Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

March 3, 2014

Let's discuss Attack on Titan (Part 2).

You know, it’s not very often that I think that something I’ve written is actually any good, especially given that I’m sharing a conceptual space -- and also a planet -- with people far better than me.  But every once in a while, when all the planets have aligned, things really come together.

This is one of those times.

I’m going to go ahead and spoil something for you right here.  Not for Attack on Titan or The Walking Dead -- though THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR BOTH, SO WATCH OUT -- but for this post in general.  If nothing else, you should probably read the last point (number 8) I have on this list.  You can consider it more than just a summation, or rattling off complaints.  It’s a culmination.  And it’s something that’s well worth reading.  Maybe.

Well, you’re here for one reason or another, so, hey, why the hell not?  Let’s get to it.

But first, who's up for a little moe moe action?

Don't worry.  It'll be over soon.

5) The visuals.
So in the last anime season there was this show called Kyoukai no Kanata -- translated to Beyond the Boundary -- about a girl who uses swords made of blood to fight demons or something.  I wouldn’t know, since I only skimmed through descriptions and episode summaries online.  I don’t want to be that guy in light of things I’ve said here on this very blog, but there’s just something really off-putting about the art style of its big studio, Kyoto Animation (lovingly dubbed KyoAni by most).  I know they’ve got the big bucks to make some good stuff, and their works probably look great in motion, but there’s just something irritating to me about the faces of its leading ladies in recent years -- and by extension, its ladies in general.  I know that’s not fair, and in Kyoukai’s case I’m a little more forgiving, because the heroine’s cuteness is probably supposed to be a contrast to her grisly business…but that little theory doesn’t work when she has the same face as almost every KyoAni girl in the past half-decade

Tangent aside, in an audiovisual medium the art and look is the core of the work -- but beyond that, it can (and should) be used to enhance certain ideas and offerings.  It can be used to make a grand scene grander, or make a quiet moment quieter, or make a brutal fight even more brutal.  There’s likely no shortage of tricks and techniques that can be used to do that, but using any number of them effectively is what showcases a creator or team’s skill -- and again, enhances the ideas of the work itself.  I can say all of this, of course, because AoT has given me plenty of proof.

It’s a slick-looking show with plenty of action, but it goes above and beyond when it comes to showing what the characters in it -- human or Titan -- can do.  When the show is willing (and it’s willing quite often), it has no problems showing the soldiers jetting around with their 3DMG, low-riding above the streets, flinging themselves around clock towers, or just rocketing from one rooftop to the next.  When characters like Mikasa or ace soldier Levi start cutting up Titans, it really is a marvel to see them move with such speed, power, and even grace.   On the flip-side, the Titans’ uncanny valley-escapades get translated just as quickly, from their faces and facial expressions to their motions; there’s a spider-like variant that I probably won’t be forgetting anytime soon.  For obvious reasons.

Now, in order to go a bit further into this explanation I have to drop a big whompin’ spoiler, so if you’re still reading this and want to see the show fresh, you might want to back out now.  Okay?  Okay.

So by the end of the first third or so of the season, it’s revealed that Eren (and presumably others for currently-unknown reasons) has the power to turn into a Titan -- to don a personalized, fleshy mobile suit so he can fight them on their terms and their scale.  In a lesser show, an MC discovering a hidden power would be an instant benefit; in AoT, it’s both a useful weapon and a key indicator of darker times ahead.  One character remarks that Titan-Eren is pretty much “the rage of humanity embodied.”  That is 100% true, because Titan-Eren is such a brutal, monstrous berserker that his moments of triumph are just as likely to be moments of genuine horror.  His attacks, his motions, his roars -- all that and more make me wonder one thing consistently.  “Er…are we absolutely sure we want this guy to be our hero?”

And that leads directly into one of the show’s strongest points.

6) The overwhelming passion.
It’s probably worth noting that when it starts to hit the fan (i.e. in pretty much every episode), Armin is always one of the first to put on his “oh crap” face.  It may seem contradictory of me to say that he’s got courage, but it makes perfect sense to me.  Remember, courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in spite of it -- and that has to apply to a guy who, despite knowing that joining Eren’s unit will put him on the anti-Titan frontline joins anyway

One of the more pronounced moments is when the main trio (after recovering a post-Titanified Eren) limps away from a fight and back in friendly hands -- only for the forces that greet them to aim cannons at them because they’re justifiably freaked out about Eren.  Armin realizes that the only way to get them to calm down isn’t to use brute/Titan force, as Eren does to stop the first round of cannon fire.  He has to use his words.  And he does so by channeling the spirits of Phoenix Wright, Simon the Digger, and Idris Elba.  Not Pacific Rim’s Stacker Pentecost, mind -- just Idris Elba. 

Now, I will be fair.  If there is a weakness to AoT, it’s that it can be TOO passionate.  This show and the people in it, for the most part, strike me as the sorts that try to make everything dramatic and everything epic.  Sweeping camera angles, sudden gale-force winds and shockwaves, lengthy speeches and monologues screamed with regularity…it all feels unreal, to the point where I can only imagine what it’s like when the main cast tries to make a bowl of oatmeal.  A part of me suspects that, while the show isn’t exactly “always-on” with its passion, it’s ultimately an unsustainable effort.  It’ll burn out long before its time, and its conventions will become just as blasé as those seen in TWD.

If that day is indeed coming, then it is a long, long, long way away.

God DAMN.  These people don’t just wear their hearts on their sleeves; they’re wearing coats and pants made out of hearts.  And it’s absolutely glorious.  When they’re angry, their rage is hotter than a volcano.  When they’re being bold, it feels like you’re standing right next to these guys and gals as they face off with a firing squad.  When it’s time for them to sack up, be heroes, or just give another rousing speech, you can’t help but get swept up in that pace.  You can’t help but feel that manic fervor -- that conviction in the characters, as well as the show itself.  It believes so earnestly in what it’s trying to convey that its force -- and force of will -- is positively palpable. 

This show isn’t good at holding back.  It just keeps hitting you and hitting you -- hard.

7) A sense of progression.
“What’s in the basement?”

That’s the question that was fresh on my brother’s mind as soon as it was brought up in the show -- and it’s the same question that had him going “one more episode” time and time again.  It’s pretty safe to say that whatever’s in there will be the key to explaining what the Titans really are, and how certain individuals like Eren can transform into them, so for me that’s not necessarily such a big draw.  I’m not watching AoT just for some big reveal.  I’m watching for the whole package.

That said, the basement question does help prove the show’s case -- that things are always moving forward, and moving toward something meaningful.  Thinking back, it would have been easy to make Eren’s past -- the death of his mother, and his military training -- stuff you could cram into a flashback, but I’m thankful that I got to see everything in a direct context.  I’m thankful I got a first-hand glimpse, because it made the military operations and trials to follow that much stronger.  I know who these people are, and I can follow them in their fight against the Titans.

Admittedly, it’s not as if AoT has done anything revolutionary here.  All it had to do was string one mini-arc to the next and call it a day.  And it did.  But its execution of those arcs is very solid, because of its characters, because of its ideas, because of its highs and lows, because of everything it tries to come at you with in the span of a twenty-ish minute episode. 

When these people fight Titans, it’s a struggle for survival against truly powerful enemies -- enemies that almost seem to change the rules of engagement in every appearance.  When these people have issues with one another off the battlefield, it’s about things that actually matter to us as an audience -- how do you beat the Titan du jour?  What do you do when there’s a human-summoning Titan in your midst?  What risks and sacrifices should be made to maybe gain a slight advantage against the Titans after losing against them for a century?

I hate to keep taking shots at TWD (because if you’re going to generalize, then you’re going to get it wrong), but it really is a world of difference.  The Governor problems in Season 3 and the tail end of Season 4’s first half gave the show some focus and movement toward something worth seeing in its entirety…and now The Governor’s dead.  There was a virus in Season 4 that threatened the lives of Rick’s prison team, but that’s pretty much resolved now, right?  (Side note: am I the only one who’s confused as to why The Governor killed a tied-up Hershel, but let Michonne, the woman who killed his daughter, slink away so she could kill him later?  Is there an answer besides “so the writers can dupe people into thinking that something cool is happening by way of killing zombies with katana slashes”?)

The rest of Season 4 is primed to deal with the aftermath of the prison getting blown up and the survivors scattered, but what’s going to be the payoff for that?  We’ll get some character moments, sure, but what’s the end goal here?  Get everyone back together so they can hole up in another big location, so we can do this dance again a season later?  What’s even the point if the writers their hollowed-out world can just keep taking away whatever they scrape up?

AoT has a simple end goal: “find a way to kill all the Titans.”  TWD may be able to set up short-term goals -- maybe -- but with nothing to aspire towards as a viewer because of the inevitable shit-wrecking, I’m starting to feel like a sucker every time I sit down with the show.  Especially when a mere “cartoon” has blown it out of the water.

And that’s not just because of the other points I have on this list.  It’s because of this last one.

8) Hope never dies.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m the Eternal Optimist.  I genuinely believe in silly things like “the goodness in people’s hearts” and “the future can always get better”, even if those are naïve sentiments, and even if there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.  I’m not so nutty to think that those things are a given, but I do think that with effort and integrity, any one of us can make the world a better place.  However slightly.

You might think that this is why I rail so often against “gritty stories”, and why I have the biases that I do.  And that’s probably true to some extent.  I’d like to think that even if I am unfair to grit or darker fare, by now I’ve raised some legitimate points on why I feel the way I do.  I don’t rail because I hate.  I rail because I love -- because I want good stories, and I want others to have good stories, too.  You just can’t get that by doing the same old, same old…and doing it poorly, for that matter.  But there’s one point I haven’t brought up.  There’s one point that I’ve only just realized.

I’m not the only one that likes brighter stories.  If you’re reading this -- if you’re alive -- then you do, too.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an optimist or a realist, an idealist or a cynic.  It’s true that our individual experiences and beliefs shape our worldviews, and help us decide whether we’re willing to buy into something or cast it aside.  But that’s fine.  That’s what fiction is for -- so we can see what happens in unreal worlds.  So we can learn from them, and think deeply about the ideas and meanings behind each character, each action, each world, and even each word. 

Merely because we’re alive, we’re all people that enjoy seeing things like moments of triumph, or true love, or gentle embraces, or the perennial happy ending.  We’ve been hardwired to believe in things like that because we have fiction -- art at large -- in our lives.  Is it real?  In most cases, no.  Do we have to buy into every idea, and cling solely to things that make us smile?  Again, no.  Not every story needs to have heroes, or a happy ending.

But we can appreciate them.  We can accept them, and let them make us believe in things like heroes and hope.  We can believe, if only for a moment, that we have the power to change the world.  Or, if you’re as nuts as me, you can believe, period.

This is the major problem I have with TWD.  In theory, it’s supposed to be a show about highs and lows -- about making a new life in a world consumed by death.  It should be about people from different walks of life coming together -- not always agreeing with one another, and clashing against those that threaten them, but moving toward a common goal: life.  Peace.  Hope.  In theory, that’s what TWD offers; in practice, the hope it’s putting on display consistently feels hollow.  Like the writers are lying to us.  Like they can just hit the reset button whenever it’s time to scrape up a new story arc. 

It’s a show about people I barely care about doing things that confuse and annoy me, and every time it looks as if things are going to get better -- every time these people are ready to be more than just tired, dirty survivors with nothing to strive for besides “survive” -- it’s right back to zero so everyone can dwell in misery.  I’m not asking TWD to be some great treatise on the resilience and nobility of the human spirit, but I want it to be honest with me.  And after months, and episodes, and hours spent trying to “give it a chance”, I’m done waiting.  I’m tired of its empty promises.

Nowhere is this clearer than the premiere of the second half of Season 4.  Team leader Rick and his son Carl are separated from the other survivors, and their situation looks dire -- as it always does -- as they have to start over from scratch.  As you’d expect, the tension and resentment Carl’s held inside reaches its limit, and he and Rick find themselves unable to cooperate -- to the point where when Rick slips into what’s effectively a coma, Carl might actually be relieved in the sense that he can tell his dad off without repercussion, and he can finally strike out on his own. 

Inevitably, Carl ends up coming back and realizing that he needs his dad now more than ever, but not before saying things like “I’d be better off without you.”  It’s the sort of thing that either raises a death flag, or acts as a red herring.  But in the same episode, it looks as if Rick has passed on and turned into a walker -- a false alarm, as expected (if they planned to kill Rick off, they likely would save that for the end of the season rather than its start).

The implication with TWD is that anyone can die, and no one is safe.  In light of certain characters’ popularity and place in the story, I have my doubts about that -- but it’s a mantra that the show likely holds dear, considering who’s bitten it already.  Is there a chance that Rick, ostensibly the main character, could die?  Yes.  But there’s a problem with that -- a problem encapsulated in that one episode, embodied by the show at large, and endemic of the underlying issue that I doubt will ever be resolved.  The question in my mind at that moment, when it was unclear if Rick had turned walker or not, was “Did they actually kill off Rick?”  And shortly after, I thought, “Wait.  What if they actually killed off Rick?” 

But in the end, neither of those questions mattered.  Not because it turned out Rick was fine; because in my eyes, it wouldn’t have mattered either way.  If Rick lived, then the show could go on its current path -- to the regrouping of its cast, resettling in a new location, picking up new survivors along the way, and carving out some semblance of a life for themselves amidst a world full of zombies.  If Rick died, then that would mean losing a central character…but someone else could take his place.  Carl would be in a prime position to become the team leader, or at least a central character; he would have to bear the loss of his father, but I’d assume that he could do it eventually. 

And then what? 

He could pick up where his dad left off, or try and do what he couldn’t and make a fully-stable life for a small band of survivors -- which would contextually make sense for the show, because it’s a route we’ve gone down several times before.  We’ve seen the farm, the prison, and the prison with more potential victims.  Is it wrong of me to assume that things are going to settle back into the same groove?  Is it wrong of me to think that these characters are going to try to do something more? 

All things considered, why would they try to make another Woodbury when they directly brought about its downfall?  Why would they try now, of all times, to figure out how to stop people from turning into the undead?  Why would they come up with an end goal when they’ve only recently tried thinking of long-term sustainability via Rick’s farming -- and virtually everyone got on his case for tending to that instead of “being the leader they needed”?

The question that TWD needs to answer -- and incidentally has brought up in a few conversations -- is “What’s the point of living in a world that’s already dead?”  But the way things are looking, it’s never going to offer that answer.

There may be small victories, but those can be taken away on a whim.  There may be moments of peace and happiness, but overwhelming despair and weariness will always outweigh them.  There may be gains made to keep the survivors living for another week, but in the grand scheme of things there’s nothing for them to aspire towards besides “hole up in the next sanctuary, and hope it doesn’t get wrecked like last time”.  The character drama -- and the characters themselves -- needs to be compelling enough to compensate for that seeming hopelessness, but it isn’t. 

They haven’t given me a single reason to care about their plight, about their prospects, or about the people themselves.  And why would they?  If anyone can die -- if Shane, Lori, Hershel, Dale, Merle, Andrea, and likely more -- can get booted out of the cast as soon as their usefulness to the plot has come to an end, then what’s the point of getting attached to people who, on average based on that little list, have been able to depart from the core group with only so much of value lost?  With the weight behind their departures not being “because we cared about them”, but “because death is sad”?

TWD doesn’t believe in hope.  But AoT does, with every fiber of its being.  And amidst its gore, amidst its furious battles and shouting characters, amidst its booming score and bold, thick-lined visuals, it has a reason to exist.  It has a reason to win favor, instead of treating its audience and its accolades like a God-given right. 

It wants you to believe in hope.

It’s true that you could say some unflattering things about AoT -- that anyone can die in it as well, and some of the characters are shallow and/or are just there to show how bad things have gotten, or how powerful the Titans are.  That’ll likely be the case from start to finish, whenever that may be.  But the saving grace is that it always feels like whatever’s on screen -- be it an epic battle, or a simple conversation -- actually matters.  Everything is geared toward stemming the Titan threat, protecting humanity, or a mix of both.  That end goal, and the horrific zeal that Eren summons to pursue it, makes for a world of difference.

And Eren isn’t the only one trying his hardest.  He’s the story’s driving force, but he’s also the spark that sets others’ hearts aflame.  If not for him, Armin and Mikasa would both have either given up or died long ago (Mikasa especially, given her backstory).  Likewise, all of their fellow military cadets would have given up against the Titans at the first sign of danger, or used their status to steal a spot within safe territory.  But Eren’s willpower manages to convince even a coward like Jean to take to the front lines -- and beyond that, his mere presence gives humanity some semblance of a chance against the enemies they’ve lost to for a hundred years.

It’s amazing.  In TWD, I get the feeling that nobody wants to fight the zombies in spite of them being a nuisance at best.  In AoT, nearly every character wants to fight the Titans in spite of them being genocidal colossi at best.

But it goes farther than that.  It’s true that with their collective willpower, Eren and the other soldiers manage to get some wins, and win in a big way.  They make it through training, and the main cast is established as the top ten units as a result; after that, it seems like their first outing is merely a struggle to survive -- which they do, of course, but not without some losses.  But they take it a step further once Eren discovers his Titan powers; you would think that just using a boulder to plug up a hole wouldn’t be something worth getting excited about, but AoT delivers, and gives that seemingly-slight victory the fanfare it deserves.  To say nothing of future endeavors.

These characters are actually capable of winning, but they’re just as likely (maybe more so) to lose.  The people are beaten down and using the safety of the walls and borders of their town to hide their fears behind blissful ignorance, but they’re reminded of the Titans’ power each time soldiers return -- downtrodden, silent, taking verbal abuse from civilians during their parades back to base, and carrying carts full of dead bodies along the way.  It’s just one of many signals that the show can leap straight to the lowest of lows. 

As a child, Eren still looks up to them and wants to join their ranks, even before he loses his mother -- but once he actually succeeds, he sees firsthand what it’s like to be in such a parade when an operation goes awry.  He’s absolutely devastated, and rightfully so; it was because he couldn’t defeat an enemy Titan that the operation failed, he lost the comrades he trusted so dearly, and his titanic ace-in-the-hole got brutalized.  Yet it hurts him because prior to that, he got a taste of victory and success earned by his hand.  And now he has to endure everything to follow -- even if there are children in the booing crowd that still think he’s a hero.

AoT has an advantage in the sense that -- believe it or not -- it practiced restraint.  It didn’t just take the easy way out and turned civilization into rubble; it built a world around its characters, and as such gave itself dozens more tools to use.  More toys to play with.  And it shows; the worst thing TWD can do to its cast is kill the people around them.  Conversely, AoT can do so much more.  It can make its characters feel shame, and resentment, and a sense of failure.  It can make its conflicts bigger by adding in more human elements, but keep it personal by having its core cast act and react in response to others -- in accordance with their mindsets, and the will/expectations of the people they want to protect, precisely because -- whether or not they’re capable of fighting the Titans -- they all have the will to live.  To know peace, and in the eyes of a certain few, to see better days.

In that sense, AoT feels honest.  Not just that it understands how to make a good story -- that it believes in the story it’s telling, and that the audience doesn’t need someone to play to their sense of “realism” to justify its presence.  Eren and company are capable of witnessing, bearing, and moving past the lowest of lows -- because with their collective power, they can do everything they can to reach the highest of highs.  This is a show that can have teardrops and terror, sorrow and suffering; this is also a show that can have victory and vigor, strength and soul.  You only need to look in Eren’s eyes to see all those things reflected; you can feel his passion, and the show’s passion, overflowing through your screen.

And that’s what it’s all about.  That’s how it should be.  That’s what we want from fiction, and from art itself: to feel something.  It’s true that you can reliably count on AoT for some thrills, but it feels like there’s so much more to it than that.  It just keeps pushing, and pushing, and pushing, trying to show you something more than just some trivial “Titan Kill of the Week”.  It does so in the context of its story, but everything that flows from it is purposeful and intent -- intensely devoted to trying to make you feel like the conflict is much bigger than just something flashing across your TV.  It isn’t even close to real, but it could care less.  It may be a gritty, grisly, and often gruesome affair, but the underlying ideas behind it -- that understandable desire to “stand up and fight” -- make for a show that’s more than worthy of its popularity.  It’s nothing short of a phenomenon.

AoT wants you to believe in hope.  And because of it, I believe.  I really, really do.

So.  Where does that leave me?

As of this post, I’ve only seen the first four or so episodes of TWD’s Season 4.5.  I haven’t liked what I’ve seen; it’s not intolerable tripe, don’t get me wrong.  But it continues to disappoint, and I’m tired of watching it in the hopes of seeing the show that it could be -- because by the time it does become “the show that it could be”, it’ll not only be too late, but only prove how worthless the rest of the show had been up to that point.  That in mind, I’m willing to give the show one last chance.  

If it can’t make a compelling argument to watch it within the next couple of episodes, I’m dropping it cold.  It’s not looking good right now, even if they brought back Carol; even if there was an episode devoted to Beth and Daryl featuring lots of cyclical arguments, tensionless fights, and “character development” that could have been done in a fourth of the time, I’m willing to believe (however foolishly) that there’s some ace in the hole.  But it would take a real overhaul.  Given that Glenn decided to go all “fuck you, got mine” when told of the prospects of a cure, leading to a chain events that ensured more aimless wandering and go-nowhere arguments, I’m not in a good place right now.

On the flipside, I’m ready for the next round of AoT episodes, whenever they may appear…even if the next round apparently won’t come until sometime in 2015.  I’m fairly lax when it comes to spoilers, but there’s a certain rule I have in mind: if there’s something I REALLY care about, then I won’t read up anything on it for fear of revealing some hidden aspect.  And given that I’ve found even comedic clips related to AoT can (possibly) spoil surprises -- and even looking for clips in the first place made me learn of certain plot events before I saw them for myself -- I might have to swear off everything besides listening to the theme songs.  I want to see what happens next.  I want to see these characters again.  I want to see them triumph, struggle, and face off against a powerful enemy for the sake of their futures. 

I’m not going to pretend like AoT is perfect, or that it does everything right.  But it has one part down, at least.  And when you get down to it, doesn’t that count for something?

…Who cares?  Let’s listen to the second opening!


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