Max Payne’s Interpretation of Self

Editor’s Note: this article was written by guest writer Lauren Shuffleton. Lauren Shuffleton is a writer, community organizer, and aspiring urban planner. Her double major in English literature and American studies is an elaborate and expensive cover to convince people her heated opinions on video games, activism, computer hacking, and B-minus television are all academically-sound.

The first reaction I had upon seeing the Max Payne 3 promotional material: Oh, I must be confusing the Max Payne series with something else.

I wasn’t, it turned out, but you can hardly blame me for my uncertainty:

Immediately I was drawn to the franchise, if only because I wanted to figure out why the visuals for the third game seemed so different. Why did Max Payne, who had been a white noir character created by a Finnish development crew for the first two installments of the series, suddenly look like he was trying to be a wee bit Latino? Why had they opted for this newly renovated Payne in so many of the game’s promotional materials if they had such a well-branded character from prior installments? Can I take this as a sign that the racial interests of the game might be slightly more complex than certain other portions of the promotional material suggest?

What I learned during my exposure to Max Payne and Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne was that the franchise is interested in notions of the self. The first installment was the first game to use bullet-time, the drastic slowing down of action sequences as seen in The Matrix, which instantly became a defining characteristic of the game. Of course, bullet-time is designed to emphasize Max’s (and the gamer’s) experiences and abilities over others’, since the gamer is able to relish every bullet in a way the target presumably cannot. It also serves to isolate the protagonist from the characters around him, in a sense privileging his experiences over others’.

The plot rests on Max, a protagonist coping with horrific levels of grief and guilt related to the murder of his wife and child, on a journey through his own psychology and towards vengeance. Regardless of what you believe “actually” happened in the first game,* the lesson is that you can never really rely on yourself. You are not so much a solid piece of flesh and psychology as you are an ever-changing, chaotic force of will at the mercy of the world around you and your own limited perspective.

Max’s strategy in the game echoes this. He is never deliberate, but rather throws himself into whatever opportunity presents itself. Media messages, chance encounters, and his own background as a cop fuel, aid, and interfere with his efforts, but generally his main tactic is that he runs around the game world aggressively being himself, even as his understanding of himself and his perspective shift.

Of course, this self still has effects on the world around him in ways more interesting than the mere death count of the game. The essence of Max Payne is refracted throughout his world. The name of his love interest, Mona Sax, is a rather straightforward permutation of Max Payne. In the show Address Unknown,  which appears throughout the series, John Mirra (mirror) and the unnamed man in the show become a clear parallel for Max’s struggles. These are two more minor characters of Max-ness seeping into every part of the game, but one cannot ignore the dream sequences, either; the gamer must play through Max’s subconscious, a world created entirely by this Max-ness.

The American studies nerd within me was delighted when I began to realize that the third installment of Max Payne was an exploration of the same themes, but played out on a new level: that of national, racial, and socioeconomic identities rather than solely personal identity.

The easiest entry into this discussion, I think, is through the transformation Max Payne undergoes. In the beginning, Max is hired to work as a body guard to a rich family in Sao Palo. The job is pitched as a vacation from his usual police work, but also seems like a lifeline  Max is growing older, gaining weight, and drinking himself into a stupor regularly. The idea seems to be that working for rich people in a warm, exotic locale will be easy money after his career as a cop in the northeast.

The transformation in question occurs about halfway into the game. Max shaves off his hair, decides to stop drinking entirely, and heads into the slums to try to find an answer for the present mysteries.

I think the visual transformation serves two different purposes. First, it represents the giving up of certain aesthetic aspects of the self. Max casts aside his “Max Payne Look.” Whereas his battle plan in the first and second games was based on simply running around doing his own thing until things worked out, I think he anticipates that Sao Palo demands that he become someone else before following the same battle plan. Part of this is out of disillusionment with what it means to be Max at this point  mainly, drunk and disappointing  and part of it is, I think, believing that he needs to be “more Brazilian” in order for his usual battle plan to work. You can tell by his classic sarcastic commentary on his actions that the original strategies are still in play, just with an entirely new look. He is making the same bad decisions he ever made — “I’ve had better ideas, but then, I’ve had worse ones. Like accepting this job in the first place,” he says at one point — but with what he deems a more fitting look.

The transformation is also, however, an attempt to move away from his American white-ness. This is tightly interwoven with the previous purpose, but I think it’s important to pull out separately. Max is clearly trying to be less white and less American. He enters the favela saying, “So I guess I was finally about to go and experience the other side of Sao Paolo first-hand, the bit people try to ignore, the unpleasant memory they try to obliterate with cocktails and helicopters and parties and lines of blow like rich fools the world over.” Instead of being a tourist, he tries to blend in, head into the slums, and stare the social structures in the face. Ironically enough, his tactic for doing this is by wearing the most blatant sign of an American tourist  the god-awful Hawaiian shirt, evidently the closest thing he could manage.

This transformation is ultimately a prerequisite for Max, something he needs to do to engage in the mystery of the plot at levels beyond the shards of the truth that have affected him. Suddenly, he is walking around the slums diagnosing class-related oppression and mapping out systems of injustice, even as he continues on his trajectory, killing everyone he meets.

The emphasis the game maintains on linguistic and cultural barriers is heightened after the transformation. It seems that everyone refers to Max as a gringo as soon as he makes the attempt at losing his white self  they clearly see through his efforts, which are cosmetic at best  and seem to be drawn to rooting out his artifice immediately.

Although the transformation is limited in its effect for how Max and the Brazilians interact with each other, it does wonders for Max’s abilities to understand the problems. He recognizes the full complexity of the situation when he starts spending time in the slums. One beautiful moment in the game, I think, is when the paramilitary shows up unexpectedly. Suddenly, Max is shooting at everything, and any semblance of justice or reason dissipates. Instead, the gamer is left feeling trapped, forced to shoot every moving object even as Max lays on the guilt. “They were shipping them out by the dozen,” he observes, as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, realizing that the gangs of Sao Paolo might not be the only bad guys. “But,” he concedes, “who was I to cast judgment on proper police procedure and justifiable use of force?” This is the classic self-deprecation, consistently questioning tone Max uses throughout the series, but here something is different.

In seeking a conclusion, I look to the role that the Brazilian language plays in the game after the transformation. It has always been a weakness for Max in the game, but here it takes on a certain prominence. In one scene, Max essentially declares that he’s not as dumb as he seems despite not knowing the language, the subtext being that he’s smart enough to know what’s right and wrong in Brazil, even if he can’t understand what people are saying. This, to me, seems like a very American thing to say in this situation, an argument for absolutist morals over local understanding. Towards the last moments of the game, as he reflects on his experiences as a hired guard, he continues the identification with his motherland: “Say what you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism. You buy yourself a product and you get what you pay for.”

A turn happens in the game, however, in the next lines: “And these chumps had paid for some angry gringo without the sensibilities to know right from wrong. Here I was about to execute this poor bastard like some dime-store angel of death and I realized: they were correct. I wouldn’t know right from wrong if one was helping the poor and the other was bangin’ my sister.”

He has recognized that he was always more of a random outsider than he was any sort of moral authority — he is not a Brazilian, and therefore has no claim to righteousness here.

“What was I really doing walking in there with my bad haircut and ridiculous shirt?” he asks at an earlier point in the game. “Was I there to make something right? Or was I using a messed up situation to indulge myself, grasping at some desperate delusion of control?” The Max Payne games are a testament that, as he answers ,“Maybe the two went hand-in-hand more than I cared to admit.” But by framing the third installment in a plot so focused on race, class, and national identity, Max Payne 3 elevates its notions of the psychological self — as a constantly-evolving blob at the crux of a horrendous past, a complex and unknowable present, and a desire for a moral future   into notions of the social, political, and national self. 

Author’s Notes:
* Personally, I opt for a reading wherein Max actually kills his wife after stumbling in on her trying to kill the baby. It’s not a theory supported consistently beyond the game’s entries into Max’s subconscious, but it is the one I appreciate the most.
**Easter Egg bonus: If you beat Max Payne 3, you get to play the game with skins from Max Paynes 1 and 2. Yep, you get to play the game about consolidating past and present versions of the self as if you were versions of your past self playing in the present.a

Beyond Green-Skinned Space Babes, Part I: Gender among the Romulans and Cardassians

By Nathan Comstock, Television Section Editor

As I have mentioned on this blog, I have now twice run panels on feminist aspects of Star Trek, focusing specifically on the Klingon race. I chose Klingons because of their overt associations with masculinity, but also for several other reasons – they are perhaps the most iconic, and therefore accessible race, and also one of the ones we know the most about. They are represented by series regulars on three of the five franchise shows, and appear as the primary antagonists of the other two.

But at both panels, audience members expressed a desire to see the same kind of analysis applied to other iconic Star Trek races. Well, we here at The Analytical Couch Potato believe in giving the people what they want, so here are some observations to get the ball rolling. This week I look at the Romulans and the Cardassians, and next week I’ll tackle the Ferengi.

Before I get into the specifics of the other major alien races, I’m going to take a wider view and ask a question we should consider for each of them: why? If humanity has gotten over its misogyny by the time it reached the stars, why has it been so hard for everyone else? What does it say that no inherently matriarchal societies have risen to prominence? In short, how is Star Trek’s world building shaped by the assumptions of the patriarchy?

The fact of the matter is, Star Trek is a product of 20th Century American culture, and 20th century American culture is, by and large, misogynistic. Uhura being an officer on the Enterprise bridge may have been revolutionary for its time, but she was still a glorified receptionist with little relevance to the plot. Later Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher, despite being as capable and confident as their male counterparts, were routinely undervalued and given very little to do for much of their series. Voyager (the first Trek with a female executive producer) gave a nice amount of focus to its female leads, but also heavily sexualized Jeri Ryan’s body in increasingly unsubtle attempts to attract more viewers. Trek may have preached equality, but it was very much still a TV show primarily by and for a male-dominated world.

Because of this, we need to look at how various alien women are portrayed from a production standpoint, and how they do and do not correspond to the gendered expectations of our time. I’m going to start with a race that seems the most in defiance of these conventions – the Romulans.

The Romulans occupy an odd space in Star Trek lore. They’ve appeared on all five shows, but have never contributed a regular or even a particularly sympathetic recurring protagonist to any of them. As such, we don’t get as much of a glimpse into their culture as the other three races I’ll be discussing. What we do see suggests gender relations more in line with Starfleet than the Klingons. As mentioned previously, we see women commanding their ships (This in an era where even Starfleet ostensibly did not allow women to command Starships.). We also see both women and men among the Romulan senators, and there are mentions of an Empress (though the primary canon gives little hint as to the extent of her powers.)

Unfortunately, there’s not too much else to say about the internal Gender politics of the Romulans beyond that they appear to have the smallest gender bias of any Star Trek race. But in the contrast between TOS’s unnamed Romulan commander and her spiritual descendants on the later series does give some interesting insights. TOS’s Romulan Commander is an oddity, a woman in a position of power, but proves to have little in the way of agency. Like her Starfleet counterparts, she wears a mini-skirted version of the uniforms worn by her male compatriots, and wears impractically long hair and make-up. Despite her power over her male comrades, she is still primarily a love interest, albeit for Spock rather than Kirk, and her inability to resist him is ultimately her downfall.

Later Romulan women are impressively not sexualized, in a way which is anomalous in comparison with just about every other major race. They are tough and often ruthless, wearing short, masculine haircuts and dressed in identical uniforms to the men, complete with shoulder pads that mask their figures. Compare this to the Klingon women we see, who sport impractical boob windows and inexplicable armor skirts, or even Major Kira’s form-revealing military uniform. While the Klingon women possess an almost animalistic sexual aggression, Romulan women post-TOS show no romantic interest in anyone (though, it is worth noting, neither do the Romulan men.)
It is possible that this uniformity is in fact a political allegory – the Romulans have always carried a cold-war metaphor, and the lack of individualism fits in well with the Maoist reverence for the State which Romulan military characters seem to possess. In this way sexual equality is almost vilified – “look at this oppressive society, where the women have to dress like men.”

The Cardassians are much like the Romulans in many ways – both species are megalomaniacal, xenophobic, and somewhat totalitarian, relying on powerful intelligence agencies the Tal Shiar and the Obsidian Order. However, while the Romulans appear happy to ignore gender differences almost completely, the Cardassians still divide gender roles very strictly – albeit down a totally different line than humanity. In the Deep Space Nine episode “Destiny” it is revealed that Cardassians consider science and technological achievement to be “Women’s work” while men are far more prominent in the military. Within the civilian government and the Obsidian Order, both genders are seen to be equally represented.

Despite their cultural similarities to the Romulans, Cardassian women are not desexualized in the same way. The first Cardassian woman we see (as well as the only female military commander) is Gul Ocett in the TNG episode “The Chase.” Although Ocett wears armor similar to that of male Guls, she has long hair and wears make-up (and eye-shadow like coloration applied to the spoon-like indentation on her forehead.) From an in-universe perspective, it seems odd that long hair and make-up would be seen as universally female regardless of species, and that a strict military culture would allow such deviations in appearance.

From an out-of-universe perspective, it continues to reinforce the way in which gendered signifiers have become ingrained in our culture. Jewelry, make-up, and long hair have only symbolized femininity for an extremely narrow period in our history; it’s ludicrous to assume they would continue to in the 24th century, much less evolve independently that way on other worlds. But these visual cues inform the audience that they are looking at women, even when the individuals in question are grey-skinned lizard people.

In the second part of this article, I’ll examine Star Trek’s most misogynistic race, the Ferengi, and try and reconcile some of the more problematic aspects of their portrayal. In the meantime, I hope I’ve helped some of you look at the show in a new way.

Sound off: In the comments, let me know if there’s another race you want to see discussed. Or give me your thoughts on Romulan women post TOS.

What? Pokemon And Digimon Are Evolving! Or, Why Both Series Have Become More Linear

By Chalkey Horenstein, Editor-in-Chief

When I was a small child, it was a forbidden subject to compare Pokémon and Digimon; the hardcore fans of either (though Pokémon fans more notably) would get riled up and call one a rip-off of the other, engaging in date-wars that tried to allege which game came first. Playgrounds were a hot mess of misinformed kids arguing over something that could’ve been solved in two clicks of Wikipedia, had it existed and had we been old enough to think of using it. But one of the more undeniable and fascinating links between the two series, as far as their games are concerned, is not the character design and monster-human partnership similarities, but rather the evolution from exploratory to linear gaming style — both game series have traces of open-world games in their roots, with more linear games in the end.

Normally, you defeat Team Rocket in the Game Corner
to get the Silph Scope to identify this ghost and battle it.
But using a store-bought pokedoll,
which ends any non-trainer battle instantly,
accomplishes the same thing.
Pokémon Red and Blue allowed the player to battle the gyms in a seemingly linear fashion, but with replays and knowing where to go next (or just bumbling that direction stubbornly), the player could very easily do certain badges out of order, go to certain areas before the logical progression, or skip areas altogether. A few examples: the Thunder Badge isn’t necessary for some time given that it only grants access to Fly, the Marsh Badge is skippable up until you need it to get to the Earth Badge, and the Rocket Game Corner’s Silph Scope isn’t necessary at all thanks to Poké Dolls, allowing you to bypass an entire wave of Team Rocket. Should the player desire, the world could be explored in multiple orders.

Digimon World, the first PlayStation game to exist for the franchise, follows suit. The game takes place on the circular File Island, which you can explore in either direction, with no real requirement to get to the next area other than figuring out how to get there. The side opposite to the starting location, File City, can be accessible from either direction, such that you create a full circle. The only thing really limiting you is how strong your partner is, but most of the areas adjacent to the city in either direction are approximately the same difficulty, with Freezeland and Factorial Town (the farthest from the main city) being of the more challenging areas. The plot of the game is that various Digimon are losing their memory and leaving the city, becoming more hostile in the wild and uncultured land, and it is up to you to recruit city dwellers and create a peaceful area with the necessary amenities to function as a city (examples include a restaurant, item shop, hospital, bank, and farm), while figuring out what is brainwashing the various natives. The recruiting can be done in any order as well, and you don’t need to recruit everyone in the game to open access to Infinity Mountain, the area with the final boss. This game, much more so than Red and Blue, can be completed in just about any order you desire.

Starting at the circular part of the map,
the entire right side of Unova is inacessible
until post-game, making the main game
very straightforward.
By comparison, both games have far more linear areas now. The most recent editions of the Pokémon series, Black and White versions, follow an exclusively one-direction path along the left side of the Unova region — and games before it, like Heart Gold and Soul Silver or Diamond and Pearl, forcibly give you items like HMs and tell you where to go with them. Prior to that, Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald of the third generation forcibly gave HMs, but proper use required backtracking and more exploration than just exploring the next place on the same path like in Black and White  which marks this linear pattern as a gradual progression in the series. With each passing game, more imagination is lost with the loss of ambiguity of the directions. Similarly, Digimon World Dawn and Dusk versions also become more linear, with the worlds being unlocked in a set order and leveling conforming to traditional methods (grinding) rather than the time-limited manual training of stats in Digimon World. Additionally, the need to feed your partner or let it sleep is gone, and the way to obtain certain Digimon is explicitly stated in-game. Both the newer Pokémon games and the newer Digimon games have a clear start-to-finish path, and ultimately only one way to go about it, with the only customization being in your party itself. 

Gamers like big worlds to explore, right? So why did games with big open worlds like this change to more straightforward games?

Compare: Emerald interrupts your quest to give
you HM03 and tell you where to use it,
while in Red and Blue you find it with little to no guidance. 

Largely, it has to do with the evolution of the gamer, and the evolution of a game designer’s ability to sense what a gamer wants. For reference, let’s change gears and briefly consider Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a 1970s psychologist known for his work on “flow.” Put simply, he observed a person’s ability to do a given task, and found that participants needed to feel they were growing in skill with a proportionate rate to an expected increase of difficulty in order to maintain motivation. In other words, if the participant’s skill increased faster than the difficulty, the person would grow bored, but if the difficulty increased faster than the participant’s skill, the person would grow anxious — both of which discourage continuing.

While Csikszentmihalyi’s research is sort of dated, the timeless principle above applies directly to video games  and game designers, much like the gamers themselves, respond to feedback from the games and adapt. They look at what sells well, and what doesn’t, and move forward from there; heck, Digimon World‘s instruction manuals even came with surveys asking what players liked/didn’t like about the game — and based on the progression of the games, it seemed like the majority of the people preferred games like the newer ones, despite the few token hardcore fans that preferred the challenge of Digimon World

Above: the introduction tutorial to Digimon World
being extremely unhelpful.
Compared to more recent games, Digimon World and Pokémon Red and Blue both offer seemingly insufficient feedback. It’s easy to look at choice moments in either game and think, “How was I supposed to know that was there? How was I supposed to figure that out?” Examples include knowing where the Silph Scope was in Red and Blue, or knowing how to get partners strong enough to beat most bosses in Digimon World. In both games, you had to sort of rely on talking to everyone,  exhausting all options, and then going back to areas you couldn’t beat before and seeing what you could apply that you didn’t have or know beforehand.

In the newer games, there’s an instant feedback. You beat an area, and they congratulate you and tell you where to go next. You have a certain path of progress you can log by checking your status in either game, and you have a vague idea of how close you are to the end at almost any time.

And if sales are based on human response, it makes perfect sense that humans sided with Csikszentmihalyi’s findings and molded the later games. Players want to feel like they’re accomplishing something — that their time in this virtual place met some sort of goal. Digimon World had progress through watching the town grow and develop (which also made it easier to get other city dwellers farther away), though the initial lack of tutorials makes the game irritating to beginners. Pokémon Red and Blue also sort of assume players will figure things out — and while newer gamers can feel patronized by the plethora of tutorials, most players would rather feel like the game was disappointingly easy rather than impossible to beat and a waste of money.

Not only that, but the demographic of gamers is changing. Younger players are growing up in a more casual gaming environment, which discourages longer games, and older players are constrained for time in ways they weren’t in childhood — both of which lend itself to the game having to adapt to the player just as much as the other way around. 

This is not to say that open-world, hardcore games don’t exist; Digimon even has a fairly successful MMORPG still garnering users after several years. Players evolve, but it’s tough to say any kind of gamer or game has truly gone extinct yet. And even though the games (and, to a large extent, the shows) are changing, at the end of the day they’re still the characters we love, battling in the way we love. On more unfiltered days, I attribute some of the great lessons I learned in youth to either Digimon or Pokémon  — courage, friendship, reliability and kindness among others from Digimon, and competitive drive and love of traveling from Pokémon — so it’s only fair that the games get to grow up from us, just as we do from them. 

Sound off question: What trends in video games do you see evolving into other trends? Is this a positive or negative change? Tell us your thoughts in the comments! 

Compliance: A Hard-to-Watch Movie that’s Worth Seeing

By Jonah Comstock, Editorial Assistant

Dr. Milgram

In 1961 at Yale, Stanley Milgram completed a series of experiments that would become among the most famous in the history of psychology. Studying obedience to authority, Milgram staged scenes where subjects were instructed to deliver what they believed to be painful electric shocks to strangers. Milgram found that 65 percent of subjects were willing to let obedience to the lab-coat-wearing authority trump their innate morality – though some begged and pleaded to be allowed to stop, they never refused to comply and they all administered the highest shock the machine gave out – 450 volts.

I’ve known about the Milgram experiments for many years, but, as chilling as they are, I’ve never lost any sleep over them. This was just an experiment in a lab, I told myself, not the real world. In real life, surely fewer people would succumb to the pressure. Psychology Today recently co-hosted a screening of Craig Zobel’s acclaimed film Compliance. The film is an examination of a real-world Milgram experiment, conducted not in the name of science but as part of a sick criminal act.

In the film, a man calls a fast food restaurant in a rural town and, pretending to be a police officer, tells Sandra, the manager, that young, female employee Becky has stolen money from a customer. In an escalating series of lies and instructions, Sandra is convinced first to take Becky’s clothes, and then to call her fiance, Van, and leave him alone in the room with Becky and the phone. The caller convinces Van to rape and assault Becky before a daytime employee finally puts a stop to the madness. The filmmaking is close and raw, the performances jarring and real.

The film is incredibly disturbing to watch, and at the screening it elicited a certain amount of incredulity – not only “nobody would do that” but also “nobody would believe that.” But at the Q&A it became clear that a certain amount of that resistance is wishful thinking – it’s much preferable to believe the film was badly made than to believe the truth. This could happen. This did happen. The events of the film are directly based on a 2004 crime at a McDonalds in Montana. Prior to that incident, which eventually ended in an arrest (although, appallingly, not a conviction), over 70 similar phone calls were reported that led to some kind of humiliation and/or assault of an employee or customer.

 After the film, Psychology Today Editor-at-large Hara Estroff Marano moderated a panel with Zobel, actress Ann Dowd, and two psychologists and Psychology Today bloggers: Stanton Peele and Nando Pelusi. The discussion was short, but it was heated and emotional. Dr. Peele asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought they would have succumbed – and nobody did. But Marano pointed out that prior to the Milgram experiment, 100 psychology students and faculty at Yale said the same thing: they predicted hardly anyone would go along with it. The only characters in the film who really stood up were the screw-ups, the ones who never had much respect for authority at all. And even they only went as far as refusing to participate.

 Dr. Peele pressed even harder, asking why, if we all found the movie so disturbing, we didn’t just get up out of our seats – whether maybe some sense of what we were supposed to do overrode what we individually might have wanted to do, just as a sense of “supposed to” overrode the morality of the film’s characters. It’s a weak parallel in some ways – watching a movie doesn’t hurt another person – but it captured the brilliance of the film: it made us uncomfortable because it put us into the character’s situation.

 It’s not a fun movie to watch, but it does something that art should – it makes us think about a part of our history and a part of ourselves that we would much rather avoid. And forcing ourselves to think about this disturbing aspect of human nature could be very, very important.

 Milgram took a lot of heat for his experiment on the grounds that the emotional trauma he put his subjects through was unethical. But his subjects themselves responded to a survey, and over 90 percent said they were glad to have participated. One subject wrote Milgram to tell him that experience had given him the strength to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War – that is, to stand up for his own morals in the face of the authority of the whole United States of America. That’s what we can hope to gain by making ourselves sit through this uncomfortable film; by putting ourselves in the shoes of Sandra and Becky. We each hope we’re in the minority that would stand up for what’s right, and we each hope we’ll never have to find out if we are. But perhaps by confronting the dark conformity of human nature through art, we can be more prepared if we ever meet it in life.

A version of this post also appears at Psychology Today.

Zen and the art of time travel: Safety Not Guaranteed

By Allison Novak, Staff Writer
The time travel story is a common and popular one, and it always runs the same way. A person unwittingly goes back in time, wants to have fun, discovers something only they can fix, and becomes a quiet hero, returning to their own time. Whether it’s Doctor Who, Back to the Future, or any other number of pop culture items, they all stay on the same path. Safety Not Guaranteed is a story that takes the idea of time travel and adds to it an understated importance of what it means to be able to travel back in time. It balances the desire of time travel with an almost zen about what time travel would realistically mean.

Safety Not Guaranteed follows three writers from Seattle Magazine Jeff, Arneau, and Darius who set out to Seaside, Oregon to investigate a personal ad placed: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.” The three set out to find the writer of the ad, which is Kenneth, a cashier who believes he has discovered how to time travel. 

Safety Not Guaranteed does not promise us a story about a future self traipsing through the past; instead, it is a look from the outside in of someone who wants to time travel. We follow Darius, Jeff, and Arneau as they try to figure out if the would-be traveler, Kenneth, is for real — does he really think he can time travel? Is he crazy?

Before the movie can stray too far into trope territory, we learn that that’s not the important part. Darius goes undercover to try to discover if Kenneth is for real, and quickly changes from reporter to interested and willing participant in the time travel. Kenneth asks her what her ‘mission’ is: the reason she wants to go back in time. There’s an understated love story for her and Kenneth that comes from the shared bonds of their ‘mission.’ This drives the story as the focus becomes less time travel and more a contemplation on what to do with that power.

This is what separates Safety Not Guaranteed from other time travel stories; there is a purpose. Darius and Kenneth want to go back for very specific reasons, and it’s their sadness that drives their desire. The story is mirrored as Jeff tries to locate his teenage girlfriend, who is is trying to reconnect with. In this, we learn that time travel can be metaphorical as well. It’s this juxtaposition of desire and longing on both levels that drives the story. We don’t get caught up in how time travel works, or if it’s possible; we learn only bits of the story before the conclusion. Many times we see the longing of the past with the desire to live in the moment, whether it is Darius and Kenneth trying to achieve time travel and ultimately a romance, or Jeff and his former girlfriend. Arneau, the shyest of the bunch, is forced by Jeff to take chances and to ‘be young’; he forces Arneau to try to live the life he wants to recapture.

There is a general sadness that pervades the movie, despite the hope to change the past. Just like Jeff and his would-be girlfriend, happy endings are not guaranteed.

Most time travel movies draw the viewer in with action, dramatic scenes, and the prevalent question of whether they’ll return to the present, but in Safety Not Guaranteed, we’re drawn in with the very human emotion of what you would do if you were able to go back in time — and why you would. It’s a new side to the trope, and one that Safety Not Guaranteed does well; the viewer is more concerned with the characters’ inner journey than the obvious literal journey through time. For instance, when Kenneth and Darius discover they have feelings for each other, and he ultimately decides to go back in time for her ‘mission’, not his, it becomes a grander gesture than the time travel.

Safety Not Guaranteed never shows us what happens once Darius and Kenneth seemingly accomplish their task; that’s not the important part. Unlike many others on the same path, we don’t need to see if they’ve accomplished their mission, or the past through the eyes of the future. This is an important distinction — instead, the journey is worth more for the characters. This may seem like a cliche, but Safety Not Guaranteed doesn’t try to answer all the questions it sets, and it doesn’t really seem to care. We don’t know what happens to Darius and Kenneth, or with Jeff, or even Arneau, who Jeff is trying to live vicariously and recapture his youth through. This is a meditative story on time travel, one that seemingly advocates living in the moment while desiring to change the past.

[SPOILERS] The Women of "The Dark Knight Rises"

By Gillian Daniels, Editorial Assistant
The chief virtue of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films is not the plots (the pace is often plodding) or the characters (most if not all already invented by the comic).  It’s the way it redresses a fanboy fantasy as a serious adventure, in this case with damsels who aren’t quite in distress.

In few heroes is the power fantasy more potent than in Batman, a playboy billionaire in public and a brooding, me-against-the-world Phantom of the Opera orphan in private. It’s a cool idea and one of the most thinly-veiled testosterone-laden daydreams in popular media today. Nolan challenges some aspects of this middle school fantasy in The Dark Knight Rises, but at the end of the day, of the main female characters introduced in the movie, Bruce Wayne becomes involved with both. Batman, it seems, remains a fantasy still largely for and about men.

Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and Miranda Tate/Talia (Marion Cotillard) remain largely defined by the men in their lives within The Dark Knight Rises.  They’re able to challenge their roles to some extent but they never quite subvert them.

The role of Catwoman is a classic femme fatale. With her as a rival, she’s the one who somehow brings Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) out of his Howard Hughes-style funk. Hathaway’s character would be the spitting image of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she didn’t steal from Bale and beat him up in their first scene together. For most of the film, she questions both Batman and Wayne without appearing to like either very much.

It’s eventually revealed Catwoman’s looking for a new start in life. Even before Batman shows up, she’s a villain trying to make good. An important plot point in Nolan’s film is that Wayne is willing to help delete Kyle’s cat burglar history from every police file on the planet and allow her to start fresh, holding the key to her redemption. Catwoman’s affection for him dovetails with her redemptive arc as if only Batman could bring out the good in her. By the end, they’ve become involved.  It’s not bad that they’re involved but it’s questionable that she needs to fully rely on him for her salvation.

At least Nolan’s Catwoman is set up to be Bruce Wayne’s equal. Only she can maintain his interest and only he can maintain hers. This was certainly the goal of Batman: The Animated Series(1992) in which Batman discovers “the new cat burglar is a woman” (episode 15, “The Cat and the Claw Part I”) and spends most of the series chasing after her, both for reasons of justice and romance. In his pursuit, he tries to redeem her multiple times. The structure of their relationship is ostensibly the same except that, before meeting Batman, Catwoman has no desire to change. It’s only Batman who plants the idea in her head, turning her story into a redemptive arc. Anne Hathaway and Nolan’s Catwoman, however, has enough agency that she’s already made the decision to change and doesn’t need the main character to put her on the path to redemption. It’s a small — very small — but important improvement in the move from small to big screen. Catwoman’s story is helped along by Batman, but she’s still largely the one driving the change

Talia al Ghul has a similar story arc to Catwoman in the cartoons and comics. Batman also attempts to seduce this–gasp!–loose woman away from evil after a lifetime of working for her immortality-seeking father. Talia, like Catwoman, is unable to access her morals by herself. Unlike Catwoman, though, this is because Talia is lured repeatedly back into helping her father, Ra’s al Ghul.

In The Dark Knight Rises, this is very much the same. Miranda Tate, in revealing herself to be Talia, shows that she seduced Wayne, tricked him into building a bomb, and has had the entire city threatened for months, all in service of getting vengeance for her father. Even her dying words relate to Ra’s al Ghul and his rivalry with Batman, his role as her father and Bruce Wayne’s antagonist defining Talia in her last moments. She’s a woman used by a man to get back at another man.  A child seeking vengeance for her father isn’t a bad story line, but it’s problematic that we never get any reason for her goals beyond genetics.  Talia feels like a tool used to get back at the main character.

The biggest difference Nolan has worked into the movie, though, is including Talia’s backstory. While Cotillard’s character eventually comes to be defined by her father and then Batman, Nolan makes sure to detail her childhood and the person she is before becoming entwined with the destines of both. Talia’s escape from her circumstances is emotional and riveting, and while Bane (Tom Hardy) takes part in her escape from the prison in which she’s raised, Talia’s agency drives her to run away and find an escape route where no one else could before her. She’s an awesome female character.

Yet the price of admission for a main female character still seems to be sleeping with the cool male lead. It’s a pessimistic point of view, but Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) probably doesn’t have to sleep with Bruce Wayne to become his protégé. To my knowledge.

Probably one of the most innovative aspects of the movie having to do with gender is the female cops in the background when Batman first returns to Gotham. They seem to disappear during the stadium cave-in, though, and are, to my knowledge, largely absent when the cops descend once more to the streets. They are still women in casual roles who do not appear to have a romantic interest in the protagonist or are defined by their father’s whims.

In a story like Batman’s, where the main character is simultaneously a Lothario and a loner, it’s difficult to create a female character outside these parameters. Nolan manages to make due with the material he has, though, showing that “fanboy” doesn’t have to be an exclusive label. The Dark Knight Rises still disappoints, however, by keeping its otherwise kickass female characters defined by the men in their lives.

Ice to Meet You? — A Look at the New 52’s Reintroduction of Mr. Freeze.

By Alex Ehrhardt, regular guest contributor
First, as a warning, this piece is an analysis of a plot twist. It is one of those plot twists, the ones that really ought not be spoiled. It’s the plot twist in the recent Batman Annual #1’s ‘First Snow,’, written by Scott Snyder and with art by Jason Fabok. Prior to the most recent reboot of the DC universe, Mr. Freeze’s origin was canonically the one written in 1992 by Paul Dini for Batman: The Animated Series. This Freeze was Doctor Victor Fries, who was building his criminal empire specifically to fund research for his terminally ill wife, Nora, currently in cryogenic stasis. Needless to say, Freeze was, for twenty years, one of Batman’s most sympathetic antagonists. The love many fans had for this morally gray Mr. Freeze certainly accounts for the controversy surrounding Snyder’s take on the character.

In ‘First Snow,’ the story that introduces the rebooted Freeze, we are presented with a revelation in the climax. It turns out that Victor Fries has never even met Nora. She was frozen in the 1960s, and was the subject of Fries’ doctoral thesis. Mr. Freeze is transformed, with this twist, from a loving husband descended into extremity, into an obsessed and deluded stalker.

This is a change that fans and critics have objected to in great numbers. However, around this unpalatable bit of alteration to a familiar universe, there exists a well-told chiller of a tale (sue me, I had to do at least one pun about cold here somewhere). For the bulk of the story, recurring bat-fans are given the familiarly tragic Freeze they know, and new readers have that same sympathetic origin set up for them—until the revelation, readers can reasonably assume that Nora really is Victor Fries’ wife. In fact, up until the revelation, readers are set up to, to some extent, root for Freeze. In this story, he has found a way to safely unfreeze Nora, whose heart condition is now treatable with modern medicine, and intends to leave Gotham with her, forever. Since readers still think that Nora is his wife, this seems to be a good outcome—Victor Fries gets to be happy, and Gotham has one less supervillain to worry about.

While the plan’s component of killing Bruce Wayne may not be something readers root for, Snyder, has, at this point, at least given us a sympathetic motive for Freeze’s doing so. After all, it was Bruce Wayne who shut down the cryogenics project that would find a way to unfreeze Nora, and it was in a confrontation with Wayne over this very project that Victor Fries suffered the accident that altered his body chemistry, transforming him into the Mr. Freeze with whom we are familiar.

The shock of discovering the truth about Fries and Nora is made all the more potent by the way in which Snyder has thus far set us, the readers, up so that we feel sympathetic to Freeze. Our emotional momentum is reversed with the revelation in the story’s third act. The power of the ending comes not solely from the shock of the unfamiliar, but from the sudden necessity to reevaluate our sympathies, and the way in which all of Freeze’s actions become, in retrospect, profoundly disquieting. The putting-on-a-pedestal of a woman who may not want any such attention is the dark flip-side to the sorts of stories that make Dini’s take on Freeze so sympathetic, and Snyder’s ‘First Snow’ brings this to the fore. The title of the story is taken from a line within, said by Victor’s mother: “How I love the first snow, unbroken and white, before it’s ruined by footprints.”

The symbolic connection to Nora, then, is that, to Snyder’s Freeze, her frozen state renders her unspoiled: she is inert, unable to act, and it his his prerogative to act upon her. She is an idealization of the innocent victim—Freeze knows her only insofar as he knows the details of the process by which she is put in stasis. She is his project, but not really a person. In a sense, the relationship between Freeze and Nora can be seen as a critique of the damsel-in-distress archetype. As readers, our sympathy is so easily gained, in part, because, even if we are unfamiliar with Dini’s Freeze, we know to root for the guy trying to save the girl. Another layer of the shock of the twist, then, is that we must, in some way, face the dark underbelly of the structures we accept daily in narratives both fictional and about the real world.

The most common objections to the changes to Freeze are centered around the idea that the new Freeze, without the angle of sympathy, will have less interesting stories centered around him. This is entirely possible. Indeed, within Batman’s rogue’s gallery, he now occupies a similar niche to the Mad Hatter, who is obsessively in pursuit of a woman to be his ‘Alice.’ However, regardless of what can be done with the new Freeze, as a self-contained story, ‘First Snow’ is a thought-provoking and well-written work.