15 Best Movie Posters of 2018

If you’ve read any of my movie reviews, you might have noticed that I always have a whole blurb at the start of the review critiquing the design of the film’s poster. I really love a good movie poster, it’s a piece of art unto itself. Films that treat their poster as more than just a piece of marketing deserve special recognition, so what better way to do that than a year-end countdown?

Also… man, it’s hard to believe that the last time I did a movie posters best-of was 5 freaking years ago! I’ve always wanted to turn it into an annual thing, but it has never actually happened for whatever reason. Hell, I even had a folder with notable movie posters saved in 2015 or 2017, but the countdown just never materialized. So, with any luck, this will be commencement of the first annual IC2S Best Movie Poster countdown!

(Images come courtesy of the film poster database Internet Movie Poster Awards.)

Honourable Mention: The Predator

This poster deserves special mention just because of how weird it is. This is one of a series of stylized posters featuring the Predator living a “cool” lifestyle of playing basketball, skateboarding and break-dancing. It’s such a bonkers design, made even weirder by the tongue-in-cheek “ALIEN” brand on their computer and basketball jersey. The neon graffiti aesthetic is also so at odds with Predator that this whole thing becomes really interesting. I mean, it’s more respectful to the franchise than The Predator was at the very least.
15) Acrimony

Acrimony has a couple really cool posters, but in my opinion this one is the best of them. Maybe I’m somewhat biased (red and black are my favourite colour combination), but the poster itself is just quite striking and says a lot about the film and the dangerous nature of its protagonist through its use of imagery. Plus, if Acrimony‘s Tomatometer is anything to go by, its posters are higher art than the film itself.

14) Isle of Dogs

This poster works on a few different levels, any one of which could be enough to get someone to want to see the film. First of all, it shows off the film’s unique artstyle with each of its colourful characters on display. It also hints at Wes Anderson’s particular “flat” style of directing, something which would excite anyone who had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox. Furthermore, it also shows the film’s Japanese setting, not only with the title and sole human character, but with the way that the dogs are arranged vertically as if they were kanji. Character posters are an overdone trope with major releases these days (one that Isle of Dogs is not immune to), but it’s nice to get a poster like this which shows off all of the characters in the film in an equal light, from the major to the minor, while also conveying that the film’s style is as important as any singular element.

13) Goodland

This poster mainly makes the list because, I mean look at it, it’s a gorgeous composition. The reflection in the water also has some thematic significance for the film, representing how the events of the film turn everything upside down. It’s just a cool, visually striking poster, one that could easily be considered art unto itself.

12) Active Measures

Visually, this isn’t a particularly complex poster. Rather, this one succeeds for just how effectively it conveys the idea of the film through simple images. The sheer scale of the maze also goes to show that this isn’t a simple affair, rather things have been progressing and going in Putin’s favour for a long time to get them to the point where they could potentially have influence in the highest levels of the White House.

11) Ant-man and the Wasp

A list of the best movie posters of the year is never complete without one good Drew Stuzan-style poster and I had a few candidates to go with this year. While Black Panther, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War all had posters competing for a spot, I ultimately went with Ant-man and the Wasp. I just thought that the red, gold and white looked far more striking than any of its competitors. The equal prominence of Ant-man and Wasp as the co-leads also helped as it lent the poster just a bit more flavour to the composition, splitting the cast in half down the middle. Ultimately, it just makes the film look like a ton of fun, which is exactly what the Ant-man franchise is going for, moreso than any other Marvel franchise.

10) The American Meme

This poster for The American Meme goes to show why taglines are so important. There are a few different posters for this documentary, but this one is definitely the most eye-catching of the bunch. The tagline and image alone are enough to convey the idea that one should be cautious on social media, which is enough to make me intrigued on what sort of angle the filmmakers are going to take. In fact, of the films on this list that I haven’t seen, this is one that I am definitely going to check out entirely because of the poster. I’m not sure what higher praise you could give a film poster than that.

9) Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

This is another one of those posters on this list which earns its place mostly by just being really cool and well-composed. It does get some points as well for managing to convey that this isn’t “just another Spider-man movie”, with its animation style, different costume for Miles Morales and the clothing he’s wearing over the costume which helps convey his character. Oh, and to top it off, the poster just makes this film look like a ton of fun.

8) Beats of Rage

…and speaking of fun, we’ve got Beats of Rage. There were a couple films in 2018 with 80s arcade-inspired posters, but Beats of Rage takes the cake in my opinion. I have absolutely no idea what this film is about, but the poster is making me interested just due to how insane it looks. Is this like a mash-up between Mad Max and Dance Dance Revolution? I almost want to watch it to find out, but I feel like there’s no way it can live up to the insanity in my head.

7) The Endless

This is one gorgeously haunting poster. It almost looks like it could be a pretty cool desktop background, but the poster is also designed in such a way as to make it simultaneously unsettling to look at. The darkness encroaching throughout the image, the gigantic cosmic portal dwarfing the human characters and the humans all getting sucked into the vortex all make for a creepy image. This is another one of those posters that gets me interested on its own and having looked into the film more as a result, it sounds enthralling.


6) The Meg

The Meg had some of the funnest and most impressive marketing campaigns of the year, promising an entertaining popcorn film with a shark bigger than any other (whether the film delivered on that promise is up for debate). The posters helped to build up that hype, that this was a shark movie for the modern blockbuster age. I liked this poster the most, as it shows off the scale along with some humour in the process, while also riffing on Jaws.

5) Avengers: Infinity War

There were quite a few cool posters for Infinity War (even the obligatory, normally-boring character posters were pretty great), but this series of five posters were by far the best and most stylish. Thanos takes the center poster, but the two posters to either side of him feature stylized versions of all of the major characters in Infinity War. It just goes to show just how epically unprecedented the scale of this film is, while also just looking super cool in its own right.

4) Deadpool 2

Unsurprisingly, Deadpool 2 had a slew of great posters to choose from, but this one was definitely my favourite. For one thing, it just looks really stylish and eye-catching. Most importantly though, the meta aspect of it is just pure Deadpool, made even better with all the random extras in the audience super excited to see the movie and Deadpool’s own enthralled expression. The marketing really shows off the character’s unique sense of humour and why this isn’t “just another superhero movie”.

3) Truth or Dare

Man, it was super hard to pick between the top 3 entries on this list, they were all super close. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this poster is that it’s for freaking Truth or Dare. Look at that thing, it makes you flinch and promises a far more brutal film than what you would be actually getting into. Furthermore, the neon green and pink style of the poster is really interesting and eye-catching. If there’s one thing I don’t like about this poster, it’s the stupid “Truth or Dare” grin on the corners of the skull’s face, but that’s more of a failing of the people who made this movie rather than the poster itself. I really wish that this was a poster for a better movie, it it does go to show that sometimes the marketing can transcend the film it’s trying to sell.

2) The Clovehitch Killer

Everything about this poster is so unsettling, from the sleeping victim to the masked killer, the washed out colours, the incongruous domestic setting, the voyeuristic framing, even the title which contextualizes everything and makes it even creepier. This is another one of those films that I am definitely going to check out this year based on nothing more than this extremely unsettling poster. I mean, if the poster is this artfully disturbing, you’d hope that the film itself can capture some of that energy right? I look forward to finding out!

And now for our winner of the 2018 IC2S Movie Poster awards… Drum roll please!

1) Free Solo

OH GOD. If ever there was a poster that conveyed exactly what the film was about, this has to be up there among the most evocative. Like… how. How do you manage to make that climb? Can you even take breaks on the way up? How does he survive? Good God, how high is that cliff!? Has a poster alone ever given someone vertigo before? I have so many questions because of this poster and the only way I can get my answers in a satisfactory manner is to watch Free Solo. Again, there is absolutely no greater praise you can give to a poster than that and I have seen few posters that have pulled that off greater than this.

Please follow and like us:

Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2018

Hey, it’s that time of year again! That’s right, the time of year when I look back on the random-ass music I’ve listened to, most of which no one has heard of or cares about! If you’re curious about last year’s picks, you can read the list here. I decided to change up the title of these lists going forward because, while “Favourite Albums” is less wordy, by no means do I want people seeing some of the low-ranked crap on this list and thinking it was one of my favourite albums of the year.

Also, in February I had the pleasure of seeing In This Moment and P.O.D. in Detroit, along with opening acts New Year’s Day and Ded! It was a fantastic time and I’m so glad that I got to see two of my favourite bands live. Was also a great experience to share with with my fiance, along with my longtime friend and fellow blogger at The M.

Alright, let’s get to the rankings…!

19) Evolution, Disturbed
Oh how the mighty have fallen. About a decade ago, I would have said that Disturbed were one of my favourite bands. You could justifiably say that their songs all sounded pretty similar, but it was hard to deny that they weren’t refining their sound for the better with each successive album.

…and then the big four-year hiatus happened. At the time I had hoped that this break might give them a creative refresher, but their triumphant return Immortalized was anything but triumphant. It was a creative mishmash and definitely felt like the band’s first major step backwards. The only breath of fresh air was the band’s surprisingly evocative cover of “The Sound of Silence”, which became a major radio hit and changed the public perception of the band. This surprising hit most clearly influenced the band’s direction on Evolution, as Disturbed splits the album evenly between their traditional hard rock sound and slowed down ballads… and the results make me wish that “The Sound of Silence” never happened, because Evolution sucks.

The album opens with “Are You Ready”, which is probably the best song on the heavier-half album, but doesn’t really hold a candle to Disturbed’s previous singles. It also doesn’t help that it’s a totally empty protest song that doesn’t dare make any sort of actual statement. Bland, uninspired and not daring enough to make any sort of statement is pretty much what you could say about almost all the heavy songs on this album. Considering that Ten Thousand Fists had “Deify”, an overtly political song criticizing the presidency of George W. Bush, you’d think that Disturbed could find something to take a stand on, right?

If Evolution was just a bunch of bland heavy tracks, it would be a mediocre album, but it wouldn’t be awful. However, half of this album consists of slowed-down ballads which make you realize that Disturbed don’t really understand why “The Sound of Silence” was such a hit for them. For one thing, the songwriting is (again) really bland at best and the slowed down tracks utterly waste the talents of the rest of the band. David Draiman seems to be going for an inspirational tone with his singing, but when the most “inspirational” track “Hold Onto Memories” has nothing more to say than “appreciate life”, it comes across as weak. Album closer “Already Gone” ends the whole thing on a dull, unsatisfying note. Even worse, the album has four bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, one of which is by far the best track on the whole album, let alone the best ballad: “Uninvited Guest”. The fact that it’s a bonus track is baffling and I can’t help but think that this was done for cynical reasons to shift copies of the deluxe edition.

As a longtime fan of Disturbed, I say with confidence that Evolution is the worst album that they’ve ever released. It’s just a total mess and far from the step forward that the title would imply. Even if the individual songs didn’t range from mediocre to bad, the album’s structure just makes things worse, threading between heavy and slow songs haphazardly and with little sense of flow. By the time the album comes to an end I literally said “wait, that’s it?” Immortalized was bland enough, but after this album, all I can think is that it’s about time that I evolved beyond Disturbed.

18) And Justice for None, Five Finger Death Punch
As you might have gathered from my recent blog post, I really hate Five Finger Death Punch, so the fact that their newest album comes in ahead of Disturbed should just further illustrate how bad Evolution is. On paper, they seem like the sort of band that I should like: I had heard a bunch of songs of theirs which were really enjoyable and I typically enjoy aggressive, angsty heavy metal. However, Five Finger Death Punch embodies the absolute worst elements of that type of music, pushing their macho rhetoric to the point of toxicity. A band can only rage so much at the world, blame everyone else for their problems and posture about how they’re going to beat your ass before they come across as a bunch of whiny losers instead of the badasses that they think they are. This also isn’t helped by the fact that their songwriting is some of the most embarrassing stuff I’ve ever heard, repeating the same kinds of macho phrases and chalked full of swearing thrown in for no other reason than because they think it makes them sound tough. The end result is a “tired formula that makes wannabe badasses swoon”. They might be the only metal band that I actually like more when they’re selling out for radio hits, as their slowed down stuff tends to be better written and lacks the toxicity of their typical material. Their radio hits also tend to be covers, which admittedly they are usually fantastic at and really give a unique spin to (again, not having to write their own material helps significantly). It’s actually too bad that FFDP’s songwriting is so cripplingly abysmal because they clearly are a talented band that can make good music.

Anyway, that brings us to And Justice for None. I skipped Got Your Six when I heard just how lame the lead single “Jekyll and Hyde” was, but it’s immediately obvious that the band hasn’t changed a bit since I last checked in on them. For what it’s worth, the album is 100% typical FFDP. There are some enjoyable songs (“Top of the World” and, awful title-pun aside, “Sham Pain”), some good songs (“Blue on Black” and “Gone Away”, both of which are covers which just further illustrate this band’s strengths and weaknesses), lots of mediocre stuff and some utter garbage (“Rock Bottom” and especially “Fake”… just look at these lyrics and try to imagine taking them seriously). Unexpectedly, the second half of the album is actually somewhat slowed down compared to the first half, kind of like Evolution (although it never goes quite that far into ballad territory). This works better than expected since it actually makes the album itself have some flow to it, although I feel like it’s ultimately just a weak attempt to pander to a wider audience.

Like I said at the start, And Justice for None is better than Evolution, if only because I know for a fact that I’m going to come back to some of the songs on this album again someday. While it definitely has its lower points and hasn’t changed my opinion on FFDP in the slightest, at least it has some moments of enjoyability.

Also, just because I don’t have anywhere else to put this, have a good laugh and look at this stupid fucking mic-stand that FFDP uses!

17) Oblivion, Smile Empty Soul
This is the first entry on that made its way onto this list thanks to random Spotify recommendations. While listening to a random discover station, the song “Bottom of a Bottle” came on and I was digging the sound, while also being floored by the brazenly hedonistic lyrics (although apparently they’re meant to be metaphorical, you’d never know it though) and the ridiculously emo band name. I was pretty intrigued in any case and decided to check out Smile Empty Soul when I saw that they had a new album named Oblivion. Unfortunately, Oblivion is pretty forgettable and has basically turned me off from bothering to spend much more time on Smile Empty Soul. Oblivion is a passable but mediocre post-grunge hard rock effort that doesn’t seem to have much to say (the fact that their one protest song is yet another “the whole system sucks!” anthem is distressing). Hell, the only song which had any sort of impact for me was “Small Incision”, which is just a short, moody piano interlude… yikes. If you’re into post-grunge then you might enjoy Oblivion more than I did, but I can say with reasonable certainty that this is an album I will probably never listen to again.

16) The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth
Winterfylleth are a band that I got into early this year while hungering for something to fill in that Agalloch-shaped folk metal hole in my soul. Winterfylleth don’t exactly meet that lofty expectation, but they do put out some decent black metal, even if all their songs all sound pretty similar. Their last album, The Dark Hereafter, took some steps to differentiate each song and incorporated more clear folk influences, which was a welcome step and which made seeing where they were going to go in the future more exciting.

When a new album for 2018 was announced, Winterfylleth were quick to clarify that they were doing something completely different and it’s probably a good thing that they did so. Whereas their previous albums were raw, black metal with plenty of folk inspiration, The Hallowing of Heirdom goes full-on traditional English folk music. It’s an understandable fit for the band considering the style that they’ve carved for themselves, but it’s a major departure from their usual sound and definitely takes some getting used to.

For my own part, I don’t have a ton to say about this album. I preferred the harmonizing of black metal and folk on The Dark Hereafter, but The Hallowing of Heirdom presents an intriguing experiment for Winterfylleth. I just hope that this isn’t indicative of the band’s long-term future. The Hallowing of Heirdom is a decent album, really well-crafted and beautifully atmospheric, but it’s also just not really something I can see myself listening to on a regular basis. It would make for really atmospheric background music in a Dungeons & Dragons session, but that’s about the only way that I can see myself interacting with this album again.

15) The Now Now, Gorillaz

Gorillaz usually release one album per presidential term. This irregular cycle has left me wondering if the band had dissolved unceremoniously on more than one occasion, although it does give new albums an “event” status and a provides a unique flavour on each release. The one time they broke this pattern was with 2010’s The Fall, which was recorded on an iPad during the touring for Plastic Beach, which was released less than a year earlier. It was by far their weakest and most throwaway album at the time, owing to its spontaneous and experimental nature.

I mention all this because The Now Now came out just as unexpectedly, a little over a year after last year’s Humanz and I was left wondering whether it would be another The Fall. The Now Now is thankfully better than that, although it definitely feels like a “lesser” Gorillaz release. The album has a very chill tone to it, much more cohesive than the chaotic grab bag that was Humanz and with far less guest contributions. That said, the only big standout is “Hollywood”, which meshes the album’s chill tone with a really mesmerising house/dance sound. Other than that, none of the songs really stand out to me as being anything special. The Now Now isn’t a bad album, it it lacks that special feel that a Gorillaz release typically has. I know Damon Albarn has said that he doesn’t know how many more years the band has left in it so he wants to release albums while he can, but if that means that we get more albums like The Now Now rather than a Plastic Beach or Demon Days, I question if it’s worth it.

14) Attention Attention, Shinedown
Shinedown are one of those bands that I have heard and enjoyed on the radio, but have never really looked into. However, when I heard that there was a new Shinedown album out and that it was supposed to be pretty good, I decided to give it a look. I had always dug tracks like “Devour”, “Sound of Madness” and “Cut the Cord”, they had an undeniable, hard-hitting energy to them which always made Shinedown stick out amongst the hard rock crowd, so I was excited to see how Attention Attention would harness that. Unfortunately, this expectation might have blunted my enthusiasm for the album, because Attention Attention is very unlike Shinedown’s heyday. There are some fairly heavy songs, such as “Devil”, “Black Soul”, “Evolve” and “The Human Radio”, which are where the album shines brightest. However, Shinedown have apparently taken a turn into pop rock on Attention Attention, because the album as a whole is much lighter and poppier than their previous work. Like, throughout this album Shinedown sounds like a heavier version of Imagine Dragons (most evidently on “Darkside”). Attention Attention isn’t exactly bad, it’s just not my thing at all and is just even more disappointing considering that it’s not the sort of product that I look to Shinedown to create. Maybe you’ll dig it, but I definitely did not.

13) Outsider, Three Days Grace
Other than what I hear on the radio, I’m not particularly familiar with Three Days Grace’s catalogue, other than the fact that founding singer Adam Gontier (the most notable aspect of Three Days Grace’s sound) left the band a few years ago. I figured that would be the end of the band, but here were are with the second post-Gontier Three Days Grace album and they seem to be going about as strong as ever. In fact, there are some songs here on Outsider, such as “The Mountain” and “Infra-Red”, which are about as great as any of the other major hits of the band’s earlier years. That said, the album is very much typical Three Days Grace, for better or worse. If you already have feelings about Three Days Grace’s brand of angsty, radio-friendly rock, then they are unlikely to change any. For my own part, I feel like Outsider has a few strong songs, but most of the album is fairly forgettable and is unlikely to leave a major impact.

12) Erase Me, Underøath
As someone growing up with Christian metal, I’ve always been aware of Underøath, but I’ve never really listened to them. This puts me into a weird place with Erase Me, as I have no real measuring stick for this album’s place in their career. What made me check this album out was the story of the band’s lead vocalist and last-remaining founding member, Aaron Gillespie. To put it simply, Aaron had a major falling out with evangelicalism and came back to Underøath on this album with a new direction for the band. Rather than continuing to just crank out music for the Christian music scene, Underøath are just playing what they want, including such “controversial” things as swearing in their music (as the reaction to P.O.D.’s Murdered Love shows, this is a MAJOR no-no in the evangelical scene). Honestly though, the controversy is pretty silly to me because thematically this is still very much a Christian album, featuring songs about hope, sacrifice and struggles which somehow get completely invalidated by the fact that Aaron punctuates them with a very real and raw “fuck” on occasion. Interestingly, these struggles with faith might have actually led to some legitimate angst which those who have had a falling-out with religion can relate to. Songs such as “ihateit” are infectious and enjoyably angsty and there’s a strong metalcore vibe to most of the album.

That said, the music itself is going to be hit-or-miss for some people. On the one hand, their evangelical fanbase has been turned off out of the gate. Furthermore, metalcore fans might be turned off by the electronic elements of the album, such as “No Frame” which almost sounds like a weird pop song. Even general audiences could be turned off by the fact that Erase Me ultimately just sounds like well-made but fairly generic metalcore. I’d say that Underøath are clearly talented and make some pretty good music, but it suffers a bit for being a tad generic. It’s kind of unfortunate, I was so primed for this album and the mindset behind it, it’s just so much more compelling than the actual music is.

11) Ember, Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin are a band I’ve passed over for most of my life, but I’ve finally started getting into them late into this year. I like the band’s heavy, dour and angsty sound and thought that I would check out their newest album, Ember. A couple tracks in and I was having a pretty great time – “Feed the Wolf” and “Red Cold River” were very enjoyable, if a bit samey and very much in the mold of Breaking Benjamin’s usual fare (if a tad heavier that previously). However, as the album progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that “that usual fare” is all that Breaking Benjamin is interested in producing, because all of the songs on Ember sound very similar. Some songs are a little better than others, but they basically all have the same sort of sound, the same tone and same angsty themes that Breaking Benjamin have been mining for their entire career. The only songs which change things up at all are “The Dark of You”, which is quietly moody, and “Close Your Eyes”, which is basically the same as the rest of the album aside from the fact that it’s the only song with any sort of hopeful tone to it. Other than that, Ember is only really going to appeal to you if you already are really into Breaking Benjamin’s sound. When the tracks are all so samey, only the strongest ones actually stand out, making half of the album pretty much throwaway. Ember certainly isn’t a bad album – in fact, I quite like it. However, the lack of ambition and willingness to try something different makes it considerably less than it could have been.

10) White Nationalism is for Basement Dwelling Losers, Neckbeard Deathcamp + United Antifascist Evil, Neckbeard Deathcamp/Gaylord
I’m putting these two entries together since they basically sound the same. Neckbeard Deathcamp is a pretty good black metal act that shot into prominence early this year with the amazingly anti-alt-right White Nationalism is for Basement Dwelling Losers, which was quickly followed-up with a split EP with Gaylord, United Antifascist Evil. Neckbeard Deathcamp are satirical geniuses, everything from the album covers, to the song titles, to the lyrics (“Chrischan Conservatism”, “Incel Warfare” and “Please Respond (I Showed You My Penis)” are probably my favourite songs of theirs) and even the band’s pseudonyms are absolutely amazing. Neckbeard Deathcamp absolutely hate the resurgence of the extreme right and have provided us with an appropriate soundtrack for the times that we’re living in. The only reason I don’t put them higher on the list is because of the low production quality and that the awesome lyrics are wasted on growled vocals (I know that that’s the scene they’re in, but it’s still unfortunate that you can’t hear any of it). Still, the releases are only a couple of dollars each and the music is still pretty solid black metal regardless, so if you’re interested then they’re definitely worth checking out.

9) Space Nazis Must Die, Countless Thousands
Space Nazis Must Die is a charming little bit-sized EP from Countless Thousands. The titular song plays very much like a track from their debut album called “The Devil & Davey Munch”, a delightful narrative-song which is a very obvious “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” homage (for my money, the resulting song is infinitely better than simply covering the Charlie Daniels Band, which most bands would have just gone and done). While “The Devil & Davey Munch” serenaded the band’s bassist (the titular “Davey”), “Space Nazis Must Die” pays tribute to drummer Jon David, who gets to dropkick AstroHitler to death with the power of rock before blasting “The Star Spangled Banner” as a victory celebration and telling all the nazis to “get off my moon”. It’s as epic as it sounds.

Lyrically it’s not as savage or biting as Neckbeard Deathcamp, coming across like more of an anti-fascist power fantasy, but God what a sweet fantasy that is in this modern political climate. And here I was last year saying that I had hoped Humanz would be the soundtrack to the Trump years – nope, it’s anti-fascist anthems like Neckbeard Deathcamp and “Space Nazis Must Die” which are really capturing the modern zeitgeist. Big bands such as Disturbed and Five Finger Death Punch don’t want to get into politics because it affects their bottom-line (hence the toothless nature of Evolution), but indie bands can actually capture the feelings of our times in a manner such as this.

I give Space Nazis Must Die the edge over Neckbeard Deathcamp’s output since you can at least understand the lyrics and it’s just straight-up delightful to listen to. I do wish that it was a bit more substantial (the entire package is about 8 minutes long), but at only $3 it’s hard to consider this an unfair trade-off by any means.

8) Black Reign, Avenged Sevenfold
I have been off of the Call of Duty train for about 7 or 8 years now and never really got into the Black Ops games, so finding out that Avenged Sevenfold have contributed music to all of Treyarch’s entries in those games came as something of a surprise. I mean, a Call of Duty EP from a major metal act? Perhaps even more surprising, there are some really killer tracks on this EP. “Carry On” really shows off the stellar guitar work of Synyster Gates, but “Not Ready to Die” is the real highlight of the album. Oddly enough, the one track written specifically for the EP and for Black Ops 4, “Jade Helm”, is by far the weakest of the bunch, often cutting to silence for seconds at a time as if it’s meant to be used in trailer snippets rather than actually listened to. Still, Black Reign is way better than a Call of Duty EP has any right to be, demonstrating Avenged Sevenfold’s talents in the process.

7) You’re Not Alone, Andrew W.K.
I really love Andrew W.K.’s ambitious, hard-rocking sophomore album, The Wolf, even more than his more popular debut, I Get Wet. However, nothing that he has put out since then has gotten my attention. You’re Not Alone is a decent course correction, feeling very much like a long-awaited follow-up to his first two albums. Everyone knows that Andrew W.K. loves to party, but on You’re Not Alone he combines that with the self-help philosophy that he has been developing over the last several years, to the point where this album almost feels like it’s forming the basis of a cult of partying (such as the highlight “Music Is Worth Living For”). The music itself is a classic Andrew W.K. overwhelming wall of sound, complemented by his awesome harsh vocals (which had been missing from some of his more disappointing releases). I do feel like the album itself, along with some of the songs on the latter half, are a bit too long though and the overall package could have done with some fat trimming. Still, You’re Not Alone is a pretty decent Andrew W.K. release, it’s just still nowhere near the same level as his first two albums and none of the songs stick with you quite as along either.

6) The Sin and Doom, Vol. II, Impending Doom
Impending Doom are, in my opinion, low-key one of the best Christian artists out there. There are few bands in the Christian music scene which could legitimately hold up against other bands within their genre, but Impending Doom put out some brutally heavy deathcore that can be appreciated whether you agree with their faith or not. Funnily enough for a deathcore band, their songwriting is a key component of this – most of their songs tend to have moments which you just want to scream along to. The Sin and Doom, Vol. II doesn’t stray too far from this formula, although it does take a little while to really hit its stride. The first few tracks are decent but don’t particularly stand out from the rest of Impending Doom’s output. However, by the time “The Serpent’s Tongue” comes up, the album really kicks into overdrive. The song itself is somewhat silly, disparaging Satanism in the black metal scene, but you kind of have to appreciate Impending Doom for having the balls to take a stand for what they believe in in this case (it doesn’t hurt that this track has one of those awesome “scream along moments” when lead singer Brooke Reeves shouts “Satan hates you because you’re made in the image of God’s only son!”; a classic Impending Doom moment if there ever was one). If there was any doubt about Impending Doom’s place in this scene after “The Serpent’s Tongue”, that’s totally washed away by the awesome “Unbroken” and “Devil’s Den” (which, again, will leave you screaming “Slaughter the demons that are crawling on my brother’s back!”). It takes a while to really get going, but once it does, The Sin and Doom, Vol. II makes for some really killer death metal. It certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s high quality and really gets your blood pumping and your fist bumping.

5) Circles, P.O.D.
I’m always a bit nervous whenever a new P.O.D. album comes out. They’ve been one of my favourite bands for almost 16 years and were what got me into heavy music in the first place. That said, they always try something different with every new release and I’m never really sure if it’s something that I’ll enjoy, that perhaps their new music will somehow hurt their legacy for me. For their last couple albums, P.O.D. have also been starting to feel like “the old guys in the room”, complaining about the current music scene and hearkening back to a time when music was better (their last album, The Awakening, was made as a concept album for this very reason). Thankfully, Circles doesn’t lean too hard into this negativity and reminded me just why I still love P.O.D. after so many years.

P.O.D. never really stick with one uniform sound from album-to-album. Circles sounds somewhere in the neighbourhood of Murdered Love and Satellite, with tons of different influences dotted throughout the album – lots of heavy hard rock, rap, reggae, funk, punk and even a gospel-flavoured tune. It’s also quite interesting that lead singer Sonny Sandoval raps the lyrics to nearly song on this album, something which P.O.D. hasn’t really done since their earliest albums. I know some people just can’t stand rap-rock, but I think it works and makes for an interesting mixture when you consider all the myriad of influences and styles P.O.D. works in throughout the album.

There are some real standout tracks here: the title track is really good and “Listening for the Silence” is fantastic, with a powerful chorus that you’re going to struggle to get out of your head long afterwards. These are definitely two of my favourite songs of the year, hands down. There are some other big standouts as well: “Rockin’ with the Best” is enjoyably heavy and I can see it being amazing live, “Fly Away” (the aforementioned gospel-inspired track) is really unique and “Soundboy Killa” is a really cool rap-rock fusion which would probably be even more of a standout if the band hadn’t released it as a single more than a year ago (having seen the song live though, it definitely is a killer track to witness). There aren’t really any stinkers on the album, although I’m not sure yet whether I like the really strained screaming on “Panic Attack”, and some of the songs have excessively repetitive and simple choruses. The album could also do with being a little longer (it’s less than 40 minutes in total), but the band really does make the most of each song and I really have to commend them on how they’re still trying to find unique avenues for their sound after 25 years (cough Breaking Benjamin cough). Circles is a very solid effort by P.O.D. and while not every track is top notch, even the weaker tracks are unique enough to be interesting and worth checking out.

4) When Legends Rise, Godsmack
Godsmack can usually be relied on to put out decent music, but they never have hit that “next level” and I’d struggle to say that they have ever put out a truly good album. They’re usually like Breaking Benjamin – releasing music which is largely the same as what they’ve done before. As a result, the fact that Godsmack named their newest album “When Legends Rise” made for a pretty big statement from them. While the album doesn’t really meet the lofty standard of “legendary”, it is definitely the band’s strongest release ever and puts Godsmack on a much more interesting course going forward. When Legends Rise sheds most of the aggression, angst and casual misogyny that defined their earlier, drearier releases, in favour of a more hopeful hard rock sound. It’s still familiar but refreshingly updated and (dare I say it) matured. “Bulletproof” is a particular highlight, sounding very different than anything else Godsmack has ever done and is possibly my favourite song of the year. That said, the album is definitely frontloaded – after the slowed-down “Under Your Scars”, the second half of the album is noticeably weaker than the first, feeling a little more like their usual output. Still, When Legends Rise was a pleasant surprise for me. I wasn’t expecting much, but Godsmack have put themselves onto an interesting track here and I’m very excited to see where they go in the future.

3) The Sacrament of Sin, Powerwolf

Powerwolf feel like the band that was made for me – a musical fusion of metal, werewolves and religious fanaticism. Sign me the hell up! They can usually be relied on to put out great albums, even if their sound and style has been set in stone for over a decade now. Enter The Sacrament of Sin, which goes to show that if you’re not going to reinvent the wheel, then make sure that that wheel is rock solid. Thankfully, even if it’s largely more of the same, Powerwolf have crafted some really high-quality tracks which show off their “metal mass” style (power metal with traditional Catholic mass songwriting and organs). “Demons Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a particular highlight, as is the powerful “Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone”, which really shows of Attila Dorn’s operatic vocals.

The deluxe editions of The Sacrament of Sin also come with a bonus disc called Cummunio Lupatum, featuring other artists covering Powerwolf tracks in their own style. I was super excited for this because Powerwolf’s last album had a similar bonus disc where they covered some of their favourite music, resulting in some absolutely killer tracks. Unfortunately, Cummunio Lupatum lands with a damp squib because most of the covers are either mediocre or straight-up bad. The only track which is any good is Kissin’ Dynamite’s cover of “Let There Be Night”, which sounds absolutely amazing. If the rest of the covers had been anywhere near as good then the deluxe edition would be a must-buy, but thankfully this doesn’t take away from the more consistent quality of The Sacrament of Sin.

2) Disobey, Bad Wolves
Disobey is the case-in-point on why Five Finger Death Punch’s abysmal songwriting is so crippling. Bad Wolves’ sound is very similar to Five Finger Death Punch’s – their style of metal is similarly heavy, aggressive and, hell, the biggest single off this album is even a cover. The key difference though is that Bad Wolves can write a damn song and don’t make themselves come across as assholes in the process. Disobey has a number of different lyrical topics, although it largely revolves around themes of protesting overbearing authorities. Tracks such as the killer opener “Officer Down” at least flirt with political topics, in this case police violence, which is more than you can say about many of the other toothless “protest” albums on the lower-half of this list. There’s also plenty of musical variety from song-to-song which always keeps things interesting. Disobey largely succeeds due to the fact that it’s a constantly inventive, polished and very high-quality release which isn’t afraid to say something. I can only hope that Bad Wolves can top it going forward.

1) Eat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle
I’ve been into Tool for quite a long time now, but I never really made the jump to James Maynard Keenan’s other band, A Perfect Circle. However, I was looking for new music for this list and remembered that A Perfect Circle had put out their first new album in almost 15 years. On a whim, I decided to check it out and… well, let’s just say that I thought that Disobey was going to be my album of the year until I was about 3 or 4 tracks into Eat the Elephant.

First off, if you’re expecting something like Tool, you’re not going to find it here. It’s quite hard for me to really categorize this album’s genre, because it’s so unique, although I might have settled on it being alternative rock or hard rock. Eat the Elephant really shows off James Maynard Keenan’s singing, which is immediately evident on the sombre but hopeful title track

One of the more refreshing aspects of Eat the Elephant is that the songs actually feel like they have something to say. From tracks calling to overcome the obstacles we face (or build) in our lives (“Eat the Elephant”, “Disillusioned”) to pointed political statements (“The Contrarian” for corrupt politicians, “The Doomed” and “TalkTalk” for the evils in evangelicalism), Eat the Elephant usually has something interesting to say. The album also has my hands-down favourite song of the year, “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish”, which immediately gets points for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference. It’s a really cool song, alluding to the dolphins in Hitchhiker’s Guide to honour the deaths of celebrities in 2017, as if they’re escaping Earth before our nuclear annihilation. It’s a fantastic song, simply put. Most of Eat the Elephant is just well-crafted music, far more ambitious than basically any other album I’ve heard this year. Unfortunately, the latter quarter of the album isn’t quite as triumphant as the rest – tracks like “DLB” and “Feathers” certainly aren’t bad, but they don’t hit anywhere near as hard as earlier tracks. Worst of all though, the album ends on a really poor note with the overly-long “Get the Lead Out”, by far my least-favourite track and a very dull closer. It’s too bad that it closes the album out on a bit of a sour note.

I went into Eat the Elephant totally blind, not sure if I was actually going to like it. The resulting album really impressed me though and I’m certain that I’ve still got plenty more layers to uncover in further listen-throughs. I feel like I’m going to come back to some of the other, lower-ranked albums more often, but it’s hard to deny that Eat the Elephant is the best, most well-crafted album I’ve heard all year.

Please follow and like us:

Love/Hate – Nioh

I’m going to do something slightly different here – normally I’d just be looking at the Dark Souls trilogy itself when doing a love/hate series, but I’m actually going to change it up slightly and include other games in this subgenre that I have played and which I feel could make for a strong comparison. As a result, I’m bringing you the Souls-like samurai game from Team Ninja, Nioh! Having gotten into Bloodborne and Dark Souls from my itching for a new Ninja Gaiden game, could Nioh live up to Team Ninja’s reputation for rich and satisfying combat? Read on to find my thoughts…

Love

  • Amazing Combat System – I’ll just come out and say that Nioh has the best combat system in any Souls-like game. Team Ninja really hits it out of the park, nailing a really precise combat system while the game’s speed somewhere between Bloodborne and Ninja Gaiden. The result is a very fast-paced game that is deep, skillful and incredibly satisfying to master. There are also a couple of big innovations which help make Nioh‘s combat stand out so much:
    • Ki Pulse takes the stamina regeneration of Souls games and adds in an active-reload system which will allow you to replenish your stamina instantly if you do it correctly. This creates a balancing act where you can risk running out of stamina but get it back quickly in order to keep your attacks going longer. It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the timing down it becomes second-nature and allows you to be incredibly aggressive.
    • Weapon stances are also a huge addition in this game. All weapons can be held in high, mid, or low stance, which significantly changes the way the weapon performs. Each stance changes your combat and dodge speeds, and some enemies are best fought in different stances (for example, Yoki are susceptible to high stance sword strikes which will hit them in the head and stun them when they break their horns). While you might be tempted just to stick with one stance, learning to master stance chances makes a huge difference in combat and just further deepens the experience.
    • You can see your opponents’ ki meters, meaning that stunning them becomes a reliable strategy should you choose to go for it. I liked using a heavy axe as my secondary weapon for this very reason, with only a single strong high-stance attack I could destroy most enemies’ ki bars.
  • Addictive Loot System – Nioh features a Diablo-like loot system. Unlike Dark Souls where each piece of equipment has fixed properties (until you upgrade it anyway), all equipment in Nioh has randomized perks. You can spend ages in the blacksmith just reforging your armour and weapons to get the perfect perks which complement your build and playstyle. It can be addictive just collecting all the loot drops and looking for that one piece of armour or weapon that is better than the one you have already.
  • Spirit Guardians Are Cool – Even if it was just aesthetic, the idea of picking the spirit guardian that accompanies you on your journey is awesome (I went with the Paired Raiken, because having two lightning puppies with me is amazing). However, each guardian provides unique bonuses while they are with you which can further optimize your build, while also being able to help in a pinch. However, the trade-off is that when you die, your guardian spirit stays to protect your lost Amrita (this game’s souls-equivalent) and no longer provides you with any bonuses unless you choose to sacrifice your lost Amrita. It makes for a pretty interesting trade-off and makes death just that much more tense.
  • Fun Side Content – Nioh‘s mission-based structure allows for the inclusion of various side content for players to enjoy. These are all pretty fun and provide you with more loot, from bite-sized side missions, to challenging duels, to the challenging-but-rewarding twilight missions. This side content allows you to get your equipment and levels upgraded without having to do repetitive level grinding and farming like other Souls-like games tend to.
  • Meaty DLC – Team Ninja did a good job with the DLC packs for Nioh, providing players with three expansions with plenty of new missions, weapons and challenging bosses to sink your teeth into. This extends the length of the base game by several hours per pack while also providing an epilogue to the main game’s story. The bosses are also all consistently fun and challenging.
  • Builds on the Souls Formula – Nioh definitely cribs many elements from the formula of Dark Souls – stamina-based fighting system, clever level design emphasizing traps and exploration, shrines are this game’s bonfires, etc. However, Nioh also adds plenty of its own elements and twists to the formula, which allows it to stand out on its own and not feel like a ripoff (unlike, say, Lords of the Fallen). Even something simple like the bloodspots in Souls games have been given cool twists – in Nioh, blood spots can be used to spawn revenants, which have the equipment of the player who was killed and which can provide you with amazing loot drops if you risk spawning them into your game.

Mixed

  • Living Weapon Feels Like a Crutch – As I mentioned earlier, your Guardian Spirit can provide you with help in a pinch. It does this by building up a “living weapon meter” over time as you attack enemies. When the meter is filled you can unleash your living weapon, which makes you invulnerable and allows you to dish out a ton of damage in a short time (similar to Spartan Rage in the newest God of War). Certain builds can also optimize living weapon build-up, meaning that you can potentially cheese your way through boss fights. I’d say that Nioh can to be more difficult than Dark Souls, but when you can just pull out your living weapon in a fight it makes battles feel much easier and more forgiving.
  • Onmyo and Ninjitsu Skills Feel Like an Afterthought – One of the other different elements of Nioh is that it features a skill tree. Usually this provides you with bonuses to your weapons, but players can also spend them on onmyo magic and ninjitsu skills. In practice, they function similarly to consumable items in Dark Souls where you equip them, select them on the d-pad and have a finite number of uses. The system could have been interesting, but as it is it just feels like an afterthought that you can’t reliably build around, unlike pretty much every other aspect of the combat system. On occasion I’ll bring out an elemental resistance pill for a boss battle or use magic missiles on foes, but that’s about it.

Hate

  • Loot Management is an Obligatory Chore – Basically every mission in Nioh ends with you spending 5+ minutes just going through your inventory and selling or breaking down all of the useless loot you acquired on your journey. As addictive as it is to find better loot out in the game world, most of it is crap and having to actually sift through it all and dispose of it quickly becomes annoying. The upcoming Nioh 2 needs to find some sort of way to streamline or automate this process because as it is right now it is a major pain in the ass.
  • Menu-based World Design – Perhaps the biggest difference between Nioh and Dark Souls is that Nioh is played out over a series of missions and that the world is navigated through menus. The missions themselves are quite good, but this structure makes the world itself feel considerably less interesting and cohesive in comparison. Your mileage may vary, but this makes the game just a bit less compelling and engaging than Dark Souls or Bloodborne for me, despite being by far the funnest in terms of its actual gameplay and mechanics.
  • Story Leaves Little Impact – Unlike Dark Souls, the story in Nioh is told in a much more straightforward manner, with cutscenes before and after each mission. Unfortunately, the story is not very well told, seemingly just jumping between scenes with little connective tissue to contextualize everything. I enjoyed some of the characters, such as Hanzo, Edward Kelley and Saoirse, but I quickly stopped caring about what was supposed to be happening around me because I couldn’t follow it. It’s unfortunate too, because a better-told story could have made for a much more engaging game and a more interesting world too for that matter.
  • Online Interaction is an Afterthought – Online play in Nioh isn’t nearly as accessible as it is in Dark Souls, requiring you to dig through some menus in order to use it. Without an equivalent to summoning signs, the odds of getting summoned to someone else’s game are pretty low. There’s also a global clan battle system somewhat similar to covenants, but this also feels like a total afterthought and only provides you with some bonus resources if you sacrifice specific resources every few days. I basically didn’t even bother exploring the online in Nioh because it felt so inessential.
Please follow and like us:

Love/Hate – Dark Souls 3

Love

  • Refined Game Engine – As groundbreaking as the Souls games are, they have always been incredibly janky and take some time to get used to how clunky they can be (not to mention the extremely poor performance that the first two games had across multiple platforms). Dark Souls 3 is built off of the Bloodborne engine and thankfully no longer has these issues. The game looks gorgeous and runs at a pretty stable 30fps on consoles. While 60fps would probably be ideal for a fast-paced action game, 30fps would have been a pipe dream for earlier games in the series, so I’ll take what I can get at least.
  • Increased Combat and Game Speed – Dark Souls 3 takes some pages from Bloodborne in its design, one of which is the noticeably increased speed of the combat and enemy aggression. Your reflexes are certainly put to the test more often and it also helps that the game’s animations have been made are far more fluid and responsive. As a result, simply playing Dark Souls 3 feels better than it has in previous entries in the series.
  • The Bosses Are Better Than Ever – I would go out on a limb and say that Dark Souls 3 has the best-designed bosses in the entire franchise. This is because basically every boss now has multiple stages when their health bars reach a certain point, meaning that you are no longer stuck repeating the same patterns to defeat a boss throughout the entire fight. Naturally, this makes the bosses harder, but I find them so much funner and satisfying, and it really makes the bosses in the previous games feel less challenging as a result. Particular highlights include The Abyss WatchersDancer of the Boreal Valleythe Twin Princes of LothricThe Nameless KingThe Demon in Pain and the Demon From Below (funnest gank fight since Ornstein & Smough in my opinion) and especially Slave Knight Gael (the funnest, most epic fight in all of Souls, hands-down).
  • The Game World is Hauntingly Gorgeous – Dark Souls 3‘s story is one of a world that is dying because the flame can no longer be sustained and the age of dark must finally come to pass. The game world really conveys this well, with some really well designed areas and imagery, such as the scores of dead pilgrims who collapsed from exhaustion outside the high wall of Lothric, the familiar characters you find long dead on our journey (the giant blacksmith was bad enough, but no, how could you kill The Fair Lady too?!), to the evocative image of the dark sun in the game’s final areas.

Mixed

  • Weapon Arts – Other than the increased game speed, Dark Souls 3‘s biggest addition to the combat system is weapon arts, special abilities or attacks that each weapon can perform. It’s a pretty cool idea, but one which could have probably been implemented a little better as the arts are generally the same across each class of weapon, only really changing on some special weapons.
  • Nostalgia Reliance – I didn’t mind this too much myself, but it’s undeniable that Dark Souls 3 relies on nostalgia for the original Dark Souls throughout the game. From the numerous callbacks to characters and items, to the areas which are revisited (most notably Anor Londo). Some of this game’s “original” characters are also just straight rip-offs of previous characters, such as Siegward of Catarina, which just takes away from this game’s own identity and contribution to the franchise. Furthermore, Dark Souls 2 kind of gets the shaft, with only a few items and equipment sets carrying over, a handful of characters and one area is referenced (Earthen Peak, in the DLC). The story doesn’t even acknowledge Dark Souls 2 at all, which is somewhat surprising considering that that game was about overcoming the undead curse. It definitely would have been nice if the game had been a bit more equitable about calling back to both of its predecessors.

Hate

  • Disregards Dark Souls 2‘s Game Improvements – …and speaking of ignoring Dark Souls 2, while some elements from that game certainly didn’t need to carry over (eg, life gems, limited enemy spawns, etc), there were certainly some improvements which didn’t make their way to Dark Souls 3 for whatever reason. Dual wielding in power stance is probably the most obvious omission, and while you can dual wield some special weapons using weapon arts, it isn’t nearly as effective or viable. Bonfire aesthetics are also a very sorely missed feature, meaning that you have to replay the whole game once again if you want to replay a section. Even mixed-up NG+ enemy placements have been removed.
  • Linearity – Linearity is not a bad thing in itself, but in a Souls game it is incredibly disappointing to see, especially considering how interconnected the first game was. Dark Souls 3 is by far the most linear game in the series, offering only a few short, branching paths on the journey (the most significant of which is incredibly difficult to achieve, requiring the player to beat a mid-game boss who can easily one-shot them at the very start of the game). As a result, replays will almost always have more or less the same progression each time.
  • PVP Is Weak – I’m not really into the PVP scene in Souls games, but apparently Dark Souls 3‘s system is the worst in the series. This is, in part, due to more limited build variety (for example, spell casters are less viable because spells have been weakened overall and require multiple ring slots to make their damage output comparable to other builds). In addition, PVP in this game is a total gankfest. This is actually something I’ve witnessed even without being into the PVP, because invaders will often end up facing off against 1-4 defenders and be destroyed instantly.
  • Some of the Bosses Still Suck – For all of the boss improvements in Dark Souls 3, there are still quite a few bosses which are pretty bad. Deacons of the Deep is the lamest boss in the base game, only really being difficult if you don’t have a lot of magic defence investment to survive a cheap one-shot. Meanwhile, the Ancient Wyvern is basically an over-glorified set-piece that can be cheesed instantly if you know what you’re doing. Oddly enough, Dark Souls 3 also has the distinction of having the most inconsistent DLC bosses in the series. The Ashes of Ariandel DLC’s bosses are both amongst the worst bosses in the game. The Champion’s Gravetender and Gravetender Greatwolf don’t even feel like a boss fight and is just plain unfair if you can’t kill the Gravetender before the Greatwolf spawns. Meanwhile, Sister Friede is the dirtiest, most unfair boss fight in the entire franchise: her first phase is fun, but then in the second phase she gets a whole new health bar and you get ganked alongside a raging Father Ariandel. If you somehow manage to beat them in this phase, THEN Sister Friede gets resurrected with another full health bar and is even more deadly than in either previous phase. She’s also super fast, debatably too fast even for this game’s increased combat speed. This was by far the least-enjoyable boss in the entire game for me, and while I generally play these games without summoning, I had absolutely no illusions about completing this fight summon-free. Meanwhile, in The Ringed City DLC, Halflight, Spear of the Church is arguably the most boring boss in the entire game.
Please follow and like us:

Love/Hate – Bloodborne

While it isn’t actually a part of the Souls series, Bloodborne is in a similar mold with some very key differences. In fact, FromSoftware would take inspiration from Bloodborne and carry it forward to the Souls-series proper. As a result, it’s clearly worth lumping this game into this love/hate series and see how it relates with the main franchise.

Love

  • Fantastic Style and Aesthetic – Bloodborne‘s biggest asset is definitely its aesthetic. Whereas Dark Souls is somewhat stifled by its fairly generic western fantasy style, Bloodborne has a much more stylish aesthetic, mixing steampunk, Gothic architecture and eldritch horror elements together to create a stunning world which is just incredibly cool to inhabit. This also extends to the game’s fantastic soundtrack, which further helps to sell the setting. Werewolves, religious fanatics and Lovecraftian horror in one package? Sign me the hell up!
  • Combat System is Really Fun – Despite appearing very similar on the surface to Dark Souls, Bloodborne‘s combat system is one of the main things that sets it apart:
    • Whereas Dark Souls emphasizes patience and defence, Bloodborne encourages aggression and speed. The speed of combat has been increased significantly through increased character fluidity, more aggressive enemies and the game’s lack of viable shields, meaning that you have to dodge constantly if you want to be successful.
    • Contributing to the aggressiveness of this game is the Rally system, which allows you a couple seconds after taking a hit to regain lost health by damaging the foe. This can be the difference between life and death in a tight situation and can save you having to use a blood vial to heal if you’re quick enough. Whole playstyles can be built around this system and it really does make you want to be more aggressive and risky while playing because you’re rewarded for your efforts.
    • Also contributing to the fun combat system is that every weapon has a secondary function which changes their moveset in interesting ways. For example, the hunter’s axe is a short-ranged slashing weapon, but can be extended to a two-handed weapon to give it increased range and sweeping attacks, whereas Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a longsword that can be sheathed into a slow and heavy greatsword. These are just a couple examples, but it’s a really cool system that makes all of the weapons far more interesting and fun to use. Plus these trick weapons actually make a noticeable difference in combat, some being more viable in certain situations.
  • Exploration is Very Rewarding – Bloodborne is arguably the Soulsborne game closest to recapturing the sense of exploration and interconnectedness of the first Dark Souls. It is considerably more linear and flat in comparison, but the game’s world is more interconnected than Dark Souls‘ sequels. Also, perhaps most importantly, it rewards exploration with some fantastic and meaty hidden areas. Discovering the pathway to the haunted castle of Cainhurst was one of the moments that made me fall in love with this game in the first place.
  • Memorable Characters – I would argue that the cast of Bloodborne are at least as iconic and memorable, if not moreso, than the cast of Dark Souls. Eileen the Crow and Lady Maria in particular are unforgettable and have stuck with me to this day (to the point that I have posters of each of them). The game also has such interesting and complex characters as the Plain Doll, Gehrman or the imposter Iosefka, not to mention even the minor characters such as the Odeon Chapel Dweller and Arianna which are quite memorable in their own right.
  • Streamlined Mechanics – While Bloodborne uses a lot of the framework of Dark Souls, many of the more complex elements have been streamlined or removed. Some people feel like this makes Bloodborne a lesser experience, but I feel like it’s just trimming the fat and focusing on pure enjoyment rather than busy work. For example, equipment load has been eliminated entirely (halle-freaking-lujah), meaning that you can focus your stats entirely on your actual preferred weapon loadout, rather than struggling to wear any kind of armour. Also, weapon upgrades are significantly easier, requiring only larger chunks of blood shards to increase your weapon’s damage and slots that you can put various damage-altering runes into. Magic has also been streamlined to items that you can use which spend your blood bullet supply and are just based off of one stat.
  • Some Fantastic Bosses – Bloodborne has an array of fun bosses, nearly all of which are top notch. Father Gascoigne, the Bloodstarved Beast, Martyr Logarius, Vicar Amelia, and Rom the Vacuous Spider are all great fights in the main game. The DLC also knocks it out of the park with some unforgettable and difficult fights. Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower in particular is the boss which made me fall in love with the sweet, sweet satisfaction of trying and retrying a boss until you have learned their patterns. Ludwig, Laurence and the Orphan of Kos are also extremely difficult bosses, providing some of the ultimate challenges for veterans and newbies of Souls games alike. Soloing all of these bosses recently on a NG+ playthrough was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had playing a video game, especially Ludwig and the Orphan, both of whom felt impossible to beat when I first played.

Mixed

  • Chalice Dungeons – The game’s chalice dungeons are an interesting and unique addition to Bloodborne which haven’t really appeared elsewhere in Souls games. They are procedurally-generated dungeons that offer players the opportunity to hunt for rare loot and face off against greater challenges and restrictions (such as defiled dungeons which halve your health bar). They also have some unique lore (providing the background to the game’s events), enemies and bosses that can’t be encountered elsewhere, giving them more prominence to the game experience. Unfortunately, chalice dungeons are also just kind of a slog in part due to the procedurally-generated nature of them which makes them all feel “samey”. Some people might be into them, but the only reason I forced myself through was that I had to in order to get the game’s Platinum trophy (and was by far the biggest obstacle to achieving that goal).
  • Invasions Are Rare – Due to removing hollowing from this game, FromSoftware had to change the way that invasions work. In Bloodborne you can be invaded if an enemy ringing an ominous bell appears in your world, which happens when you call for a co-op partner, or in certain areas where they spawn naturally. On the one hand, this allows players to control when they expose themselves to invaders rather than having it be constant, but it does make them very rare to come across.

Hate

  • Low Build and Equipment Diversity – Players who are used to Dark Souls‘ “play however you want” philosophy will probably be disappointed by Bloodborne‘s comparatively-limited selection of weapons and equipment. While each of these weapons play fairly differently due to the trick weapon system, the game just has less options across the board. With no encumbrance stat, players are forced into a light armour character. Magic isn’t really an option either – you can acquire items, such as the awesome Augur of Ebrietas, which serve a similar function, but are not something you can create an entire build around due to their very limited uses. Firearms are also rather limited, requiring excessive investment in Bloodtinge in order to do any real ranged damage, making them only useful for parries usually.
  • Blood Vial Farming – Bloodborne‘s healing system involves a consumable item called blood vials, which you can carry up to 20 of at a time. Unfortunately, they have to be acquired throughout the game world. You might easily have hundreds of blood vials in your inventory, but you can hit a difficulty spike that drains all your blood vials, forcing you to go back to earlier areas in order to farm more. I had this happen once or twice late in my first playthrough and it was incredibly annoying. This was even worse when the game launched, because your on-hand inventory wouldn’t automatically refill from your supply when you died.
  • A Couple Lame Bosses – Bloodborne‘s stable of bosses has less stinkers than most Souls games, but there are a few which stand out because of how much lower their pedigree is than the others in this game. The Witch of Hemwick in particular is not very challenging at all, and Micolash is embarrassingly weak for a late-game boss, and you spend more than half the fight just chasing his cowardly ass through the arena. In fact, the last 2 or 3 bosses before the final boss(es) are pushovers in comparison to the early-to-mid game bosses, suggesting a lack of proper playtesting to balance them out.
Please follow and like us:

Love/Hate – Dark Souls 2

Love

  • Some Memorable Characters – Somewhat surprisingly, Dark Souls 2 has a lot of characters which hold up as well (or maybe even better) than the colourful cast from the original Dark Souls. Nearly all of the characters in Majula have their own memorable personalities, particularly The Emerald Herald (best waifu in the Dark Souls series, in my opinion). The NPCs you meet in the world are also pretty memorable, especially the very tragic Lucatiel of Mirrah, who is desperately fighting to hold onto her sense of self as the curse of the undead gnaws away at her memories. Even the bosses and their stories can be pretty interesting, especially King Vendrick’s tragic fall from grace which forms the backbone of the game’s narrative (and that’s not even mentioning the very compelling stories told in each of the DLCs). While many of the characters aren’t as important to the story as, say, Solaire of Astora or Lautrec, even minor NPCs such as Rosabeth of Melfia, Gavlan or the freaking ladder salesman Gilligan have their own interesting quirks that help you remember them long afterwards.
  • Best DLCs in the Franchise – The Three Crowns saga is straight-up the best, most generous package of DLC in the entire franchise. These three DLCs are by far the best content in Dark Souls 2, with some really fun areas to fight through and great boss fights (few fights in this series match the cinematic splendour of jumping into hell to fight the Burnt Ivory King). That said, each of these DLCs have at least one boss which is incredibly underwhelming and areas which are amongst the worst in the game, but thankfully these parts are all totally optional and intended as challenge areas.
  • UI and Mechanics are Refined and/or Simplified – Dark Souls 2 features a number of gameplay changes from Dark Souls, some of which are better than others:
    • Having most of the blacksmiths and shops in one central hub area is a great improvement in my opinion, having to scour the world to find smiths would definitely have been a pain in the ass if I had to do it two games in a row (you do have to find the boss soul traders and infusing blacksmith in the world though). Plus weapon upgrades have been significantly streamlined, so it’s no longer such a pain in the ass to try to get your weapon to the maximum level.
    • Online PVP is much more viable than in Dark Souls because the servers have been significantly improved and there are more dedicated PVP/PVE areas. I don’t tend to play much PVP, but the general consensus seems to be that Dark Souls 2 has the best PVP in the franchise in part because of this.
    • Dual-wielding has been significantly improved. It was technically possible in Dark Souls, but Dark Souls 2 changes up the mechanics to make it a much more viable and unique playstyle for players looking for a bit more risk.
    • Lots of small, but amazing changes, such as equipment load percentages being viewable on the equipment screen, the level up UI being more informative, being able to move while using estus, more ring slots hell yes, being able to use consumables without having your menu close, being able to respec your stats, etc.
  • Humanity System Makes More Sense – I really hated the humanity system in Dark Souls 2 when I first played, but now that I can see what FromSoftware were going for it makes way more sense to me, especially compared to the first Dark Souls. In Dark Souls 2, each time you die your HP max drops until you reach a 50% decrease. This is reversed by using a Human Effigy to restore your character’s humanity (plus you can find a ring pretty early on which makes the maximum health drop cap at 75% rather than 50%). The result of this is that players are actually incentivized to stay human more often now, which encourages more co-op, invasions and other online interactions which you could just ignore in the first game because of how difficult it could be to remain human. Of course, you can still just play hollowed all the time (like me…), but the system does encourage interaction with the game’s online component far more effectively than you would expect.
  • Bonfire Aesthetics – One of the cool additions to this game is the bonfire aesthetic item, which respawns enemies and bosses in an area, but at a higher difficulty. Have an area or a boss which you liked but don’t want to replay the whole game to get back to it? Use a bonfire aesthetic! It’s a great change which (spoiler alert) I really wish had carried on into future games.
  • New Game+ Changes – NG+ has received some much-needed changes which make it more enticing. First of all, Dark Souls 2 doesn’t force you into NG+ as soon as the final boss is beaten, rather you get to choose when to go into it. In addition to tougher enemies and keeping your equipment, NG+ also features new enemy placements, making replays more interesting, surprising and challenging than simply replaying the exact same game. It doesn’t change the game substantially, but it’s a nice feature.
  • Some Truly Top-Tier Bosses – Dark Souls 2 features the most bosses in the entire franchise, and some of them are simply amazing (particularly the DLC bosses). The aforementioned Burnt Ivory King is one of the most visually spectacular bosses in the entire series, while Fume Knight is widely considered one of the best bosses in the entire series. Other really notable bosses in this game include Sir Alonne, Flexile SentrySmelter DemonVelstadtSinh, the Slumbering Dragon and Aava, the King’s Pet. Considering how many of these bosses are from the DLC, it really shows you how high the quality was in those. In addition, even the worst bosses are still a fair bit more challenging than many of the bosses from the first Dark Souls, with far more attacks and animations (compare a relatively lame boss like the Dragonrider with the Asylum Demon and its very limited and exploitable animations – the Asylum Demon’s a more memorable fight, but I’d argue that the Dragonrider is at least mechanically more interesting).

Mixed

  • Enemies Stop Respawning – After killing an enemy enough times (around fifteen kills), that enemy will stop respawning each time you die or rest at a bonfire. I’m really mixed on this. On the one hand, it cuts down on some of the frustration of trying to run through an area over and over again if you keep getting stomped. There’s also another purpose for this change though – to prevent you from farming for souls and items, unless you use a bonfire aesthetic and make the game harder for yourself. I appreciated it at times when I was getting to grips with the combat system of Dark Souls 2, and there are certain boss runs which are absolute bastards until you thin out the enemies this way, but I’m pretty mixed on the concept overall. It feels like a bit of a crutch, plus it encourages frustrating game design if you can just grind your way to the boss room by killing enough enemies over and over.
  • Unrestricted Fast Travel – Fast travel was a mid-game reward in Dark Souls, but in Dark Souls 2 you have it pretty much immediately. Considering how this game is laid out, it’s definitely a necessity for this to be the case, but it’s undeniable that it cuts down on the memorability of the game world compared to the original.
  • Graphics Are Noticeably Worse – In my opinion, Dark Souls 2 looks worse than the original Dark Souls, in part due to less atmospheric effects and because the game’s dynamic lighting engine was gutted before release. The only reason I put this under mixed is because this has given the game some performance increases compared to the notoriously badly-optimized Dark Souls. Unsurprisingly, the framerate on the Scholar of the First Sin port on PS4 hits a steady 60fps, while apparently the PS3 version of Dark Souls 2 runs better than the original as well.

Hate

  • World Isn’t as Interconnected – Considering that the world design is generally considered Dark Souls‘ greatest strength, it’s unfortunate that from Dark Souls 2-onwards, the series moved to a more linear and flat world layout. That’s not to say that the game is totally linear; from the hub area of Majula, you can head in a few different directions as you please. However, the way that these areas are laid out is much more linear, like each path out of Majula is a singular, long path outwards to the next major boss, with links to other areas being exceedingly rare. After the revelation that was Dark Souls‘ world design, it really is a shame that the world was designed this way.
  • Slower Combat System – Dark Souls 2 has arguably the slowest combat system in the whole series, even slower than the first game in some respects. This partially because the healing system has been changed to where estus recovery is significantly slower, filling your health bar over the course of a few seconds rather than practically instantly. The game has also introduced life gems, providing additional, even slower healing to top up this. Add in the slow enemies and attacks and you have a game which can just be sluggish at times, especially when compared with Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3.
  • Enemy Tracking – FromSoftware obviously realized that backstabs were too easy to pull off in Dark Souls, but they arguably went too far in the opposite direction here. In this game, enemies track you extremely quickly, even in the middle of attacks (meaning that they will wind up an attack and you think that you have dodged it, but then will be hit anyway because the enemy attack tracked you). Obviously, this just feels cheap when it happens, especially since Dark Souls 2 is also considered to have some of the most questionable hit boxes in the series.
  • GANK – Dark Souls 2 is notorious for just throwing scores of enemies at the player and saying “good luck!” Admittedly, Dark Souls did this at times as well, but Dark Souls 2 does it far more often and far more notably (nearly half of the boss battles in this game have multiple enemies to deal with). It just feels like they were focusing more on the difficulty rather than making it fair for the player. The level of gank also doesn’t help the combat speed much, as you’re forced to lure enemies in and play very cautiously to survive.
  • Some Awful and Uninspired Areas – Some of the areas in this game are just the absolute worst, for two reasons:
    • There are some areas which are just the absolute worst in Souls. I would probably rather play through Lost Izalith, the Demon Ruins and face all of the Anor Londo archers than have to traverse Black Gulch again (although I might take it over Tomb of the Giants…). Poisonous statues raining bullet-hell throughout the level every time you take a step while enemies charge at you? Ugh. Shrine of Amana is also often cited as one of the most bullshit areas in the game due to its hidden insta-death ledges and bastardly long-ranged spellcasters, although I don’t mind it quite as much as most people do. I think my least favourite area in the main game is the boss run to the Executioner’s Chariot, which is not only long and annoying, but features ganks from enemies that can easily two-shot you and ignore your shield and is capped off with a very strong, respawning phantom before the boss. The lead-up to the Smelter Demon is also ridiculously brutal as you get swarmed by absolutely swarmed by Alonne Knights. That said, everything pales in comparison to the DLC areas the Iron Passage and the Frigid Outskirts, two of the absolute worst, least enjoyable areas in any Souls game. This just shows that FromSoftware forgot that these games are supposed to be difficult, but fair. The only positives of these two areas are that at least they’re optional, but they were so stupid that I just stopped trying very quickly.
    • Even the decent areas are often just boring and uninspired, especially compared to Dark Souls. Most of the areas just feel like generic fantasy settings (particularly the Forest of Fallen Giants and Lost Bastille area), with only a few such as the Dragon Aerie or Earthen Peak standing out for being visually interesting.
  • Some Truly Awful Bosses – Dark Souls 2 has the most bosses of any Souls game by far, and it’s exceedingly obvious that FromSoftware were going for quantity over quality here because the boss selection is by far this game’s weakest aspect. There are a number of instances where the bosses just feel thrown in for no good reason, but here’s the absolute worst offenders:
    • First of all, there are the uninspired bosses, such as the Belfry Gargoyles (an infuriating gank rehash of the Bell Gargoyles), Scorpioness Najka (a really boring ripoff of Chaos Witch Quelaag), Old Dragonslayer (literally just Dragonslayer Ornstein, reused for basically no discernible reason) and the Twin Dragonriders (the early-game Dragonrider boss, but only with two this time!). The DLC also has similarly boring reskin bosses, the blue Smelter Demon and two giant tigers, both of which cap off the aforementioned worst areas in any Souls games, giving the player and even bigger middle finger for attempting them.
    • Then there are the bosses which are basically just mobs of regular enemies. The Royal Rat Vanguard is literally just a group of rats, with one mohawked rat that you need to kill to win. There’s the Skeleton Lords, which are just a random bunch of skeleton enemies that explode and turn into an even bigger mob of skeletons (ugh). There’s the Prowling Magus and Congregation, which is arguably the worst “boss” in the game because they’re no stronger or more challenging than any of the actual regular enemies you face and just feel thrown in pointlessly. Oh, and then there’s the extremely shitty gank squad optional “boss” from the DLC, which basically forces you to run around in circles kiting the enemies until you can cheese them to death. Fun!
    • Oh, and then there are the truly awful bosses, ones who are just ridiculously badly designed. The Covetous Demon is absolutely pathetic, giving pushovers like Pinwheel a run for their money as the easiest bosses in any Souls game. This giant Jabba the Hutt just lies there while you wail on it, occasionally flopping over to try to hit you, but often missing. It’s just sad to witness. It can do a lot of damage if you get hit and are being too greedy yourself, but it’s never going to feel like a real challenge. I also consider the Old Iron King to be a really poor boss fight unfitting for a Souls game. Basically, the boss has the most obvious and slow attacks, telegraphing exactly what he’s going to do and then leaving his fists down for no other reason than for you to hit him multiple times, because he’s a video game boss. The only challenge in this fight is that the boss can very easily get a cheap kill by knocking you out of his arena, which is just utter bullshit. Similarly, the Ancient Dragon is often considered one of the most bullshit bosses in Souls, due to its enormous health bar, its insanely huge area of attack fire breath and that its damage output is enough to one-shot most builds. It’s just straight-up not fun to fight.
Please follow and like us:

Love/Hate – Dark Souls

I recently began replaying Dark Souls, this time on PS4 with the remastered edition. Having played a ton of Soulsborne and Souls-like games in the past few years, it’s fascinating going back to the game which really popularized the modern action game formula. I’m definitely enjoying myself, but that got me thinking about all the things I love and hate about this franchise and the subgenre it spawned… and wouldn’t you know it, I have a series on this blog which is about just that! So without further ado, here’s what I love and hate about the original Dark Souls!

Love

  • Amazing World Design – This is arguably the best part of Dark Souls, where it really shines and is still unmatched, even by its successors. I’m going to split this into a couple parts to cover it more thoroughly:
    • Dark Souls‘ world is designed sort of like layer cake. Each new area is connected to the others in an organic way, and it isn’t uncommon to be exploring and to catch glimpses of other areas that you will soon be exploring or to discover a surprising shortcut to an area you previously visited (which is extra important because fast travel is unavailable for most of the game, and even then only in a limited capacity). Furthermore, the areas all stack on top of each other vertically, a very unique approach to an open world which is rarely attempted. The unique design with the shortcuts littered throughout give the entire world map a memorable interconnectedness that sticks with you long after your journey is complete.
    • The game is designed in a very non-linear fashion. There is an intended path for newer players which is evidenced by the difficulty of the enemies in each area, but there is technically nothing stopping players from risking going off this intended path into much more challenging areas for their level. In fact, the loot that you can acquire for doing so might make the challenge worthwhile, especially for veteran players. Furthermore, the game also has an optional starting item, the Master Key, for experienced players which makes the early game even more non-linear as it allows you to explore these higher-level challenges much sooner. To make this even better, the game actually has some special rewards for breaking the intended path, such as (SPOILER ALERT):
      • If you kill the sunlight maggots early enough, you will save Solaire of Astora from a tragic fate and allow him to be summoned for the final boss battle.
      • If you beat the Artorias of the Abyss DLC (end-game content in terms of difficulty, so that’s no light feat) before fighting Sif, she will actually remember the player but fight to defend her master’s honour anyway, giving the fight an even more melancholy air to it.
    • The vertical open world design even has thematic significance, as the homes of the (questionably moral) gods of light are found as you ascend the layer cake. In contrast, the darkest places are found as you descend, all the way down to the lowest point of the world in Ash Lake, where humanity itself and the Dark Soul was found. Considering that environmental storytelling is a crucial method in which the game’s narrative is conveyed, this thematic significance is particularly brilliant.
  • Unique Character Designs – In addition to the amazing world design, FromSoftware also really nailed the art designs for the different characters and bosses in this game. This includes the NPCs, such as the instantly iconic designs of Solaire of Astora and Siegmeyer of Catarina. The bosses are also incredibly creative and have elements meant to symbolize their characters. Rather than just having a dragon, instead we get the Gaping Dragon, which has turned itself into a huge maw in order to consume more. Or what about Gravelord Nito, a being made up of piles of bones and whispy darkness. Hell, even extremely underwhelming bosses, such as Pinwheel, have incredibly well-thought out designs – in his case, he wears three masks because he’s trying to resurrect his dead wife and child. FromSoftware just always puts this really creative spin on their creatures and it’s part of the fun of discovering what sort of twisted abomination they’re going to throw at you next.
  • Build Freedom is Insane – Perhaps the coolest thing about the Souls series in general is just how much freedom the player gets in determining their character build. You get two slots per hand, plus two magic rings and a handful of item slots to use however you see fit. You can run all manner of swords (short, long, greatswords, freaking ultra greatswords), axes, spears, bows, shields and various other exotic weapons, not to mention three varieties of magic with their own lengthy spell lists. Oh and did I mention that all of these weapons can be upgraded with elemental properties which wildly change their damage output? Hell, if you’re insane, you can even choose to run around punching everything to death. And that’s just the weapon options, you’ve also got tons of armour sets (from light, medium and heavy) and your stat distributions which can complement any playstyle, from clerics, to tanks, to melee fighters. Basically, if you can think it, it can be done and you can probably make it work. I like to play the melee glass cannon – minimal HP investment, but very high stamina and strength, running around with a claymore for heavy damage output. The way I see it, if I’m getting hit by more than a couple enemy attacks, I deserve to be killed.
  • Surprisingly Rich Story Told in an Unconventional Way – The Souls games are very unique for the manner in which they tell their stories. Rather than conveying narrative directly to the player, the story is told through the environment and item descriptions, which encourages the player to piece the story together themselves. While it is possible to entirely miss the point of everything that happens in the game because of this, it actually makes the game significantly more engaging and rewarding. Even then, the base mythology of the game is also very interesting and makes for a compellingly, strikingly bleak world.
  • Resource Management – I know that Demon’s Souls was the basis for this idea, but Dark Souls really popularized the notion of strategic stamina regeneration and healing in modern action games. FromSoftware struck a perfect balance between the game’s speed and the stamina regeneration, making it feel like an essential part of the game rather than a burden on the player.
  • Some Absolutely Amazing Bosses – The Souls games are renowned for their bosses, and Dark Souls has some of the biggest standouts in the whole series. So with that in mind, I’m going to shoutout some of the bosses which deserve special praise:
    • Artorias the Abysswalker is probably the funnest boss in the game. The funnest bosses in Souls games are often built off of Artorias’ foundation – a large, single warrior duelling you with relentless, heavy attacks, leaving just enough openings to sneak in a hit if you’re skilled. Every game in this franchise features at least one boss which is built in the mould of Artorias, and considering that they’re almost always top-tier bosses, it should really show you just how good Artorias is. The nice thing about these kinds of duels is that they don’t rely on gimmicks exclusive to the boss battle, rather you’re testing your skill with the game’s combat system.
    • Black Dragon Kalameet is one of the funnest dragon battles in the whole series, posing an exceptional challenge to the player while remaining totally fair. A lot of bosses this early into the Souls series feel less refined than later entries, but Kalameet is still a standout boss to this day.
    • Ornstein and Smough are probably the most iconic boss duo in the entire franchise; I was aware of their reputation years before I even faced them for the first time. The fight itself is exceptionally difficult, but manageable if you focus them down skilfully. They’re also probably the best gank fight in the series, with their differing speeds and attack patterns not feeling like utter bullshit to fight. That feeling when you finally defeat Ornstein and Smough is one of the most satisfying moments in the entire franchise.
    • I also want to give some smaller shoutouts to Great Grey Wolf Sif, Chaos Witch Quelaag, the Bell Gargoyles and the Sanctuary Guardian.

Mixed

  • Backstabs Are Too Good – I like backstabs in this game, especially for the weaker enemies when you’re a low level. However, they are a little too easy to pull off in this game due to the speed of the game and the way enemies attack. It becomes less of an issue later on in the game when there are less humanoid enemies, but if a player relies too much on backstabs then those later sections of the game are going to be way more painful. I feel like later games in the series handled backstabs a little better and made them harder to pull off, but they are a bit too easy here.

Hate

  • Really Obtuse Mechanics – It’s one thing to make the player intuit the game’s story themselves, but it’s entirely another thing to force them to understand a myriad of unexplained game mechanics. Some stuff, like equipment load percentages, are just not conveyed and make playing the game more of a chore, but there are other mechanics which are significantly worse:
    • Hollowing and kindling is a mechanic that I still don’t understand properly in Dark Souls. In this game, you use the Humanity item to gain humanity which apparently gives you some statistical bonuses (and scales with certain weapon types) the more you have. Humanity can be spent to reverse hollowing and to kindle bonfires in order to have more estus flask uses. None of this is explained to the player at all, particularly the stat-bonuses. Considering that humanity is a fairly rare resource, you become hollow upon death and can lose all of your “liquid” humanity if you don’t retrieve lost souls, it’s like the game penalizes you for using it. As a result, I usually play the Souls games in a hollowed state 99% of the time, because I hate using finite resources on the off-chance I’ll need them later. Hollowing is supposed to represent despair and growing apathy and I think that later games in the series conveyed that idea far clearer than Dark Souls.
    • Covenants can be really confusing and don’t have as many benefits or consequences as you would hope. They basically just encourage some roleplay and online interaction, but the feature isn’t very well fleshed out, nor is there much reason to feel devoted to your covenant.
    • Weapon upgrades are a HUGE pain in the ass, which is particularly unfortunate since I’d argue that it’s the most important aspect to keeping up with the game’s difficulty curve (try facing off against the Bell Gargoyles with a +1 or +2 weapon vs a +10 weapon, the difference is night and day). In order to upgrade your weapons, you need to collect titanite shards and require larger shards as the weapon is upgraded higher – okay, that’s fair enough. However, Dark Souls takes it to a stupid level from there. Let’s say you want to add elemental damage to your weapon. First, you need to find an smithing ember, which are hidden throughout the world. Then you have to find the blacksmith who can actually use that ember (did I mention that there are 4 different blacksmiths scattered throughout the world?), and then give it to them. AND THEN you need to have special types of coloured titanite which drop in specific areas to actually upgrade some of these weapons (but not all of them, because that would just be too complicated apparently). Even then, you have to take stat scaling into account, which is different for each weapon and changes when you add elemental damage, potentially making the weapon worse despite being “upgraded”. And that’s not even including special weapons, although at least these are pretty simple, requiring only twinkling titanite, dragon scales or demon titanite to upgrade (these are all very rare items though). Weapon upgrades are just a huge pain in the ass to manage in Dark Souls, and were in serious need of streamlining.
  • NPC Questlines Are Easy to Miss – Some of the most compelling stories told in Dark Souls are done through interactions with NPCs. Characters like Solaire of Astora and Siegmeyer of Catarina are unforgettably charming and compelling as you follow their journey through the world, and each questline ends in truly heartbreaking fashion if you can see them through. However, NPC questlines are incredibly easy to miss as you explore the world – do something at the wrong time and you could easily never see one of these colourful cast members again. It’s not like the characters give you clear hints where they’re headed next either, they’ll just show up unexpectedly and if you happen to pass their way then lucky you.
  • Janky Game Engine – Considering how successful Dark Souls was, it’s easy to forget that FromSoftware was a relatively small studio with a limited budget, and as a result the game has some pretty questionable design at times. Most notoriously, the game was really badly optimized in its initial launch on PS3, Xbox 360 and (especially) PC. The framerate in Blighttown and New Londo in particular was brutal, often dropping into the unacceptable neighbourhood of 10-15fps. The online performance was also very questionable and led to really frustrating moments with invaders lagging all of the place and backstabbing you out of nowhere. Most of these issues have been addressed in the remastered version of the game, but there are still some eccentricities that have been maintained, like the hilariously weightless ragdoll effect on dead enemies.
  • 4 Way Dodge Rolling… But Only While Locked On? – Dodging is a key skill in Dark Souls‘ combat, more skillful and rewarding than hiding behind a shield. Normally you can dodge in any direction, but for some reason when you lock onto an enemy this gets restricted to only 4 directions (forward, backward, left, right). I don’t understand this design choice at all because it’s not like encounters play out in a grid-like fashion to make this make sense and I’ve had this system throw me into enemy attacks unintentionally because of how restricted it is. As a result, when you get more skilled at the game you basically have to lock on and off of enemies to get around this arbitrary limitation.
  • Bosses Have Limited Movepools and AI – Perhaps owing to the fact that it’s the first game in the series, Dark Souls has a lot of bosses which are very predictable and exploitable due to their limited amount of moves and reactions. For an example of this, check out my low-level takedown of the Stray Demon – if I get behind it, it has only two attacks it can use with limited ways to actually hit me, meaning that I can basically just repeat the same pattern to whittle it down with little danger to myself. There are other examples throughout the game such as the Gaping Dragon which constantly jumps in the air when you get behind it, rinse and repeat. That said, the bosses do improve as you progress, and the DLC bosses are all top-notch. Also, some of the mini-bosses are pathetically exploitable, especially the stationary ones such as the hydra and the zombie dragon (which will just puke poison in front of it uselessly while you wail on it with arrows from far away).
  • Some Incredibly Frustrating Moments… – Sometimes Dark Souls is just an utter bastard to the player, with moments you just plain dread in subsequent playthroughs. Trying to fight the Hellkyte Wyvern is one example, as that thing will stunlock you with fire if you even try to approach it. The notorious Anor Londo archers are particularly egregious and there’s basically nothing in the game up unto that point which will have prepared you to face enemies that will knock you off of thin platforms with their arrows. I got stupidly lucky in my original playthrough and got past them on my first try, but in my remastered run I died to them so many times before I figured out a strategy through significant trial and error (basically, run and let them fall to their deaths like idiots). Sen’s Fortress is also a nightmare gauntlet of difficult enemies and traps, while Blighttown’s poisoned lake is just ridiculous (again, I got extremely lucky in my original playthrough and got through all the rickety platforms to the bonfire on my first attempt, in spite of the crap framerate).
  • …and Areas That Are Just Not Fun – While the above areas are frustrating, there’s at least some fun and skill to be had in overcoming the challenge. There are other areas though which are just awful, particularly in the latter portion of the game:
    • The Tomb of the Giants is stupidly dark and absolutely no fun to navigate as a result. To make matters worse, you’ve got enemies you can’t see firing arrows at you and giant quadrupedal skeletons which will rip huge chunks off of your health bar, all while you’re trying to avoid falling off of a ledge when you can’t see more than a few feet ahead of you. It doesn’t help that there are only a couple items you can equip to slightly illuminate the darkness, which could potentially leave you without a shield to defend yourself. The only nice thing I can say about the Tomb of the Giants is that at least it’s a relatively small area and that the views of Lost Izalith and Ash Lake are gorgeous.
    • …speaking of Lost Izalith it, along with its predecessor area the Demon Ruins, is the nadir of this game without question. Perhaps the worst aspect is that the areas are really uninspired, with long stretches of nothing of note (hell, there’s a good 20-30 seconds of flat, featureless terrain to run through every time you want to enter the Demon Ruins). The enemies are copy and pasted all over the place at random and are totally motionless until you aggro them, making this area feel super amateur. Hell, the enemies in this area are often filled with previous bosses the Taurus Demon and Capra Demon, not to mention one notorious section with an enemy which is literally the ass-end of the zombie dragon hastily re-purposed into a new enemy type. Rather than providing a fair challenge, the Taurus Demons and dragon asses don’t even respawn, which transparently signals that the developers knew that they weren’t fun but needed to have some sort of challenge. Capping the whole area off is the hands-down worst boss in the entire franchise, the Bed of Chaos, which is more of an exercise in frustration than anything else and which you will spend more time running from your bonfire to the boss room rather than actually fighting. FromSoftware has stated that they ran out of time and budget with Lost Izalith, and it really shows, even to the point where they included a shortcut that lets you bypass about 80% of it.
Please follow and like us:

Five Finger Death Punch and the Machismo of Submission

For the past couple months I’ve been working on a follow-up to my album rankings of 2017 and one of the bands that is going to feature on that list is (spoiler alert) Five Finger Death Punch. I have really disliked Five Finger Death Punch since I first checked them out – they tend to have a few good songs per album but most of their music is utter trash. The main issue is their lyrics, which are usually toxically masculine, raging at the whole world, threatening to beat everyone up, swearing constantly, and which throw in casual misogyny and homophobia for good measure. For a band that is clearly aiming to be badass, their incessant whining makes them look like a bunch of children and this has turned me off of all but a handful of their songs.

For this year’s album rankings though I decided to look into Five Finger Death Punch a little bit closer though to see if my impression of the band was accurate. For the most part, yes I was pretty spot on. Most distressingly, the band’s nasty, misogynistic lyrics spill over into real life; lead singer Ivan Moody (seriously, that’s his actual last name) has been in legal trouble on at least two occasions for assault against women, in part due to alcoholism which he has apparently been trying to get a handle on. One thing you kind of have to give the band some credit on though is their unequivocal support of the military and police. The level to which this support goes might be questionable, but the respect that they show to the actual individuals is admirable and has likely contributed to the growth in their popularity.

Most of the band doesn’t seem to be openly political, with the major exception being guitarist Zoltan Bathory who has, err, opinions on Donald Trump, gun control and communism. He seems like a really odd character all on his own. In addition to Five Finger Death Punch, he claims to be a civilian combat instructor for the US military, although I feel like I need to add that I’ve seen comments from multiple soldiers while researching him who said that they had never heard of him and that they were skeptical of his claims. Considering that the article cited on his Wikipedia page which is meant to back up this claim also has Bathory claiming that the band has been shot at while performing for the troops in Iraq and Kuwait, I’m also somewhat skeptical (I certainly don’t doubt that he’s a skilled martial artist, but “one of the few civilians certified by the US Army as an L1 Modern Army Combatives Instructor – Close Quarter Combat”? Sorry Zoltan, I need a bit more proof than your word).

Zoltan also apparently writes for a magazine called Skillset. Skillset’s website states quite boldly that it’s all about “redefining the alpha lifestyle”, with features that “[spotlight] men and women with undeniable talents and abilities. We are VETERAN OWNED AND OPERATED and changing the face of ‘men’s interest’ magazines on newsstands.” The magazine boasts that it does so through articles on “rock stars, athletes, car builders and gun culture” and is plastered with ridiculously over-the-top images of men pointing guns at the camera. Basically it’s a douchey, redneck version of Playboy. Not all that surprising that a member of Five Finger Death Punch would be drawn to such a publication, although it sounds less like they’re “redefining” the alpha lifestyle than they are simply reinforcing traditional American machismo, although perhaps with some consideration that women can be badass too.

Finding out that Zoltan writes for Skillset really helped to crystalize my disparate feelings about Five Finger Death Punch, because I feel like it really is a great, unintentional illustration of the band’s philosophy. One could say that Skillset is all about people who are apparently better than the rest of us because they take control, the ways they present themselves, etc. Similarly, Five Finger Death Punch’s music is all about aggressive posturing, the constant threats about kicking peoples’ asses are meant to make them seem like badasses even though they end up making them seem like whiny, overcompensating pansies. This is just so obvious on songs like “Burn MF” where they unironically claim that the weight of the world is on their shoulders and then in the next verse rage that people fake that the world is on their shoulders. I’m not the only one who notices this either; in a review of their most recent album Michael Hann writes that Ivan Moody “reflects on his troubled past couple of years […] with a level of self-pity that wouldn’t disgrace a child who’d been bought Pro Evo instead of Fifa for Christmas: ‘Everybody seems like they’re waiting for me to die / Talk shit behind my back, can’t look me in the eye.’ When, on ‘It Doesn’t Matter’, he hollers ‘You’re so self-righteous, and you’re never going to change,’ you want to inquire if Mr Pot and Mr Kettle have made each other’s acquaintance.” It’s like they see the world in a hierarchical way, where their troubles are more legitimate than those of the people beneath them, in a manner not dissimilar to incels with their self-perception of being “inferior” beta males who are literally unloveable and worthless.

Is anyone surprised that Five Finger Death Punch fans are this pleasant? (Source)

This hierarchy also ties into the band’s support of the military and Zoltan’s support of Donald Trump. The way Five Finger Death Punch sees the military is not dissimilar from the manner many American nationalist/patriots are raised to – men who are braver and better than the rest of society and deserving of unquestioning respect. You can see this idealization pretty clearly in some of their songs, such as “Death Before Dishonour”, where they claim that everyone’s living a fake life except for the soldiers who die with their dignity. There’s a common trope amongst conservative types that soldiers are basically always right, from atheist professor variations, to God’s Not Dead 2 making a point of having the evil atheists kick a marine off the jury, to the portrayals of soldiers as morally and intellectually infallible in American Sniper and (especially) 13 Hours.

Soldiers obviously do deserve respect – they are serving their people and are often away from their families as a result of that, not to mention the inherent risk involved in the job. However, the level of lionization is just plain ridiculous sometimes and they even get used as a symbolic cudgel to beat down any sort of opposition to nationalism. Considering that no one in Five Finger Death Punch has actually served in the military, it’s a little bit odd that they fetishize them as much as they do. The band even goes so far as to collect dog tags from their fans to display behind them at concerts, almost as if they’re trying to gain that legitimacy through association. When you consider that, for conservative types, “the military is romanticized and portrayed as an institution of national pride [which] focuses on the prestige associated with enlisting in the Marines and serving one’s country”, it’s really not that surprising that you can have a band that punches down in their music and submits to authority because they fall in line when someone more powerful than them comes along.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with cultivating a military following with your music. Ivan Moody has a story he tells about a soldier who died in Iraq while listening to one of their songs, which is undeniably moving. Other bands, such as Disturbed, have written music with the expressed intent of encouraging the troops. I just find it really interesting that Five Finger Death Punch can rage uncontrolled at the whole world and posture like they’re ultimate badasses, but then make so much of a show about being submissive to authority. It seems to run counter to their message until you understand their ethos a little better.

Please follow and like us:

Quick Fix: Mandatory Voting

Hey everyone, I am pleased to announce that I became a father on the 29th of October! This is super exciting, but if my writing schedule becomes more inconsistent, that’s my excuse. I’ve actually got a lot of content underway, some of which will definitely be done by the end of the year, but I’m just a bit crunched for time as you can probably understand.

Anyway, with the midterm elections now on the books and the Democrats thankfully winning Congress, hopefully the signs are pointing towards this global fascist nightmare finally losing momentum. All of the voting talk was making me think about my many articles about voting and how I kind of wish that people had to earn the right to vote (if there was a way to make that notion not totally evil). Upon some reflection after seeing the midterm campaigns unfold, I occurs to me that this idea doesn’t really fit into the modern American democratic process very well (let alone the Canadian one). Part of the problem is the pervasiveness of fake news and propaganda on hyper-partisan media. If the truth wasn’t being actively obscured by malicious agents that would be one thing, but when we have one side skewing the truth so much that its adherents are basically living in an entirely different world, that makes them have a false sense of confidence that they know what the issues really are that they’re voting for. Plus, these malicious influencers are driving people to vote through outrage, meaning that the parties are incentivized to be political scum in order to have a chance to win. It’s just a race to the bottom due to the way that the system is set up.

But… what if it didn’t have to be that way? I saw the following Tweet while browsing voting threads and I found its argument extremely interesting:

Aussie here: one thing that is oft repeated by Australian commentators on the USA is that because USA lacks mandatory voting the Republicans must rely on churches to get people to vote. Which is why your Conservative party is a lot more right wing tha ours.

— A.Z.M.B (@Voodooqueen126) November 4, 2018

I definitely think that AZMB is hitting on some truth here, as the Republican party and most influential evangelical leaders have been inextricably, publically tied together since at least the time of the Moral Majority. This, of course, hits on what I said earlier – pander to voting blocs to overpower opposing parties’ numbers, because all that really matters is that you get into power when you’re in politics.

I don’t know how you would enforce it, but mandatory voting definitely does stymie some of these issues and incentivizes parties to actually serve the interests of the majority of the public, rather than just voting blocs. To make this more effective, the government would either make voting significantly easier for citizens, or make voting days into national holidays. As we saw in America, this is not the case, as it plays to the strengths of those in power (the major parties in America are in bed with corporate interests, so they don’t want their employees not working) and suppresses the poor, working class from engaging in politics. Simply put, the system as it works now is rigging the fact that less than 60% of the population is actually likely to vote by being very selective on the ones who actually will get a political voice.

Hell, while we’re at it, getting rid of a first past the post system would also serve the public greatly. Justin Trudeau flirted with the idea, promising it in his election campaign, but when the time came to act he backed down, making the excuse that it gives extremists a voice. Unless the majority of Canadians secretly harbour a preference for extremist parties, I don’t think that this would be the case. In fact, I’d think that proportional voting would incentivize less extremism, as the parties are going to want to appeal to more voters.

Basically, I just wish that politics were actually in the interests of the people, rather than corporate interests as they mainly are now. Steve Bannon is an evil piece of shit, but he kind of has a point regarding populism being the way of the future – however, his nationalist, xenophobic bent makes this unconscionable. However, populism in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, merely that it is often co-opted by people like Bannon. Bernie Sanders was kind of a proof of this, as he was a populist and a socialist. I don’t think that the winds of change have gone out of the sails of populism and if progressives want to survive this fascist nightmare then they would do well to harness it for good. A progressive, populist movement could do some serious good and would hopefully have some real value to voters.

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: God’s Not Dead – A Light in Darkness (2018)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry we’re covering the latest, and possibly last, entry in the franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. After the garbage fire that was the previous film, could it be possible for this series to get even more insulting? Read on to find out…

The poster carries on the same design aesthetic as the previous films in the franchise. I like it a lot more than the previous one – visually, it’s a far more interesting design.


God’s Not Dead 2 released on April 1st, 2016 and was (unfortunately) only an April Fool’s joke if you paid to see it. That said, it landed in the year that evangelicals would help to put Donald Trump into office as the 45th President of the United States, a result which has been… contentious to put it lightly and which has shed a light on how brutishly tribal, steadfastly political and stunningly hypocritical the evangelical church is in America. I do not think it an exaggeration to suggest that the God’s Not Dead franchise helped to bring about these turn of events in their own small way. These films were just reflections of things that evangelicals already believed, but (as per Sean Paul Murphy) Pure Flix was drawn to creating inflammatory content to generate more ticket sales, which fanned the flames and drove evangelicals to act.


Even before November 2016 rolled around, a third God’s Not Dead film had been confirmed, although the premise was not set. David A. R. White stated that “We’ve just been in a lot of prayer and trying to figure out exactly what God wants number 3 to be. Because you know we don’t just want to just do what we want to do, we really want to follow where God is leading on these movies.” Now, details on what exactly happened are hard to come by, but Harold Cronk (who directed the previous 2 films), Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the writers of the previous 2 films) were not brought back to work on the new film. Instead, an unknown writer/director by the name of “Michael Mason” was brought on to spearhead the third entry in the franchise, signalling a new direction for the franchise.


David A. R. White returns as Pastor Dave, this time taking on the film’s leading role. Benjamin Onyango would return as Pastor Jude and Shane Harper would also return as Josh Wheaton, but they both appear in relatively small roles and none of the other major characters from the series (such as Amy, Martin or Ayisha… sigh, so much for my Josh/Ayisha shipping) make any appearance. The new major roles are filled out by John Corbett as Dave’s estranged brother, Ted McGinley as the university chancellor and Jennifer Taylor as Dave’s love interest. The filmmakers also made a big deal about securing Academy Award winning actress Tatum O’Neal in a role, but it ends up being a very minor as one of the board members at the university.

Owing to how hard it is to find information about this film’s production, I actually found some intriguing little tidbits. On the minor end of things, I found confirmation that this film was at one point given the subtitle of “A Light in the Darkness”, but that the “the” was subsequently dropped, presumably because they would have thought it was too long a title. This just gives me a bit more insight into Pure Flix’s marketing ideas and why I was probably on the right track when I was thinking about why they didn’t just call this series God is Not Dead, as they clearly should have. Perhaps more intriguing is the identity of “Michael Mason”, as I found some conflicting stories which suggest that this is a pseudonym for an unidentified director. The candidate which had been suggested was Jon Gunn, director of My Date with Drew, Do You Believe? and The Case for Christ and it was postulated that he used the “Michael Mason” pseudonym because it would have been his 3rd Christian film in a row and might have pigeonholed him as a “Christian director”. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s also worth pointing out that a November 2017 interview with Shane Harper had the film’s director listed as “Jonathan Michael”. Perhaps this an early, half-masked psuedonym before Michael Mason was settled on? Regardless, it’s really interesting to speculate on.

Also, one last thing to note before we move onto the story of the film: this movie bombed at the box office. While the first film had made around $60 million domestically and the second had made around $20 million, A Light in Darkness brought in just over $7 million – less than both of the previous films had made in their opening weekends. Ouch. I feel like by this entry the series’ reputation was already tanked, so there was less interest, not to mention that it was yet another unnecessary sequel. Perhaps most importantly though, the Christian film industry had really kicked into full gear since the release of God’s Not Dead, and as a result A Light in Darkness was beaten out at the box office by fellow faith-based films I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ, all of which released in a 3 week span around the Easter season (which I commented on at the time). It’s also probably worth mentioning that Black Panther was still tearing up the box office at the time as well.


The film opens with Pastor Dave getting released from jail after the post-credits scene in the last film because… well, we aren’t really told why, but they basically have nothing on him after all. Dave’s jailing creates a controversy about the church being on university grounds. Jude meets with Dave after his release and a couple nights later they hear a brick being thrown through the church window. Dave tries to catch the vandal while Jude goes to turn off the alarm – however, the brick accidentally caused a gas leak which explodes, fatally wounds Jude and burns the church. Dave is left in shock as the university uses this opportunity to try to seize the church grounds in order to build a student union centre, which Dave refuses. As a result, Dave seeks out his estranged brother, Pearce, who is a social justice lawyer and non-believer. With Pearce’s help, Dave goes to court against the university to retain control of the church, while waging a media campaign which inflames further controversy over both sides of the conflict.

Eventually, Dave discovers that a local student named Adam was the one responsible for the gas leak which happened accidentally after taking out his frustrations over the church. Dave has Adam arrested after confronting him, but Dave’s lashing out further hurts his public perception and leads to Pearce dropping out of the case. As Dave’s life begins to spiral out of control, he does some major soul-searching with God and realizes that he’s hurting people with his needless crusade. As a result, he announces that he’s accepting a settlement with the university, drops the charges against Adam, builds a new church elsewhere and just asks everyone to stop fighting one another.

As you can probably tell from this synopsis, A Light in Darkness is… actually a movie for once, not an over-glorified object lesson. It’s truly shocking to see the difference between this film after the last two entries – in fact, a significant chunk of my notes while watching were just me expressing surprise about how plot points are treated with far more nuance than they were previously. I have to give Michael Mason (whoever they are) some credit for just how much better this film is compared to the other two in nearly every way. Harold Cronk was a competent director, but his two films in this series had a very flat, workmanlike quality (and the less said about the scripts, the better). In contrast, this movie immediately demonstrates a considerably more interesting directing style and better cinematography. The script for this film is also miles ahead of the last two entries. In fact, I feel like A Light in Darkness only really has a couple of obvious issues that are worse than in the other films in this series. Worst of all, its pacing is glacial at times and without the batshit insanity or scenery chewing of the previous films, it’s easy to be bored for long stretches of this film. Also, David A. R. White is a decent actor for the most part, but having to carry a whole film on his shoulders seems like a bit of a strenuous effort for him. He had succeeded in the previous two films by being a bit of positive, comic levity combined with strong chemistry with Pastor Jude. However, A Light in Darkness sees Pastor Dave taking on a dark, dramatic role. There are a couple of moments in the film when David needs to display some sort of strong emotion (such as when he’s crying for Jude while the church burns and when he angrily confronts Adam about the fire) but he tends to be unconvincing, like he’s holding back for fear of looking silly. Again, he’s mostly solid though and his chemistry with John Corbett helps to keep things going strong.

I also have to give Pure Flix some credit for actually listening to the criticisms they received this time and using them to actually take a step forward… but just how big was that step? Let’s take a closer look…


One of the first things that will strike you about this movie (assuming you’ve seen the other two entries in the series), is that the portrayals of Christians and atheists are considerably more nuanced. Let’s focus on the portrayal of the Christians first, because that is probably the starkest difference compared to the other films. The Christians in this film are considerably more unsure of themselves and Pastor Dave is even straight-up villainized by the film for most of its second half. When Dave starts a social media campaign to get public support for his cause, this causes an unintended harassment campaign against the university’s chancellor, Elsworth and his family, as he gets doxxed, receives harrassing phone calls, death threats and has his window smashed with a brick. This is an unfortunately realistic example of how Christians can be dicks and how they can cause evil without even intending it. I’m wondering if this was inspired by Christian ugliness that the filmmakers witnessed stemming from their own movies perhaps? To make matters even more complicated, Elsworth is explicitly portrayed as a good friend of Dave’s, and possibly even a Christian too. This doxxing causes Elsworth to violently confront Dave, but the Pastor refuses to relent to help his friend.

Dave just becomes more of a mess from there. Adam texts him anonymously, hoping that Dave will forgive him for starting the fire. Instead, Dave confronts Adam, accosts him, pushes away a security guard and makes a huge stink which is caught on film and tanks his public reputation, but leads to Adam’s arrest… and we’re definitely meant to agree that Dave did the wrong thing here. Again, these should be obvious, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is agreeing with common sense is just so strange to me, they’ve conditioned me to expect the worst. Adam’s girlfriend, Keaton, has been questioning her faith throughout the entire film and it becomes obvious that it’s the actions of the Christians that are eroding that away. She confronts Dave, says that she’s seeing no mercy from the man of God and that Adam is “tired of feeling judged and rejected by the people who should be loving and accepting.” While the film is still clearly on the side of Christians, it at least is able to acknowledge that they’re often their own greatest enemy, rather than the external enemies that the other films leaned into.

The atheist characters are all given far more nuance that in the previous films as well. Dave’s brother Pearce is probably the most compelling character in the film. He has this playful “older brother” routine that he does with Dave in all their interactions, but it’s obvious that there is a tension due to some sort of major falling out with his family’s faith. That said, he helps Dave because they are family. Pearce even gets some digs in on Christians which ring true, such as when he accuses Dave of “playing the victim”. Everything comes to a head towards the end of the film when Dave chews out Pearce for leaving him to care for his parents alone. Pearce reveals that when he was struggling with his faith, no one took the time to help him to sort out his feelings, it left him feeling like no one cared. As a result, he lost his faith, which broke his parents’ hearts. The callousness and inaction of Christians bred tragedy which led to even more tragedies. By the end of the film, Pearce is still an atheist and this isn’t portrayed as some moral failing. He does take his childhood Bible with him, implying that he may go back to searching, but that’s left entirely up to the viewer to speculate.

The other major atheist character is Adam, who is immediately hostile to the church when he’s introduced. This might seem like old hat for God’s Not Dead, but it’s a bit of a misdirection as we are very much intended to sympathize with Adam. At the start of the film, Keaton breaks up with him for belittling her struggles over faith, which leads him to vandalize the church and then accidentally starts the fire when a thrown brick breaks a gas line. He is no Mark from the first film though, Adam is devastated by his part in this and immediately wants to turn himself in to the police. In fact, Keaton is the one who tells him not to for fear of getting into trouble. Later we find out that Adam is so hostile to religion because his mom was beaten by her dad and when she divorced him to get away, the church called her a sinner for it. Once again, we’re given an admission that Christians are the monsters sometimes and that the “rules” aren’t nearly as black and white as some people claim. That said, the pattern with Adam and Pearce is that they are atheists because the church pushed them away from faith, rather than because they have a logical foundation for their belief. Keaton supports this idea when she says that “the whole world knows what the church is against, but it’s getting harder and harder to know what it’s for.” Their experiences certainly don’t represent all atheists or people who fall away from the church, so I’m not sure that the filmmakers “get it” yet – they still don’t seem to understand that the things that the church fights so hard for (eg, homophobia) run counter to the things that it’s supposed to be all about (eg, loving your neighbour). Still, the non-Christian characters are still miles better than anything in the previous two films.

The other non-believing characters are treated in a similarly, mostly-reasonable manner. For example, the university board members actually have a pretty legitimate reason for why they want the church off of the campus – the church was there when the university was founded, but times have changed and now there is an issue of favouring one religion over all the others. That’s a textbook example of Christian “persecution” which is actually just treating them the same way that they would any other religious group. Furthermore, Dave’s arrest had been drawing unfavourable attention and the fire showed that there was violence starting to be committed over the building’s presence on campus. There are even some discussions about whether they might just keep the church on campus for historic reasons, but they decide that it’s better to build a student centre in the long-term. There’s no moustache-twirling, sneering, villainous monologue about how they’re going to kill God this time, they just have a very legitimate concern about favouring Christians over all the other faiths on campus (for an example of why this is reasonable and relevant, take a look at how Christians respond whenever the Church of Satan does anything). On a similar note, it’s also worth pointing out that the conspiracy theorizing of the previous film is mostly gone. In addition to the reasonable motives of the board, Pastor Dave is released before we’re even two minutes into the film because, the franchise has realized, there’s absolutely no reason for them to even arrest him in the first place. This should be obvious to everyone, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is acknowledging it as well goes to show just how different these films has become off the bat.

That said, the film does have some weird, lingering issues when it comes to its non-Christian characters. Early on we have a scene with Keaton and Adam hanging out with their friend Teo and his girlfriend. Teo leads the conversation, chatting about the Mandela Effect at length, which he equates to being as legitimate as the idea of Jesus walking on water. It’s a weird scene, because it’s either completely pointless, or the film is trying to say that the things that non-Christians believe are equally as ridiculous as any supernatural belief in Christianity… except that the Mandela Effect is not in any way a serious scientific belief, so I’m not sure why they had this scene at all. Furthermore, the non-Christian characters specifically get set off whenever Dave says that he believes in “one truth”, which suggests that the filmmakers clearly still believe that non-believers have some sort of knee-jerk hostility to Christians.

In addition to providing more nuance for the atheists and Christian characters, A Light in Darkness also erodes much of the persecution complex that the previous films were cultivating. The acknowledgements that Christians cause issues as well goes some way to establishing this. There is also one famous scene near the end of the film which makes this most starkly clear, where Dave speaks with Pastor Roland at a local, predominantly-black church:

Dave: “What’s important is that Christians stop rolling over all the time, when is it our right to fight? I’m tired of being pushed around. I’m tired of turning the other cheek. […] I’m just saying that I think it’s time that Christians stand up for themselves.” 

Roland: “People were drawn to Jesus because of his love, his patience and kindness. He managed to preach the truth without losing himself in the bargain. He was gentle with the meek and hard as a rock with the arrogant. And when he talked to the foolish, he was patient and never became a fool himself. And he was never proud David.” 

Dave: “This has nothing to do with pride, Roland. And no offence, but maybe you’d understand a little better if you were the one being attacked.” 

Roland: “Brother who do you think you’re talking to? I’m a black preacher in the deep south. I could build you a church with all the bricks been thrown through my windows. […] We cannot respond to hate with more hate. And don’t forget: we are called to be a light in the darkness.”

The message seems clear, even if Dave doesn’t necessarily “get” it at the time: black people have been persecuted for centuries and when the first sign of trouble comes to evangelicals they act like they have a monopoly on suffering. The fact that this film’s title is dropped in this exchange is also proof that this is one of the film’s fundamental messages, and honestly it’s a pretty damn good one. Hearing Pastor Roland talking about not responding to hate with more hate resonates far more effectively than the heavy-handed equating of Grace to Martin Luther King Jr in the previous film. This is also reflected on the God’s Not Dead blog where, after the second film came out, suddenly the tone changed from sensationalist and combative to calm and reflective.

For all the good steps that A Light in Darkness has taken, it still has some major issues gnawing away at it. I’ve alluded a few times now that the filmmakers still don’t quite understand what they were wrong about in the previous two films and, while I give them credit for trying to fix their problems, I can’t ignore how their lingering issues taint this film’s attempts at change. The proof of this is found in this film’s cameos. The only Christian celebrity cameo comes from the Newsboys, who make a very brief appearance on a news program where they make this nonsense metaphor about the symbology of the cross which doesn’t really add anything to the film. Despite this film’s efforts to step up their Christian message, the two main cameos in this film come from the conservative world: Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, and Judge Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News personality. If you have no idea who these people are then you might take this movie’s efforts to improve Christian and non-believers’ relations at face value. However, if you do know them, it undermines this movie’s efforts entirely because they are “two of the most aggressive and combative voices imaginable” and yet are portrayed as the voices of reason throughout the film. The AV Club review of this movie sums the situation up well:

“Frustrated Dave might well be paraphrasing Loesch’s video from last April, where she ranted against Trump protesters who “smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding […] The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” When Loesch appears in the film, it’s to pull a “so much for the tolerant left” line in flagging the university’s decision. Later, Judge Jeanine gets to voice the film’s moral: “It’s a sign of the time: everybody’s yelling, nobody’s listening.” What she means is that the left is yelling and not listening to the right”.

The fact that Judge Jeanine is the one saying the film’s other moral stands in stark contrast to what Pastor Roland was saying, which puts this film into a major identity crisis. On the one hand, we have a legitimate effort to bring people together, to portray Christians and non-believers in a more respectful and realistic light and to urge its audience to be less divided. However, on the other hand, we have a film which is still in bed with American far right activists and portrays them as being far more reasonable than they are without any sort of irony. The film makes this even more embarrassing during an exchange between Pearce and Josh. Josh says that he was studying to be a civil rights lawyer and Pearce says that he didn’t strike him as a liberal. Josh replies that “I don’t think standing up for the oppressed is exclusive to a political agenda” and that “my beliefs are the foundation of change” because all humans are made in the image of God. He then lets out the ultimate stinker of a line when he says that “Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior”… whoo boy. What “oppressed people” are you referring to Josh? Are you in favour of the rights of homosexuals? It should be obvious to anyone watching that evangelicals don’t have a good history of standing up for the oppressed, for even being “social justice warriors” and that conservatism is by its very nature uninterested in the rights of minorities. It’s one thing to make the not untrue statement that Jesus supported social justice, but it’s another to say that evangelicals are a force for social justice. These are, after all, the people who voted in, and continue to support, Trump in spite of everything that they profess to hold good and moral.

Combine all of this with the film’s ending, where Dave sacrifices his crusade for the church in order to stop both sides from fighting with one another, and we’ve got a conclusion which seems to run counter to the message that the film had been building towards. “Let’s stop shouting at each other and start listening. It’s the only way that things will get better” could come across as a legitimate call for Christian peacemaking in a time when the country is divided. However, by putting their message into the mouths of out-of-character conservative activists, I have a hard time seeing the film’s ultimate intent as anything but the following: after eight years of Obama, evangelical get their own candidate into power, decide that there’s no reason for anyone to legitimately protest now and are just trying to shut down all opposing views. After all, “stop shouting, start listening” suggests that the people you’re shouting down have something legitimate to say, which is hard to justify when you consider the surge in racist and nationalist movements, or that America is drawing itself dangerously close to fascism.

A Light in Darkness is a confused film. It’s a bit dull at times, but I was actually enjoying myself for the most part. There are moments that I legitimately liked quite a bit, particularly the shot where Dave prays and the church around him melts away into a view of space, getting across the idea of God’s presence without requiring words. It’s the first time in this series that God appears and is actually a loving deity for once, giving guidance to a lost and grieving soul. However, as I have said at length, the filmmakers’ refusal to break from their right-wing associations completely undermines the sincerity of the film’s message. This has led to some very polarizing reviews from audiences, with some fans of the other films disliking it for not being “inspiring” enough, while others appreciated the strides the film took to improve the series. For my own part, I feel like A Light in Darkness is just short of being a truly good film. I never would have expected to say this, but it’s almost too bad that we’re probably not going to get a fourth film – I’m extremely curious to see how the franchise would have evolved given one more try. Oh well, hopefully Pure Flix doesn’t backslide after this film’s tepid reception.

5/10

And here is my final ranking of these films:
1) God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness – 5/10
2) God’s Not Dead – 4/10
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – 2/10

Thanks for tuning in for another retrospective series! This one was a bit more torturous than the others just due to the films involved, but I always love writing them. Until next time!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry, we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, the succinctly-titled God’s Not Dead 2 (although I think we all know that it should have been called God’s Still Not Dead, c’mon guys!). After the commercial success of the first film, a sequel was basically guaranteed. However, would the filmmakers be able to overcome their insulting depictions of Christians and non-Christians this time? Read on to find out…

…eh, I don’t really like this poster much. I mean, it’s fine, it gets across the point of the film, but I preferred the more minimalist design of the original.

Considering that God’s Not Dead put Pure Flix on the map and raked in more than thirty times its budget in theaters alone, a sequel was a virtual certainty and was quickly announced by the studio. After the success of the first film, the studio was able to tap some higher-profile actors to fill the main parts, most-notably Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as the film’s leading lady. Also filling out the main cast were Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Pat Boone and Ray Wise as the mustache-twirling antagonist, in addition to a few returning cast members from the first film (most notably, producer David A. R. White as Pastor Dave). The first film’s success also meant that Pure Flix was able to get some Christian public figures to appear as well, including Lee Strobel (who had been name-dropped in the first film), J. Warner Wallace and Mike Huckabee.

As for the making of God’s Not Dead 2, I’ve been having trouble finding really interesting information about the making of the film and I don’t want to speculate too much, so take the next part with a bit of salt. Unlike the first film, there isn’t as much information about what actually inspired God’s Not Dead 2. However, considering the content of this movie, I would not be surprised if Pure Flix’s association with the Alliance Defending Freedom played a major role in the creation of this film, which is further evidenced by ads for the ADF in the end credits and on the movie’s website. As Sean Paul Murphy had said previously, Pure Flix’s audience were growing more interested in films with political agendas rather than simply “Christian” films.

It’s also worth noting that the filmmakers were clearly very aware of the backlash that the first film had inspired from atheists. Responding to claims that the God’s Not Dead films misrepresent Christian persecution, David A. R. White told The Blaze “It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? […] I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true.” I… what?

David… you know that people get annoyed by lies too… right? Are you so deep into the evangelical bubble that you can’t see anything else? Sigh… I think I’m starting to understand why the “logical” arguments in these films are so unconvincing.

The story of God’s Not Dead 2 picks up a few months after the last film ended and follows a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley. One of Grace’s students, Brooke, comes to Grace for advice because her brother has recently died and she doesn’t know how to cope with the loss. Grace confides that she trusts in Jesus, which helps to prompt Brooke to explore Christianity after she discovers a Bible that her brother had kept hidden. Brooke then asks a question in class about the non-violent protests of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, relating them to Jesus, which Grace answers and explains. However, one of her students reports her for doing so, which prompts the school board to try to fire Grace. Grace is represented by a young, non-Christian lawyer named Tom Endler who tries to get her to stand down and concede to an apology. Grace refuses because she believes that she did nothing wrong. Brooke’s parents are then approached by Pete Kane of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants to represent them in suing Grace with the explicit intent of stamping out Christianity in America once and for all.

Grace is then put on trial for violation of the separation of church and state, with Pastor Dave managing to end up on the jury for the case. Tom mounts a defence by arguing for the historical authenticity of Jesus with supposed “experts” Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace showing up to explain as much. Brooke is eventually brought in by Tom and Grace to testify, but she ends up giving further evidence to the ACLU’s case by revealing that Grace had spoken to her about Jesus outside of school. Everything’s looking grim for Grace when Tom comes up with a baffling final gambit, putting Grace on the stand as a hostile witness and badgering her to tears about her faith, saying that they’re going to silence, fine and jail all the Christians. Somehow, this causes the jury to rule in her favour, much to the embarrassment of the ACLU. After the credits, Pastor Dave is arrested for not handing over sermon transcripts earlier in the film.

As you can probably tell from the plot summary, God’s Not Dead 2 ditches the previous film’s interconnected storylines in favour of one main plot. There are still a couple subplots, but these are given far less prominence than in the first film and all tie directly into the main plot. This, honestly, is probably to the story’s overall betterment, as I did suggest previously that God’s Not Dead could have used some stronger focus overall. Honestly, in a lot of ways God’s Not Dead 2 is an improved sequel – the production values are a bit better, the performances are all good across the board, the story’s a bit more focused and the scope and stakes get raised enough that this doesn’t just feel like a straight rehash of the first film. There were also some subplots that I thought were legitimately really good – basically everything revolving around Martin (Paul Kwo, reprising his role from the first film) is great as we witness him grow from an awkward and excited young Christian to one who is resolved to preach, even when it costs him the respect of his family. I also found elements of Amy’s subplot (Trisha LaFache, also reprising her role) to be interesting, as she grapples with her faith after her cancer goes into remission. Unfortunately this intriguing aspect of her character gets dropped pretty quickly and, while Amy remains in the film for quite some time thereafter, she doesn’t really add anything interesting in the rest of her screentime.

The only problem is… well, God’s Not Dead 2 sets itself up in such a manner that an objective and detached review of it is basically impossible. Like I just said, technically this film has the pieces needed to be better than the first movie. Story-wise, I found its courtroom melodrama and proselytizing duller than the first movie’s classroom drama, despite the overall tighter focus of the sequel. I think this simply comes down to the rivalry of Josh and Radisson, which was far more interesting than Grace and Tom’s flat characterization and Pete’s scenery chewing. That’s not really the main issue though, as it’s the actual themes of the story that lets this movie down so hard and make the two hour runtime into even more of a slog. Once again, the filmmakers ideological bent is on full display, but this time they really lean into it, to the point where it straight-up ruins their movie from conception. The plot is just plain dumb and stretches credulity to the breaking point. That said, if you’re a part of the conservative evangelical bubble then you might not even notice that there is an ideological bent to this movie at all – or worse, you might even feel validated by it.

Let’s just get right into the portrayal of atheists in this film. It’s clear that the filmmakers were aware of the atheist backlash that the first film inspired, but it seems that it only inspired them to double-down, because God’s Not Dead 2 is way more offensive to atheists than the previous film was. This is evident from the very first scene of the movie through the portrayal of Brooke’s parents, Richard and Catherine. Brooke is clearly struggling and withdrawn because of the death of her brother, but her parents are totally over it and don’t seem to care anymore at all. Right off the bat this is a step beyond anything that the filmmakers had portrayed in the previous film. They imply once again that atheists are incapable of love, but now they also seem to believe that they can’t even care about their own children!? I was watching and wondering if this might just be a coping mechanism for Brooke’s parents, but no, this movie straight-up implies that atheist parents don’t give a shit about their own kids. I’ll be honest, I was floored by the very start of this film, it was unbelievable that the people behind this film would think this of atheists. I mean, as I have reiterated multiple times now, they were aware that atheists were offended by how they were portrayed in the first movie, so you’d think that the right move would be to be more careful in how you represent people going forward to make sure that there are no misunderstandings, right? Well, we’re getting the message loud and clear here, the filmmakers clearly think that atheists are heartless automatons. I had thought that the filmmakers just sucked at portraying non-Christians in the previous film, but here we get to see right off the bat that everyone involved in the production of this movie is totally incapable of empathy. Brooke’s parents never get better throughout this movie. There is no sympathy from or for them. During the trial, Richard is more worked up about his daughter getting “preached to” than the fact that his own son died. Seriously, shouldn’t atheists mourn harder when someone they know and love dies? Hell, at the end of the last movie, we were supposed to think it a good thing that Pastor Dave and Jude were celebrating the death (and last-second conversion) of Radisson. Just… how could they be so lacking in empathy for people who have different views?

Also worth pointing out is Martin’s father who shows up for one brief, but important scene. After Martin converts to Christianity, his father arrives to take him back to China because he believes that Martin is disgracing his family and that Martin is throwing away his future and the sacrifices that his family has made for him. It isn’t really explained why he believes this, but I think that the audience is supposed to understand that China persecutes Christians and implies that this is the end-result of state-sponsored atheism. When Martin refuses to recant, his father slaps him (which now means the God’s Not Dead films are two for two when portraying non-Christians of other nationalities as violent degenerates, hooray!), disowns him and then immediately returns to China. In all honesty, this scene works far better than the domestic abuse sequence in the first film and could have maybe been an affecting scene if there had been any sort of reasoning given for Martin’s father to be so vehemently anti-Christian. Instead, it just comes across as more of the same “atheists are bad and hate Christians just because” message. Give me the God’s Not Dead movie about Martin going back to China to be a minister, that could actually be incredibly interesting if it was written well (although knowing this production team, I have my doubts).

The most prominent atheist character is Pete Kane of the ACLU. For what it’s worth, Ray Wise puts in a deliciously hammy performance, turning every line from Pete into a sneering, sinister proclamation that guarantees that you’ll at least be entertained when he’s on-screen. That said, the material he’s working with is just plain stupid. I’ll get to the fact that the ACLU are the villains in this movie later, but Pete Kane is meant to represent how dastardly and hateful the organization (apparently) is. From his very first scene, Pete is seen as eagerly relishing the chance to make an example out of Grace and to “prove once and for all that God is dead”. He’s not even subtle about it when he’s around Grace and Tom, telling them straight-up that “I hate what people like your client stand for and what they’re doing to our society”. Bloody hell, I know that there are militant atheists who talk like that, but this movie acts like they’re the status quo.

Of course, the film tries to make Pete out to be a hypocrite during the trial when he claims that “Christianity is not on trial here” in his opening statement, despite it being obvious to the audience that this is not the case. To hammer that home, he also makes a big fuss about not wanting to offend any Muslims in the court, dog whistling to the audience the idea that liberals are afraid of offending Islam but hate and attack Christianity. Basically, throughout this movie Pete grins gleefully any time something happens that negatively affects Christians, while looking exasperated any time someone in the defence acknowledges that it’s pretty much a settled fact that Jesus existed. Hell, he looks downright shocked when J. Warner Wallace reveals that he was an atheist and that “I’m a Christian because it’s evidentially true” (in your opinion, sure).

As cartoonishly evil as Pete Kane is, his characterization is echoed in a number of smaller atheist authority figure roles in this film, all of whom are totally hostile to Christians. Whenever the news media gets shown in the film, the newscaster goes on a tirade about how Grace and Christians are zealots, fundamentalists and that the only extremists we need to worry about are the hardcore Christians. This portrayal of the media just felt so weird to me because it has the tenor of a Fox News segment, but with right-wing talking points swapped out for insults that get thrown at conservative evangelicals. Maybe I just don’t know the American media and how sensational their reporting style is, but I feel like this might just be the filmmakers projecting their own media’s style and assuming that that’s how everyone does it.

In addition to the media, the entire school board is immediately against Grace (her union rep even says “What were you thinking?” when asked whether Grace said the “words of Jesus” in class). Principal Kinney is particularly villainous, giving Grace these over the top evil looks and during her testimony against Grace is almost as much of a mustache-twirler as Pete Kane. Kinney is also seen shutting down a student protest led by Brooke in an effort to further silence Christians (that the audience this movie was directed at would be trying to shut down student protests that disagree with their politics less than two years later gives a contemporary viewing some delicious retrospective irony). Meanwhile, when Pastor Dave refuses to hand over sermon transcripts to the prosecutor’s office, the officer overseeing this goes from being fairly casual and routine to something resembling a body snatcher. I’m not kidding, he stands up, stares and ominously asks Dave if he really wants to refuse to comply, before stating that “a nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.

Now before I get into the next section I need to write about the only sympathetic non-Christian character in the film, Tom. We’re never really given his opinion on faith at any point in this film, other than that he’s a “non-believer” at the time when he agrees to represent Grace. Surprisingly, we don’t even get a big conversion scene by the end, although it’s probably safe to assume that he is totally convinced by the pro-Christian arguments as the film, since the movie seems to think that they “proved the existence of Jesus Christ” as the ACLU puts it at the end. The thing about Tom is that he’s just doing his job without letting personal biases get in the way, which shouldn’t be that unusual but… well, this is God’s Not Dead 2 and it’s shocking whenever this series doesn’t imply that a non-Christian eats babies for breakfast.

Anyway, one of the strangest parts about the portrayal of atheists in this film (Tom aside) is that there’s this uniformity to their actions which suggests that the filmmakers seem to think that there’s some kind of enormous atheist conspiracy unfolding in America looking to silence all the Christians. How else can you explain the uniformity of the atheist characters’ hostility to the Christians, their unspoken agreements about what is “unacceptable”, their encroachment into Christians’ freedoms and their certainty that Grace is going to be destroyed from the outset? The way that this film’s plot gets kicked into motion even suggests conspiracy, as the second Grace mentions Jesus in class, a student secretly gets his phone out and texts… somebody about it (it’s unclear who, it could have been Obama himself for all we know), as if this was a surveillance state like North Korea. At worst, a student might mention that their teacher talked about Jesus in class, but odds are that absolutely none of the students would give a shit. Hell, I live in godless, heathen Canada and when I was in high school we had a history teacher throw on a VHS tape about how the Bible was useful for archaeologists – a couple of students in the class scoffed, but that was about it. I know that’s anecdotal, but c’mon filmmakers, do they really think that students would immediately rat her out?

The whole conspiracy angle of the film gets more obvious when the ACLU become involved, as even before Pete arrives the school board discusses how the ACLU has been waiting for a case like Grace’s for years, as it provides them with the opportunity they need to silence Christians for good. The choice of the ACLU as villains for this film, especially when painting them as hypocritical and evil bastards, is truly baffling and I can only think that it’s a result of the filmmakers’ ideological leanings and their association with the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ACLU often sticks up for the rights of LGBTQ people, access to abortion and the separation of church and state, which turns them into an obvious target for conservative evangelicals, despite the fact that the ACLU defends the rights of pretty much anyone, Christians included. To put it simply, “essentially all of [the ACLU’s] positions irritate social conservatives […] the ACLU supports free speech including the free expression of religion; what they oppose is government funding or lending official (or the perception of official) support to religious activities in violation of the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, the ACLU has defended the rights of religious bigots to espouse those views, although it does not condone the contents of their speech.” Interestingly, the ADF are totally absent in this film, as is any sort of public support for Grace (up until Brooke organizes a protest for her). Does anyone remember Kim Davis, and how her refusal to issue wedding licenses landed her support from public and political figures, such as Mike Huckabee (who shows up in this film to fellate the evangelical audience for a vote)? The film instead makes it seem like no one supports Christians in order to make it look like they’re a minority class.

 
 

Anyway, when the ACLU gets involved in the film, they sway Brooke’s parents to sue Grace by promising that “there is not an Ivy League admissions board that could resist giving Brooke a spot because she was involved in a landmark separation of church and state case”. This was another one of those moments that made my jaw drop at the audacity of this film. So the entire Ivy League is populated by militant atheists who only admit similarly-atheist students? Bloody hell, is it any wonder that evangelicals are accused of being anti-intellectual? Similarly, the prosecutor’s office demanding sermon transcripts is treated like this grand next step on the road to making Christianity illegal, the sort of thing that evangelicals always say is definitely coming. This scene is actually based on something that happened… but it feels like the writers totally jumped the gun, because “Houston mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed sermons from five churches in her city in an ill-advised reading of rules about churches, tax law, and politics. The subpoenas were rescinded a few months later, after widespread outcry and several lawsuits, as well as a national campaign to mail Bibles and sermon notes en masse to the Houston mayoral offices.” Simply put, they take an event that happened, but change the outcome to make it seem like the atheist conspiracy is all-powerful and overreaching in America and that the audience’s freedoms could be snuffed out any day.

This conspiracy theorizing is borderline-hypocritical when you consider that one of this film’s defences of the historical veracity of the gospels is that there wasn’t a conspiracy involved in their authorship. Their justification for this is that since there were too many witness involved, someone would slip up. It’s actually not a particularly great argument, since conspiracy isn’t exactly the issue. I’d definitely recommend diving into the history of the gospels and early church, but in short the text of the gospels we have today were all very likely second-hand accounts, would likely have been coloured somewhat by the burgeoning schools of thought within the young religion about who Jesus was and what he represented, and weren’t even necessarily meant to be what we would now consider as “historical” accounts. Anyway, this conspiracy defence seems odd when you consider that this film is throwing in its own atheist conspiracy theory, although the filmmakers would probably say that it’s self-evident when you look at all the “persecution” in America. I’ll just let Sister Rose Pacatte of the National Catholic Reporter comment on this aspect of God’s Not Dead 2: “the premise of both films is nothing more than politicized religion as a vehicle to feed conspiracy theories.” Ouch.

 
 

All of this feeds into the fact that God’s Not Dead 2 is explicitly a more political film than the first was. In his interview with The Blaze about the film, David A. R. White said that this film was “all about making an impact” and that it was an intentional move for the story to shift to the public square. It shouldn’t be surprising that this film was released in the middle of the 2016 presidential leadership race, with the aforementioned Mike Huckabee clearly making a cameo just to appeal to the evangelical vote. By portraying government overreach and painting all authority figures as openly hostile to Christians, the filmmakers also incentivize their audience to mobilize against these institutions in order to “take back America”. After all, Tom’s opening argument in the case is that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution or bill of rights, which seems to imply the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation that has morally eroded over time. Tom’s opening statement is a baffling argument which is only technically true, but the First Amendment makes it crystal clear that not only is separation of church and state enshrined within the law, but it was also a principle of the nation’s founders. Hell, if we’re going to be nitpicking constitutional amendments, then the Second Amendment is free game as well. This is another moment that just feels like the filmmakers won’t understand the people that they’re writing about, because arguing technicalities about church and state separation does not feel like the sort of thing that a non-Christian lawyer would engage in – rather, it sounds like the sort of weak argument an evangelical might espouse impotently to other evangelicals.

In the first film, there were plenty of characters who were atheists or hostile to Christians, but it was always framed as a personal and individual thing. In God’s Not Dead 2, this is reframed into being a political issue. The scene where Grace mentions Jesus in class does so in a manner which also correlates the message of Jesus with that of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. Taken by itself, this is a reasonable comparison to draw. However, the film also very explicitly wants us to see Grace and her situation throughout this film as being a parallel to Jesus (even having her echo the words of Jesus during his crucifixion, asking God if he has forsaken her), and therefore implies that the struggles Christians face in America are on the same level as the Indian independence and black civil rights movements. It should go without saying that this is unthinkably deluded and borderline insulting when you consider that they’re appropriating progressive icons to attempt to justify their conservatism – not to mention that only months after release this movie’s audience would, by and large, be voting for a man who was blatantly racist, xenophobic, authoritarian and immoral.

I also find it quite interesting that, for a movie which so blatantly proclaims the existence of God in its title, He is completely absent in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, the characters talk about God all the time, how good He is, how much of an impact He has on their lives, etc… but God doesn’t actually do anything in this movie. At least in God’s Not Dead, God was very clearly present in Dave and Jude’s storyline, even if it did end up portraying him as some sort of Final Destination murder-force. In comparison, Grace’s victory is portrayed as a surprise, but there isn’t any sense that it was some sort of miracle from God. The film also makes arguments about the historical existence of Jesus, but these are far less frequent and given less prominence within the story compared to Josh’s lectures. Furthermore, at least the first film seemed concerned about the fates of its non-Christian characters. In God’s Not Dead 2, the only people that convert are the ones who were immediately receptive to the Christians’ message, and the rest of the non-believers are nothing more than evil, unrepentant obstacles to “the truth”. As a result, God’s Not Dead 2 is arguably not really a “Christian” film in the sense that it’s not about the virtues of the faith – rather, it’s a political film about the imagined struggles of the American brand of evangelicalism.

Add it all up (the disingenuous portrayals of Christians and atheists, the conspiracy theorizing and the political rallying cries) and you have a film which puts the evangelical persecution complex on display greater than just about any other film out there. This also ties into this not really being a “Christian” film at all – after all, the conflict in the movie is entirely driven by the persecution that all of the Christian characters are subjected to by the rest of the world (Amy is the only exception, although her very minor crisis of faith is resolved the next time that we see her). Grace makes this clear in what is clearly intended to be the film’s core message: “I would rather stand with God and be judged by The World, than stand with The World and be judged by God” (“The World” in evangelical nomenclature meaning the necessarily sinful and immoral culture outside of Christianity which clashes with the “true” values of the Bible). This also applies to the numerous court cases listed in the film’s end credits, similarly to the first film. Naturally, the film’s audience takes the presentation of these cases at the filmmakers’ word, although if you look into them closer, it becomes clear that these cases revolve around Christians not understanding discrimination in business settings, Christians refusing their professional obligations as healthcare providers, or involve the filmmakers intentionally leaving out crucial details entirely to make the cases seem like persecution when they clearly aren’t (if you’re curious about all of the cases, The Friendly Atheist has a comprehensive rundown). You can see the persecution complex on full display on the God’s Not Dead website, which for years was documenting similarly one-sided accounts of Christian persecution throughout America, and had this exceptionally nasty, sneering, combative tone that it would apply to everything, even when celebrating the film’s release.

If you’ve checked out any of those links to the film’s blog, you might also have noticed how this movie constantly markets itself. God’s Not Dead 2 has more product placement than a Michael Bay or Adam Sandler movie, the only difference being that it’s exclusively advertising for products in the evangelical bubble (a bubble which, might I remind you, heavily commodifies religious adherence and expression). Just look at this list of really obvious plugs throughout this film:

  • We’ve got Lee Strobel showing up during the trial, is placed as an expert we should look up to, literally name-drops his books in a manner that doesn’t make sense within the scene, and then gives us a sales pitch about why he’s an authority on the historical existence of Jesus.
  • We’ve got J. Warner Wallace showing up in a similar manner, name dropping his books and then being poised as a credible expert with evidence that Jesus is God (which he never really gives us, so I guess you’ll have to buy his book).
  • We’ve got the Newsboys who show up to perform a new song and hope that it becomes another #1 hit after their success with the first film.
  • The end credits directly advertise for the Alliance Defending Freedom in the event that you feel persecuted for your faith.
  • In addition, the film advertises itself no less than 3 separate times during its ending, telling the audience to once again text “God’s not dead”, and even offers a handy, prebaked hashtag for everyone to send out on social media in order to generate buzz for the film. Bloody hell…
And, because this is the Christian media industry, this isn’t even the extent of this film’s monetization. In addition to the film itself, this movie has its own branded soundtrack, study guide (including a student version!), 40 day devotional, a novelization, t-shirts, audiobooks, church kits, a series of books based on the movies, even a goddamn silicon bracelet. Movies like this are their own mini-industries within the evangelical bubble, much like Star Wars is to the wider culture.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking to give this movie a final score that I could feel secure in awarding. It’s easy for this film’s audience to say that people who hated this film merely disagreed with its message (in fact, it’s probably playing into the filmmakers’ intent doing so). On the one hand, I have to give the film some points for being fairly professionally made, and Ray Wise is always entertaining to watch. However, the film refuses to present itself in an enjoyable way to anyone outside of a very narrow political worldview – in fact, it’s openly hostile to worldviews that don’t match the filmmakers’ own. As a result, I feel more than justified in saying that this film is straight-up trash which exists only to stoke evangelicals’ persecution complex and to cynically rake in cash and political fervour in doing so. I would rather watch a freaking Bibleman video than this movie again.

2/10

Bibleman, Bibleman! Does whatever a Bible can! This isn’t a joke, it’s real guys! Can’t afford sets? Proselytise! Look out! Here comes a Bibleman!

Be sure to tune in again soon as we come to the final entry in this series: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness!

Please follow and like us:

Retrospective: God’s Not Dead (2014)

It has been quite a while since my last Retrospectives series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of ideas for write-ups during the past several months (some more conventional than others), but I kept getting drawn back to the same series: the God’s Not Dead franchise. Hoo boy… Considering that this is a series rooted inextricably in ideological arguments, hopefully you can understand why it took me so long to get around to this one. To be upfront, I’ve heard a lot of commentary on this film, but I tried to not let it colour my opinions on the film too much going in – I wanted to see if there was any merit to all the vitriol this film has inspired. So strap in, we’re going to start this at the beginning, with 2014’s God’s Not Dead.

The film’s poster is decent, I have to admit. I could do without the crowd at the bottom, but there’s a certain evocative element to this design which I can’t deny (even symbolically, down to the black/white contrast), plus it makes sense for the film’s story… Good job, I guess.

God’s Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God’s Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.

That’s the official story at least. I can’t be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the “atheist professor” while growing up in the church. God’s Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God’s Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren’t similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.

God’s Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects – the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn’t even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.

The story of God’s Not Dead is structured in a manner similar to Paul Haggis’ Crash, with a number of characters’ narratives intersecting, and all centred on an overarching theme, in this case Christianity and faith. The main plot revolves around a student named Josh Wheaton who takes a philosophy class taught by the notoriously hostile Jeffery Radisson. Radisson tries to get everyone in the class to declare that “God is dead”, but Josh refuses and is forced to defend his position over the course of the next three lectures, while Radisson grows increasingly hostile at his defiance. Meanwhile, we’re treated to a few side-plots: Amy is a hostile liberal journalist who gets cancer, her boyfriend Mark is a psychopathic and self-interested businessman (there isn’t really any thrust to his scenes beyond that), his sister Mina is Radisson’s girlfriend (or wife maybe? It isn’t clear at all and I have heard conflicting answers) who is growing apart from him because she is a Christian, Ayisha is a secret Christian within a very traditional Muslim family, and Pastor Dave and Pastor Jude can’t get their car to start when they want to go on vacation (seriously, that last one is a subplot which gets a lot of screentime during this film).

Eventually, this all culminates in Josh winning the debate against Radisson, most of the atheist characters convert to Christianity and Radisson gets hit and killed by a car, being converted on his deathbed by Pastors Dave and Jude (and thereby justifying all the screentime they’ve had throughout the film on their seemingly pointless subplot). Everyone rocks out at a Newsboys concert and the film encourages everyone to advertise the film for them (again, seriously).

With the plot out of the way, let’s get to the positives for God’s Not Dead first. For the most part, this is a very competently-made film. The directing and production values are better than you’re probably expecting – it certain looks like an independent film, but not an amateur made-for-TV movie. The acting is also mostly solid across the board, with only Josh’s girlfriend putting in a clearly bad performance (although she is dispensed from the plot pretty early on, luckily).

Other than that though… hoo boy. I’m just going to get the technical issues out of the way first; the editing is really weird sometimes. For an early example, Radisson is handing out pieces of paper to his class to sign “God is dead” on, when the film suddenly cuts away to Pastors Dave and Jude arriving at the airport. This cut was made for seemingly no reason, and I can’t understand it because it deflates the tension of the classroom scene. The only justification is that at the end of their scene the pastors say “God is good”, which is then contrasted by Radisson saying “God is dead” before cutting back to the classroom, but this doesn’t justify that first, abrupt cut in the slightest. There are weird edits like that sprinkled throughout God’s Not Dead, in part due to its story structure. That said, the script is definitely the main issue in this film, and it brings down an otherwise competent production. I’ll get to the broader implications of the script later, but for now aside from the pastors and maybe Josh, the characters are, on the whole, very one- or two-dimensional at best, serving more as object lessons rather than fully-realized characters. Obviously, that is a major issue for a character drama like this. Furthermore, this film’s script is just plain dull for the most part, stretching itself thin over an almost 2 hour runtime. I recall that around the 40 minute mark I was feeling like the movie was starting to drag, and then I saw that there was still more than an hour left and I just thought “How!?!” Honestly, the film could have done better by focusing much more on the main plot, maybe building some tension by actually giving us some insight into Josh’s research (he just sort of shows up with his big presentations each time), and show us more of the strain that this stand was apparently putting on him (he loses his girlfriend due to ridiculous circumstances and Josh says that he is falling behind on his school work because of it, but we never really see how this is really weighing on him).

Still, God’s Not Dead would have probably just come and gone without a fanfare if that was all that was wrong with this film’s script, but I think we all know that that is far from the case. God’s Not Dead fails spectacularly in two main departments: its apologetics and its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians, both of which I feel are rooted in the filmmakers’ ideological bases. I feel like the filmmakers were expecting a negative reaction from the secular world when they made God’s Not Dead, but I do not think that they were expecting that the most vehement drubbings of the film would be from within the Christian world itself, due to these two major flaws.

Let’s start with the apologetics. Both Josh and the film itself are quite explicitly tasked with proving that God exists, but their arguments in favour of God are not particularly compelling. Josh presents three lectures which I’ll boil down simply:

  1. The Bible always contended that the universe didn’t always exist, whereas science assumed the universe had always existed until the Big Bang was discovered, implying that science shouldn’t be taken as an absolute. He also argues that something had to have caused that Big Bang to occur in the first place. When a student asks who created God, he says that that’s based on an assumption that God must be created.
  2. When faced with Stephen Hawking’s assertion that the universe created itself, Josh uses some quotes to undermine Hawking’s authority and suggest that since Hawking also said that philosophy was dead, taking him at his word would contradict Radisson’s entire career. He then says that evolution doesn’t prove where life came from and claims that in a cosmic sense, life and all of evolution has occurred very suddenly (that particular argument was just confusing when watching and, on review, makes no sense – it’s just plain wrong, evolutionary time isn’t measured on a cosmic scale, it’s measured on an… evolutionary scale).
  3. Josh argues that evil exists because of free will and that we can join God in heaven because He allows evil to exist temporarily (also very funny in this part, the filmmakers use a slide of The Creation of Adam by Michelangeo and airbrushed Adam’s dick off so as not to offend any prudish evangelicals in the audience). He argues that without God there are no moral absolutes, although Radisson would say that cheating on a test would be “wrong”. Josh quotes Dostoyevski, saying that “without God, everything is permissible”. Josh then makes the claim that “science has proven God’s existence” without any basis, and gets Radisson to admit that he hates God, to which Josh asks “how can you hate someone who doesn’t exist?”

I don’t really want to spend a lot of time breaking down these arguments (if you’re interested, there’s a good article on Psychology Today which does just that), but suffice to say that they don’t even come close to proving that God exists, despite Josh’s assertion otherwise. Most of his arguments are just turning atheistic arguments back at themselves or creating an intellectual uncertainty that an individual could choose to fit God into. At best, his arguments convey that we don’t know where life came from, so if you want to believe in God then that’s your choice, but that’s still a failing grade when your stated task is to prove the existence of God. Even worse, while Josh could conceivably make a case that God exists in general, he instead makes his task basically impossible by immediately restricting himself to proving the existence of his own Judeo-Christian God. This results in quite a few potential objections that could have been made towards Josh, but are never brought up, such as that his argument over evolutionary leaps sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to justify the creation narrative, of which there is absolutely no evidence. It’s clear that the filmmakers did some apologetics research (there’s even someone credited with this in the film crew), but I question whether they put the film’s claims up against real philosophers or academics. If they did, then it certainly does not come across in the film, because the arguments are clearly weak. All that said, considering that this film is clearly directed towards the evangelical bubble, it’s expecting its audience to already have formed the same conclusion as the filmmakers, meaning that the need for strong proof is basically non-existent.

The other big issue with God’s Not Dead‘s script is its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians. Let’s start with the Christians: they’re all portrayed as intelligent, respectful, happy, even-tempered people which everyone should aspire to be like, from the applauded heroism of Josh, to Ayisha’s faith in the face of persecution, to the eternal optimism of Dave and Jude. The one exception to this is Josh’s girlfriend, Kara – she is set up as someone who is a Christian, but when Josh decides to stand up for his faith she constantly orders him to just lie and sign the paper. She’s also a total idiot: she picked a crappier school in order to be with him, she has the next 50 years of their life together mapped out and him failing this philosophy class is enough to derail the whole plan. Kara is an awful, stupid shrew of a character who only exists to up the stakes for Josh when she breaks up with him (although considering how he reacts, they weren’t going to last 50 more years anyway) and to contrast against the “virtuousness” of Josh. I’d argue that, based on the way Kara is written, we’re meant to her as”lukewarm” or “not a real Christian”, since she does not give God priority in her life.

In contrast, let’s look at our atheist characters… individually, because holy crap is there a lot to say about all of them. Let’s start with Mark, played by ex-Superman Dean Cain – Mark is an unabashed, self-described asshole businessman who only cares about making himself better off. In his introduction, he won’t even give directions to his girlfriend unless she will do something for him in return (I keep having to make this same aside throughout this review, but again, seriously). Even when his girlfriend tells him that she has cancer, he accuses her of “breaking our deal” that their relationship is just about getting something out of each other for personal reasons, and then immediately breaks up with her because a cancer-striken girlfriend is a total drag. Oh, and he also has a mother with dementia who he refuses to see because she won’t even remember that he was there. And to put a cherry on top of it all, it is very much implied that Mark is the one who hits Radisson with his car and then leaves him to die. Mark is a deplorable, selfish, unsatisfied, loveless person who is very clearly meant to be the object lesson for Josh’s assertion that “without God anything is permissible”. Put simply, Mark is meant to represent the fundamentalist idea that atheists are amoral (it’s a pervasive enough idea that even atheists tend to think it’s true), but is such a cartoonish dick that you have to wonder if the filmmakers really think that there’s anyone like this. Look, I shouldn’t have to say that being religious doesn’t make you a moral person any more than being an atheist makes you amoral. In fact, if the filmmakers had done some actual philosophy research, they would have known that ethics and morality are an entire school of thought in their own right which doesn’t require a religious background.

Next we’ll look at Amy, Mark’s girlfriend who is a gotcha journalist and blogger. Amy is clearly intended to be a left-leaning character, although thinly drawn and from the perspective of someone who obviously doesn’t understand why a leftist might legitimately hold those kinds of beliefs. This is shown early on when Amy ambushes… sigh… Willie Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) and his wife. Her interview questions consist of the following: does he hunt (duh), what gives him the moral right to maim animals (“I don’t maim ’em, I kill em!”) and what does he say to people who are offended that he prays on his TV show (he shuts her down with Bible verses). Naturally, Willie throws out some way-too-eloquent-to-be-real answers and Amy doesn’t even respond or react to them with her own questions or follow-up. Look, obviously there are anti-hunting people, just like there are people who don’t want to see prayer on TV, but these are definitely a very small minority – most reasonable people don’t really give a shit about either. Now, what if Amy had been upfront about the sorts of things that actually rile people up about the faith of the Duck Dynasty crew, the sorts of things that a real journalist would probably be interested in capturing in an interview? Would it have seemed like the secular world is just targeting people of faith unjustly? Would his rebuttals have seemed to reasonable when he’s trying to explain that he doesn’t hate gay people? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, Amy gets cancer out of nowhere and spends most of the film grappling this grim reality after Mark dumps her. By the end she’s back to her old tricks, sneaking into the green room with the Newsboys before a concert and asking the band “How can you sing about God and Jesus as if they’re real?” Umm, because they believe that they are, duh? The band then throws out some more very obviously scripted answers which cause Amy to break down and convert out of absolutely nowhere. If Mark is meant to represent the amorality of atheism, then Amy represents the liberal media. However, in addition to making Amy a really poor journalist in general, the filmmakers once again show that they don’t understand why Christianity is so often “targeted” by the media by not realizing that it is the beliefs associated with Christians which come under fire (such as homophobia or, ahem, anti-intellectualism), rather than belief itself.

Rounding out the main atheist cast is Jeffery Radisson, Josh’s philosophy professor, representative of the “liberal elite” in education… I have a ton of notes to get through on this one because he is so, so bad. Before we even meet him, Josh goes to enrol in his class and is discouraged from doing so because Radisson has such a history of anti-religious fervour that the entire school is well aware of it. Somehow Radisson has never been disciplined for being blatantly discriminatory, even though he starts every semester off by trying to get everyone to sign a paper to say that they agree that “God is dead” (the act of which, he reveals, is worth a whopping 30% of the students’ total grade!?! What kind of a bullshit class is this?). Radisson seems simultaneously shocked when Josh denies this, and smug in his belief that a first year philosophy student won’t be able to prove the existence of God.

As events unfold, a number of things about Radisson’s character become more and more clear to the viewer. First of all is that he is incredibly hostile and clearly nursing a personal grudge, which is truly apparent when he stalks and confronts Josh after class on a couple occasions and tells him that he’ll freaking destroy his future for defying him. Radisson ends up being straight-up dictatorial, wanting all his students to fall in line with what he believes and turning into a giant man-baby in the face of any sort of dissent. This is also demonstrated in Radisson’s relationship with Mina, a former student of his who he somehow fell in love with despite the fact that she is a Christian! During a faculty dinner party, Radisson constantly belittles Mina and her faith for no other reason than because he is a smug, misogynist dick, which the entire faculty goes along with (because they are all atheist monsters as well, even down to shark-like glances at Mina when she pipes up about her faith). When Mina (understandably) breaks up with him, Radisson says that he won’t accept or allow Mina to leave him, a move which obviously doesn’t work. I mean, who aside from a narcissist or a sociopath would think like that?

As Radisson’s life just falls to pieces, between Mina leaving him and Josh “beating” Radisson in each debate, it’s revealed that Radisson is such a militant atheist because when he was 12, his mother died of cancer. God didn’t answer his mother’s prayers or his, so he hates God for taking her away from him, a fact which proves to be the coup de grace in the final debate. This makes Radisson demonstrative of the infuriating fundamentalist belief that “there are no atheists”, since they can’t even conceive of the reasons why someone could logically and reasonably not believe in God. The end of the film seems to suggest that his experiences have caused Radisson to undergo a fundamental change in his life and he goes to try to reconnect with Mina before changing his life and becoming a better person. Just kidding about that last part, the filmmakers have him get hit by a freaking car and make a deathbed confession to Pastors Jude and David (justifying their role in the plot and implying that this was all part of God’s convoluted murder plan), rather than provide first aid to the severely injured man. It all makes Jude and David come across as callously perverse in a sense, as they say that this deathbed conversion is a cause for celebration – I mean, I understand their logic, but a dude just freaking died here.

Beyond all that, Radisson is just further proof that the scriptwriters don’t understand the kinds of people this movie is supposed to be portraying, nor did they bother to consult any. I doubt there’s any atheist philosophy teacher who hates God so much that he would avoid even discussing him. I mean, if I was in that class I would take the invitation to sign “God is dead” as a teaching tool to show the class that you’re not supposed to take anyone’s word for granted – this is a philosophy class after all, which is supposed to be about the art of solving problems using logic. Radisson also seems to hold quotes from scientists such as Stephen Hawking (even on subjects he is not accredited for such as theology and philosophy) to a level bordering on reverence. When Josh dares to challenge Hawking’s belief that the universe created itself, he scoffs at Josh’s insolence. It’s almost as if the scriptwriters believe that an atheist believes that science or scientists are inerrant on the same level that evangelicals hold their Bible. Even the philosophical quote that makes up the film’s title, “God is dead” from Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is botched in this film so badly that I had to look up to make sure that my interpretation of it wasn’t wrong (it wasn’t). Radisson claims that the phrase means that it is settled that God does not exist, nor has he never existed. Rather, this quote is tied to a very specific time and place – the advent of the Enlightenment and modernity at the turn of the 20th century had brought about social changes which were causing belief in God to plummet in the Western world. As a result, the concept of an “absolute moral reality” (God) was now meaningless, which would lead people into nihilism. As David Kyle Johnson puts it:

“Radisson doesn’t know what the phrase ‘God is dead’ means. […] He thinks it means that ‘God never existed in the first place.’ The phrase, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, means nothing of the sort and in fact has nothing to do with God’s existence. Instead, Nietzsche was trying to argue that belief in God no longer affected how people live their lives; specifically, God was no longer used as a moral compass or a source of meaning: If only Radisson, and the makers of the film, had bothered with a four second Google search.”

Oh and I would be totally remiss if I forgot to mention the worst subplot in the film, the one revolving around the only non-Christian religious character, Ayisha’s father, Misrab (is… is that intended to be a pun on miserable? Bloody hell…). From his introduction, Misrab comes across as controlling and traditionally conservative in his Islamic faith, most notably by forcing Ayisha to wear a niqab in public and questioning her when he sees someone make casual conversation. From her introduction Ayisha shows that she does not want to wear the niqab, taking it off whenever her father is not around to see her. Misrab comes across as very sinister from little more than the way that the camera frames himself and Ayisha. It is later revealed that Ayisha has secretly converted to Christianity when we see her listening to a sermon by… Franklin Graham!?! Oh what the literal fuck were the filmmakers thinking when they dropped that name bomb here? Could they be any more tone-deaf? Again, bloody hell, this is the worst subplot in the whole damn film. Anyway, Ayisha listens to Graham’s sermon and then her brother sneaks up on her for absolutely no reason, sees what she’s listening to and then tells Misrab. Misrab goes into a rage (presumably because she’s listening to other religions, but who knows, maybe he’s suitably pissed that she’s listening to Franklin bloody Graham) and begins angrily slapping Ayisha in an incredibly uncomfortable domestic abuse sequence that ends with him throwing her out onto the streets as both of them cry at the circumstances that led them to this outcome. As villainous and reprehensible as Misrab is, I can at least understand where he’s coming from here and see that what he’s doing is breaking his heart, rather than just being cartoonishly evil like the atheist characters. I realize that this sort of awful shit happens, but bloody hell, what does it say about the scriptwriters when the only non-white family in the whole movie is a stereotypical, misogynist, domestically abusive Muslim family, especially considering the sort of audience this film is supposed to be catering towards?

Part of the problem with Ayisha and Misrab’s subplot is that I question whether the scriptwriters really knew what they were doing with it, or whether they just threw it in for an example of Christian persecution and an opportunity for some serious melodrama. I feel like the main reason this was added to the movie was because most of Josh’s proofs of the existence of God could apply to Islam as well, so the filmmakers felt the need to show that they were just as wrong as the atheists. Islam ends up being a contrast to Christianity – whereas the Christians are free and don’t hate women, the Muslims come across as dangerously old-fashioned and violent. The thing is though, this subplot is disingenuously one-sided. For example, while the film portrays Islam as being stifling and oppressive to women, I have seen and heard numerous stories over the years of women who have left the Christian church because of the way that it treats women. The sort of Islamic tradition on display in God’s Not Dead is a clearly conservative one rooted in “sharia law”, which is not too far off from the sort of theocracy that American evangelicals seem to hypocritically push for. Furthermore, Misrab tries to comfort Ayisha early in the film, saying that:

“It’s hard living in their world and being a part of it. A world you can see but can’t touch. I know they seem happy, but know that when you look around at all these people, there is no one who worships God, not the way he deserves and demands to be worshipped. We must never forget who and what we are. That is the most important thing.”

That statement could have just as easily been given to, say, Paster David and no one would question it, but I’m not sure the filmmakers even realize how their depiction of Muslims in this film really isn’t far off from the reality of Christians. After all, how many LGBT youth have been disowned or thrown out of their houses by supposedly Christian families for coming out of the closet*? There’s just so much disingenuous cognitive dissonance in the portrayal of Christians and Muslims that it’s just as insulting as the characterization of atheists.

If I haven’t made it obvious, I feel like a lot of this film’s failings stem directly from the filmmakers’ skewed evangelical ideology. This is quite evident throughout the film as I have already stated, from the lack of understanding of basic philosophy (in a movie about a philosophy class), to the arguments convincing only to someone who already believes in them, to the insulting depictions of “the other”. It even shows up in the little moments throughout the film – at one point, Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of 80 students in Radisson’s class, Josh is the only one who has ever been to church. This is a preposterous estimate considering that nearly 80% of Americans are Christians, but it belies the belief shared by evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority (growing up in an evangelical household, I certainly believed this too). As Alissa Wilkinson said, “White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audience, are the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”. This is made all the more obvious by the end credits, which list a number of “examples” of Christian persecution in America… if you count business discrimination, largely revolving around refusing to serve homosexuals and providing health care for abortions, as “persecution”.

The filmmakers’ conservatism also plays into some of the film’s failings. Now, I don’t believe that there was an explicit intent to make God’s Not Dead into a piece of conservative propaganda, but the filmmakers very clearly fall on that side of the political spectrum, from the people they choose to credit onscreen (Lee Strobel, Franklin Graham, Willie Robertson, etc) and those that influenced the film off-screen (the Alliance Defending Freedom). This leads to such previously mentioned failings as having a Muslim character listening to Franklin Graham, to having Amy be a left-wing caricature. Sean Paul Murphy, a scriptwriter for Pure Flix, actually might have some insight into how politics were influencing the studio’s direction by the time God’s Not Dead was being produced:

“I grew up watching indie films of the 80s and 90s, those filmmakers managed to make art with small budgets because they had a passion for the medium. It’s not the budgets. It is a disregard for the art of filmmaking. And faith films will not get better until the audience demands something better, but they tend to evaluate films solely on the message itself. As for the counterproductive hatred of atheists and other non-believers, I tried to buck that trend. In Hidden Secrets, the first film produced by Pure Flix (but its second release), my co-writer and I sought to create a fuller, more sympathetic portrayal […]. Nowadays, however, the audience reward films that fight the Culture War for them.  It is easier to generate anger than compassion. I have no interest in that.”

As a result, we’ve got a film with aspirations to sway agnostics towards God, which claims that it has empirical evidence for His existence, but which fails to even understand the positions of those it is arguing against. Meanwhile, it draws in Christians with cameos from celebrities within the evangelical bubble, has a cross-promotion with Christian music label Inpop Records (which provided the film’s soundtrack, including the title song), sets up a blatantly cynical viral marketing campaign which encourages the audience to tell everyone to watch the film and provides an affirmation that everyone’s out to get the poor, innocent Christians. After all, the conflict in this film stems from a hostile atheist forcing his beliefs on a Christian, when that Christian was content not to force them on anyone.

In summation, God’s Not Dead is just a boring movie to watch, with a crappy script and extremely problematic portrayals of Christians and non-Christians at its core which undermine any sort of debate which they may have been trying to foster. It’s not even like I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the film (I do believe in God as well), it’s more the filmmakers wrongheaded notion that the world is suppressing Christianity that’s the issue. There is a line of thought on this film which claims that this film is about “being forced to accept that other people might believe something different”, or that the filmmakers hate atheists and relish in their suffering, but I don’t believe that is the intent. Their conception of them is, however, downright insulting, owing to a profound lack of imagination and empathy. When it comes down to it, I just don’t believe that evangelicals understand why it is that students tend to grow out of the church when they go off to school, and the answer is, quite simply, evangelicalism. When you create such a rigid, dogmatic and fragile structure which requires a denial of science and intellectualism, coupled with a belief that every word of the Bible is infalliable, and that this is the only way to be a true Christian, then of course they’re going to come to the conclusion that it’s all wrong. Maybe if they could actually step outside of the evangelical bubble, then perhaps they could have come up with some stronger arguments for why God is not dead**.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon when I cover the next entry in the series, God’s Not Dead 2!

*I’d recommend reading Unfair by John Shore for some heart-wrenching examples of this.
**Sigh, why did they call this “God’s not dead” anyway, considering the quote it’s named after is “God is dead”? The only thing I can think is that the producers assumed that there wouldn’t be enough audience members familiar with Nietzche’s quote, and therefore “God is not dead” would be less natural-sounding than “God’s not dead”. Again… doesn’t give much credit for the intelligence of your audience.

Please follow and like us:

The “Other” Cinematic Universes

When it comes to cinematic universes, we all know the story: Marvel’s only getting better as they go, DC has struggled to get any sort of consistent quality going, etc. However, with as much attention as these franchises get, it’s easy to forget that they’re not the only ones making their mark on the cinematic universe trend. There are actually quite a few current cinematic universes out there now, some several films deep, that have continued to grow without the attention and scrutiny that Marvel and DC seem to inspire. There are also many more on the way (keep an eye out for Hasbro, they seem to be pushing the hardest), but even after 10 years of Marvel dominance, most have failed to actually get underway. With that in mind, let’s look at the less-appreciated landscape of cinematic universes.

Note: I’m only going to be looking at franchises which are still ongoing. To determine if it constitutes a cinematic universe, I’m only looking at major releases (for all I know, The Asylum has a Mega Shark cinematic universe, but I’m sure as hell not going to go digging for turds like that). I’m also looking for franchises which aren’t just following a normal, linear progression from film to film. Spin-offs don’t necessarily constitute a cinematic universe either, although if there are multiple spin-off films in a franchise then it could apply. Oh, and goofy cameos and tongue-in-cheek jokes don’t count either (so no, Transformers and Friday the 13th aren’t in the same universe). Ultimately, it’s all down to my discretion. Got it? Great, let’s buckle in.

Honourable Mentions:

Star Wars (image source): Again, this is down to my discretion, but I don’t feel like Star Wars is quite at “cinematic universe” level yet, at least in the way that that label gets applied anyway. For the most part, Star Wars in the cinematic landscape consists of films which follow on from one another (whether as prequels or sequels). Even the spin-offs we’ve had in Rogue One and Solo were just prequels to the events of the main stories and given less prominence, so I’m struggling to really count these on the same level as, say, your average Marvel or DC solo film in their respective universes. Now, with the groundwork laid by The Last Jedi and Disney’s desire to milk this franchise forever (…those are mutually exclusive ideas, I swear), we might actually be getting to a point in the next couple of years when Star Wars is an interconnected universe of various divergent characters and storylines, but until then I have a hard time viewing it as more than a very epic saga.

Alien vs Predator (…vs Blade Runner???) – I’m only not counting this one because there has been basically no official word on whether these franchises still are, or ever were, truly linked in the first place. Basically every Alien and Predator film since has ignored the continuity established by the AVP movies, although they have never completely separated. To make matters even more confusing, the Alien prequels went and made it official that Blade Runner takes place in this universe as well. Considering that all of these separate franchises take place nearly 100 years apart from one another, it makes the continuity pliable, but it would be awesome if we could give AVP another shot at greatness.

The Tarantinoverse(s) – Yes, these films all technically take place in the same universe (click the image on the side to see the entire, complicated breakdown as to how), whether as actual events (Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, etc) or as films within that universe (Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn, Death Proof, etc). There are also a number of characters who are related (most notably, Vic Vega aka Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction). Here’s the thing though: none of these connections really matter. I mean, is Vincent affected in Pulp Fiction by Vic’s death? No, it’s just an easter egg for fans, and that’s what everything in the Tarantinoverse is – there’s no actual crossover or overarching plot (especially when you can just say “eh, it’s a movie in that universe!”), so I’m not counting it. Like I said, my discretion.

And so, let’s move onto the actual cinematic universes, shall we?

5) The Dark Universe – Is there any surprise that this is the worst of the current crop of cinematic universes? I mean, let’s look at the situation: Universal had the first successful cinematic universe back when they were releasing their classic monster films. For almost 20 years now they have been trying to recapture that success with failure after failure. The Mummy laid a decent groundwork for this, but then Van Helsing failed and scuppered that idea. Then they tried once again to set up this universe with The Wolfman, but it was a commercial and critical failure (although I love it personally and feel like its reception will improve over time).

After so many false starts, suddenly Marvel’s cinematic universe model began getting successful and Universal decided that they wanted a piece of that pie. As a result, Dracula: Untold was produced with the explicit intention of aping Marvel’s formula to finally get the Universal monsters on screen again. The resulting film was just plain dull – the source material didn’t fit a PG-13 summer action tentpole treatment and the resulting universe it was selling (PG-13 grimdark anti-heroes facing some nebulous ancient evil) was unappealing, so once again Universal was left in a lurch with a stillborn franchise.

With yet another failure under their belts, Universal almost immediately jettisoned Dracula: Untold from memory and then got to work on what was arguably the most seriously committed effort to reboot their monsters properties: The Dark Universe. Universal clearly went all-in this time, snatching up some major star power with Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeckell and Mr. Hyde, Javier Bardem as Frankenstien’s Monster, Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man and Tom Cruise as (ultimately) this universe’s version of The Mummy. Since The Mummy was the only reboot Universal had any success with, perhaps it is natural that they’d try to launch their universe with it, along with the consistent quality that comes along with Tom Cruise. Unfortunately, despite the huge marketing push and the big talk about how this was going to be Universal’s big shared universe, The Mummy proved to be a rare Tom Cruise misfire which single-handedly put the future of the entire franchise into question. Things have been quiet on The Dark Universe front, with many assuming it is dead since its two main producers have departed the project, but there have been some occasional rumblings to suggest we haven’t seen the last of it.

I feel like the issues with The Dark Universe were twofold. First of all, I don’t think that aping Marvel’s formula and attempting to reboot the Universal monsters as quasi-superheroes is ever going to work, nor is attempting to shoehorn all of these movies into the PG-13 summer action blockbuster template a good idea. I understand that a smaller, more traditional horror series would not make as much money if The Dark Universe had met its ambitions, but at least it would not be competing with the juggernauts, would be carving its own niche in the cinematic landscape and would be a considerably safer investment. Dracula: Untold had already failed in part because of this. It doesn’t matter how much money and star-power you throw at a project, if the concept is rotten at its core, then it is going to have a very hard time gaining traction.

Secondly, I feel like The Dark Universe was hamstrung from the start by its two main producers, Alex Kurtzman (also director of The Mummy) and Chris Morgan. Both are blockbuster scriptwriters and producers, with Kurtzman being known for the modern Star Trek films, the first two Transformers, Cowboys & Aliens and the Now You See Me franchise, and Chris Morgan being known for the Fast & Furious franchise, Wanted and 47 Ronin. They’re both involved in big, successful action franchises, but none of those franchises are really known for their great scripts. To make matters even worse, Guillermo del Toro was originally asked to helm The Dark Universe, which could have been incredible if Universal would allow him to lean into these characters’ horror origins. There is some hope for The Dark Universe still: it’s being rumoured that renowned horror-producer Jason Blum is being given the reins of the franchise. However, as it stands currently, The Dark Universe is little more than a cautionary tale in franchise building.

4) The Monsterverse – This is the universe that inspired this list, because while Legendary hasn’t been subtle about the fact that they want to bring Godzilla and King Kong together once again, they haven’t been hammering audiences with their world-building (unlike, say, The Mummy or Batman vs Superman). In fact, you could easily be forgiven for not realizing that Kong: Skull Island was a part of the same universe as Godzilla, outside of the subtle references to Monarch and the post-credits scene. I feel like this will probably be emphasized more by the end of the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but at least it’s refreshing that Legendary isn’t counting their chickens before they’ve hatched.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Monsterverse is that, like the Universal monsters, it’s building on a foundation that originated the shared universe concept in film in the first place. The Toho Godzilla films had their own colourful cast of monsters that would feature in each others’ films and the original Godzilla vs King Kong was one of the earliest and most notable major franchise crossover films (also, while I may not prefer the direction of this incarnation of Kong, I can’t deny that it’s a part of the character’s roots). Unlike the Universal Monsters, Legendary is succeeding by keeping the Monsterverse true to the roots which made them successful in the first place. Also, Legendary has been killing it in terms of direction and cinematography thus far – Kong: Skull Island is downright beautiful at times and Godzilla has some of my favourite direction of all time (seriously).

The Monsterverse has also had some pretty decent quality thus far, with both entries being quite fun, if disposable, entertainment. Granted, giant monsters are much easier to fit into a dumb action blockbuster mould, and neither Godzilla or Kong: Skull Island had much ambition to be anything other than that. Considering that they’re giant monster movies, they don’t really need to do much more, but some more interesting human characters would go a long way. Godzilla: King of the Monsters could theoretically improve this one aspect, but we’ll see. If Legendary can keep the quality up, the Monsterverse could easily move up a slot in this list.

3) Cloverfield Universe – This universe could have easily topped the list if not for the release of the absolutely putrid The Coverfield Paradox, which has soured the franchise’s name overnight and turned it into a punchline. That said, the quality of Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane can’t be denied, and the chance for more cool genre films with genuine surprise to them is too much of an allure to pass up after one misfire (even one as disastrous as Paradox).

Cloverfield was a very intriguing Hollywood experiment, forgoing a huge budget and star power in favour of an ingenious and mysterious alternate reality game (ARG) marketing campaign. I got caught up in the Cloverfield hype leading up to its release and had a lot of fun with the ARG, looking for clues and speculating on what the monster was going to be. Cloverfield was also one of the earliest modern found footage films and, I would argue, one of the best utilizations of the concept. Oh, and lest we forget, Cloverfield was also the film which brought us Matt Reeves (far and away one of the most ambitious and consistently good blockbuster directors in Hollywood). The film left plenty of unanswered questions and for years there were rumblings of a sequel, but nothing materialized (even though it looked like Super 8 was going to fulfil that promise).

Then, suddenly, franchise producer J.J. Abrams had an idea to use the Cloverfield name to promote smaller, quality genre films and loosely tie them together. The first film they tried this on was 10 Cloverfield Lane, which was originally a stand-alone film that underwent reshoots to make it fit into the concept of a “Cloverfield movie”. The film was announced quietly and with minimal marketing, relying on word of mouth, a couple teasers and a release date 3 months away to build hype. There was some talk about whether this strategy would work, but work it did – 10 Cloverfield Lane was another success for the franchise, in part because the film was so damn good that the cynical nature of its creation didn’t really matter. It didn’t really connect to the previous film in the franchise, but it didn’t need to: if Cloverfield was a signifier for a type of quality genre film that you could expect, then bring on more Cloverfield we all said.

Of course, it’s important to understand that this is the sort of goodwill which was paramount to the firestorm of hype that exploded upon announcement that the third Cloverfield film had secretly dropped on Netflix during the Super Bowl… and the resulting disappointment when it turned out that that film was utter shit. Like I said, when your shared universe is only loosely connected between films, Cloverfield becomes a mark of quality. Releasing a bad film taints that reputation. Worse, releasing an awful film throws all confidence in that franchise into the wind. Who knows, another Cloverfield film could be good, but it might take years of good films to get the bad taste of Paradox out of our mouths.

2) The Conjuring – The Conjuring universe is remarkable for a few reasons. One, it’s based primarily on the stories of one real-life family (although the veracity of those stories is suspect, naturally). Two, these are all full-on R-rated horror films, whose considerable success should put Universal’s attempts to reboot their monsters to shame. Three, this franchise’s shared universe it at a point where it’s becoming comparable to the MCU. Seriously, The Conjuring is the beating heart of this franchise, but Annabelle is almost on par in terms of box office success, and The Nun has just released with the franchise’s biggest opening yet, purely off the success of the character in The Conjuring 2.

In terms of quality, the films are generally solid. The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are both classic horror films in the vein of The Exorcist (I personally preferred The Conjuring 2), which do a good job of making the supernatural seem plausible and which are buoyed tremendously by solid direction from James Wan and the performances of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The spin-offs have been more of a mixed bag, with Annabelle: Creation being generally considered quite good, while Annabelle and The Nun have been met with a negative reception. That said, as spin-offs in an explicitly niche shared universe, they seem to still have an audience who are interested in them. With smaller budgets and this built-in audience, The Conjuring universe manages to find success by marketing to its own niche, rather than going for the mass audience and viewing $800 million as a failure, such as Justice League. If more studios would realize this and try to find other genre niches, we might have more successful shared universes out there.

1) X-Men – And finally we have the other, other superhero shared universe, the long-running X-Men universe. In fact, thanks to the Disney-20th Century Fox acquisition, this universe is almost certainly reaching its death-knell with upcoming release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, after 19 years of ups and downs.

Back before the MCU took the world by storm, X-Men was the superhero franchise of most consistent quality (next to Spider-man, anyway), and for a long time it was just that – a franchise, not a shared universe. But then the Wolverine spin-offs happened, which turned into a trilogy of its own with Origins, The Wolverine and Logan. And then Deadpool and Deadpool 2 were released, and suddenly X-Men had become the full-on cinematic universe it was so well-suited to become. Hell, you could even argue that the franchise’s main timeline fits in the shared universe idea, with two different eras of X-Men interacting in Days of Future Past (the best X-Men movie, in my opinion).

X-Men has had some major lows (The Last Stand and Origins), but it has also had considerable heights (X2DoFP, Logan, Deadpool) which have allowed it to succeed for so long, and it was always good to have a serious competitor to the MCU. Lest we forget that this shared universe has also gifted us with one of the best superhero castings of all time in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, not to mention the Ryan Renold’s Deadpool or Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. I don’t have high hopes for Dark Phoenix, but I can only hope that it does this franchise justice and allows it to go out on a high note.

Please follow and like us:

Conservatives and Pedophile Virtue Signalling

A few months ago I touched lightly upon the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, a historical mass hysteria which I find absolutely fascinating. The panic started from a single claim by a mother who insisted that her child was molested at a daycare facility, but quickly snowballed into hundreds of accusations across the world. As it turns out parents were so disturbed by the initial accusation that they worked themselves into a frenzy and coerced their children into saying that their daycare facilities were being run by pedophile satanists who had been secretly committing ritual murders and sexual assault for years. Of course, there wasn’t a shred of physical evidence to corroborate any of this, but lives, reputations and careers were destroyed without cause as a result of the twisted beliefs of the parents spreading the hysteria.

Now, let’s bring this back to the present. In the last month we’ve not only seen the unfolding of the James Gunn smear campaign by alt-right activists, but also the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy (followers of which believe that a high-ranking government official is leaking information about mass pedophile rings run by evil globalists) has reached the mainstream media. Indeed, if the last few weeks in news have brought anything to light, it’s that conservatives are obsessed with pedophilia. It’s not like this is a new thing either – everyone has those conservative friends and relatives who use their Facebook profiles to gleefully declare their desire to kill, castrate or prison-rape pedophiles. Furthermore, in the last few years we’ve had quite a few high profile examples of conservative activism which used the prevention of pedophilia as their primary justification:

  • Pizzagate was a loony conspiracy theory which claimed that Hillary Clinton was behind a (obviously non-existent) pedophile ring run out of a pizzeria. That theory would have been just a total joke to most of the world, until it began a harassment campaign against the pizzaria and its employees which climaxed when some utter moron burst into the pizzeria with an assault rifle, fired shots and demanded that the staff release all of the captive children. Bloody hell.
  • When the Ontario government updated the province’s sex education program, one of the main opposition points for social conservatives was that a man convicted for child pornography had been involved in drafting the curriculum. This, of course, led to some people claiming that he had designed the curriculum to enable easier grooming of future victims or that the references to masturbation or learning about proper terms for genitals were part of his sick jollies. Of course, social conservatives didn’t want those parts in the curriculum at all, but it made for a convenient scapegoat considering that they’re well aware that their own beliefs can’t be forced on society without some sort of flimsy excuse.
  • When trans rights were gaining more recognition within society just prior to the 2016 election, the big battleground for social conservatives involved which bathrooms that trans people would be allowed into. After all, they claimed, a pedophile can just claim that he identifies as a woman and then follow my daughter into the bathroom and stare at/or molest her! This is, of course, the sort of claim which has been levied at all groups gaining civil liberty, from blacks to homosexuals. It should hardly be surprising that it’s been dragged out again, along with violent transphobia.
  • And, on the funnier and smaller-scale side of things, concerned parents accused Pokemon Go of being a means for child predators to lure in victims, because at the time the news cycle was linking in everything with the game, so why not trot out their old favourite hysteria to go along with it?
Sigh… is anyone surprised that this was posted on a Facebook group called “Liberal Logic 101 aka Libtard Insanity V 2.0”?

It’s pretty clear that this is a topic that people on the right have been fixated on for decades now, but why is that the case? While this isn’t a problem in-and-of itself (obviously it’s a good thing to stand against child predators, no one is going to argue against that), why do they feel so willing to believe, once again, that there are cabals of child-rapists out there preying on children in the thousands? While I can’t claim to have the answer, I do have some thoughts and theories on this that I feel hold merit and are worth discussing.

One potential theory for why people on the right are so sensitive to pedophilia right now is that they are using it to unconsciously compensate for the blatant immorality of Trump and the alt-right. For what it’s worth, I don’t give this theory a ton of merit as I believe that it is rooted in an assumption that right-wingers don’t truly believe in the things they stand for (which sounds far too similar to me of the “there are no true atheists” fallacy in evangelical belief… seriously, click that link, it is infuriating), but it is worth bringing into the conversation at least as there are probably some grains of truth in the idea. I feel like it’s more accurate to say that, if there is any sort of moral compensation going on, then it would be for conservatives (particularly the sort which would be suckered into Pizzagate and QAnon) who view pedophiles as the “greater evil” and therefore anything Trump or the alt-right does to get rid of them is justified. We have seen this in the past few years, as anti-Islamic propaganda has shifted away from fear of immigrants spreading terrorism to fear of social and moral decay as they “invade”, supplant our culture and commit violence against our people* – therefore, so the argument goes, we must keep them out of our country. This is also paired with such colourfully hyperbolic language as “white genocide” or “rape gangs” to sell the idea. This was clearly one of the driving forces behind Brexit and we are seeing similar bouts of xenophobia all over Europe and North America. Your average right-winger will tell you that they don’t have an issue with Muslims, or homosexuals, or trans people – “but…” and so the other group’s civil freedom is curbed in the name of preventing a greater evil that they imagine will occur.

A far more compelling theory about why pedophilia is so prominent right now is, quite simply, that it is effective propaganda. As Emma Grey Ellis puts it:

“Alleging that your enemy preys upon children is an ancient propaganda tool that’s been used by everyone from medieval Catholics to the Soviet Union. It’s a powerful indictment because it trades on fundamental human fears. It’s designed to otherize the opposition and sabotage any sympathy you might have for them. It’s a ubiquitous tactic because it works. It’s easy to piece together how this strategy emerged: Someone figured out which crime their society viewed as most morally reprehensible and went with that—the unforgivable act that almost always involves kids.”

Honestly, this one is barely a theory and is more-or-less confirmed through multiple notable examples. Mike Cernovich seems to be the biggest fan of pedophilia out there: in addition to popularizing the Pizzagate conspiracy and dredging up the James Gunn tweets to get back at Gunn for anti-Trump sentiments, Cernovich also has been caught organizing falsified banners at protests to make it seem as if left-wing groups support pedophilia and NAMBLA, and then go viral with the misinformation campaign. Even more cynically, Cernovich made it seem as if they were protesting him by putting his name on the banner to drive even more traffic to himself, the stuck-up fuck. Of course, the average person who comes across one of these accusations isn’t going to know the source or the history of Cernovich, they will just see the propaganda. I would hope that they would be able to discern truth, clearly that is something that Cernovich preys upon with his frankly deplorable tactics.

Cernovich is not the end of it all though of course. As Jim Edwards put it, “my prediction is that we’re about to hear a lot more about fictitious ‘leftist pedophiles’ if Steve Bannon and Tommy Robinson are successful in setting up their international European far-right nationalist ‘Movement.’ What is less obvious is that the influential ultra-conservative pushers of this theory do not believe it themselves. They know it’s fake. They just like the outrage it causes.” Edwards also expounds upon the efforts of the alt-right to spread the idea that the end goal of leftists and identity politics is to make pedophilia socially acceptable, engaging in a slippery-slope fallacy to convince people to oppose social advance. A left-wing pedophile manifesto was also leaked onto the internet to considerable furor, until it turned out that it was another right-wing smear campaign meant to make conservatives outraged**. Oh, and let’s not forget that this isn’t all just innocent fun and games either – in addition to numerous harassment campaigns and at least one shooting linked to false pedophile ring accusations, someone has already committed murder because he believed that his father was one of these secret pedophiles. Bloody hell, people. Of course, Mike Cernovich, Alex Jones, and the rest of that lot continue to demonstrate their lack of any integrity by continuing to knowingly spread falsehoods regardless.

“Wait a second… Mr. Mime’s Pokemon #122, Sharpedo is #319… 1+2+2+3+1+9=18, the legal age of consent set down by God himself. It has been hiding in plain sight all this time, Pokemon are pedophiles. We should have known that a game about devilution and playing with your balls would be secretly grooming children! Pokemon Go? How about Pokemon, no!!!” -Alex Jones in the near future, probably, now that this image is on the Internet.

Clearly it makes sense for influencers and propagandists to spread false claim of pedophilia, but the question still remains – why does this topic resonate with the general right-wing audience so much? I mean, Mike Cernovich and his shitty contemporaries know what content is successful with their audiences, so the fact that they trot out knowingly false pedophilia accusations again and again suggests that they’re aware that their audience laps it up. Hell, even looking back at other examples in this article, the anti-pedophilia memes that conservative-types love have been being posted and shared for years without an organized effort behind them, and the Satanic Panic occurred organically, long before the Internet could allow people to even attempt to weaponize the movement. For this question, I have the following theory: social conservatives tend to be exceptionally prudish about sex, especially here in the west, and tend to focus on what they see as “degeneracy” in society. They also tend to advocate for the protection of their children from whatever they see as “corrupting influences”. With that in mind, it’s not hard to trace each of these back to a common “worst”: after all, pedophiles combine the worst sort of degeneracy along with abhorrent sex and the exploitation of children, so is it any wonder that they would be so sensitive to this topic? Furthermore, with groups such as homosexuals and trans people gaining acceptance and increasingly no longer being considered “degenerate”, the number of other targets that conservatives can acceptably go after are growing smaller.

It’s also fascinating to me how the Satanic Panic and the associated pedophilia hysteria occurred during the Reagan presidency, when America was undergoing a major conservative resurgence, coinciding with social changes which were clearly threatening to the concept of the family unit. Women were entering the workplace in greater numbers (look at Die Hard in that light and consider the perspectives of the writers and you’ll see how these social changes affected that story), divorce was up, religious adherence was dropping, etc. In some ways, the panic felt like a conservative backlash to the changes occurring in society. After all, daycares were the primary target, and they were only being used because mothers were no longer at home, and the Satanic element suggested a society which was being torn apart from the inside by anti-religious evil. Similarly, the modern, growing hysteria is growing off the back of comparable social change – gay rights, trans rights, expanding awareness of racism and identity politics, etc. If the pattern holds the same as last time, then this period that we’re in now is merely the backlash that comes before the tacit acceptance of the social issues of our time.

Naturally, there is a certain amount of partisan hypocrisy to this right-wing fixation. Roy Moore would be the most high-profile example, and while he did lose the election, it was bloody close. 48% of Alabamans who voted would rather have a sexual predator in office than a Democrat it seems. Trump himself has also been dogged with numerous examples of either purported or confirmed lurid behaviour towards underage girls, which doesn’t seem to phase his supporters in the slightest:

“An election year lawsuit, withdrawn at the end of 2016, alleged that he’d raped a 13-year-old girl at one of the ‘infamous sex parties held by billionaire and known pedophile Jeffrey Epstein,’ a longtime pal. A BBC documentary featured multiple people recalling his predatory attitude toward models as young as 17 during the 1980s and 1990s. Five women who had competed in the Miss Teen USA pageant said Trump walked into their dressing room unannounced while girls aged 15 and older were changing. His history of lecherous comments about his own daughter, Ivanka, are legendary — and he even allegedly asked if it was ‘wrong to be more sexually attracted to your own daughter than your wife’ when she was 13.”

Beyond these specific examples though, the things that conservatives stand for are often enabling an environment where children can be preyed upon. One criticism of the Ontario sex ed backlash was that not teaching your kids about proper consent will just make them ignorant and more easily exploited. Furthermore, as much as people like to harp on the mysterious stranger in a dark van or gangs of secret pedophiles, the truth is that the family itself is most often the place where a child predator operates. Religious institutions are also notorious for covering-up child sexual abuse – and I don’t just mean the Catholic church either. Part of the controversy with Josh Dugger’s sexual assaults was that his church helped to cover it up rather than take it to the authorities, which happens distressingly often. And then there’s the general hypocrisy of the right’s desire to see itself as the side which “defends the children”:

“Apart from standing idly by as kids are gunned down in underfunded public schools, the American right denies our youth their life-saving health care, and GOP administrations oversee higher infant mortality. Children are disproportionately at risk from the climate change that Republicans refuse to acknowledge and stand to inherit an inhospitable planet (if they get to exist at all). Every day, we see photos of children kidnapped and thrown in cages by the president’s beloved ICE, who feed them psychotropic drugs, and whose negligence may have killed a toddler this week. QAnon’s vision of an underground child slave economy mirrors what’s happening in plain sight, and that is no coincidence.”

If you’re looking for further hypocrisy, just one article ago I was reading comments by the anti-PC crowd who were bemoaning how SJWs took away their loli-porn.

As much as the right loves to throw around the term “virtue signalling“, how can I view this pedophilia obsession as anything other than that? Especially in light of all the hypocrisy I’ve listed and when nearly all of the causes that I’ve listed in this article, from James Gunn, to Pizzagate, to QAnon, to the pedophile’s manifesto, are literally fake news. At that point, it feels like the outrage is little more than virtue signalling to show how good the person sharing it is and how much better they are than the degenerates in society. Here’s a bit of news: no one is sticking up for child molesters***. At most, some people are trying to raise awareness that pedophilia is a treatable condition, but even then there isn’t any sympathy for the people who actually commit sexual assault against minors.

These are my thoughts and theories on why it seems like conservatives are so sensitive to pedophilia. Perhaps I’m missing the mark or overlooking some things, but I’m confident that I’m hitting on something close to the truth of the matter. As I said near the start of this article, ultimately there isn’t really anything wrong with conservatives being sensitive to this topic – obviously, it’s a serious issue and worthy of being given attention. However, my main concern is with how this sensitivity is becoming weaponized by people without a shred of integrity. I’ll end this article with a quote from Miles Klee, which sums up the worst case scenario I can see this weaponization going in:

“QAnon sets the stage for mass arrests leading directly into fascist rule. When one side is keeping kids in sex dungeons, the QAnon logic goes, they don’t deserve due process — and must be thwarted by any means necessary. Conversely, anyone convicted for child porn or sexual abuse of a minor is part of the conspiracy.”

*For the record, I saw the article here and it instantly resonated to me as bullshit – a thousand sexual assaults and the police didn’t do anything because they were “afraid of being called racists”? As far as I could see, this story was only being reported on in such colourful terms in right-wing tabloids such as the Sun and Daily Mail and I struggled to find anything of note from credible news sources. It’s almost as if, shocker, the xenophobic-types are churning out anti-Islamic propaganda.
**That link is actually quite interesting to see – you’ve got a lengthy original post by a conservative blogger breaking down how evil this pedophile manifesto is, and then at the end there are just a number of addendums as they come to realize that the document is fabricated, but they attempt to justify their outrage against liberals anyway. That just goes to show the power of both propaganda and hardline-partisanship.
***Unless they’re a Republican, heyo!!!

Please follow and like us: