Marvel Cinematic Universe

Now that I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame and I’m all caught up on them, I thought I’d survey all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Endgame marks the end of the 22 films which Marvel claims are collectively titled “The Infinity Saga”, though I think that’s meant to sound more impressive than it is: The films are linked, to be sure, but the link is for some films pretty tenuous, and the overall story certainly could have been condensed down to no more than six movies as there’s a lot of material superfluous to what one might call the main story.

Still, despite this posturing, it’s been an enjoyable run, albeit with its ups and downs..

To start with, I put together a ranking of all of the films, with letter grades. There are some I might move up a little or down a little depending on my mood – especially the ones in the C range which are all very similar in quality – but in the large here’s where I put them:

And now I’ll briefly – and chronologically – run through all of the films with some expanded thoughts on them.

Spoilers ahoy!

Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010)

I didn’t see these when they first came out – I didn’t see them until after The Avengers – and I wrote a joint review of them. It’s hard not to think of them as linked, since they’re very similar films. Iron Man has better character bits but a disappointing finale (“hero runs out of power but triumphs anyway” is never a satisfying finish), while Iron Man 2 has a lot of dead air leading up to a much more satisfying climax. Both films hold up pretty well today, and it’s really hard to say which one I like more. Their biggest weakness is that Tony’s friends can’t convincingly stand up to him (Nick Fury’s appearance in Iron Man 2 is a breath of fresh air in this regard), and so the story often feels like it’s a man’s internal struggles made external, but kind of ham-fistedly so. Unfortunately, the MCU never did learn to apply nuance to Tony’s character or struggles.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Not a sequel to the 2003 film Hulk (which I haven’t seen), this one is only tenuously connected to the rest of the series. Edward Norton does a terrific version of Bill Bixby’s Bruce (David) Banner from the 1970s TV series, reinforced by the opening credits which seems to recreate the origin from that series. (Apparently they filmed 70 minutes worth of origin footage! Then wisely decided to just use it as credits visuals.) The movie plays more like a horror film than a superhero film, and its best scene is the army facing the Hulk on a college campus, which is perhaps the single most effective scene for showing what a completely terrifying experience the Hulk would really be. The film is majorly let down by its special effects, which would have seemed dated 5 years earlier when The Lord of the Rings finished its trilogy. The story is kind of dumb and since there never was a sequel one of the major loose ends never gets resolved, but there is lots of smashing.

Thor (2011)

Somehow directed by Kenneth Branagh and featuring a fantastic cast, Thor is unfortunately a rather tedious film due to a by-the-numbers story of Thor learning responsibility and how to (sometimes) see through his brother Loki’s machinations. Chris Hemsworth made the role of Thor his own, but is overshadowed by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. The film only has one truly great scene, where Thor gets his hammer back and faces the Destroyer.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The first MCU film I saw in the theater, you can read my full review from that time. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and it holds up wonderfully. Chris Evans is picture-perfect as Cap, making him more than a naive do-gooder, convincing us that he has deep-seated beliefs motivating his actions. His conversations with Erskine are both amusing and moving. The moment when Cap and Bucky and the soldiers walk back into camp after Cap rescues them is the single best scene in any film in this list. Even the ending works perfectly – although it maybe works a little better after seeing the later films since it makes it not quite so bittersweet.

The Avengers (2012)

I saw this one in the theater too, and here’s my review. The Avengers holds up better than I would have guessed at the time: The wheel-spinning plot of act two works a bit better as character-building now that we have a better idea of what characters were built. Joss Whedon’s cutesy dialogue hasn’t aged as well, nor has his ham-handed scripting of the Black Widow. And then the whole point of the invasion is questionable given what we know from Infinity War and Endgame (why does Thanos bother with all of this?). But there are several great scenes, and the whole final battle is the gold standard for staging a complex superhero fight. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is very different from Edward Norton’s, but it works well for how his character develops. But the film really belongs to Cap and Iron Man as the big two of the MCU.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Many people hate this film. I’m not going to die on a hill defending it, but I think it’s better than some think. The film works with an interesting premise: What can Tony Stark do if he can’t be Iron Man? And there are some fun scenes built around that, (very) loosely inspired by a few similar moments from some comic books. The rescue of the President’s aides is pretty great, too. But the story overall is a mess, the Mandarin is a tremendous disappointment (they got Ben Kingsley and wasted him on this?), and the final battle is a lot of flash but is basically kind of silly.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Award winner in the category of “most criminal underuse of Christopher Eccleston” right here. The Dark World is incomprehensible nonsense almost from start to finish, punctuated by cringeworthy scenes that I guess are supposed to be funny (especially those involving Erik Selvig). The scene where Thor and Loki put one over on Malekith is pretty good, but otherwise this one has nothing to contribute to the series except another Infinity Stone.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The first two Captain America films are neck-and-neck as my favorite superhero films, but when pressed I think the first one is just a little bit better. Still, I loved The Winter Soldier, as I wrote in my original review. While the high-level story involving “the algorithm” and the plot device “we must put our chip in all three carriers or it’s all for naught” is basically ridiculous, the story works very well the rest of the way, especially the sense of paranoia Hydra engenders, and the sheer hopelessness Cap feels when confronting Bucky. Black Widow gets her best characterization here, and it feels like the directors brought a great performance out of Scarlett Johansson where Joss Whedon couldn’t. Anthony Mackie is immediately terrific as the Falcon. Finally, the action scenes are amazing, like The Matrix on caffeine and speed.

My biggest regret in this film is that they planted several seeds of future Cap movies (Bucky, Sharon Carter, Nick Fury going walkabout) which got sacrificed on the altar of Age of Ultron and Civil War, and frankly it just wasn’t worth it.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Some people love this film, thinking it’s in the upper echelon of the series. I think it’s practically the epitome of an average action film, with a cardboard villain, a lot of fine action scenes, heavy on the humor, and a pretty standard story arc. The emotional center of the film – Quill and Gamora – suffers a lot in that I think Zoe Saldana is a pretty wooden actress. By contrast Bradley Cooper’s Rocket – despite being a voice actor over a CGI raccoon – is the most sympathetic and engaging of the characters. I’m reasonably happy to watch this when it comes on TV and I want something on in the background, but it’s not going to displace a Red Sox game.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Things start to go wrong here, and I’m not sure whether it’s because of Joss Whedon’s script and direction, or if it’s instructions from higher up about where the characters should go which gets in the way. Ultron is an embarrassingly dumb villain – quite a change from his comics persona where he’s one of the five scariest villains in the Marvel Universe – and there are just too many characters here with too much running around, complete with a second-act fight which is even more pointless than in the first movie, as much fun as it might be to see the Hulk run crazy. The Vision is tragically underused in this film and in later ones. At best this film is moving the chess pieces around for later films, but it’s not a fun experience. It also suffers from not having Alan Silvestri score the music as he did for the other Avengers films.

Ant-Man (2015)

A charming little caper film, Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are both at the top of their games in this film about a retired hero (a contemporary of Howard Stark) recruiting a small-time thief to help take back his company. For comics fans it’s a fun re-mixing of comics elements into the MCU, but it works fine on its own too. The best scenes involve Scott and his daughter Cassie, as Rudd completely sells Scott’s love for his daughter and how that relationship guides him when it really matters.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

And here’s where the wheels fall off on the overall story. First of all, this should have been the third Avengers film because it’s not really a Cap film. Second, it cements Tony Stark’s place as the greatest villain of the MCU (well okay, maybe Thanos passes him later on, in results if nothing else). It’s a nice introduction for the Black Panther, who’s the only character who comes out of this having gone anywhere, but they could have accomplished that in a much narrowed Cap film which also developed his relationship with Bucky reasonably. Turning Tony into a man-child and basically undoing all of his earlier character development was just awful. It’s always fun to see Chris Evans as Cap, but he deserved a lot better than this.

Doctor Strange (2016)

It’s decidedly weird to see Benedict Cumberbatch with an American accent, but that aside he was quite well cast as Doctor Strange, who has his own personal hubris and downfall to overcome, not entirely unlike that of Tony Stark, albeit with a more transformational result. I didn’t completely buy that Strange had truly become the “master of the mystic arts” by the end of the film, but it was close enough. I also appreciated that they didn’t go “the full Ditko” with the CGI dreamscapes. There are a lot of directions they can take Doc in future films, and I hope they choose the “sorcerer supreme” direction rather than the “loses his powers and has to soldier on somehow” direction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 (2017)

It seems like big fans of the first Guardians film felt this was a disappointment, but I think it’s only a small step down. I’m not sure whether they could have come up with a truly satisfying reveal for Quill’s father, and this was a pretty good try. It’s his relationship with Yondu which works best, though. Nebula and Gamora’s reconciliation works pretty well too.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

I’m probably in the minority here, but I did not like this film. I thought Tom Holland was fine as Peter Parker and great as Spider-Man, and the fight scenes were excellent. But the high school scenes were painfully awkward, Tony Stark’s patronizing lack of trust in Peter is another big strike against his character, and Peter’s desperate attempts to make a difference early in the film are both cringeworthy and feel very out-of-character for him. Spider-Man’s character works best as a young man who’s responsible beyond his years, and while they’re trying to make him a more fallible hero, I don’t think they thread that needle. I haven’t seen most of the earlier Spider-Man films, but I’d take the first Tobey Maguire one over this one.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Another film that some people adore and which I think is just okay. I appreciated the opening sequence where we see how far Thor has come since his first film, yet we see later that he’s learned some of the wrong lessons, that he’s still a little too full of himself even though he’s much more wise and capable than he once was. The scenes on Sakaar are fairly entertaining, but most of the stuff on Asgard is dull, and the final battle feels pretty disappointing, like there wasn’t really a victory there, yet not much processing of what was lost either. I guess Chris Hemsworth has been enjoying the comic side of his later MCU movies, but I think it’s consistently some of the weakest stuff in them. Kudos to the writers and director for trying some off-the-wall stuff, but it was pretty hit-or-miss overall.

Black Panther (2018)

I don’t think it’s possible for me to like this film as much as some people do, but I do think it’s a good film. The acting is great across-the-board (honestly Martin Freeman is probably the weak link here and he’s still fine), and it represents a new step forward in staging complex battle scenes. That said, T’challa’s character arc straight out of Rocky is a little meh, and the big fight at the end feels a bit too manufactured. I preferred the first half where it was a sort of superhero James Bond film.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

A two-and-a-half hour set-up for Endgame, I didn’t see this in the theater and once I saw it I didn’t feel like I missed much. It really has only two great scenes – when Cap and company show up to rescue Vision and the Scarlet Witch, and when Thor arrives to fight Thanos. The film otherwise was just overstuffed with characters, none of whom displayed any real character. The directors have said that Thanos is the film’s protagonist, which explains a lot about why it doesn’t work: His motivations make no sense, he doesn’t grow or change as a character, he’s utterly unsympathetic and is in a way the ultimate generic villain. Not quite as big a flub as Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but up there. The film sort of tried to pay off the tragedy of the Avengers being broken up and unable to work together after Civil War, but it’s a subtheme at best. The best part of the film is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, who fills the “everyman” role in the story, just kind of amazed at everything going on around him. He gets the single best line in the film, too: “You guys are so screwed!”

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Another fine caper film, maybe a little better than the original: The villain was more interesting, and the spectacle was more entertaining. The Ant-Man films are not tremendously ambitious, but I don’t think they’re meant to be. If you liked the first one, you should enjoy this one.

Captain Marvel (2019)

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this film – which I did see on the big screen, and it was worth it – since the comic book version of Captain Marvel has a long and complex backstory which I didn’t see them translating to the MCU. Quite sensibly they kept the bare bones of her origin and jettisoned almost everything else in favor of a new story about a woman on a journey of self-discovery. The film is quite clever with some fun twists and turns and entertaining fight scenes at the end. Brie Larson plays Cap with a mood that switches between intense and ethereal, and though she’s cut from similar cloth as Captain America she comes across very differently from Chris Evans’ aw-shucks Brooklyn demeanor. I’m a little sorry we (probably) won’t get to see them appear together in a significant way.

Anyway, after thinking about it I realized that I enjoyed this film more than any in the series except the first two Captain America films, and I’m eager to see more. I rather hope the next film explores what she’s been doing in space for 25 years before returning to Earth, and why it seems none of the other space-based characters (Thanos, the Guardians) have heard of her, since she’s able to take down a star destroyer without working up a sweat. Figuring out how to challenge a character with that level of power is also going to be a good trick for her future writers.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Probably easier for you to just read my full review, since it was just a couple of weeks ago. But in brief it was a much more enjoyable film than Infinity War, with stronger characterization. It would have been nice if the whole third act hadn’t only been an extended fight scene, and I think the ending could have been a bit better, but as a farewell to Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in their superhero roles it was enjoyable enough.

Looking Forward and Backward

What made these movies enjoyable for me is that the core characters were true to their comic book versions, and the stories effectively remixed many comic book elements to create engaging new versions. Sometimes this worked better than other times: Winter Soldier pulled together several disparate comics plots into an enjoyable whole, while Iron Man 3 didn’t really get it. But in the end when we saw the Avengers fighting Loki and his alien army, they were the characters we wanted to see. This isn’t the way superhero movies have to be done – Christopher Nolan demonstrated that in his Batman trilogy – but it was made this series work.

The question is where the series goes from here with Captain America and Iron Man being written out, and Thor probably moving into more of a supporting role (Chris Hemsworth is apparently willing to do more Thor films, but with a more comedic bent). It sure looks like Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Doctor Strange are likely to be the core characters for the next decade or so of films, which is a mix we haven’t really seen in the comics, so we’ll see whether the studio forms them into a new team (the Defenders would be the logical choice if they decide to jettison or merge the Netflix characters into the MCU). But with Disney buying Fox it sounds like the X-Men will be arriving in the MCU soon, and perhaps the Fantastic Four after that. And then there are the rumored TV series (Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Falcon & Winter Soldier) – but I have a hard time seeing them tightly integrate those with the movies, much as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has largely been its own thing separate from the films.

Honestly I hope they move away from trying together all of the movies and instead focus on developing story arcs for each of the major characters, the sort of thing that Captain America was denied.

My guess is that the MCU as currently constructed will probably start to break down when the main stars of the next 5 years start to leave, and then we’ll see Marvel reboot the franchise in new films. That’s not the worst thing – either through hard or soft reboots most of these characters have been changing for new generations over the decades anyway, so a new Cap, Iron Man and Thor for a new generation would make sense.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame poster
(click for larger image)

Last weekend we finally saw Avengers: Endgame, which wraps up the Avengers series of movies as they’ve been set up since Iron Man back in 2008, and is basically the second half of the movie started in last year’s Infinity War.

Before I get to the spoilers I’ll say this: Infinity War was basically 2-1/2 hours of set-up, was way overstuffed with too many characters, and Thanos was a pretty limp villain, not strong enough to carry the movie, and with basically unbelievable motivations. Endgame benefits from a much smaller cast (for most of the movie) and more room to breathe, but at 3 hours long also contains a lot of material that could have just been cut, or replaced with better material. Still, it’s a fairly satisfying wrap-up to the story, and has a number of great scenes (which were sorely lacking in Infinity War).

Now, on to the spoilers:

Continue reading “Avengers: Endgame”

Camera Obscura

Yesterday Debbi and I took the day off to go to San Francisco for the first time in several months. We went to California Academy of Sciences, and Borderlands Books, which are two of our usual haunts, but we also went somewhere I’ve never been before: To see the Camera Obscura. (See also the Wikipedia entry.)

I’m a big fan of the Lands End area, which is in the northwest corner of the city, west of the Golden Gate Bridge, at the northern reach of the Great Highway and Ocean Beach. The main parking lot is the home of the USS San Francisco Memorial and access to some great walking trails. The area is best known for the Cliff House and the ruins of the Sutro Baths, but decades ago it was known for Playland at the Beach, an amusement park which opened early in the 20th century, and which closed in 1972.

It seems two remnants of Playland survived its closure: One, the Musée Méchanique, moved to Fisherman’s Wharf on the other side of the city when the Cliff House was renovated starting in 2002. The other is the Camera Obscura, located in a small building accessible by a short trail to the left of the Cliff House, or by stairs to its right leading to a paved area behind the building. While I’d visited the Musée several times at its location here, I don’t remember the Camera at all, and feel like I only heard of it a year or so ago.

We parked in a nearby lot which had broken car glass in many spaces. My guess is that people park there at night to go walking and that’s when most of the break-ins occur. We didn’t see any cars with broken windows. There’s also street parking, as well as the lot for the Lands End Lookout building, above the Baths.

Admission was $3 for each of us, but it was well worth it for the novelty: The Camera had a 360° angle of view, and once the operator turns it on, it slowly rotates through its arc, projecting the image of the area around the building on a large concave wooden panel in the middle of the room. Viewers must slowly walk around the panel to stay oriented to the image, but it is amazingly sharp and clear. Which makes sense, since what we think of as a “camera” – film or digital – has a resolution of the image it produces, while this camera has effectively infinite resolution – or, at any event, probably higher resolution than the human eye can perceive.

It takes about six minutes to complete the circuit, so during the second cycle when the camera was pointed at the Cliff House, Debbi and I checked out the small but neat collection of holograms around the room.

The Camera Obscura is in some ways emblematic of San Francisco historical sites. Most of SF was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, so most of the historical sites that remain have a sort of immediacy to them: Some of them, like the Camera, are still functioning. Others were functioning within the lifetimes of many people living (such as Alcatraz). In a way this is a testament to the pace of technological (and sometimes social) progress in the last century: The Camera Obscura is still pretty cool today, and it must have been pretty awesome when it opened in the late 1940s. Nonetheless, though that was only 70 years ago, it feels like a different era in history. But the Camera is not a relic, it’s a representative.

The turret on the top rotates to provide the 360° viewing area.

Twenty Years

Today is my 20-year anniversary of working at Apple. Where does the time go?

I went back and read the entry I wrote about moving to California and starting work at Apple, and it’s, uh, a little embarrassing. I guess I was… enthusiastic? But also young. Not that 30 – which I had just turned at the time – is all that young, but myself at 30 reads as young to me, 20 years later. Ranting about stupid tech problems, a silly dig at Microsoft (which was still on top of the world at the time, rankling many an Apple fan), a strange surface sense of self-awareness that nonetheless makes me think, “This guy, he has no idea.”

But it basically turned out okay for that guy.

I wrote a short entry on my 10-year anniversary of moving to California, which mostly reflected on the craziness of the move out here. I guess I wasn’t feeling too reflective at the time.

We had a department meeting last week where they had short segments on myself and two others hitting big milestone anniversaries. I found a couple of old photos from my first couple of years that they used, and our director said a lot of kind things. He also devoted a chunk of it to my puns, which I’m sure would amuse my sixth grade teacher. There are a lot of people in our department that I don’t know well but now they know me a little.

Apple is in many ways essentially the same company I joined, only much, much bigger. As John Gruber once said, “[Steve] Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.” I think that’s been key in maintaining the continuity and the level of excellence and – frankly – keeping the company a place I want to work, across two CEOs and many huge changes. Apple had, what, less than 10,000 employees when I started? How big is it now?

Of the projects I’ve worked on in the last two decades, I think the one I’m most proud of is the iOS SDK, which shipped in Xcode 3.1 near the end of my first decade. It was a large and interesting project in which I think we got many things right and that work has served us well in doing similar projects in the decade since. I’m hopeful that the groundwork we’ve laid in Xcode’s new build system in the last few years will lead to it eclipsing that in my memory, given time.

Personally, the last ten years have had their ups and downs: Debbi and I bought a house together. We had three cats pass away, but got two more. We bought a vacation home. My mother moved to assisted living and passed away. We got married! We went to Walt Disney World and visited Debbi’s family and friends in the area. Friends and family have come to visit. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster, which maybe is normal for middle age. I’d say it’s been more good than bad, but maybe that’s because these have been good times for the last three or so years: There were some dark stretches earlier in the decade.

This year so far has been a cool and rainy one in NorCal, which is one of my enduring memories of my first month or so in California. Spring in February is normal to me now, whereas it felt like bonus exotic vacation time when I first got here.

I “celebrated” by doing a Magic draft in the evening at Game Kastle, where I assembled a mediocre Azorius deck with lots of removal (four Lawmage’s Binding! Three Slimebind!) and not enough good creatures. I dispatched a good Simic midrange deck, and then run over by a hyper-aggressive Rakdos deck and a solidly aggressive Orzhov deck, for a 1-2 finish. Not the best, though looking back I think I was in approximately the right place, the cards just weren’t there.

I also tweeted about my Appleversary and acquired about three dozen new followers on Twitter. No doubt they’ll all be disappointed when I rarely tweet about Apple or tech. 🙂

20 years is a long time to stick with anything, but honestly you can never run out of interesting things to work on at Apple. I’ve been working on approximately the same project for most of that time, and there’s always something new to learn or develop. I doubt there are many companies where that’s true, and I consider myself lucky to be there.

Fifty

I turned fifty years old on Wednesday. It hardly seems possible!

I’ve treated my birthdays as very low-key in recent years, and this was mostly not an exception. Wednesday Debbi came into the bedroom before I got up with a pair of giant balloons for the number “50”. Later on I thought they spelled “SO”, as in “I am SO old!” She also put “Happy Birthday” signs around the house, and bought me boxes of See’s Candies.

I took Wednesday off from running, but I did go to work. I’d planned to put aside some of my current projects and instead work on some stuff I wanted to work on for a day. Instead I put them aside to work on putting out a fire. Best laid plans! But hey, I did get the problem solved. And I left early to pick up comics, where the owner of the store told me Debbi had stopped in and given him her credit card number to pay for my haul for the day. So I picked up a few extra things, which I think was her intention. She also cooked dinner. A pretty great birthday!

Friday night we went to Sundance the Steakhouse for dinner, which is one of my favorite restaurants and one we’ve gone to often for our birthdays. The complementary dessert for my birthday is great too.

Saturday we did some chores, but we also had some cleaners over to do a serious cleaning of the house, especially the bathrooms and kitchens. We haven’t had cleaners in since we moved into this house, and it took the two of them about 4 hours to get through everything. But man, it sure looks better, especially the master shower, but also just much less dust on everything. Jackson followed them around while they were here, which was pretty funny; even the vacuum doesn’t faze him much.

Finally, today we threw a small party with friends and their kids. It’s been a while since I had a birthday party – maybe since 2012? I had a good time, although I think a couple of the kids were a bit bored at times. But I carried my friend Itai’s younger daughter around upside-down a bunch of times, so I think she had a good time. And cake from The Prolific Oven and ice cream from Rick’s is always yummy!


It’s no surprise, I guess, that 50 doesn’t feel much different from 49. I’m not sure whether it feels much different from 40, either. I’ve been pretty lucky that my hair isn’t graying very fast – mostly just at the temples – and my body is in pretty good shape considering I’m someone who’s not in great shape. A few aches and pains, but nothing chronic. I’m still able to run 14 miles a week.

In some ways I don’t feel that much different from when I was 25, but in other ways I do. Little (and big) life experiences and lessons add up over time. It’s a perspective I don’t think I could have had when I was 25. Maybe other people do, but it’s the sort of thing I wish I should share to those who don’t, if I knew how.

It is weird to think that I’m pretty firmly past the halfway point in my life – hardly anyone in my family during my lifetime has lived to 100 (only one person that I know of). That’s a little bit of an illusion since not all of my childhood feels like I really lived it, so maybe I’ll make it to 90, and I have a pretty good chance to get to 80. 30 years is a long time.

But it’s still weird to write something like that.

Anyway. I don’t make many New Year’s resolutions, but this year I decided I would talk less about my age and longevity at work. It’s a little too much like bragging, and I already know that I work with lots of younger people who are as good or better than I am at our jobs. And maybe it feels a little too fatalistic. Hopefully that will be an easier resolution to keep now that this birthday has passed.

But, as they say, age is just a number. And a birthday is just a day. And every year has a whole bunch of them

Outer Darkness

Many years ago when I was still into role-playing games, and in particular into Call of Cthulhu, I came across a magazine (remember those?) with a short adventure investigating a spaceship which crashed on a planetoid and – of course – eldritch horrors were involved. Someone had even created an image for the adventure involving an old Space: 1999 Eagle – an inspired choice since that show had great visual design and was at its (modest) best working the horror genre. I wondered at the time while no one had really mined the potential of Lovecraft and space opera. Of course, lots of people have combined horror and science fiction; even before I saw that magazine we’d already had Alien and George R. R. Martin’s novella “Nightflyers” (which has itself been adapted as a film and a recent TV series on SyFy), and they’re hardly the only examples. But I hadn’t seen instances combining specifically Lovecraft horror with SF.

I’m sure there have been plenty of instances by now of that combination – Lovecraftian fiction is bigger than ever and there has been a lot of it written in the last 35 years – but now we have something resembling it in comic book form: Outer Darkness, by John Layman and Afu Chan. It’s working a more overt form of horror (with large doses of terror), but it is, if you will, a second cousin to that role-playing adventure I came across decades ago. And it’s one of the comics I most look forward to each month.

The comic is on a slow burn to reveal its story, but the basic idea is this: Humanity has reached the stars, and there are horrible nightmarish things out there. Joshua Rigg is a former ship captain in a dead-end career when he’s asked by a fleet admiral to take command of his old ship, the Charon, to head into the outer darkness to retrieve – something. The ship now had a god engine, a ravenous being to which sentient lives have to be sacrificed to make the ship go. This is no Star Trek crew: The officers include an oracle, an exorcist, a mathematician, a mortician (!), and various others of various species. And apparently there’s a war on.

In the second issue, Rigg puts his crew through a brutal exercise to see what they’re capable of. And in the third we meet a couple of junior crew who come to a bad end – or so it seems. But this seems like the kind of universe where if something doesn’t get you in one issue, something else might in the next. The stage is still being set three issues in – we barely know anything about the characters’ pasts, or what’s going on in the universe, or what the Charon is heading out to retrieve. But it’s engaging stuff so far.

I was not a big fan of Layman’s previous long-form comic, Chew – I burned out on the shtick after about 30 issues – but Outer Darkness has a very different tone and is a solid read so far. It’s also got some fine and distinctive artwork by Afu Chan, whom I thought I hadn’t seen before, but it turns out I did buy HaloGen, though I don’t really remember it.

Honestly besides the space opera/horror mash-up, the slow burn resemblance to Babylon 5 is also a draw for me. If Layman wants to make this fan really happy, this series will have the sorts of revelations and changes in direction that were the keynote of that series, so that by the end we’ll be looking back impressed by how the story got from these simple beginnings to wherever it ends up. Here’s hoping!

Doctor Who, Season 11

After 37 (or so) seasons of television, the BBC cast a woman as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker fit right in with many of her predecessors, perhaps not surprisingly most closely evoking David Tennant – the most popular Doctor of the modern era – and Peter Davison, with her portrayal of the Doctor being more consistently upbeat and less of a schemer who can’t entirely be trusted (a la the sad end of Matt Smith’s Doctor vis-a-vis Clara).

For me, the key question was whether the writing would improve, as the show’s writing these last few years has been inconsistent at best, and often just plain weak. Did new show runner Chris Chibnall succeed in elevating the storytelling? My answer… after the cut (along with spoilers for the season):

Continue reading “Doctor Who, Season 11”

2018 in Review

Of the many personal looks back at 2018 I’ve read over the last couple of days, I think the most memorable to read was that of Peter Sagal on Twitter. My year wasn’t that great – I doubt many peoples’ was – but it was still pretty great.

I rarely talk about work here, but a lot of the great was due to work. Over a year ago we had some shuffling on my team after which one of my long-tile colleagues jokingly asked me how it felt to be the senior engineer on the project I was on. That question caused me to realize that this was a point where I could continue cruising along the way I had been – plugging away on my assigned tasks – or I could step up to more of a leadership role. I don’t at this point fully recall how my head worked through it all, but as you can guess I decided to do the latter. (“Up my game” was a phrase that went through my head.) I wrote a little bit about this last year, and this year felt like the payoff of what began back then.

Anyway, the past year-plus has involved shepherding the project through some major milestones, helping to plan and organize them, and also helping to onboard two new hires.

It was a year of learning a bunch of new skills, and a number of lessons too, some of which also opened my mind about, well, working with people and just plain interacting with people. It wasn’t all stuff that was right in my wheelhouse, and it was certainly frazzling and exhausting at times, but I can look back and feel like I – and the whole team – accomplished some great stuff.

One thing I’ve been working on embracing through all of this is the value of being positive: Giving people encouragement and speaking up when people do good stuff. I’m a bit of a cynic at heart so this doesn’t always come naturally to me, but there are so many opportunities in software to be negative – many of them part of the normal flow of the job, because software development means bug fixes, revision, refinement, and critique. I’ve been finding that it helps to balance out dealing with the negative parts by also emphasizing the positive. (At least I think it helps! It helps me when other people do it.) This seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s such a wide-ranging principle that it’s something I’m still working on, and I keep thinking of more nuances to it, things I can improve on or should stop doing.

And as you might imagine it’s only a short hop from thinking about this at work to thinking about it in my personal life, social interactions, and on the Internet.

So anyway, I’ve grown a lot the last year (I think), but there’s always more to learn and new ways to improve. Plenty to keep working on in 2019!


My personal life didn’t have quite the same feeling of accomplishment, but I had a good year there, too. I didn’t take a lot of vacation last year, but we did have a nice two-week trip back east to visit our families and stay at our beach house over the summer. And I went to the World Science Fiction Convention.

I also had a grand old time all summer following my Boston Red Sox, who jumped out to a big lead early in the season and never let it go. I felt like this team’s offense wasn’t close to the level of the 2013 team’s wrecking crew, and beyond Chris Sale I was pretty concerned that the pitching staff wouldn’t carry them deep in the playoffs.

And boy was I wrong.

David Price reinvented himself as a control pitcher, the bullpen went from question mark to exclamation point, and the offense kept coming up with big hits at the best times, especially hometown hero and mid-season acquisition Steve Pearce, who must have found the whole thing an unbelievable experience.

And then there was Andrew Benintendi, who I think provided more sheer fun and enthusiasm than just about every other player in the postseason put together:

Benintendi saves ALCS game 4
Great leaping catch in World Series game 2

All of which added up to a surprising and very satisfying World Series championship, the franchise’s fourth this century, and a lot of great October entertainment for me!


We’ve wrapped up the year in a low-key manner. Unfortunately Debbi came down with a bad cold on Christmas Day and it’s lingered through New Year’s. We did manage a trip up to San Francisco, and also out to Half Moon Bay and Pacifica, as well as having people over for games and to hang out on New Year’s Eve afternoon, but otherwise we’ve been hanging out at home trying to get her well.

Hopefully she’s turning the corner and that 2019 will start looking up shortly.

Space Relics

I recent finished reading John Scalzi‘s recent novel, The Consuming Fire, the second in his Interdependency trilogy. It’s quite good, and I agree with some comments I’ve read that although it starts slow, it ends up being a more satisfying read than the first volume. But what won me over fully to it is not the satisfying ending (which is about as satisfying an ending as the second book in a trilogy can have), but the bits in the middle.

(Spoilers for The Consuming Fire, as well as some other stories discussed below!)

The Interdependency in the series is a collection of worlds connected by wormholes, except that after millennia the wormholes start collapsing. Since most of the “worlds” are actually uninhabited – the population live on artificial satellites in orbit, and only one world is known to itself be habitable – this is a big problem, since the worlds can’t survive on their own. The fact of this collapse is a nascent scientific discovery which is not widely believed, but a major development in this book is that a wormhole which had collapsed centuries before has recently reopened for a limited period of time, and our heroes – in the form of the Emperox – send an expeditionary ship through to see what happened to the settlement there.

They break into the main satellite, which is predictably dead and dormant, and manage to reactivate some of the computer systems, whereupon they discover that they’re not the first ones to do so: The system had been reactivated several times since civilization collapsed, and our heroes figure out that not only is there a remnant of the centuries-dead civilization still hanging on, but that they had been visited from elsewhere during that time.

And I love this stuff. Stories about finding long-forgotten and long-dead remnants of past civilizations or even people whose stories ended tragically long before they were uncovered thrills me more than almost anything else in science fiction.

I was trying to think when my fascination with this sort of story started, and the earliest instance I can think of is the Space: 1999 episode “Dragon’s Domain”. Five years earlier, a probe to the recently-discovered tenth planet of the solar system ended in tragedy when it discovered a graveyard of alien ships. On docking with one of them, three of the four crew members are killed by a mysterious creature, and the fourth barely escapes and makes it back to Earth. In the present, he senses that the creature is nearby, and the Alphans find the same graveyard, many light years from Earth, and have a final showdown with the creature. As with most things in the series, the story doesn’t make much sense, but when I was six years old when it first aired in 1975, it made an indelible impression on me, enough that when I had the opportunity to buy a few episodes in the 90s, it was one of the two that I bought. (Yes, I was disappointed when I watched it.) It’s not even very satisfying in exploring the ships they find – we never get to see inside any of them – but somehow it was just enough to stimulate some part of my brain.

Somehow many Space: 1999 episodes are available in their entirety on YouTube, and I watched it before writing this post:

(I could write at some length about Space: 1999, basically that I think there is some good stuff in there that could have been used as the springboard for an actually good series, but it’s buried under so much nonsense and terrible writing that any good series would have been substantially different from what actually aired. But I digress.)

Another episode which tickled a similar part of my brain was “Another Time, Another Place”, in which the Alphans meet their doppelgängers from another universe who had recolonized the Earth, with mixed results. I haven’t re-watched that one, but I recall the exploration of the doppelgänger Alpha was pretty powerful. Again, to my six-year-old self.

Star Trek also had a little of this, though the memorable episodes involved finding derelict starships. “Space Seed”, “The Tholian Web”, and my all-time favorite episode, “The Doomsday Machine”, all feature these small-scale discoveries and piecing together what happened, although the main thrust of each episode heads in a somewhat different direction; the space relics are primarily part of the episodes’ color. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode actually entitled “Relics” features an ancient Dyson sphere, but it’s really about Scotty coming to the 24th century. And the Star Trek: Enterprise story “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a sequel to “The Tholian Web”, but it’s really a love letter to original series fans.

The movie Alien starts off with the characters exploring a derelict alien hulk, and although the film is overall excellent (and I am not a fan of horror films generally), plumbing the depths of the hulk is not the point of the film.

So with all of these TV shows and movies teasing me with glimpses of old relics that don’t really get explored, what really got me hooked on this stuff? Well, it was a book titled Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space which was part of a series of art books from the late 70s about the fictional Terran Trade Authority. Set over the next thousand years or so, the book is a collection of short stories with corresponding illustration (I inferred that the illustration was done first and the story written to more-or-less match it, but I really have no idea) about spaceships which had been lost and later found abandoned, or maybe just found without anyone knowing where they came from (e.g., alien ships). Mary Celeste-type stuff. It was not great literature, but I read through it several times as a teenager, fascinated by the stories with their sometimes-oblique tragedies of years long past, buried more by obscurity than by intent.

I think that’s part of what appeals to me about such stories: Unlike typical mysteries, in which there’s a perpetrator who is deliberately trying to conceal the truth, in these stories the truth has been lost due to the ravages of time, or due to something simply dropping out of sight, or becoming inaccessible. There may have been some corresponding or causal tragedy to the mystery – that’s sometimes where the story comes from – but I find the peeling back of the layers, and the revelation of what happened to the long-dead people to be the part of the tale that grabs my imagination.

And that brings me to what, to my knowledge, is the preeminent example of this sort of story: Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict series.

Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer who inherited money from his anthropologist uncle after he was lost in space, and set up his own business. In the first book, A Talent For War (1989) – which is one of my favorite novels – he investigates the disappearance of a crew of heroes who helped end the war against the only known alien species in the galaxy. As a group of legendary officers, the crew lightly evokes the crew of the original Star Trek, but all of them are two centuries dead. The story has some good twists and turns, and a solid ending. It was probably the most satisfying story of its sort I’d read up to this point – it might still be at the top.

To my delight, McDevitt turned this novel into a series, with 9 millennia of backstory for his characters to explore:

  • Polaris (2004): An auction of relics from a ship whose crew disappeared under impossible circumstances unfolds the mystery of what really happened to them.
  • Seeker (2005): A lone cup unlocks the mystery to the location of one of the earliest colony ships from Earth, nearly 9,000 years earlier. This one won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
  • The Devil’s Eye (2008): A mind-wiped friend of Alex’s is the clue to a government cover-up and a lost colony. The series’ nadir in my opinion.
  • Echo (2010): A deceased scientist known for searching for other intelligent life beyond humans and the one other species we’ve encountered found something. But if he found aliens, why did he bury the news?
  • Firebird (2011): Another deceased scientist who was known for researching parallel universes also found something. What he found is very different from the story in Echo, and is perhaps the most arresting storyline of the series, and very much on-theme for this article – but I won’t reveal it here because I definitely recommend reading it yourself. It’s concluded in the next novel…
  • Coming Home (2014): In addition to the continued story from Firebird, Alex is presented with a relic from the earliest days of humanity’s space age, and he heads to Earth in search of its origin.

Coming Home seemed like a perfect ending to the series, and it was hard to see how McDevitt would top it, but apparently there will be a new volume, Octavia Gone, published next year.

Despite my fondness for the series, I do caution readers to temper their expectations: McDevitt is clearly influenced by the SF Golden Age grandmasters such as Asimov and Clarke, which means his writing can be a bit dry. He also has a decidedly clumsy approach to writing women, which is doubly unfortunate since after Talent – narrated by Alex – the remaining books are narrated by his assistant and pilot, Chase Kolpath. Chase is a pretty capable figure, but there are many cringeworthy turns of phrase involving her gender. So I’d expect some people would find the writing would cancel out the good qualities of the story, but if you can get past its limitations perhaps you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately in such a limited niche, it’s nearly impossible to have it all.

By the way, an earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996), has some moments that resonated for me in this way – humanity discovers an abandoned network of portals to other worlds – although the main thrust of the story lies elsewhere. I suggest skipping the disappointing sequel, Thunderbird (2015), however.

I’m sure there are other stories I’m forgetting about, but those are the major ones. I wish more writers would play in this space (though I’m not so willing to sit through dozens of episodes of bad television for the occasional story of this sort), but I take what I can get.

Are there any notable stories in this vein that I should check out?

Update:

A friend’s comment on Facebook reminded me that I wanted to mention a couple of similar tropes which I see as different from the trope that interests me here:

First are Big Dumb Objects, unfathomable artifacts from ancient civilizations. Stories around these tend to fall into two camps: Either people trying to figure out what they’re used for and eventually reactivating them (usually to disappointing effect, since the payoff is rarely satisfying after the build-up), or as something which trigger the story but isn’t central to how it plays out (for example in Alastair Reynolds’ novella Diamond Dogs). While I can enjoy these stories, they different from the trope I’m discussing here because they’re fundamentally more impersonal; there’s little speculation in or resolution of what happened to the specific characters who left behind the BDO, it’s just a driver for the main characters’ story.

Second are ancient and dead civilizations, which again tend to be impersonal, the discovery of vast swaths of culture and/or technology rather than the story of a specific relic left behind. Star Trek worked this territory a lot, usually encountering the degenerate remnants of such civilizations, though occasionally they found completely dead ones, such as in “Contagion”. “The Inner Light” is a more personal take on a dead civilization, although it contains more of what I enjoy, but it subverts it by throwing Picard into the middle of events (and is shamelessly manipulative and maudlin to boot).

Smoke in the Valley

As has been widely reported, California is sorely beset by wildfires, with two of the largest in history ongoing right now. Southern California is contending with the Woolsey Fire, which for a while looked like it would be the better-known of the two as it encroached on populated areas outside of Los Angeles, evicting several celebrities from their homes, and even destroying some. That was until the Camp Fire, over an hour’s drive north fo the state capitol of Sacramento, became the deadliest fire in the history of California. Over 50 people have been reported dead, and hundreds are missing. Friends of people we know have lost their homes, and the whole town of Paradise has been effectively destroyed.

It’s ghastly, and it’s probably the new normal in California due to climate change reducing annual rainfall. Moreover, much of California is hilly or mountainous wilderness, making it difficult and expensive to manage the foliage which fuels these fires, as well as to fight the fires when they break out.

The Camp Fire erupted a week ago now, and the prevailing winds have blown a large amount of the smoke down here to the San Francisco Bay Area – over 200 miles away. Last Friday was the worst, with smoke clogging the air and everything smelling burned. Outdoor kids’ activities over the weekend – including the soccer games of our friends’ kids – were cancelled. We mostly stayed indoors. By Monday the smell had mostly abated, and the sky looked clearer, and there seemed to be hope that a change in the winds would clear things up later in the week.

It hasn’t happened: Today is nearly as bad as last Friday, and my nasal passage can feel the smoke even inside the house. I could get a filter, but I’d probably have to wear it all the time, and those filters are not really things you can sleep in. The hills – about ten miles away – are completely blocked out by the smoke. The sun is breaking through, but the sky is still quite hazy.

Imagine what it’s like for animals, especially ones whose owners have to put them outside during the day. The alternative is to, what, lock them in a small room for 8+ hours? And even then it might not help with the smoke all that much.

Meanwhile, fall weather has arrived with lows in the 30s overnight (but highs still around 70°F, thus I’m still wearing shorts during the day). But the temperature and the smoke don’t seem to affect each other at all – unless the smoke is blocking out enough sunlight to cool it down more than usual. I’m not sure. I haven’t gone running since last Wednesday, and I’ve been curtailing my outdoor walks after lunch, too. It’s bad. We’re starting to go stir crazy from being inside all the time.

The Camp Fire is still less than 50% contained, and even if it were fully contained it might keep burning for days or longer – containment just means it’s not growing any larger, but there’s still probably plenty of fuel inside the containment area to continue burning.

Our moronic President tweeted the following last weekend:

Donald Trump just doesn't get it, but what else is new?

So this awful environment is our new normal for probably the next week or more. The long-range forecast is predicting rain coming on Thanksgiving Day, and that would help a lot, but that’s also a full week away.

Climate change is already here for California. It’s coming for you too, whether in the form of heat, or winds, or storms, or food shortages. The Earth is going to be a very different place for humanity to live in a few decades. If we make it that long.