable rebel alliance. There is no room for non-dead Jedi in this time period unless they self-banish themselves to permanent exile on a crappy planet like Tatooine or Dagobah. This is the part of the story where the Sith are still large and in charge.

It makes sense that Kanan in this trailer still doesn’t want to fight. To join an organized rebellion as a Jedi means imminent torture and death.

Ezra’s Parents

Not sure why they felt the need to spoil this in the trailer. Ezra is one of the weak links of the series so far. His slingshot and tough street kid attitude is not as endearing as the writers hoped it would be. If anything, Ezra seems to be the entry point for younger kids to connect with the show.

Ezra’s parents are still alive. I assume he is going to want to rescue them and that other crew members are going to argue that it is too dangerous and that someone will say that they have to do it because Ezra is a good kid and he is part of their family now and that it totally makes sense to risk everyone’s life and the fate of the galaxy because they’re his parents, right? Not looking forward to this subplot, but oh well.

Ahsoka Has Questions

Questions that need answering. Yeah that feels like a direct quote from Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring right before he abandons Frodo to certain death by Ringwraith. The Grey Wizard discovered that Sauron was still alive and kicking. This makes me feel pretty sure that the many questions that Ahsoka has is really just one question: Where did my old master go and he didn’t turn into an evil Sith lord, did he?

There is really only one way this ends. Ahsoka figures out Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker. Then they fight each other. After that, I actually don’t know how it ends. Everything is better with Ahsoka so I think it would be much smarter to keep her alive assuming this series is going to keep having more seasons after this. But again, it would be kind of boring if every time Darth Vader shows up, Ahsoka simply duels him to a stalemate.

At this point I just have to believe these writers know what they are doing and how to milk this story for all its worth. Dave Filoni usually knows what to do in these situations. Intriguingly they broke one of ironclad rules of the Star Wars universe (well rules that apply to everyone except Samuel L. Jackson and Jon Favreau): no new lightsaber colors.

Actually Ahsoka sort of broke this rule with her barely green-yellowish lightsaber at the end of Clone Wars. Anyway she wields the color white now because she is neither Jedi or Sith. Get it? More impressively she has two of these weapons, which is pretty incredible especially considering how hard it is to find lightsabers these days. We’ll see how this rivalry/reunion/confrontation/fan-favorite-character-death between Ahsoka and Vader goes. It would also be nice to see how Vader feels about his old apprentice stirring up trouble from him after all these years, most notable because they actually ended on a really good note when she quit the Jedi. Is Darth Vader really so evil that he would hurt his little Snips?

Other Random Mentions

Hondo is also back, creating the perfect triumvirate of Clone Wars heroes along with Ahsoka and Rex. It’ll be interesting to go back and see exactly how their past together affects where they are now in Rebels.

Sabine evidently is being hunted by an old friend. Her sister? Her best friend? Anywho there is an imperial bounty on her head and that means she will have to resort to that age old Mandalorian custom, the one-on-one duel. Also I forget. Is she related to Pre Vizsla? Is she his daughter or niece or something?

Vader mentions that Ahsoka can lead them to other lost Jedi. I am going to speculate here and say that these lost Jedi have to be some of the Younglings from Clone Wars. Star Wars can be super dark sometimes but I can’t see them not bringing back at least two of the Younglings to make up for that horrific temple scene in Revenge of the Sith. They already had a relationship with Ahsoka so it is only natural that when Order 66 went down that she would go back and try to save her relatively helpless padawan friends.

This year is the year of Star Wars. I think Rebels is going to do all it can to up the ante and reclaim some of the glory that got lost during the unfortunate cancellation of Clone Wars. If Season One was putting the pieces in place and proving that it didn’t need the Clone Wars cast to survive, here’s hoping that Season Two grows up a bit and earns its own deserved spot in the Star Wars pantheon.

Podcast #9: Daredevil Season 1

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Daredevil is a fascinating twist on the superhero genre, a dark and moody look at a street-level superhero in a corrupt city. Here are my thoughts on the show and why I think its characters work so well. Spoilers ahead.

Listen right here or download the episode on iTunes or Stitcher:

 

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Character Study: 24‘s George Mason

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**Spoilers for 24 seasons 1 and 2**

In the first season of 24, George Mason appears to be one of the show’s many throwaway characters. Like most of the higher ups at District, Mason’s goal is to keep Jack Bauer on a tight leash and usually doesn’t succeed. Jack famously  famously shoots Mason with a tranquilizer in the pilot episode and then blackmails him for information. Mason is our first example of the show’s recurring theme of CTU bosses who prefer to hide behind protocol instead of helping Jack stop terrorist threats.

In the first two seasons alone we see Jack forced to circumvent the orders of higher ups George Mason, Alberta Green, Ryan Chappelle, and Tony Almeida. Of course Jack always find a way around their attempts to shut him out, whether it’s forcefully injecting himself into the investigation or forcefully escaping custody. Pretty much everyone in charge tries to keep Jack from doing his job, leading to the inevitable conclusion that CTU is a terrible to place to work. That’s not even mentioning the moles within the organization like Jamey Farrell and Nina Meyers who are secretly working for the terrorists.

However the show’s creators are consistently aware that they have a great actor at their disposal in Xander Berkeley. As a result, they make a large push to develop Mason into something far more than a minor character to be discarded after a handful of episodes. Increasingly Mason is given more depth and characterization throughout the course of the show.

In the pilot episode we learn that Mason has secretly funneled away several hundred thousand dollars that he stole while working a case. Later on during Day Two he admits that he wanted to become a teacher but took a job at CTU because it paid more. And as we will see, greed is not his only flaw.

Throughout Day One, Mason shows great resistance to Jack’s habit of breaking protocol. After being assaulted and blackmailed, he vigorously tries to shut Jack down and threatens to punish anyone who is caught helping him. Although Jack’s allies usually get away it, Mason appears on the surface willing to put his personal vendetta against Jack above preventing Senator Palmer’s assassination.

As District Director, Mason is the polar opposite of Jack when it comes to following protocol. His actions are portrayed as by the book, leaving Jack and Nina continually stuck working outside of his prerogative. At the end of the Day One, Senator Palmer only manages to convince Mason to help Jack against Ryan Chappelle’s orders in exchange for a promotion once Palmer is elected president. This will mean a temporary demotion for Mason but it gives Jack a chance to rescue Kim from the Drazens.

At the beginning of Day Two we see that indeed Mason has been ungracefully demoted to director of CTU Los Angeles. Palmer has evidently forgotten his promise and the once ambitious Mason is now stuck serving time in Jack’s old job. When an emotionally damaged Jack eventually reappears at CTU at Palmer’s insistence, Mason is reluctant to involve his former nemesis on the case. However the stakes are too high for him not to leave Jack out of it. After much initial resistance, eventually Mason caves in and just lets Jack do whatever he wants (with no small amount of sighing and grumbling). With seemingly no will left to resist Jack, Mason even allows Jack interrogate his wife’s killer Nina perhaps to the astonishment of even himself.

However after realizing that CTU has little chance at preventing a nuclear bomb from going off in Los Angeles, Mason assigns himself a lead in far away Bakersfield in an obvious attempt to excuse himself from danger. Tony confronts him but it doesn’t stop Mason from abandoning his entire team. It’s a blatant act of cowardice, a complete abuse of authority, and an all-time low point for one of the show’s more complex characters.

Even though Mason is often at odds with Jack and sometimes a major obstruction to his progress, he is still technically a good guy. He doesn’t want any bombs or assassinations to happen, he is not working for any terrorists, and he has devoted his life to stopping them. Although prickly, he is clearly not a pushover. And the truth is, when he can be convinced to follow Jack’s lead, Mason serves as a powerful ally.

The major turning point for Mason’s character occurs when he is called on to follow up on a lead at one of the terrorist’s associated locations. By leaving the city he incidentally becomes the closest CTU agent available to assist local law enforcement on the raid. They find a couple of hostiles inside the building but the resulting gunfire inadvertently exposes Mason to a deadly amount of radiation. Suddenly the self-preserving George Mason has only between one day and one week left to live.

It is during this same time that an anarchist group (aided by Jack of course) bombs CTU killing many agents and leaving the building in disarray. As Tony tries to pick up the pieces and somehow restore operations, Mason returns to CTU to devote his final hours to finding the bomb and putting his affairs in order.

As it turns out, being the director of CTU is not the only thing that Mason has failed at. He is divorced and he hasn’t spoken to his son in several years. After a futile attempt to get his son to come visit him, Mason has him arrested and brought to CTU instead. It’s a revealing moment. This dying man has spent his life climbing the organizational ladder and squirreling away funds in an offshore bank account at the expense of everything else. With the clock ticking away Mason offers his money to his son and says goodbye. For a man who has made his share of mistakes, Mason will now spend the last day of his life trying to make amends by doing everything in his power to save the lives of American citizens. It’s a powerful character arc and it’s arguably some of the best character development throughout the show’s entire nine season run.

For as long as he can hold himself together Mason leads CTU with a previously unseen focus and determination. Although Jack, Tony, and Michelle quickly discover his condition, they go along with it. Their cooperation is a tremendous show of support for somewhat morally grey character. It only with their support that he is able to buy time to rehabilitate his legacy.

Mason puts in solid work at the office until he is finally forced to excuse himself after fainting one time too many. Unable to continue his job or aid in the investigation Mason promotes Tony, asks him to tell the team what a great job they did today, and walks out of the office. It seems like Mason is out. But of course he isn’t.

Meeting up with Jack at the airfield where the bomb has been discovered, Mason does the unthinkable and pulls a Jack Bauer on Jack Bauer. Through the many seasons of 24 Jack usually operates in an unofficial capacity, generally on the recommendation of the president or sometimes through sheer force of will. This time though it is Mason who is there in unofficial capacity. While the field agents there are not be aware that Mason is no longer head of CTU, Jack certainly is. And he asks Mason the same question that Jack has been asked by Mason many times before, “What are you doing here?”

While Mason offers to fly the plane carrying the bomb, a decidedly one-way trip, Jack refuses on the grounds that if Mason in his poor health collapses or can’t think clearly there are too many lives at risk. This flight requires precision, something that Mason cannot truthfully guarantee at this point. The always consequence-facing Jack assigns himself the mission, tells his daughter Kim a tearful goodbye, and directs the plane to the Mojave Desert. In a very Jack-like move, Mason has used his clout with the field agents to slip by and sneak aboard the plane. Now that Jack has gotten the plane most of the way there, Mason volunteers to crash the plane so Jack can parachute to safety.

Jack is resistant to this idea, but Mason quickly is able to discern why. Jack wants to die. He wants to go out in a blaze of glory, as a hero. After Teri’s death, Jack has been unable to return to work, connect with his daughter, or deal with the guilt he feels for putting his family in danger. Today’s threat has been the only thing that has been able to snap Jack out of his spiral of pain and remorse. Going down with the plane and saving a lot of lives in the process is his way out.

Mason, imbued with the sense of sincerity that only belongs to the dying, convinces Jack that the brave thing to do is not to die but to keep living. If Jack really wants to be a hero, he must figure out how to get past what happened to Teri and keep serving his country. The irony is palpable. Mason wanted more than anything to keep living. Jack no longer had a reason to live. And due to unpreventable circumstances outside their control, they must now switch places.

Leaving the plane only at the last moment, Jack and Mason part ways. The former makes it to safety and goes back to the special work that only he can do. The latter finally earns that rarest of gifts that can only be attained through great sacrifice: he finds redemption.

Blockbusters, Television, and the Perfect Ending

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Expanding upon last year’s discussion of movie endings, today we will be looking at the difference between movies and television as a starting point for evaluating blockbuster endings. Then we’ll sift through some specific film examples.

The reason we watch movies is fundamentally different from the reason we watch television. The world of the small screen is often smaller in scope, but vastly more detailed. Usually spread out across multiple seasons, these sprawling multi-year narratives require the talent of numerous writers and showrunners to flesh out the hours of storytelling needed each week. Movies on the other hand are usually a one-time production, helmed by a single director, at most a handful of writers, and a single cast and crew. While television stays busy juggling multiple interweaving storylines, film cuts out the inessential and focuses on creating narrative momentum that all leads up to a final and definitive conclusion.

Dan Harmon, creator of the show Community, writes this:

A feature film’s job is to send you out of the theater on a high in 90 minutes. Television’s job is to keep you glued to the television for your entire life. 

In an acclaimed golden age of television, movies seem to attract a smaller audience in the face of ever increasing competition from on demand streaming services and home theaters. While still commercially successful, many big budgeted movies are seen as formulaic spectacle made at the expense of artistic sensibility. While indie films plug away with under the radar, most of the revenue and attention still gets swallowed up by the major studio franchises.

Is film a dying art? Will television replace the bombastic aesthetics of the endless parade of reboots and sequels? Will audiences finally make the switch from critically derided spectacles over to the smaller but more inspired stories of television?

While I can’t answer those questions with any degree of certainty, I can point to two areas in which movies still hold a tremendous advantage. As Harmon brilliantly summarized, television narratives rarely achieve any type of lasting resolution. For television characters to find any lasting sense of stability, inner peace, or finality, the show would actually have to end. Their growth is only done when there is no more conflict to throw at them.

It actually works against television’s interest to have character go through too much actual change and growth. Either they will become an altogether different character that we no longer recognize or they will have outgrown their place in this particular show. And you can only kill off or replace so many main characters in your show without completely turning off the audience.

The true reason people stick with shows is the chance to see the same familiar characters over and over again. It’s like catching up with old friends. You invest in the characters and their situations for the long haul. And it’s why it’s so hard to get into a new show and stay committed to old ones.

Blockbuster movies are less about “seeing old friends” and more about pivotal life-altering events, spectacles you’ve never seen before, and cathartic climaxes. The characters are still important but they function more as a lens through which the story is experienced. Audiences identify with movie protagonists because it is a chance to vicariously experience huge earth-shattering decisions. It’s a flight simulator for extreme circumstances rather than the smaller moments of everyday life that we see on television. Surely there are many shows that aim big and many movies that stay small, but overall a film has less time for the mundane and most scenes must be limited to things that advance the plot.

In some ways movies have it much easier. They are not telling story arcs spanning several seasons nor are they juggling a sprawling cast. They just have one story to tell, possibly in multiple threads, but still only needing to find one satisfying and permanent resolution for its characters. And since a sequel is entirely dependent on the success of the previous film, movie franchises have great incentives to leave their audiences with a feeling of closure and narrative accomplishment. Unlike the endless cliffhangers of season finales, movies necessarily must wrap everything up always keeping in mind that the audience will not revisit this storyline for a few years at best (unless it’s a Young Adult dystopia) and possibly never if a sequel never materializes.

Consider this statement from Gareth Edward, director of this year’s Godzilla reboot:

I want a story that begins and ends, and you leave on a high. That’s all we cared about when we were making this; just this film. If this film is good, the others can come, but let’s just pay attention to this and not get sidetracked by other things.

This is exactly what a big budget movie should offer: a single self-contained story.

Another advantage specific to blockbusters is money. Because television usually runs on a tight budget, shows must spend carefully and create stories that are also financially feasible. However the biggest movies are greenlit with enormous budgets allowing them to focus on creating never-before-seen set pieces to both dazzle audiences and sell the price of admission. By combining the promise of incredible set pieces with a satisfying ending, movies continue to retain a competitive edge in an era of extensive entertainment choices.

Blockbuster movies have a sheer sense of scale that dwarves even the most ambitious small screen ventures. And since TV can never keep up with these ever increasing costs, they are forced to rely more on quality writing (hopefully). Ultimately it’s a win-win situation. Movie lovers get their big set pieces, a complete story, and a satisfying ending. Meanwhile tv lovers get their meticulously plotted story arcs and long-form character development.

Yet the real tragedy is that too many movies miss this opportunity at providing narrative closure. Too many films have mindblowing special effects but fail to stick the landing. World War Z, Men in Black 3, and Edge of Tomorrow are all mega budget productions that started filming with huge script problems and no clear ending in mind. Critics assailed both Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness for needlessly concluding with urban destruction devoid of genuine character-driven moments. Instead of driving the story toward its final thematic statement, too many blockbusters opt for chaos and confusion.

Even worse are films that fall into the trap of the non-ending. Leaving a laundry list of plot threads up in the air belongs to the realm of television, not film. How many shows get canceled on a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger? We expect this of television and yet more and more movies are heading this direction. Much of this trend is driven by the move toward cinematic universes and franchise dependence. Think about The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Divergent, Catching Fire/Mockingjay and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. They may have pulled it off this time but what will happen when lesser imitators begin emulating this cliffhanger approach? What happens when audiences get sick of waiting years to find out the next piece of the story?

I think what film audiences want is a satisfying emotional conclusion to internal and external character journeys. And it’s no accident that movies that keep this type of ending in mind usually provide a clear direction and motivation for everything else that happens beforehand. The ending is reason we go to the movies instead of staying home and watching television. We want a complete story: beginning, middle, and end. It’s not just showcasing explosions and battles, it’s also about creating layers of meaning and wrapping up the journey with proper closure.

Think about The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This film nailed the blockbuster ending almost perfectly, which is surprising in that the basic story was incredibly difficult to adapt. The Fellowship begins the film separated into three groups which are then intercut across the whole film. Having three groups of main characters slows down the plot, adds to audience confusion, and makes achieving a satisfying ending quite unlikely. However the film manages to not only build a believable and riveting fantasy battle, the likes of which had never been seen on screen before, but also dovetail it into the fall of Isengard ingeniously by tying it all together with Sam’s rousing speech to Frodo. By focusing on bringing a stirring emotional resolution to each of the main characters’ journey despite not actually finishing their journey, the film overcomes seemingly impossible limitations.

Remember The Dark Knight Rises? The film was immensely larger in scope than The Dark Knight, stuffed full of minor characters and all out urban warfare. It was too big for its own good, and yet it absolutely nailed the ending by bringing us not only an epic street chase shot in IMAX with practical effects but also a surprisingly poignant resolution for characters we had grown to love over three movies. No loose ends, just a definitive unambiguous conclusion to a potentially over-ambitious story. For better or worse, it closed off the narrative ambiguity of The Dark Knight while offering a few new possibilities for us to imagine.

In both these examples, we find not only proper resolution for the story but also some character-based spectacle never seen before on screen. This is the blockbuster’s true potential. We need good character development and interesting relationships and immersive visuals, but we also need a destination. The protagonist should arrive at place they’ve never been before. And we should arrive there right behind them.

To conclude, I will simply suggest a list of recent movies that I think do a good or bad job of accomplishing an effective resolution. This is not necessarily a judgment of the movie as whole although there is obviously much correlation.

Exemplary Endings

Monsters University
Gravity
The Dark Knight Rises
Skyfall
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Inception
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Dark Knight
Guardians of the Galaxy

Solid Endings

Into the Woods
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Edge of Tomorrow
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
X-Men Days of Future Past
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Godzilla
Interstellar
47 Ronin
The Lego Movie
Non-Stop
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Despicable Me 2
Jack Reacher
Oblivion
The Avengers
John Carter
Avatar
The Hunger Games
Source Code
The Amazing Spider-Man
X-Men: First Class
Star Trek
The Bourne Legacy
How To Train Your Dragon
Iron Man

Not Wholly Satisfying Finales:

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Maleficent
Robocop
Pompeii
Transcendence
Frozen
Man of Steel
The Wolverine
Star Trek Into Darkness
The Lone Ranger
Prometheus
Green Lantern
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Iron Man 2
The Matrix Revolutions
Superman Returns
X-Men Origins: Wolverine

NOTABLE CLIFFHANGERS

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Thor: The Dark World
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Divergent
Catching Fire
Captain America: The First Avenger
Pirates of the Caribbean 2
The Matrix Reloaded

The Top Ten Villains of 2014

***There are MAJOR SPOILERS for many films and television shows ahead. Proceed at your own risk.***

Villains will always have a special place in the heart of fans. Face it, they make all the best stories possible. And yet despite their evil deeds, villains often compose a large percentage of our favorite characters. It is no accident things are this way. No matter how you slice it, the Joker is far more fascinating than Batman, Darth Vader is more intriguing than Luke Skywalker, and Loki is a lot more fun to be around than boring old Thor.

As 2014 winds down, it’s time to look back at the best villains from the past year. Who made an impact on the villain scene this year? We’ve seen some brand new baddies as well as some fresh interpretations of classic villains.

Candidates who unfortunately didn’t make the list include villains who had potential but aren’t quite fleshed out enough to make an impact. Think Ronan the Accuser, Shredder, or Bolivar Trask. One villain who could have ranked higher, LEGO Movie’s President Business, turns heel a little too quickly. Some of this year’s villains have done great work in the past, like Magneto or Smaug, but don’t appear on this list.

The criteria for top villain will be based on villainous actions that they did this year.

Additionally, to qualify as a villain, there must be a thoughtful intelligence behind their actions. A monster that acts on instinct is not a villain. Neither is a character that operates as just a plot device. Ultimately what a top villain requires is a strong internal motivation, a collection of evil deeds, and a delicious endgame.

Let’s look at the top 10 villains of 2014.

electro

10) Electro

The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s lackluster reception may indeed signal the end of Marc Webb’s rebooted Spider-verse. However buried behind the convoluted storylines is a terrifically campy performance by Jamie Foxx. Quibbles about the overstuffed sequel aside, Electro offers a memorable example of a victim-turned-villain. Overlooked, underappreciated, and always self-pitying, Max Dillon is the sort of tragic figure that blends in well to these big costumed morality plays.

Importantly Max has a pre-transformation connection to Spider-Man over whose heroics he fantasizes. In Max’s unstable mental condition, it makes sense that his obsessive tendencies would not pair well with the gift of unlimited electricity. There’s a memorable scene in Times Square in which Electro watches Spider-Man’s image overshadow him on the giant monitors in quick succession. In a flash, jealousy changes Electro from helpless victim to vengeful executioner. He may have started off as a freak accident but soon he decides that Spider-Man is the real source of all of problems. There always needs to be a good reason for the villain to turn against the hero and Electro nails it.

Perhaps Electro’s greatest tragedy is that the plot even denies him the chance to be the big villain in his own movie, replacing him with Green Goblin in the finale. Tough luck, Max.

the inquisitor

9) The Inquisitor

Coming in fairly low on the list is the main villain of Star Wars Rebels, due mainly to his rather limited screen time. However what we do see from the Inquisitor shows a lot of promise. In his first major debut the Inquisitor sizes up Kanan’s fighting style in an instant, identifying his master and revealing an impressive display of Jedi knowledge. This short moment shows us that this is no ordinary imperial goon. We’re dealing with a highly capable and fearsome agent of the Dark Side.

In one of the most exciting television moments of the year, the Inquisitor also introduces his spinning double-bladed lightsaber. Surprising for a show set after Order 66, we still get a decent amount of lightsaber combat via the Inquisitor and even see him pull off a lightsaber throw. It’s no accident that he reports directly to the top villain of all time, Darth Vader himself. Overall, it brings great pleasure to once again see a Star Wars villain ordering around imperial officers and fighting alongside a squad of stormtroopers. Meanwhile, the Inquisitor’s backstory and his training as a force user remain largely mysterious. Hopefully there is much more scheming, wrangling, and Jedi-hunting to come.

captain cold

8) Captain Cold

The Flash is a zany and welcome addition to superhero television, albeit one that hasn’t taken much time to build up its often one dimensional villains. It’s mostly okay given the excellent development of Barry Allen, his powers, and an impressive supporting cast. But there’s one villain so far that shows great potential after just a single measly episode. On a show chock full of dangerous metahumans, Leonard Snart is the one bad guy that has no powers but already he looks to be one of Barry’s greatest threats.

A career thief who doesn’t hesitate to kill when necessary, Snart’s true power resides in his keen mind. Even after his initial encounter with the Flash, he already knows how to get into Barry’s head. Snart deduces that the fastest man alive will do anything to save lives, even let the bad guy get away.

It doesn’t help of course that Snart carries a cold gun specifically designed to impair and even kill the Flash. Aside from his ruthlessness, Snart also exhibits the type of criminal intelligence that sees superheroes as an exciting obstacle to overcome rather than an immediate threat. The moment between Snart and the kid in the museum tells us exactly what type of villain this is: a villain with personality. And from the look of things, next time we encounter Captain Cold he won’t be returning alone.

winter soldier

7) The Winter Soldier

There were two reactions to the Winter Soldier’s reveal in Captain America: The Winter Solider, “Who is that guy?” and “Yeah I already knew from the comics/internet.” However the reappearance of a mostly unrecognizable Bucky Barnes was undergirded by some of the best action sequences in any Marvel movie to date. The fact is the Winter Soldier impresses with sheer physicality. Whether he is putting a hole in the chest of Nick Fury or easily intercepting Captain America’s shield throw, this is a force to be reckoned with. He is seemingly unstoppable.

His hidden identity makes him all the more fierce to Steve Rogers and his allies. After seeing Roger’s jaw-dropping exploits aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel at sea, the Winter Soldier’s ease in holding his own against Captain America seem all the more remarkable. If Bucky exhibits one major drawback, it’s that at the end of the day he is just a mere pawn in the hands of Hydra with no volition of his own. Hopefully this will be amended in future movies. Still, the Winter Soldier is exactly the kind of direct physical threat we want to see more of in our villains.

dr mann

6) Dr. Mann

He was the best of us, or so we are repeatedly told throughout the first half of Interstellar. In a surprise move hidden from trailers, posters, and even entertainment sites, the brilliant Dr. Mann makes a major appearance on an ice planet. And things are not what they seem.

With no faith in the dying human race and no courage to face death for himself, Dr. Mann belongs to an interesting variety of villain. He cares only for the greater good of the human race and believes he is pursuing the welfare of his species by rejecting personal attachment and resorting to murder. Despite all his extravagant reasoning, we know he is just a sophisticated version of the same evil we see all the time.

What makes Dr. Mann better than the common villain is that he is unbearably annoying. It’s one thing to leave an innocent man to suffocate to death halfway across the universe. It’s an entirely another thing to justify your crime with a whiny monologue about how you were lonely and the reminder that death will bring you memories of your children. Dr. Mann is a villain not only by his deeds, but by his irritating self-pity. There is nothing to like about him and sometimes that’s good.

agent ward

5) Agent Ward

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled through its first season but everything changed when Hydra dismantled Nick Fury’s entire agency. But what really sweetened the deal was when Agent Ward came out as a double agent. Ward has a personal history with each member of Coulson’s team. This is no random bad-guy-of-the-week but a former member of the main cast. After surviving life-threatening situations together and entertaining romantic notions with two members of the team, Ward had earned their trust, even despite his frigid manners and occasional hostility.

The best part of Ward’s reveal is that there is little lingering doubt inside him over his decision. He is simply carrying out his mission. From the very beginning, he was a double agent with no attachments. Nothing about his betrayal is personal to him. He’s just doing his job.

Ward has never been a great character, but his turn as a Hydra operative ironically redeems him. The truth that he has been working with the Clairvoyant all along and has contributed to the utter collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. hits Coulson and his team hard. However it also gives the ragtag group a unifying purpose. Ward’s betrayal also gives a boost to some of the underdeveloped characters like Skye who confronts him directly and Fitz, and Simmons whom he sends to the bottom of the ocean. However further glimpses into Ward’s backstory still create some sympathy for this otherwise amoral assassin and offer the possibility of redemption in the future. A good villain indeed.

malificent

4) Maleficent

No doubt the finest performer in an uneven but commercially successful blockbuster, Angelina Jolie’s sly portrayal of Maleficent outshines many of the lackluster elements around her. She skillfully inhabits this sympathetic queen who experiences betrayal, revenge, and finally redemption. Despite the happy resolution and twist ending, Maleficent still works as a great villain. Even before her sadistic mutilation at the hands of Stefan and her full descent into villainy, Malificent is already an efficient warrior-leader willing to defend her kingdom at all costs. And she is not an apologetic sort of person. As she grows in compassion for Aurora, she doesn’t grow any warmer toward her father contributing to a rather spectacular death at her hands.

Whether its commanding her army with savage ferocity from the skies or cursing a newborn princess, Maleficent is quite comfortable with shaping the world around her into something sinister. When her wings are cut off by the man she trusted, she embraces this darkness wholeheartedly. While the film sinks a bit under the special effects and revisionist details, its crystal clear that Maleficent’s evil is born from pain, war, and betrayal, not randomness. If the ending is not wholly satisfying, thankfully Malificent’s slow transformation back from evil witch into a very peculiar fairy godmother is both measured and sensible.

penguin

3) Penguin

Gotham, the strange story of a world before Batman, is really the story of two aspiring men and their struggle to make a mark on their city. Along with the cynical Harvey Bullock and a young Bruce Wayne, the reckless detective Jim Gordon works to bring order and balance to a city in turmoil. But never far away, the ambitious and ruthless Penguin also seeks to climb the highest rungs of the criminal underworld. Perhaps the most violent member on this list, the Penguin definitely carves out his own spot as an unhinged criminal mastermind making a name for himself.

From the outside Penguin seems like just another henchman, and a sniveling coward at that. But slowly and surely we see that he is both dangerous and crafty, willing to suffer patiently as he works toward his endgame. He works both sides, infiltrates powerful crime families, and brutally dispatches anyone who gets in his way. We see just enough of his master plan to realize that he is fairly brilliant in his own demented way.

By keeping Penguin on Gordon’s side and making him subject to the abuse of his bosses, the show somehow manages to make this waddling psychopath come across as somewhat likeable. Just barely though.

koba

2) Koba

Reprising his appearance from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s lieutenant Koba makes a daring introduction in Dawn leaping through the air to spear an attacking grizzly bear. This is one dangerous ape. Following the rule that bodily scars equal villainy, Koba is the rather rare villain whose motivations are mostly understandable and even quite justifiable up to a point.

It is Koba, not Caesar, who assesses the actual threat that the humans present, which includes shooting Ash, concealing guns behind their backs, and stockpiling weapons for an imminent assault. The humans are not trustworthy, something that Caesar is unwilling to recognize. Koba’s scars are all the proof he needs to make that judgment. And while his attempted assassination of Caesar and hasty declaration of war are morally wrong, everything else he has done up until then make pretty good sense.

Koba is a complicated villain, not because his goals are evil but because he ultimately appeals more to his animal nature instead of his moral and ethical duty as a sentient creature. It is clear that he relishes in the violence, indulging his taste for revenge against a species who operated on him like a lab experiment. Perhaps what makes Koba resonate so strongly with audiences is that his descent into evil very much resembles a human one.

deathstroke

1) Deathstroke

If Deathstroke is perhaps a little over the top in terms of his Mirakuru-fueled madness, he all but makes up for it with the sheer cruelty he inflicts upon Oliver Queen and everyone he holds dear. Presumed dead by Oliver, Slade Wilson suddenly reappears in Starling City with an unknown agenda. Very quickly he makes it known that his one purpose is to destroy Oliver’s whole world.

In possibly the finest villainous moment of the year, Slade takes an unexpected tour with Oliver’s family around the Queen mansion while Team Arrow struggles to mobilize against him. Yet even the combined efforts of Sara, Felicity, Roy, and Diggle are not enough to stop Slade who easily thwarts their sniper and escapes unharmed. He walks into Oliver’s house, befriends his mother, charms his sister, and makes a mockery of the Arrow’s whole operation. He knows all of Oliver’s secrets and relishes the chance to exact a long painful vendetta against the show’s endlessly tortured hero.

But what really sets Deathstroke apart is his method. He is not interested in killing Oliver but simply making his life a living hell. Slade kidnaps his sister with the goal of driving the two siblings apart using Ollie’s own secrets against him. And in an act of pure depravity, he forces Oliver to make the same unthinkable choice that Dr. Ivo forced on him back on the Island between the death of his sister or his mother. Without hesitation Deathstroke brutally impales Moira with his sword. Killing the hero’s unarmed mother in front of his eyes and leaving him to suffer must rank among the worst villainous acts of all time.