Avengers: Age of Ultron

Ultron 1

As a sequel and a culmination of numerous Marvel movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron entertainingly combines heroes through banter and comradeship. However, Joss Whedon’s 2015 superhero film suffers from undeveloped characters and plotlines. The numerous jokes create a fun theater experience, but the movie often centers on narrative, conflict, and background information and thus detracts from its comedic aspects. With an abundant character list, multiple plotlines, and repeated actions, Age of Ultron sets up future movies yet fails as a standalone film.

While the movie presents some interesting characters, these newcomers lack thorough development. Although Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch appear early in the film and receive adequate background information, the siblings speak surprisingly little. Their roles contribute well to the theme of war versus slaughter, particularly since Quicksilver sacrifices himself to protect innocents. Unfortunately, that’s the only effect of his death: he solidifies the integrity of the Avengers without producing strong emotions for his absence. Quicksilver appears, slightly adds to the film’s action, supports the central theme of the movie, and vanishes. Instead of focusing on Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Ultron, the film sacrifices sympathy for these three characters at the expense of others.

Of all the characters introduced in the film, the most distracting and unnecessary hero is the Vision. Rather than using Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as new Avengers who tip the scales, Age of Ultron mistakenly includes the Vision as a god capable of destroying Ultron. After eliminating Ultron’s control over the Internet and melting his vibranium body, the Vision hardly appears in the climax. This absence proves awkward, for the strongest Avenger—an Infinity-Stone-fueled being with Superman-like powers—practically disappears from the most significant battle of the film. His inclusion feels not only underdeveloped but incomplete, as if the writers created the Vision and subsequently forgot him. His role should have been postponed to later movies, for he arrives too late and has too minor a function to belong in Age of Ultron.

The process of producing the Vision similarly adds new content to the film without fully justifying that content. Ultron initially follows a straightforward plan of finding vibranium to create a suit and meteor. When Ultron decides to upload himself to a human body, however, the film drifts from its central narrative. This subplot lacks logic and solely serves to produce the Vision. By creating a human body, Ultron devitalizes his previous efforts to obtain a vibranium suit. Perhaps the Infinity Stone needs a human rather than robotic host, yet this questions how the Stone powered the Chitauri Scepter. The quest for the body should be in a different movie—one which centers on the Vision rather than the titular Ultron.

Despite its narrative confusion, the body subplot results in the greatest action of the film. Ultron attempts to defend the body from half the Avengers team plus Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, illustrating the villain’s tremendous power. This couples nicely with the climax, juxtaposing Ultron’s defense of the body with the Avengers’ defense of the vibranium machine. Ironically, Ultron performs splendidly in the former battle but—like the Vision—rarely appears in the latter. By previously depicting Ultron’s strength, the film disappoints viewers during the climax. Perhaps the creators intended Ultron to transform from a puppet to a puppeteer, watching his soldiers die from a distance. However, Ultron controls his red-eyed suit as well as other robots throughout the film, making this explanation invalid. The movie builds a foundation for Ultron’s power yet later discards it, undermining the quest for the vibranium suit by withholding Ultron from the action. Ultron 2

The death of Ultron, on the other hand, lasts a satisfyingly long time, allowing conflict to persist despite presumed victories. Ultron survives not only in a weakened vibranium suit but within every robot, causing the meteor to descend and later providing a conversation between Ultron and the Vision. The preservation of his vibranium suit sets up the fulfilling moment in which Scarlet Witch rips out his metal heart.

Ultron’s death at the hands of Scarlet Witch concludes a fascinating relationship between the two characters. While Ultron (and the film) mostly ignores Quicksilver, he speaks often to Scarlet Witch. Ultron’s physical strength makes Quicksilver unnecessary, but Scarlet Witch acts as a mental weapon that tortures the Avengers “from the inside.” He appears to care for her beyond her abilities, though. While he attacks the original Avengers and murders Quicksilver without hesitation, Ultron hesitates when seeing Scarlet Witch. During their first moment of battle, Ultron says, “Please,” abandoning utter hatred for humanity to seek Scarlet Witch’s friendship. When Scarlet Witch approaches his dying body, Ultron states: “Wanda, if you stay here, you’ll die.” This warning highlights the affection Ultron holds for Scarlet Witch, showing she is the only human he cares for. Although these pleas may be considered manipulative and fake, Scarlet Witch’s determination to murder Ultron suggests otherwise. The audience—and most likely Ultron—recognizes her intention, yet Ultron pleads not for his life but for hers.

Ultron 3

The only other meaningful, developmental interactions are those between the Hulk and Black Widow. Romanoff has sexually teased other Avengers—Stark in Iron Man 2 and Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier—yet her relationship with Banner offers a more romantic arc. Though Banner—as well as the audience—initially questions their relationship, Captain America dismisses doubts over her affection for Banner. However, Romanoff’s kiss alters the dynamics of the relationship, suggesting she may express love simply to keep the Hulk on the team. Her ending conversation with Fury wonderfully establishes her affections as both romantic and manipulative. By asking if Fury knew “what would happen” when he sent her to recruit the Hulk, Romanoff confirms her growing affections but also reminds viewers that their relationship was founded on the Avengers’ desire for the Hulk, not for Banner. This complicates the possibility of their romance, illustrated perfectly when the Hulk cuts off Romanoff as she says: “I need you.” Romanoff needs the Hulk; because Banner wants to abandon the Hulk, he may never be able to love or trust Black Widow. Ultron 4

Apart from this fun romance, the film severely lacks character development. The Avengers’ conversations either consist of humor or conflict that quickly finds resolution. Only the battle between Iron Man and the Hulk shows danger for team members; no alternate conflicts truly threaten the stability of the team. The visions fabricated by Scarlet Witch wonderfully exasperate internal conflict but often waste screen time in the process. Her manipulation of the Hulk results in immediate, enjoyable action. The primary vision, reflected within Iron Man, efficiently launches narrative. Captain America, however, relives a past that fans have already seen. Although Thor’s illusion develops narrative, his vision is so confusing that even Thor requires clarification. Black Widow’s vision, despite adding some specifics to her history as a raised assassin, reveals nothing new about her character. Ultron 5

Age of Ultron establishes conflict through visions and strain within the team, yet these tensions come and go without changes in character. Rather than being humbled by the mistaken creation of Ultron, Stark and Banner create the Vision. Neither learn, making the narrative ridiculously repetitive rather than progressive. While the film utilizes minor characters well (Falcon, War Machine, and Maria Hill provide humor at the start and end of the movie without interrupting the narrative in between), major characters lack development. Quicksilver dies after surprisingly little screen time. Scarlet Witch holds relationships with Ultron and Quicksilver, but the inclusion of the Vision prevents significant development amongst the three villains. Parties, casual costumes, and domestic settings fit with the comedic comfort of the film, but death and conflict feel out of place in this narratively jumbled blockbuster.

The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game Series

Walking Dead 11

Because I’ve never played an interactive graphic adventure game, The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game Series is unique to my gaming experience. Unlike most zombie games, Walking Dead involves no open-world combat and little shooting. Action instead stems from player-made choices. By focusing on choice, forgiveness, and relationships, the first season of Walking Dead creates a wonderfully personal, emotional, involving story unique to the individual player.

Walking Dead possesses a fair amount of combat, but these violent moments appear in linear, movie-like sequences. This gameplay often follows one path, making combat simple and straightforward. (Nonetheless, these battles exemplify the struggle of combat through quick movements and the jamming of the Q key, keeping combat fairly difficult and engaging.) Gameplay instead focuses on choice. Intensity comes not from defending yourself but from choosing one of two friends to save. Rather than following a linear storyline and defeating enemy after enemy, Walking Dead presents multiple options. Every conversation forces Lee, the player-controlled protagonist, to choose a line of dialogue which will (more or less) sway the game’s direction. Choice causes hesitation, compelling players to consider actions and outcomes as the timer ticks.

Walking Dead 8

Options create a fascinating tension between Lee and his companions. Gameplay relies less on a linear story and more on the variable relationships between characters. Dialogue influences group dynamics, often forcing Lee to choose a side and/or act as peacekeeper. In several instances, Lee must determine to defend or abandon characters. Life, death, and concord become the player’s responsibility as they choose who to trust, who will trust them, and—most significantly—who remains in the group.

By centering story on relationships, the game wonderfully develops characters. Players act through Lee and thus understand his conflicts and choices. In almost every situation, my emotions mirrored Lee’s. In particular, I cared for Clementine and felt legitimate regret when disappointing her. After killing Danny and subsequently terrifying Clementine, I hated myself. Thus I determined to never kill an unarmed human again, causing me to spare Andy, Lilly, and even the Stranger (who Clementine killed instead). Walking Dead uses choice to establish empathy, making Lee and players face challenging decisions together.

Certainly, some moments are difficult to relate to. Having your arm chopped off is obviously much easier from behind a computer screen than in real life. For the most part, however, choices create sympathy through their emotional—rather than physical—attachment to Lee. Agency increases both control and concern for events, making me care about relationships, feel stressed when choosing sides, and want to preserve happiness for everyone—particularly Clementine. Because of its emotional, relatable action, I thoroughly enjoyed Walking Dead and its complicated decisions.

Because the player relates to Lee in the apocalypse, Lee’s past remains, for a time, mysterious and intriguing. The game maintains great suspense as the player wonders about Lee’s past, discovers his murder, and questions how thoroughly he regrets his crime. Initial ignorance causes some confusion, especially in the opening car ride with the police officer. While Lee and the officer understand the subject of the conversation, the player remains oblivious, making responses difficult. After that, however, the game slowly tells players of Lee’s past, effectively presenting the past and then forcing players to discuss it.

Despite its confusion, the conversation with the officer ends well by emphasizing the inherency of confusion in the game (and in life), stating: “You’ll have to learn to stop worrying about things you can’t control.” As with Lee’s murder, the game offers little opportunity in many situations. The player cannot undo Lee’s past, nor can they protect or satisfy everyone. This lack of control blurs the border between choice and necessity, right and wrong, murder and survival. Although Lee seeks a virtuous life, his past impedes the present. Lee questions whether his murder may be forgiven—as do the other characters. Distrust follows murder, creating tension within Lee’s group as players choose who to trust with their secret. Walking Dead forces players to control the present despite an uncontrollable past, powerfully questioning whether bad people can change.

Through a definite past, Walking Dead places players in the shoes of a killer. By doing so, the game wonderfully complicates all death and murder within the plot. Lee faces murderous foes and friends alike, giving players authority over death and forgiveness. Kenny and Lilly forgive Lee’s past; should the player similarly forgive their murders? The cannibals supposedly kill out of necessity; can players rightfully slaughter the cannibals when given a choice? A variety of scenarios and motives allow players to decide which—if any—murders are acceptable.

Apart from the cannibals and the Stranger, Lilly seems to be one of the most misguided, selfish murderers of the game. Her quick departure is disappointing, for she could have greatly complicated the dynamics of the group. Of all the murders in the group, Lilly’s is most severe: Ben indirectly, accidentally causes Duck’s death, Kenny destroys a man who may or may not be dead, and Lee’s crime is distant. Lilly, however, kills a friend out of false paranoia. When accused of murder, though, Lilly exclaims: “Murder? Lee’s killed before and I forgave him. You’ve killed before and I’ll forgive YOU.” Lilly establishes equality between crimes, making every murder both evil and beneficial. Every killer justifies their act; Lilly should have remained to make the player further contemplate her actions, compare justifications of murder, and determine whether Lilly deserves forgiveness.

Walking Dead 9

The choice of forgiveness occurs throughout the game; the most unique moment of judgment, however, occurs through Ben. Ben is the only group member who Lee may actively murder—and Ben encourages Lee to do so. What makes this scene extraordinary, though, is the bell. Bells toll throughout Episode 4, with Chuck saying early in the episode: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls…It tolls for thee.” This quote, which originates from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, makes each bell creepily whisper: “Thou must die.” The sudden tolling in Crawford—as well as Chuck’s allusive quote—produces a surreal moment in which the bell demands Ben’s death. An unnoticed zombie hangs from the clapper, causing death itself to ring the bell and pull Ben toward oblivion:

Walking Dead 1

The first shot of the zombie only reveals dangling legs, establishing the bell as a tool of death:

Walking Dead 2

Ben’s legs then replace the zombie’s:

Walking Dead 3

Parallel shots depict Ben as a dead man in Lee’s arms. Visuals combine with the strange situation to set up Ben’s shocking request: “Let me go…We both know.” Ben’s mistakes and desire for death make murder plausible: the bell and visuals fascinatingly use surreal, almost supernatural forces to further tempt the player into killing Ben.

The church-bell stimulates a significant question: where is God in the apocalypse? Chuck’s quote recalls the religious implications of Donne’s Meditation XVII: “The bell doth toll for him…from that minute…he is united to God.” Bells continuously toll in Savannah, the home of Crawford. Crawford represents the epitome of evil: humans slaughter the weak to preserve themselves.

Walking Dead 4

When Kenny sees this wall of corpses and murmurs, “Jesus Christ,” Molly responds: “Well, just the opposite, when you think about it.” Crawford abandons virtue for survival. A small cross can be seen hanging within the headquarters of Crawford:

Walking Dead 5

As Molly describes Crawford and the brutal, purist actions which led to her sister’s death, the cross slowly vanishes behind Lee:

Walking Dead 6

Though present, the cross lies forgotten in the apocalypse. The bell tolls immediately after Molly’s story, suggesting God may enact judgment to those who forsake virtue and the cross. However, these religious moments are rare and subtle: I am surprised and somewhat disappointed that religion isn’t questioned more in this apocalyptic game.

Despite a lack of religious dilemmas, Walking Dead splendidly uses apocalypse to show human tendency toward evil. The most effective portrayal of evil appears in Episode 2, when Lee wants to trust Andy, Danny, and Brenda but inevitably discovers their cannibalistic ways. Whether the player trusts the cannibals or not, the game slowly undermines the family’s facade through Jonele, the bloody barn, and the surgical equipment. Creepy music escalates tension as Lee explores the house, preparing players for the terrifying sight of a legless Mark.

Inevitability shapes Episode 2, leading to both Mark and the horrifying dinner. While players may prevent Clementine from eating Mark’s cooked meat, nobody else escapes. As the game offers dialogue choices, the camera shows characters ravenously consuming food. No matter how quickly you act, you cannot prevent the inevitable dinner.

Walking Dead 7

Persistent hunger—which has intensified the entire episode—climatically results in cannibalism despite Lee’s objections. Duck and Larry refuse to listen; even Lilly and Kenny initially doubt Lee. Trust falters, transforming good people into faithless, desperate animals. This hunger-driven cannibalism almost justifies the cannibals’ actions, making Brenda’s desire “not to waste” somewhat understandable. However, ignorance separates Lee’s group from the cannibals, keeping cannibalism distinctly evil. Rather than supporting cannibalism, the inevitable dinner illustrates the terrible results of hunger and apocalypse.

Walking Dead further implements inevitability through Lee’s bite. Though leading to a predictable ending, the bite builds toward a fantastic climax. The contrasting tones of urgency and inevitability made me hurry toward saving Clementine and pause to cherish the final moments of the game. Each line of dialogue could be the last, perfectly setting up the dissipation of Lee’s group. Omid and Christa disappear while Ben and Kenny die, forcing Lee and the player to conclude relationships as unavoidable death approaches.

Lee’s final, most vital resolution stems from a single yet generic force: the Stranger. This unnamed man embodies the past, accusing Lee for every major decision which put someone else in danger. Despite the Stranger’s insanity, he highlights the negative choices made by the player, questioning whether anyone has the ability or right to protect Clementine. The game’s focus on choice, murder, and regret culminates in this moment, forcing the player to reconsider their actions and face the consequences. In this peak of guilt and regret, Clementine saves the player. She defends Lee, killing the Stranger despite his promises. By choosing Lee over the Stranger, Clementine justifies the player’s choices, showing Lee’s virtues far surpass his mistakes.

Walking Dead 10

The Stranger provides resolution not only for the game but for Lee’s entire past. Despite the walkie-talkie, the Stranger’s knowledge seems unbelievable and surreal. Though all-knowing, the Stranger solely focuses on the death and danger inflicted by Lee. The Stranger connects to the most significant moment of Lee’s life: the pre-apocalyptic murder of the senator. Just as the senator stole Lee’s wife, the Stranger speaks to Clementine behind Lee’s back, kidnaps Clementine, and confronts Lee with Clementine in the room. Death pervades the conversation, recalling Lee’s murderous past and his fate for prison. Unlike with the senator, however, Clementine helps Lee. Thus Clementine alters the outcome of the past, resolving the sin which Lee regretted for the entire game. Lee regains Clementine’s trust and love, finally offsetting the guilt of disappointing his loved ones.

After absolving the past, Lee must complete one final, dire task: determining Clementine’s future. The player’s final choices are those of advice, giving Lee one more opportunity to raise Clementine. Although the game ends with Lee’s death and Clementine’s departure, players face a significant choice which will affect the rest of Clementine’s life. Shooting Lee or letting him live eternally as a zombie will traumatize Clementine regardless. Walking Dead leaves reasoning and choice open, letting players decide for themselves how to best be a survivor, a leader, and a parent.

Not Cassius: How Dust: An Elysian Tail Neglects Duality

Dust 1

Dust: An Elsyian Tail, an independent video game developed by Dean Dodrill in 2012, possesses some of the greatest, most fluent 2D live-action combat I’ve ever seen. Gameplay develops well, presenting few new abilities but providing varied, challenging enemies and environments at a satisfying rate. Boss fights conclude chapters well by placing players in a familiar environment and complicating it with a new, powerful foe. Mediocre voice acting (apart from Fidget, a charming sidekick with a wonderful voice) worsens the game, but fantastic gameplay and beautiful landscapes mostly surmount the irritating voices. Story, however, hinders Dust, for Dodrill revolves story around the themes of duality and choice but fails to both develop these themes and incorporate them into gameplay.

Duality initially develops strongly through the combination of two souls “forever at odds” within the protagonist, Dust. The souls of Cassius, a loyal but heartless assassin, and Jin, a kind child determined to avenge his parents (who Cassius murdered), combine when the two kill each other simultaneously. Dodrill complicates the amnesic-protagonist trope by transforming Dust into a newly-formed being, obscuring the memories of Jin and Cassius in order to highlight Dust’s actions. Present outweighs past as Dust abandons memories for a self-developed standpoint, stating: “Jin is dead. As is Cassius.” By defeating Gaius, the antagonist and friend of Cassius, Dust overcomes all relation to Cassius. The phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” appears throughout the game, quoting a passage in the Book of Common Prayer. Referring to the resurrection of Christ, this phrase emphasizes Dust’s reincarnation and offers forgiveness for all sins preceding his resurrection.

Although Dust claims independence from the past, linear story undermines the theme of choice. Players follow a set path and discover the Moonbloods planned this path, telling Dust: “In all cases, you did exactly what we intended you to do.” Dust acts as a tool, a weapon created by the Moonbloods specifically “to defeat General Gaius and save [the Moonblood] people.” The game associates Ginger and the Moonbloods with good and Gaius with evil, forcing players to act as Jin would without considering Cassius. Dust speaks of an internal struggle yet rarely shows it, battling Gaius with little hesitation.

The greatest—if not only—indication of Cassius’s presence is Dust’s willingness to kill. Dust murders “monsters” without pause, killing under Ahrah’s direction as Cassius obeyed Gaius. This straightforward combat encounters opposition when Fuse, the first boss of the game, speaks. Fuse wonderfully introduces the theme of duality; like the fused souls within Dust, Fuse combines vengeance, justice, and violence to question the distinction between good and evil. Stating Dust has “so casually killed a countless number of [Fuse’s] children,” Fuse challenges virtue and labels Dust (and the player) as both a “monster” and “puppet.” The game parallels Fuse and Dust through the repeated use of “village.” Fuse tells Dust: “You…came to my village, killed my family.” Ahrah justifies Fuse’s death by pointing to “the dead littering this village.” By presenting two similar excuses for murder, Dust questions whether either Fuse or Dust deserves to live.

Dust 2

Fuse doubts the innocence of Dust, showing the player that Fuse—and potentially every monster Dust has slain—possesses sorrow and familial sympathy. However, Dust continues to slaughter all in his path. Linear gameplay forces players into combat without allowing time to question the war they’re participating in. Dust states: “I have a choice;” players, however, must follow the path Dust chooses.

Lack of player-made choice could highlight that the Moonbloods have molded Dust into a weapon without agency, but the game fails to directly question Dust’s role. Though Fuse doubts Dust’s virtue, the Moonbloods dismiss Fuse and his claims. Both Ginger and the Moonbloods forgive Fuse’s death, insisting Dust always follows the righteous path.

Dust further loses potential ambiguity by depicting Gaius as evil. The game makes some attempt to complicate Gaius, ending nearly every chapter with Gaius expressing concern for Cassius. Addressing Cassius as his “friend,” Gaius demonstrates compassion when other characters only note his coldhearted actions. However, these scenes fail to garner sympathy due to the game’s portrayal of Gaius as a narrow-minded racist. No evidence supports the claim that Gaius and Cassius maintained an affectionate relationship. While Jin’s memories resurface and allow Ginger and Dust to both recognize each other and develop a compassionate relationship, Dust ignores Gaius’s pleas for reconciliation. While this friendship remains unsupported and unseen, protagonists provide ample tales of the antagonists’ racist genocide, placing Cassius and Gaius in an utterly negative light.

Dust 3

Linear gameplay and dialogue force players to join and support the Moonblood cause. The game presents every action as virtuous, preventing both Dust and the player from considering multiple choices. All attempts toward ambiguity and duality dissipate, causing Dust to feel disjointed and contradictive. Restructuring story and gameplay for consistency would greatly benefit the game. One option would be to add scenes in which Dust makes bad decisions specifically because of Cassius. Additional scenes would show Dust conquer Cassius, choose to listen to Jin, and defy Gaius because of his previous, inner struggles. Duality would become a more believable theme, and the active choice of Jin over Cassius would justify Dust’s defiance of Gaius. The Moonbloods state their intent to combine Jin’s “innocence” and Cassius’s “power;” making Dust battle and defeat Cassius would produce the Moonbloods’ desired weapon and support Dust’s claims toward internal war.

This option better depicts duality but primarily emphasizes good over evil, supporting the current ending of Dust by illustrating how Dust overcomes duality for pure virtue. In order to properly incorporate duality and the ambiguity of righteousness into Dust, gameplay would require choice. I enjoy the idea of Dust being a product of two conflicting souls; as such, I would love to see a game in which the player—rather than Dust—determines good and evil. Multiple choices producing various storylines would be wonderful, but I understand how complicated this could be. Instead, I envision an ending in which Dust confronts Gaius, Gaius defends his actions and recalls the friendship he and Cassius shared, and Dust decides to either fight for the Moonbloods (like Jin) or Gaius (like Cassius). Such a choice would provide fair consideration for both sides of the war, question righteousness by showing both armies prosper and suffer, and illustrate duality by giving Cassius and Jin equal opportunity for victory.

Dust 5

While Dust suffers from a story which contradicts its messages, Dodrill does well at indirectly, subtly advancing themes with outside sources. The titular reference to Christ’s resurrection explores the theme of forgiveness, allowing players (who recognize the religious quote) to draw connections without dialogue forcing ideas onto the player. Reused words juxtapose characters and claims: both Fuse and Ahrah justify murder because of the previous destruction of a “village,” questioning whether either speaker may be pardoned. Directly after the Moonbloods tell Dust he was created to be their “incorruptible” weapon, Gaius states: “The Moonbloods have corrupted his mind.” The juxtaposition of “incorruptible” and “corrupted” offers two views of Dust’s condition, producing possibly the greatest doubt of the Moonbloods and their manipulative methods.

Subtle touches also stem from names, most of which allude to outside sources without directly addressing them (only the connection between Dust and the Christian quote is emphasized, for he finishes the line by saying “dust to dust”). Dodrill particularly references ancient Roman and Greek cultures. Lady Tethys, the “all-powerful being” who “makes the waters flow,” alludes to a Greek goddess of the same name that controls the major rivers of the world. The Moonbloods, once known as the Cynthak, refer to Cynthia, the Roman goddess of the moon; the Way of the Flameless Light potentially alludes to the moon as well.

Another reference to Roman mythology appears in Aurora, the village in which Dust first meets Ginger. Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, requests immortality for her human husband but fails to ask for eternal youth. Immortality initially appears simple but later deviates from what Aurora had in mind. Dust similarly introduces Ginger as a stranger in the village of Aurora: only later is her true relationship with Dust revealed. The allusion to Aurora questions reality, foreshadows the complications which stem from Dust’s forgotten past, and introduces the theme of misguided intentions.

Like with Aurora, Dust advances themes through the names of Gaius and Cassius. The antagonists together allude to Gaius Cassius, one of the leading assassins of Roman dictator Julius Caesar. Cassius particularly connects to Gaius Cassius through his role as a “Royal Assassin.” However, Cassius differs from the Roman assassin because he loyally serves his king. When accused of evil, Cassius points out that Jin’s parents “turned against their king—an act of pure treason.” Thus Cassius questions the definition of treachery, insisting his murders restore justice and balance (recalling Fuse’s similar self-justification).

Treachery appears throughout Dust and, because of its multiple interpretations, wonderfully complements the theme of duality. Baron Kane is labeled “the great traitor” for betraying friends allied to the Moonbloods. Fuse emphasizes that Gaius “even murdered his own kind,” ending the list of Gaius’s evils with treachery. Dust too slays his own kind, killing soldiers and earning the rank of “traitor” (although the soldiers are specifically referring to Cassius). Unfortunately, this treachery—which could so effectively question Dust’s actions as he murders members of his own race—loses significance because of the game’s constant forgiveness. An entire chapter focuses on the salvation of Kane, yet Dust makes no effort to reason with or change Gaius. Both Dust and Kane are cleansed of their pasts; Gaius, however, receives no opportunity for redemption.

The lack of forgiveness for Gaius characterizes the entire game and its inability to provide duality. All steps toward establishing Dust as a traitorous, misguided weapon vanish because of the overshadowing insistence on Dust’s righteousness. Only Fuse and Gaius question Dust, but these two lose credibility because they massacre innocents. Every character forgives the murder of Fuse and glosses over the slaughter of nameless monsters. Although both Dust and Gaius kill others without negotiation, the Moonbloods support their cause by claiming Gaius began the war and insisting their acts are rightly vengeful (unlike Fuse, who kills uninvolved innocents).

Dust shows great potential for questioning war and revenge, but the linear story, combat-saturated gameplay, and focus on Dust as “justice incarnate” obscure all attempts toward duality. The game fails to establish Gaius as compassionate and forgives all of Dust’s questionable actions. Although characters claim Jin and Cassius are “forever in battle,” Dust joins one side of the war without considering the other. Successful portrayal of duality starts and ends with Fuse; only Fuse actively points out “the darkness within” Dust, whereas the rest of the game insists Dust has transcended beyond past sins. The title associates Dust with the Elysian Fields, the Heaven-like section of the Greek underworld in which dead heroes reside. History marks the adventure of Dust as “the greatest of Elysian tales,” recording Dust’s redemption while ignoring his less heroic counterpart.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Mockingjay 7

Mockingjay wonderfully portrays Katniss Everdeen’s psychological and emotional struggle with herself and her role in society. Both the opening and ending moments of the film depict Katniss in a distressed state, yet the manner of this distress changes greatly between shots. Katniss gains confidence in the war and the symbolic Mockingjay but loses faith in herself, learning to please the public but failing to protect those she loves. Peeta causes this transformation because of his own decomposition, making his incomplete story arc disappointing. While the movie provides a great look at Katniss, the ending disrupts the stories of Peeta and the war, producing a mediocre ending in an otherwise great movie.

Jennifer Lawrence’s outstanding performance beautifully shapes a movie which revolves around Katniss’s growth into the Mockingjay. Clips of the revolution are included, but these serve as an example of Katniss’s influence rather than a source of fun action. I appreciated the film’s lack of action; by focusing on the psychological consequences of war rather than war itself, Mockingjay provides the excellent character development which shaped the book.

Mockingjay utilizes visuals well to illustrate the psychological tone of the movie. Katniss’s unstable face bursts onto the screen in the opening shot, acting as the first of many close-ups used throughout the film. Much of the movie takes place in District 13, an underground military base designed for efficiency. District 13 is first seen from an elevator, constraining and limiting visuals in both the elevator and the following shot: Mockingjay 1

Even when Katniss exits the elevator, District 13 feels small. The camera pans upward to show a cylindrical container with round edges and dull colors (a great shot which is unfortunately unavailable on the Internet), emphasizing District 13 is built for survival, unlike the decorative buildings of the Capitol. The later scene of the air raid similarly views the internal base from above and then below:

 Mockingjay 2

This staircase contrasts well with the earlier shots of District 13, replacing the boring, smooth cylinder with a jagged, triangular shape, flashing lights, and massive movement to intensify the life-threatening air raid.

 Mockingjay 3

By crowding the staircase with hundreds of people and limiting camera movement to the vertical axis, the air raid highlights the restrictive qualities of District 13. Much of the movie occurs within District 13, particularly in the noisy cafeteria, the crowded Collective (where Coin makes her public announcements), and the cramped meeting room for the revolutionary leaders. Reused sets, small rooms, and close-ups establish a claustrophobic mood and assist in the movie’s focus on characters rather than the war.

The general avoidance of battle distinguishes Mockingjay from its predecessors, replacing the unique combat in the Hunger Games with psychological conflict. Although they might expect to see more CGI-powered action in a war, viewers should remember that the combat and futuristic aesthetics of the past two films stemmed from the Hunger Games. While characters faced starvation and emotional struggles in District 12, the Hunger Games produced action to satisfy the upper class’s selfish, narrow-minded, oppressive desire for cinematic death and romance. Mockingjay wisely sacrifices the actions and aesthetics of Hunger Games and Catching Fire, moving from the privileged upper class to the struggling lower class and from artificial conflict to individual struggles.

Because of the distinction between District 13 and the Capitol, the similar use of propaganda for and against both sides is fascinating. The rebels infiltrate the Capitol’s defense system in order to show videos of Katniss and Finnick, and the Capitol broadcasts clips of Peeta and Snow. Propaganda fuels both courage and fear as each side utilizes inspiration, sorrow, and threats to win the war.

The song “The Hanging Tree” wonderfully illustrates the persuasive power of propaganda. I was generally unimpressed by the music of Mockingjay, particularly during the introduction. Much of the introductory music relies on prequels; the great songs from the previous films lose effectiveness in the scenes of Mockingjay. While I can appreciate music used to connect a series, the scenes and reused music in Mockingjay did not align particularly well. “The Hanging Tree,” however, is a brilliant song. Intensity builds through both visuals and audio: main characters become increasingly grim and rebels break into battle while voices and instruments join the fray. The backup chorus penetrates the silent fog, peaking tension and establishing the rebels’ power before they burst through the fog.

Mockingjay 6

The transformation from Katniss’s voice into a chorus shows entire populations seeing, copying, and dying for the Mockingjay. Throughout Mockingjay, districts join the war and sacrifice themselves, illustrating the frightening influence of propaganda; “The Hanging Tree” successfully combines content and music to convey this message.

Showing the propaganda of both sides advances the theme of questionable war in Mockingjay. Peeta serves as “the Capitol’s weapon” against both the revolution and the audience, forcing us to challenge the purpose of this war. Both Katniss and Peeta cry because of death yet react oppositely, with Katniss taking up arms and Peeta trying to stop her. While this should tear viewers between peace and war, the focus on Katniss and the negative association with Snow hinder the theme of ambiguous righteousness. By presenting Snow as ruthlessly evil and suggesting Peeta has been tortured into submission, Mockingjay fails to instill doubt within Katniss and the audience as thoroughly as it should. Based on the contents of the book, I suspect Katniss will spend more time questioning the war and President Coin in Part 2. Still, it’s sad that Katniss only doubts herself when Mockingjay provides ample opportunity to instead question the war she’s fighting for.

As with its theme of ambiguity, Mockingjay fails to fully develop Peeta’s story arc. Seeing Peeta suffer frightens Katniss into avoiding propaganda videos, for she realizes Peeta will die as long as the Mockingjay lives. Katniss overcomes this fear by addressing Snow, thus sacrificing her happiness for the revolution. Although she protects the team rescuing Peeta, Katniss develops because she accepts her part as a television-produced symbol and actively chooses to be the Mockingjay (when she was previously manipulated into this role). Peeta, on the other hand, lacks resolution due to absence of choice. The final shot shows the peak of his suffering without any visible hint of recovery. Katniss and Peeta each function as a weapon, but only Katniss chooses this position.

Although Peeta’s story remains unsatisfyingly incomplete, his psychological descent is brilliant. Peeta deteriorates in well-paced increments, establishing a feeling of helplessness and inevitability that intensifies Katniss’s struggle to save him. Visuals assist in illustrating Peeta’s change, introducing a calm, stable Peeta with the outfit he wore during his second Hunger Games:

 Mockingjay 4

Although Peeta emotionally worsens, he remains well-dressed. Unchanging clothes contrast his psychological and physical decomposition: in Peeta’s final video, smooth clothing disguises his body and emphasizes his disheveled, thin face.

 Mockingjay 5

The frightening deterioration of Peeta, Katniss’s thoroughly developed internal conflict, and overall great acting keep Mockingjay entertaining until its disappointing end. Incomplete story arcs make the ending seem abrupt—which, despite some popular belief, can be avoided despite the “Part 1” looming in the title. Splitting the third book into two parts simply produces a four-movie series: there is no reason this movie should not possess a story independent of the larger story encompassing the series. The previous two films each tell the tale of a Hunger Games competition. Each builds toward a game and provides it, leaving a cliffhanger for the next film while also producing a satisfying conclusion. Mockingjay’s cliffhanger, however, is only half-successful: while Katniss (and other characters, particularly Gale) develop well, Peeta lacks resolution, and the war experiences an awkward pause.

Lengthening the film in order to further develop Peeta would likely benefit the entire movie. In a revised, longer version, Peeta would become aware of his hijacked state and decide to join the revolution despite his doubts, giving him a resolving choice. By allying with District 13, Peeta would overcome his role as a weapon in Part 1 and come to terms with his mutilated memories in Part 2. This alliance would additionally provide a perfect transition between stages of the war. Part 1 would show a battle of propagandistic influence, which District 13 would win by converting Peeta to their cause. With the conflict between Peeta and the Mockingjay completed, District 13 would enter Part 2 with strengthened confidence and focus on conquering Snow rather than both Snow and Peeta. The conflict between Katniss and Peeta would develop and end in Part 1, transitioning to a struggle which the two face together. Much of Katniss’s struggle in Part 1 stems from Peeta: having both overcome doubts and join the rebellion would lead perfectly into a united war against the Capitol.

RWBY Volume 2

RWBY had a wonderful first volume. Great humor, creative action, and fabulous music allowed for a fun, original series despite the cliché character types and underdeveloped world. The second volume removes issues such as rigid character movements and short episode length and improves voice-acting and aesthetics, evolving the web-series as it becomes an increasingly-popular competitor in the world of anime. Despite these advancements, Volume 2 was unfortunately disappointing for me. The volume is still enjoyable—particularly when viewed as a movie rather than a weekly TV show—but poor structure, broad scope, and underdevelopment inhibit RWBY’s potential success.

“Best Day Ever,” the first of twelve episodes, is a brilliant start to the volume. The opening shot views a beautifully upgraded Vale. Black silhouettes are replaced by fully-drawn characters, and improved lighting presents a world whose multiple shades of brightness raise it over the sharp, solid shadows and colors of Volume 1. Characters enter a store as in the first volume, emphasizing Volume 2’s superior look through visible light which darkens as it moves away from the windows and ceiling lamps.

RWBY 1

RWBY 2

Accompanying this aesthetic variation is a shift in tone. New characters Emerald and Mercury begin with the playful interactions and innocence which dominated the first volume: both smile and joke, and Emerald expresses kindness to an old man while Mercury displays a childlike love for comic books. As the scene progresses, however, the evil nature of these characters emerges. Smiles vanish and lights dim as the two murder with a chilling lack of guilt. While Mercury and Emerald remain calm, the storekeeper becomes more and more tense and, when pushed into action, is instantly defeated. The fun of Volume 1 slowly dissipates, crushed by antagonists who demonstrate terrifying preparedness and control.

Because of the morbid opening of the episode, the following food fight is amusing but disappointing. Blake illustrates this when expressing her disbelief that “everyone can be so calm.” The food fight presents fantastic dramatic irony, juxtaposing childlike play with the first notable death of the series. People die while Team RWBY has fun, making every moment dire as the villains increase in power.

RWBY 5Chapters 2-4 remedy the mistake of the food fight; the protagonists acknowledge and attack evil, both discovering and disrupting their enemies’ movements. However, this momentum halts after a single, incomplete victory. Though Torchwick escapes, the protagonists switch directions to focus instead on a dance. The series changes directions as it did in the first episode, moving from tangible threat to ignorant fun. A four-episode break is allowed before Team RWBY returns to investigation. The final four episodes provide a look at the villains and their plans much like the third act of “Best Day Ever,” overshadowing the optimism of RWBY with the antagonists’ complete control over the situation.

As depicted above, Volume 2 can be split into three four-episode acts. This design mirrors the three clear-cut scenes of Chapter 1: both move from conflict to fun to conflict. The volume’s structure does differ slightly from the premiere; the second act of Volume 2 is more complicated than the food fight, for it couples the dance with Cinder’s infiltration of Beacon. Unlike in Chapter 1, however, the protagonists are aware of a hidden force conspiring against them. Thus the dance is an avoidable mistake which provides victory for the enemy.

The second act is largely unsuccessful due to its misplacement in the rest of the volume. Team RWBY acts foolishly in the premiere but matures, sacrificing childhood innocence for the pursuit of the enemy. This continues in the final act as the protagonists transcend their roles as first-year students, fight alongside a Huntsman, and come to terms with the hardships of being Huntresses. Volume 2 focuses on the transformation of these four girls into women, making a school dance inappropriate for both the characters and the series.

The dance acts as a nostalgic return to Volume 1, whose focus is on Beacon Academy and the social relationships developed there. Torchwick and Cinder are shown to have major roles, but their general absence is acceptable because interest centers on the school. Volume 2, however, establishes Emerald, Mercury, Cinder, and Torchwick as the source of conflict, making Beacon Academy unimportant in light of the antagonists’ world-dominating schemes. Thus it would be more logical to start with the dance and transition to conflict outside the school. Childhood innocence would be portrayed not in a frivolous food fight but in a distracting dance. Blake’s criticism would remain well-placed, the volume would distinguish itself from its predecessor, and the story would darken and develop in a linear fashion. Both characters and audience would incrementally discover the world as Team RWBY attends the school dance at Beacon, explores the city of Vale, and finally scours the ruins of Mountain Glenn.

Although it would greatly benefit from a reordered structure, Volume 2 works as a whole. When divided into episodes, however, the volume loses much of my appreciation. Chapters 1-4 are well done, providing a proper balance of comedy, graveness, and action and advancing the story of both the heroes and villains at a fulfilling rate. Chapter 5 starts the second act well, displaying Mercury’s extreme power and reminding us of the threat within Beacon. The following episodes, however, possess a dramatically slower pace. Chapter 6 ends with the same suspense as Chapter 5. This suspense is hardly satisfied in Chapter 7 when Cinder infiltrates the Transmit Tower, for we have no idea what she achieved in the process. Though the second act provides some of the greatest humor of the volume, prolonged suspense and the unexplained victory of the antagonists weaken story and lessen interest. It doesn’t help that the dance takes three episodes to prepare and complete. With a quickened pace, I can visualize these three episodes being condensed into one without losing suspense, humor, or character development. Rooster Teeth definitely should have shortened the duration of the dance and its related events. Such a move would not only be more efficient but would preserve my interest.

The third act is faster, more exciting, and more satisfying than the second act, particularly due to the fabulous inclusion of Oobleck. Oobleck speaks quickly but comprehensibly, providing narration in a way which surpasses Ozpin in both efficiency and amusement. While other characters suffer when it comes to world-building dialogue, Oobleck thoroughly explains Mountain Glenn and the creatures of Grimm. The creators should either present more information through Oobleck or learn to quicken other characters’ storytelling, for the backgrounds of characters, peoples, creatures, and places are all severely lacking throughout RWBY.

RWBY 3This lack of background was particularly upsetting in this volume, for the increased length of episodes inevitably made me hope for further development. The subseries RWBY: World of Remnant seeks to remedy this, but using separate videos to develop the world ironically acknowledges RWBY’s inability to provide its own history. Characters are developed fairly well. Mercury, Emerald, and Neptune are all new characters, and by the end of the volume we know their fighting capabilities, personalities, and senses of humor. The relationship between Blake and Sun progresses in incremental, well-paced steps. Yang finally provides background information for both herself and Ruby. Oobleck is utilized perfectly: his role is expanded as he moves from professor in Volume 1 to Huntsman in Volume 2, allowing us to see more of a previously minor character.

Despite the development gained in Volume 2, much information is still lacking. Hostility between Faunus and Humans is presented as a theme, yet the extent of racial tension is impossible to measure because the two races are never shown together on a large scale. The White Fang are enraged by Human cruelty, yet no Human supremacists are shown apart from Team CRDL (whose racist actions were presented in the first volume rather than the second). Team RWBY illustrates excellent teamwork through Ruby’s commands in Chapter 4, but we never see the development of this coordination. Jaune likewise becomes an excellent warrior, but we miss the progression of his fighting skills (apart from a single clip in which Pyrrha claims Jaune has “improved immensely,” which is unconvincing due to lack of evidence).

RWBY has presented numerous characters, and the list is growing. However, the writers are failing to develop some characters due to the introduction of new ones. Neptune and Sun are great characters, but a lot of time has been spent to establish their relationships with each other and Team RWBY. Adding Sage and Sapphire in later volumes may sacrifice quality time with Sun and Neptune. The presence of Team CFVY is awkwardly short-lived, making their inclusion in the volume feel forced and unnecessary. RWBY already has great characters which require further development: trying to include more and more characters is a tempting but dangerous move which Rooster Teeth should avoid.

The result of poor development and numerous characters results in a finale which acts more as a roll call than a life-threatening battle. Characters appear and vanish: a brief glimpse of successful combat is shown before the camera cuts to another fight. While Chapter 11 wonderfully portrays both the expertise and shortcomings of major characters, the action of Chapter 12 is laughable. Oobleck respects Grimm in Chapter 9 and fears their army in Chapter 11, yet the finale undermines the threat of Grimm through quick victory. The human antagonists show that this victory fits into a much larger plan, but the battle is nonetheless anticlimactic due to the volume’s buildup. (A single cavern of Grimm decimated the citizens of Mountain Glenn, yet nobody dies when Torchwick attracts multiple groups of Grimm into Vale.)

RWBY 4Though entertaining and effective in many ways, Volume 2 has reduced my desire to watch RWBY. I enjoy the humor and characters of the series, but illogical organization and inadequate development threaten a series which needs two years to complete a full season. The opening of each episode proclaims that “we can’t just wait with lives at stake,” yet characters take breaks and Rooster Teeth postpones the development of story, world, and characters. Yang claims the series is justified in its decision to “slow down,” but a particular conflict can only be stretched so far before wearing thin. RWBY will have to act quickly to prevent Emerald and Mercury from cleaning up its problems.

Leaving Home: The Internal Landscape of Up and The Wizard of Oz

Oz 2    Up 3

Death is a constant companion in Pixar’s animated film Up. The prologue ensures neither Carl nor the audience forgets the emotional impact of the passing of his wife, Ellie. While the protagonist (and the movie itself) is generally amusing, witty, and content, the sad memory of Ellie perseveres through Carl’s apostrophic lines and the unforgettable house. Borrowing from The Wizard of Oz, Up places Carl in a surreal world that emphasizes the selfishness of pursuing adventure rather than valuing family. Like Dorothy, Carl fears he has disappointed a loved one, making Paradise Falls the psychological realm in which Carl overcomes the grief of underappreciating Ellie and failing to fulfill his promise to her.

Unlike The Wizard of Oz, the surreal qualities of Up can easily be glossed over. The oddness of Paradise Falls may be accepted as a product of the bizarre ideas and magic of Pixar—after all, the premise of the movie is an elderly man engineering a fully controllable, flyable house fueled by balloons. Oz is certainly more direct in presenting the Land of Oz as unreal, emphasizing Dorothy’s transition into unconsciousness and showing the physical transformation of Miss Gulch into the Wicked Witch. Up nonetheless takes multiple steps to establish the impossible otherness of Paradise Falls. The most significant of these is the entrance into Paradise Falls. In a scene which mirrors Dorothy’s arrival at Oz, a spinning house caught in a storm slams into the camera. Following this life-threatening chaos is sudden peace within the house. When the protagonist opens their door/window, they discover an impossible, new place: Dorothy enters the fantastical world “over the rainbow,” and Carl appears in South America over the clouds. The use of balloons echoes the Wizard, who recalls he entered the strange land when “suddenly the wind changed, and the balloon floated down into the heart of this noble city.”

The impossible and unexplainable transportation from North America to South America introduces the alien world of Paradise Falls. Within the land itself, Carl discovers a highly-advanced dog collar which converts the thoughts of canines into multiple languages, a technology developed by a man separated from civilization. Numerous dogs accompany the man who has occupied Paradise Falls for decades, yet no female dogs are present to explain how these dogs were raised. The exotic bird which inhabits Paradise Falls is extremely capable of survival and produces multiple offspring, yet this fit species is small in number and limited to a single ecosystem.

Culminating the strangeness of Paradise Falls is Muntz. Both Up and Oz place characters known by the protagonist in the “real world” within the unimaginable world. Professor Marvel, Hunk, Hickory, Zeke, and Miss Gulch are recast respectively as Oz, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and the Wicked Witch. Carl’s childhood hero Charles Muntz returns, and the bird bones presented in the movie’s opening are recalled and given life through Kevin, the “monster of Paradise Falls.” While Kevin’s existence is expected due to the setup of the prologue, Muntz’s presence is peculiar. Young Carl views a film in which Muntz is an adult. The film is presented in a theater, suggesting but not confirming that Muntz departed soon before the final product of the film. Regardless, Muntz is portrayed as being far older than Carl. Within Paradise Falls, however, Muntz and Carl appear to be the same age. Though Carl ages significantly and Ellie dies from aging, the Muntz of Paradise Falls defies both aging and death.

The surreal characteristics of Paradise Falls and its inhabitants place a subtle question alongside the fantastical adventure of Up: is this adventure real? Oz presses that its story is an imaginary product of Dorothy’s mind, showing the audience Dorothy is asleep and watched over by others during the majority of the film. Up makes no such statement, yet the direct references to The Wizard of Oz and the hints toward Up’s impossibility suggest it too is imaginary. Paradise Falls, then, is a reflection of conflict within Carl’s mind. Like in Oz, this conflict is caused by a problem presented in the normal world. While Dorothy is forced to commit and defend herself after initially giving up Toto and later running from her problems, Carl must accept his inability to bring Ellie to Paradise Falls when, during the prologue, he sought so avidly to complete this promise.

Carl is driven to Paradise Falls because he mourns losing and failing Ellie. Thus his psychological journey within Paradise Falls involves progressing through the five stages of grief of the Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When Kevin and Dug are introduced to Carl, he avoids them. He denies association, stating: “I am nobody’s master.” Their mere presence angers him. Carl’s denial of responsibility and anger are fueled by his urgent need to “park [the house] right next to the falls” as Ellie desired. When the house is threatened, Carl bargains Kevin for the protection of his home. Upon arrival at the falls, however, Carl becomes depressed. He concludes his journey by saving Kevin and abandoning his home, accepting the importance of Kevin’s life over that of the house.

Carl’s interactions with Kevin, Dug, Russell, and Muntz exhibit qualities of the Kübler-Ross model and thus represent the five stages in which Carl grieves. At first, he denies his failure to do as promised. He sets out for Paradise Falls, convinced he can still bring Ellie to her dream-home. Any distractions anger him; Kevin impedes his journey, causing him to bargain the bird away. Only when he succeeds in reaching Paradise Falls does he understand the futility of his quest. Ellie is gone. Carl did not provide Ellie the home she desired, and he will never have the opportunity to do so. In a climatic act of sacrifice, Carl leaves Paradise Falls and Ellie’s house forever, accepting this one promise must remain unfulfilled.

Oz too utilizes the five stages of grief within its fantastical Land of Oz. While Carl is shamed by his failure to act before Ellie’s death, Dorothy grieves because she actively chose to leave home. In Oz, Dorothy denies killing the Witch of the East, claiming this death “was an accident” rather than a choice. She strives to remedy her mistake and return home: she bargains with the Wizard and kills the Wicked Witch, becoming angry when, after gaining the broomstick, the Wizard postpones his promise. Depression occurs when the Wizard denies her. Here she realizes the full consequences for her actions, regretting “running away and hurting [Aunty Em’s] feelings.” This leads to the conclusion that “there’s no place like home.” Dorothy accepts it is her responsibility to remain at home regardless of the obstacles, problems, and foes which threaten her, learning to think of family and friends rather than solely herself.

Oz 1

Both Oz and Up include lessons gained through progression through the five stages of grief. The protagonists feel they have hurt their loved ones and seek to fix their mistakes. In Up, however, Carl is unsuccessful in satisfying his promise during Ellie’s lifetime. While Dorothy returns home, pleases Aunty Em, and learns how to preserve happiness for herself and her family, Carl leaves Paradise Falls after separating himself from his home. Thus Up inverts the ending of Oz and complicates the journey of the latter, forcing Carl to accept that Ellie is lost and the time to please her has passed.

Up further diverts from Oz through its lack of explanation. In Oz, Dorothy awakes from a dream; although she denies it, the characters—as well as the audience—know her adventure was imaginary. Up provides no such confirmation, returning Carl and Russell to the Senior Wilderness Explorer ceremony without comment. Dug, the other dogs, and Muntz’s dirigible accompany the protagonist into the normal world, implying Paradise Falls is real. This land possesses strange qualities and is discovered in an improbable manner, yet the prologue states the land exists and thus supports the possibility of Carl’s journey.

As fantastical as it is, the adventure in Paradise Falls cannot be labeled as existent or imaginary. Importance lies not in determining whether this journey is necessarily “real” but in recognizing it as a representation of the psychological conflict within Carl. The most notable aspect of the escapade of Paradise Falls is that it so effectively provides what Carl sought in the prologue. All which happens in this land revolves around the three things Carl obsessed over before launching his home into the sky: Kevin, Muntz, and the discovery of Paradise Falls.

Up’s opening shot is not of Carl or Ellie but rather of a film of Paradise Falls, Charles Muntz, and the bones of Kevin’s species. Carl engrosses himself in the video, making the film the most, if not only, important component of his life. Afterwards, he imagines himself as Muntz, hearing the film’s narrator describe his actions as amazing, adventurous feats. His subsequent attraction to Ellie and her clubhouse stems entirely from her equivalent obsession of Muntz, Paradise Falls, and exploration.

Following this opening is the second component of the prologue: the cinematic montage of Ellie’s and Carl’s married life. Carl and Ellie each participate in nearing the childhood goal of reaching Paradise Falls: both paint the clubhouse as young Ellie imagined it, both work within the “South America” section of a zoo, and both contribute their savings to reaching Paradise Falls. As the montage progresses, however, Carl and Ellie gradually diverge. It is Carl who produces the “Paradise Falls” jar and deposits the first coin. It is Carl who depressingly views the painting of Paradise Falls and subsequently buys tickets to South America. Though Ellie enjoys the entirety of their life together, Carl is preoccupied by the prospect of Paradise Falls. This division is illustrated in the brief time in which the couple hopes for children: Ellie is seen painting a crane delivering a baby while Carl hangs toy dirigibles over a crib. Ellie smiles at him, but he wholly admires the dirigibles. While Elle appreciates Carl and their potential child, Carl’s thoughts linger on the dirigible of his youth. When discovering she is infertile, Ellie painfully accepts the tragedy; Carl, on the other hand, avoids grief through the hope of Paradise Falls.

Carl’s desire to reach Paradise Falls is understandable. What is stunning, though, is that this desire acts as the primary focus of his life. The prologue centers on the film of Muntz and on Carl’s struggle to reach Paradise Falls; the remainder of Up takes place within Paradise Falls. Ellie appears and vanishes, presented in a fleeting montage of images and short memories. The longest scene of Ellie is one in which she appreciates adventure and exploration as wholeheartedly as Carl. By drastically lengthening the adventure of Paradise Falls and condensing Ellie’s life, Up shows Carl is consumed by his desire to reach Paradise Falls. The movie promotes Carl’s priorities, forcing the audience to focus on Paradise Falls and sacrifice the details of Ellie’s story.

Up 2

Because Carl’s goals are so greatly emphasized in the prologue, it is surreal to see them conveniently return to him within Paradise Falls. Carl’s childhood is reborn as he discovers Paradise Falls, Kevin, Muntz’s dogs, the Spirit of Adventure, and the age-defying Muntz—all of which are presented in the opening film. Just as the prologue shows young Carl pretending to be Charles Muntz after viewing the theatrical video, the body of Up throws Carl into adventure alongside Muntz. He defeats and replaces Muntz, takes control of the dogs and dirigible, and becomes master over Kevin as Muntz never could.

The journey of Paradise Falls both satisfies Carl’s childhood aspirations and devalues them. Whether this journey is real or not, Paradise Falls acts as the turning point of Carl’s psychological state, forcing him to grieve not only the inability to bring Ellie to Paradise Falls but also the choice to focus on Paradise Falls. Discovering Ellie’s note saying “thanks for the adventure,” Carl realizes his misguided understanding of “adventure” and accepts his mistakes. Like Dorothy, Carl is taught humility and selflessness, learning family is superior to fantastical adventure. Up ends showing Muntz’s dirigible floating casually above Russell and Carl as they enjoy eating ice cream together, emphasizing the love of everyday life over the spirit of adventure.