5 Spoiler Free Reasons You Should Go See Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 came out last week, and it was fantastic! I waited eight days to post this, hoping that most people who visit this blog would have already seen the movie by now. If you haven’t, don’t worry: there be no spoilers here!

If you’re one of those people who thought it didn’t live up to the hype, let me ask you: what could have? GotG v1 was so good, how could anything that follows it live up to the expectations that followed? But I argue that Vol. 2 did live up to the hype, and here are my 5 spoiler-free reasons why:

#5: Expanding the MCU

I won’t go into specifics, but the Guardians franchise are setting up the cosmic cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) quite well. There were a few after credits scenes that I’m looking forward to seeing fleshed out after Infinity War wraps up.

#4: The Jokes

If you thought GotG v1 was funny, you might die from laughing at v2 (or walk away with abs, for sure). The movie was wall-to-wall jokes, and none of them fell flat. James Gunn is proving himself a director who knows comedy.

#3: The Stakes

Last time, the Guardians protected a planet from a would-be destroyer, who also had his sights on the rest of the galaxy –– but anything beyond Nova wasn’t an imminent threat. In v2, the threat is most imminent and almost destroys the galaxy in one fell swoop. If the Guardians weren’t there, Earth, and the rest of the Milky Way, would have died out in 2014 (the year the movie takes place). The stakes are definitely high!

#2: The Drama

The “family” of Guardians carry on their misfit nature right from the beginning. They seem to be holding together by a thread, yet show the kind of compassion that only a true family shows. And there’s plenty of conflict among them. They haven’t changed the team dynamic from v1, which is probably the best move they could have made.

#1: Relatable Heroes

Before Guardians, I was getting bored with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of the characters in the greater MCU have become just a bit too dark for my tastes –– and, personally, I’m done with hero vs. hero scenes. Guardians not only knocks it out of the park with the morally questionable villains that feel like they’ve got real reasons for doing what they do, but the heroes…the heroes!

I’ve never seen such a collection of heroes that relate to the common person as well as the Guardians do. Star Lord is my spirit animal, growing up without a father and dreaming up the awesome men that father could be (I also relate to the superhuman charisma he’s got, but you knew that already). But beyond my personal experience, parental abuse, autism…this movie makes misfits like all of us Terrans feel like we could be Guardians of the freaking galaxy!

So, when are you going to see it?

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The Strength of the Comic Mini-Series

With the dozens upon dozens of ongoing monthly comic book titles that have been canceled in recent years, it’s a wonder why the Big 2 still pursue that as a business model for new titles (old titles have the staying power of time behind them, so they’re exempt from this rant).

Here’s my trouble with releasing an ongoing series before the market has been primed: it’s hype. Period. They want to hype something that’s going to “last forever, so get on it in issue #1.” It’s BS.

I get wanting to release a new title to expand your listing on Comixology (or bookstore shelves…if those still exist by the time you read this). But this practice demonstrates short-term thinking on the part of the executives and creative directors. “Get the numbers up this quarter, we’ll worry about next year when it comes around. Besides, we’ve got 14 big crossover events ready to launch between now and then, anyway. Ka-ching!

N0w, you know me. I don’t like to complain about a problem unless I can provide a solution. Fortunately, I come from an era (the 90’s) that saw a fairly stable Big 2, while many other companies struggled to maintain ongoing titles beyond their flagships (like the Big 2 right now).

Embrace the Mini-Series

Remember those 3-9 issue story arcs that used to be used to test the viability of a new line? They’re still around, but the lines they produce don’t seem to have any staying power.

Here are a few titles that did it right.

The merc before he got the mouth. #1 of 4.
The ragin’ cajun. #1 of 4.
Fathom: Dawn of War. #1 of 4.

That last one is of special note. Anyone remember Fathom when it first released?

Fathom. #1 of 9.

At the time, it felt like Fathom broke the mold. A new series, from the late and great Michael Turner, that was never meant to be an ongoing series.

In fact, all of these were marketed as a limited series. You know what they all share? Damn compelling stories! Did they sell super well? I honestly have no idea. But that’s shallow thinking. Here’s why.

They Created Loyalty

There’s a saying in marketing that it’s better to go deep (long-term thinking) than wide (short-term thinking). The difference is in how you treat your customer. Deep thinking engages with them one-on-one (or as close to it as possible), recognizing that they (not your Wizard Mag. or Facebook CPM ads) are the ones who will grow your brand by talking about it. Wide thinking is the “get a billion people to see your Twitter post” marketing scams. Without the deep connection, the people looking are not going to convert long-term, they just want to see the immediate spectacle – and have been given no personal reason to stick around.

Here’s what those mini-series did:

Gambit

When Marvel saw that Gambit was a hit with fans, this solidified their loyalty within the X-verse. People (like me) tuned into X-comics that heavily featured Gambit. But, he wasn’t as big a hit as Wolverine, and thus didn’t deserve an ongoing title. But his mini-series scratched an itch with fans (brand loyalty) and helped enrich and already slammin’ ongoing title (X-Men, Vol. 2).

Some people today fail to see Gambits appeal. But, let’s be honest, most of his more recent mini-series are pretty terrible in comparison to him taking on the Assassin’s Guild in New Orleans. (Maybe some of the new generation should look a little further back on Comixology to learn why Gambit is so beloved by so many. YMMV, though, as all of this is subjective.)

Deadpool

Personally, I credit Deadpool’s current popularity all the way back to this title. Before this title, he was a token ninja with a healing factor. He also wasn’t anywhere near as insane as he’s portrayed now. He was someone who couldn’t die, and so looked at life as something to laugh at. (I like both versions, really, but it’s important to note where he came from.)

After this mini-series, we started seeing more and more Deadpool in our comics, but it was still some time before he got his own ongoing title. But in that decade or so between, Marvel was building incredible brand loyalty for the character, starting with this mini-series.

The Fathom Lines

The first Fathom series (1-9) established a comic line, with multiple spin-offs, that is still going strong to this day (often in mini-series format). Hell, this one is potentially the best of the bunch because it launched an entire comics imprint (Aspen Comics), named for the main character of the Fathom comic.

And that brand allowed a truly incredible 4-part mini-series, Fathom: Dawn of War, to become a deserved hit. It’s my belief that Dawn of War wouldn’t have achieved the reception that it did if it wasn’t for Fathom‘s success. And Kiara, the star of Dawn of War, has gone on to lead multiple titles of her own since that time.

What Do You Think?

Should comics, and comic franchises in general (movies, TV, etc.), start being more responsible with how they market their comics? Should we see an “ongoing” series restart from the same title so many times (how many #1’s has Marvel put out this year)?

In fact, should the TV properties do the same? Agents of SHIELDThe FlashArrow, and Supergirl are all going pretty strong (deserved of the “ongoing” title). But while Daredevil was groundbreaking, the second season was less so – it felt to me like two mini-series (Punisher’s origin and Elektra’s origin; awesome as they were) smashed together. I would have preferred to have them as their own standalone mini-series shows (with Daredevil co-starring). This one is less cut and dry, however, as a movie could be seen as a “mini-series” of a kind, and Netflix is a more complicated animal than comics and appointment TV.

Anyway, I’ve beat this horse enough. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Back to Basics: RPG Mechanics in 20 Words

There are a lot of cool gaming mechanics out there. I mean, a lot! But many games (like Jadepunk, admittedly) were built on the complicated rubrics of other games. This overcomplication, I believe, has resulted in the kind of mechanical bloat that we see in some big name games that require 500 pages, or multiple books, to cover it all. I think it’s time to get back to basics.

In my anecdotal experience, I’ve seen games spring from two places: tabletop wargaming and group storytelling. I’m not going to go into the “story vs. simulation” argument because I think nothing could be more pointless than to argue over how we define fun.

My Perfect Game

Subjective as hell, I know.

As I grow older, and find that I enjoy differentiating between spinning a good yarn and playing some HeroClix, my RPG tendencies lean toward any game that doesn’t require a grid or other tabletop implement – give me character sheets and dice, and I’m good to go. Going “back to basics” means (to me) to head back to a bunch of people getting together to tell a story; but when I (Captain America) decides that a fellow player (Iron Man) needs to have his armor knocked off his face, the other player may not like that, and we need to figure out who gets what. Enter mechanics.

The absolute basic mechanic (and I would argue that this is true even in wargaming) is this 20 word game design:

Player tells the table what they want. GM tells the table what they want. Highest roller gets what they want.

Imagine we’re telling a story and I, as Cap’s player, say that I punch Iron Man’s, your character, lights out. You’d be like No! My armor…is crap compared to my vibranium shield, I retort. Who’s right? Roll your armor against my shield and let’s settle this once and for all.

But that means the armor and the shield need stats; I hear you saying. I answer with am emphatic YES. Give them stats.

And my fighting ability? Sure. Throw that in there. Oh, but now we have two stats, how do they stack? See how this complication thing works? From dice to item stats to skills…next we’ll be talking Cap’s enhanced attributes vs. Iron Man’s toughness and strength. It can be never-ending with this crap. And that’s so damn cool and so damn annoying.

Where Should the Complication End?

That’s as subjective as the kind of games you like to play. And I know that sounds sort of anti-climactic for someone who usually approaches this sort of thing with a voice of authority (which is totally fake, by the way), but that’s how it is.

Think of this as a manifesto of how I intend to approach my future designs: getting back to basics, which I define as the above 20 word game mechanic.

Intrepid Stories: Justice

Intrepid City 0:1 JUSTICE By Ryan M. Danks Aaron Adams sprinted down the alley, police sirens at his back. He shifted the semi-automatic pistol into his left hand and pulled the door to the chop shop open. “C’mon,” Aaron called behind him. Mal’s breath came hard as he ran through the door. Inside the garage, he… Continue reading Intrepid Stories: Justice

Why City of Heroes was the Best MMO

I started playing massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) during the beta of Star Wars Galaxies in 2003. And while SWG had mee hooked for over a year, it couldn’t compare to City of Heroes. Make your own superhero? It’s like they made the game just for me. But there are other reasons why I considered CoH the best MMO yet.

While working at a cyber cafe, I walked behind someone who was decorating his wookiee’s house, and I thought “they made a Star Wars SIMs?” Once he explained to me what I was looking at, I got onboard in a big way. Within a week, half of the cyber cafe – and all of the staff – were running through the Tattooine desert on our way to Jabba’s Palace (thank God for auto-run during those days before speeders).

And I still hold that Jump to Lightspeed was the best video game expansion of all time – nothing since has even come close to that (and it blew EVE Online away, even a decade after it was released). Once I was able to get into space in an excellent first-person space simulator, I never touched the ground game again.

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It was a great year, one in which I gained a solid ten pounds of soda and chips around my midsection.

Then I Became a Herocity_of_heroes_key_art_2_by_pixel_saurus-d550gtu

When City of Heroes launched in 2004, I happily bid the galaxy far, far away a fond farewell. After growing up on comic books, this game was a dream come true. I got to create my own superhero and go to town on villains in a way I had only managed in my imagination in the front yard or (much safer) at the dinner table playing roleplaying games.

CoH’s graphics blew SWG’s away – though both are nearly 8-bit pixels by today’s standards – and the combat system was top notch. Unfortunately for me, I expected the same level of quality from future Cryptic Studios games, which resulted in several instances of buyer’s remorse.

But it wasn’t just the combat system or graphics that made CoH better than even World of Warcraft, which also launched that year (and which I played for about eight years). It was the level of customization.

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Everyone in SWG and WoW looked the same, fought the same, and had the same skills – pretty much whatever was “OP” at the time was picked up by everyone. But CoH, at least at launch, only had six types of consumables, and that was the only gear you got. There were zero “gear raids” and even superheroes with the same power sets looked drastically different.

And even within those power sets, heroes were often different. In CoH, you got to pick two primary power sets that determined how you fought, and then secondary power sets that could customize your character further, and included things like travel powers. (Flying is way cooler than riding a speeder through pixelated terrain or having a griffon take you on a predetermined route.)

Even DC Universe Online failed to offer the same level of customization – though they got close with their costume design, they failed miserably in power design (and their custom powers were atrocious and practically unusable).

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DCUO could have been great if they had given the fans what they wanted and were not beholden to the whims of a particular game developer (“super strength isn’t a superpower” puh-leeze!). The fact that you couldn’t mimic almost any of the Justice League characters with your power sets (Flash with fire powers? sure. Superman with…ice? You got it.) was bad enough, but then you throw in the fact that you are second stringers in the universe, acting as “support crew” for the big heroes, and you have a recipe for a mass player exodus, which happened, just not as quickly as I suspected it would (I even held out far longer than I should have because I wanted to like the game).

champions_online_cover

Champions Online, created by the same studio that designed CoH, tried to step up to the plate after CoH started to show its age. It promised a lot and did give me many hours of fun, but it was launched, like so many other Cryptic Studios games, in an incredibly unfinished state. They knew that PvP was a big deal to CoH players, who had to wait years before it was implemented, but Champions launched it too quickly, with far too many unbalances (anyone recall katana bleeding?).

The level of customization was top notch, though you had to pay for most of the good stuff (consumers of the industry had not cozied up to the idea of microtransactions yet). But the real let down for this game, which had an incredible setting (probably because it came from a tabletop RPG), was the lack of finish at launch. It didn’t get its legs until the mass exodus had already happened.

And both DCUO and Champions had a similar problem: the entire game was practically solo-able. If you can play it by yourself, then you don’t need the moniker “MMO” do you? CoH, on the other hand, had incredible team and role mechanics, with an incredibly innovative sidekick system that allowed for low-level heroes to play with their more super friends in high-level content. The game thrived on group play and had the population (for most of its years) to capitalize on it. Only WoW had almost as good of group mechanics with a population to support it for so long (but even WoW raids can’t match the elated feeling one got while playing on a team with a tank, blaster, controller, and healer who knew what they were doing).

city_of_heroes_key_art_by_pixel_saurus-d54mqmm

Just as it is unlikely that there will ever be another game with a crafting system that can rival SWGs, there is likely never again going to be a superhero MMO that can rival City of Heroes. I consider it a great travesty that so many other games are supported by their game design fans through mods, but CoH was left in its digital grave. A Kickstarter was launched that promised to create a similar experience, and I did back it…years ago. Nothing yet, unless you count an amount of lore that suggests the designers should have been novelists instead. And with the speed that they’re moving, it’s probably best to wait for Marvel to bankroll a real MMO and not the MOBA game they’re passing off as one.

There were some runners up for my favorite games, Guild Wars 1 and 2 were both fantastic, and I greatly enjoyed the level of customization in Black Desert (maybe too much customization?), but they still didn’t compare to CoH.

What about you? What was your favorite MMO? (If I trashed it above, please realize that this is an Op-Ed piece based on my experiences.)

Who’s Your Favorite X-Men Character?

Someone asked me recently who my favorite X-Men character is. I’ve had a few over the years, Wolverine, Gambit, Cyclops, Rogue, Storm, Iceman…Professor X, himself. I even count some of the X-Villains, like the Brotherhood of Mutants, in my list (Magneto and Sabretooth at the top of the list). But having to narrow down a favorite? That’s hard.

Which Version?x-men-storms-costume-evolution

Just about every X-character has undergone changes over the decades-long history of the franchise. So a discussion on favorites almost needs to start with choosing an era. Or does it?

My favorite X-Men era is 1991 through 2000 (Jim Lee’s run before the “update” to black leather after the first movie released). But your era might be older, newer, or even *shudder* the black leather period (hopefully it was because you didn’t know they existed until the movie was released and those were the first comics you could find). In fact, my X-era includes several versions of both the X-verse (Age of Apocalypse happened during that time) and the characters (anyone remember bestial Wolverine?).

So let’s just not split hairs and say “who’s your favorite X-character from any era,” or “who’s your favorite, and which era/version.” How’s that?

Narrowing the Fieldx-men200pg00finch

I mean, there are so many X-Men characters (even my first paragraph listed over half a dozen), I’m not sure it can be done. For me, it’s like choosing a favorite best friend among brothers, because I grew up with these characters. But I can at least narrow my list down to three.

My three favorites all happen to be named in this picture.
My three favorites all happen to be named in this picture.

Wolverineessential-wolverine-2-paperback-l9780785164289_2610

Who’s list of favorite X-Men character is not going to have Wolvie in it somewhere? (Will the real outlier, please stand up?) I was one of the people who threw a fit that he was being played by an actor who was taller than Cyclops, but I eventually got over it (Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was better than their representation of Gambit).

James “Logan” Howlett (did they retcon that to make is middle name official yet?) is the barbarian class of the team and pretty much defined what that means in comics for everyone ever since. Before the Avengers movies, I think his rage was more famous than The Hulk’s.

Psylockeeb25fe0fffc42096198340b7332d0f0c

Psylocke is probably not going to make it on everyone’s favorite X-Man list (she’s an X-Woman, but still). She’s been through more retcons, personality changes, and even bodies than anyone else in the X-verse, par none. And with all of that, hers is the only costume the movies got practically perfect. Go figure.

But for a comic book loving martial artist who loves both Japanese and British culture, how is she not going to be on my list? She can make her own lightsaber (after a retcon to her powers). How cool is that?!

Gambitgambitsolo

Here’s one X-Man that people just love to hate, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. The ragin’ Cajun was one of my favorites since my introduction to the X-Men in the ’90s cartoon series. But the movie version in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, no thanks. They didn’t even bother to use his dark past of betrayal against mutant kind (which was incredibly well-told in the comics).

Gambit’s almost as agile as Spider-Man, has red eyes, can make anything explode(!), and is smooth with the ladies. What’s not to like?

What About You?

I cut a lot of X-Men to get down to my three favorites. Nate Grey, Magneto, Nightcrawler, Colossus…a lot of great heroes were left on the cutting room floor.

Can you do better?

Your Fandom Opinions Are “Correct”

Few discussions can drive a wedge between nerd friends than one person admitting they liked the Star Wars prequels.

Why is it that fandom is so terrible to those minority members who like unpopular things? Why do we feel the need to be gatekeepers of the things we love or love to hate; dissenters be damned?

Isn’t it possible that the minority could be right?

My Introduction to Fandom and Pop-Culture

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My childhood was steeped in a particular concept of Superman. I was introduced to comic books in 1992 with the X-Men cartoon series on Fox. That started a (very expensive) fascination with superheroes.

I owned quite a few Superman books, but never really got into the character until Doomsday killed him. A lot of people didn’t like the four Supermen that replaced him, but I felt they were fresh and, in the case of Steel, really damn cool! Superman, for me at the time, was old and boring, but Steel was a complicated character who could be challenged by writers in ways that Superman could not. I dug the character when a lot of people back then just called to have their old boring Supes back. But when he did finally come back…I liked him. The stories they told in that post-death era were fantastic. And the early 2000’s storylines were amazing!

There was also the (un)healthy consumption of Justice League cartoons, Superman animated movies, and, of course, Smallville, that took far too many hours of my days and colored my perceptions of who Superman and his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, are.

Enter Man of Steel

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When I walked into the theater to see the Superman reboot, Man of Steel, I carried all of my preconceptions of who the character was with me. My introduction to the character colored my perceptions, and I hated the movie. I felt betrayed by the producers, writers, and the director. I felt they assassinated the character of Superman and Jonathan Kent…because they were different from what my preconceptions said they should be, and I loved those preconceptions so much (especially Jonathan Kent, Smallville version, in whom I saw a lot of my grandfather) that I could not reconcile with the new movie.

My friends who had a wider range of Superman preconceptions, and who were more willing to suspend their prejudices to see a new take on the character, loved it. Who was right? I thought I was. But was I?

Marvel Did it “Right”

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I have as many Marvel comics as I do DC, and far more Image and Wildstorm comics than either one of the Big 2, but I like the Marvel movies much better. They do their movies “right.”

How can I say that? How can I be an authority on what is right or wrong regarding subjective material? I shouldn’t be able to…but I can. I can because my “rightness” is subjective too.

The Marvel movies are not objectively better than the DC movies, but they hold up to my preconceptions of the characters much better than the DC movies do. When I see The Avengers on screen, I don’t see someone’s interpretation of them; I see what I would have done with those characters were I in charge of the production; I see my childhood, my preconceptions given form on the silver screen.

On the other hand, some friends of mine detest Thor because he isn’t “magical” enough. That’s their preconception of the character from years of reading comic books. Who am I to say they’re “wrong” for having that opinion about a character they love?

Star Wars: The Elephant in the Room

star-wars-prequels

Many complain that the Star Wars prequels were terrible and failed to live up to the Original Trilogy. I believe they’re probably right, based on what their preconceptions about the movie and the galaxy far, far away were.

When I went to the theater to watch The Phantom Menace, I carried no preconceptions with me. I had never seen a Star Wars movie and had no idea who Luke, Han, or Leia even were. For me, I wasn’t watching a prequel to an old trilogy; I was watching Star Wars.

After I had watched Ep1, I enjoyed the concept of Star Wars, but it wasn’t until Ep2 (still having not seen the Original Trilogy) that I truly fell in love with it. Then I watched the Original Trilogy, expecting something out of this world, but it fell flat. It felt nothing like the Star Was that I knew. It was dark and tragic and terrible (up until then, the tragedy in the prequels was limited to Anakin’s mother and Qui-Gon).

Since that time, I’ve delved into just about every piece of Star Was fiction that’s out there – I’ve even written several game hacks of the setting, like this one for the Fate Core Roleplaying System. But even today, I still favor stories centered around, or just before, The Clone Wars.

Because of how I was introduced to the franchise, the prequels were not the backstory of Darth Vader, and the Original Trilogy was not the core story. For me, Star Wars is a story about a shining republic, flawed but great; a tragedy about how one corrupt politician can drive a great nation into a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale, which is how I interpreted the Original Trilogy when I finally saw it.

That’s not everyone’s experience with it, but the internet seems to assume that everyone’s experience is the same. I’m happy to agree to disagree because I’m not every Star Wars fan. I’m one person who took the long way through hyperspace to the galaxy far, far away.

It’s All Subjective

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There’s no right way to enjoy art. Whether you love it or hate it has as much to do with your preconceptions as it does with the execution of the artists, as flawed as that execution may be.

For me, I’m done hating on works of art, because I know that someone came to the experience with different preconceptions than I did (and there’s a real person behind that artistic expression with feelings and aspirations and a love of the thing – poor George Lucas). For me to run down a piece that someone else likes is almost as bad as me running them down for having a “wrong” subjective opinion. Nothing could be more asinine.

So I’m going to let people like what they like. As my good friend, Antwan Hawkins, has said many times, “it’s incredible that we even get the chance to have these conversations about things we love being made as movies.” I’d have to agree.