Stuff of the Year 2022

2022 was an important though exhausting year for me personally. I didn’t have as much time or energy to do creative projects. I’m not making a year-end video for Debug Mode. Podcasts are on indefinite hiatus. So I’m channeling my desire for expression like it’s 2005… with a post on the old web log (it honestly took me a second to remember what blog was short for).

TV

Loki

Technically a 2021 show, I watched Loki this year because I heard somewhere that it was going to be integral to Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It wasn’t. I’m still glad I watched the show because it’s the best MCU Disney+ series I’ve seen… although admittedly that isn’t too high a bar.

Someone pointed out that that Loki bears many similarities to the Isaac Asimov story “The End of Eternity”. Both are about mysterious organizations in charge of time and fate – not mythical or magical organizations, but stuffy bureaucratic ones. I do love the high concept sci-fi existential vibe of this show. It feels like it ought to be extremely consequential to the MCU (beyond introducing a future Avengers villain), but in a post-Endgame world, I’m content to take or leave each Marvel project on its own terms.

The two best things about Loki are Tom Hiddleston’s performance and the way the show grapples with his character. The setting of the Time Variance Authority nullifies Loki’s trickster god magic putting him at an unusual disadvantage and provides a backdrop for exploring questions of predestination, determinism, and purpose. For an MCU story, it’s thematically rich.

In the past, Loki was always a catalyst for other characters’ growth. His actions gave them opportunities to become their best selves while he’s doomed to be defeated and humiliated. This show gives Loki a chance to see if he has a best version of himself and what that might look like.

Hiddleston plays the character with such empathy and nuance. Past stories weren’t worthy of such a performance, but this one is.

Owen Wilson is also a wonderful surprise in Loki

Better Call Saul

How often does something as well-regarded as Breaking Bad get a follow up that’s just a well received? It happens occasionally with movies, but hardly ever with TV. It’s hard to produce hours and hours of top-notch of television year after year. For most, the gravity of diminishing returns is too difficult to overcome but for 6 seasons, Better Call Saul, as stubbornly determined as its protagonist, proved that it was a worthwhile addition to the story begun in Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul accomplishes the oh-so-elusive balancing act of being like the thing you loved but not so much that it’s pointlessly derivative. It has the same quality of writing, plotting, acting, and cinematography. It has the same Albuquerque setting. It has many of the same characters and themes as the earlier show.

In some ways, it’s better. The cinematography and visual storytelling is next level. You could argue that Jimmy McGill’s story is a deeper, more mature exploration of the human condition than Walter White’s. But it’s also a less focused and streamlined series than Breaking Bad which has a constant sense of direction and energy throughout.

So now the debate is on. Which is the better show? The fact that it’s a legitimate discussion among so many is the most impressive feat of all.

If you know this scene, you know.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

One of the many videos I worked on but haven’t finished yet is a deeper dive into this show. I intend to actually put that out in the coming year so I’ll keep my thoughts here brief.

As a big fan of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and Tolkien’s work generally, this show was both highly anticipated and also kind of dreaded in the runup. I kept seeing things that would give me hope and then the next scrap of information would snatch it away.

And finally the day of the big premiere itself…

My fears were mostly put to rest in the two episode premiere. This wasn’t going to be some abomination, at least not by my estimation. Some people seem to think it was. I don’t get that. Maybe I’m just too exhausted by the nerd culture wars to care much about that part of the discourse.

Yeah, the show’s got problems. It also has promise. Lots of shows have rough or slow early seasons and go on to greatness. I have no idea if that will happen here. It’s all about whether the writers can pull it off. The money is there. The production design is there. The actors are capable.

Filling in the gaps of a time period Tolkien left vague is a tough road to hoe but it could yield rich rewards for all involved or it could end up relegated to the dustbin of nerd culture. We’ll see.

You can’t say they didn’t spend all the money on this show. Wow.

Andor

Dang it.

Like the movie trope of the cop two weeks from retirement who gets pulled back in, I had almost escaped the gravitational pull of Star Wars. Under Disney’s watch, we’ve seen glimpses of greatness but mainly a lot of squandered potential and creative cowardice.

What’s the biggest problem with Disney Star Wars? Over reliance on old ideas, iconography, and nostalgic pandering instead of pursuing new ideas or solid storytelling. Disney Star Wars has been more about symbols than characters; more about the brand than anything else.

Andor fixes all of that. All of it.

Characters in this show – even the villains – are well drawn, coherently motivated, and (most importantly!) exciting to watch. The action is purposeful and well staged with real tension and stakes. There’s one scene toward the end of the show that made me cry and cheer at the same time because, for the first time since the original trilogy, I actually connected with the plight of a Star Wars protagonist on a deep emotional, visceral level. Andor puts the “War” firmly back in Star Wars showing us a side of the conflict only hinted at in Rogue One and other spin-off media.

After the release of Episode III, George Lucas developed a live-action Star Wars TV series intended to focus on the seedy underbelly of the universe. It never got made because it was prohibitively expensive at the time. I thought that The Mandalorian with its bounty-hunter protagonist was the spiritual successor to that idea. While it’s a fun show, Mandalorian doesn’t have much going on below the surface. This does.

Andor is the Star Wars show I’ve wanted ever since I heard about that live-action TV concept. In Andor, we get to know the grunts that don’t make it in those big battle scenes. We see Rebel leaders giving up parts of their souls to do the dirty work of waging a war. We see normal citizens struggling under the Empire’s boot. And we see cogs of the Imperial machine being turned by those captured in the banality of evil.

And nobody uses the Force. Ever. Thank goodness.

More of this kind of Star Wars, please.

Movies

The Batman

My wife didn’t care for The Batman. For her, the movie was boring. It lacked tension and she found Robert Pattinson’s Batman hard to take seriously – and boy does this movie want you to take it all deathly seriously.

I can see most of her points.

One of the problems with The Batman is that most of the victims are unsympathetic people. The Riddler is going after the rich and powerful in Gotham who are almost universally shown to be corrupt and abusive of their power. So, as an audience member, why should I care that much if Batman solves the next riddle before the Riddler kills again?

Compared to the Nolan Batman films, this movie has very little command of tension. The Batman is slow and plodding – big on mood and atmosphere and not as thematically layered as the best of the Nolan movies.

But aside from that, I loved it.

I think Robert Pattinson is perhaps the best live-action Batman yet. His Bruce Wayne isn’t bad either though I can understand people taking issue with his Kurt Cobain-ness. All throughout the movie I kept thinking: these people really get Batman – the way he moves, the way he thinks, the way he talks or doesn’t talk.

Christopher Nolan took the component pieces of Batman stories and rearranged them to make Christopher Nolan movies. Tim Burton made Tim Burton movies with his two outings. The Batman feels like a Batman movie first and foremost because of that focus on mood, atmosphere, and tone. Wisely, it decides to focus on Batman as a detective rather than as an action hero. While the mystery plot itself isn’t the best, what it does for the characters is fantastic.

In addition to a great Batman, we also got the best live-action Catwoman with Zoe Kravitz. I’m not always a big fan of the Batman-Catwoman dynamic, but it’s easy to see why writers have gone back to that relationship time after time and it works wonderfully here.

I liked this movie a lot, but I’m even more excited about seeing what they could do with a sequel. I hope Pattinson and director Matt Reeves have a few more Batman movies in them.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Nicolas Cage has been a meme for a long time so you’d think a movie capitalizing on that would be tedious and stale by now. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent makes it work.

Cage plays a fictionalized, heightened version of himself – the version from pop culture, news headlines, and internet jokes. He’s well known as a very good actor who often turns in baffling or terrible performances in worse movies. In the same year, he could be in discussions for Oscars and Razzies.

It’s no secret he’s had money problems that have lead him to take whatever roles came his way. Massive Talent plays with that idea as a jumping off point. Cage reluctantly takes an offer to attend the birthday party of a wealthy fan (Pedro Pascal) and the plot proceeds from there. It works fantastically as a structure to hang the gags on.

I went to see this with my brother-in-law who’s a big Cage fan. We both loved it and we hardly ever agree on movies.

I’m actually not that familiar with Cage’s filmography but I know a lot of the pop culture references and the actor’s eccentric reputation. That’s kind of all you need to enjoy this although the knowledgeable fan will glean more from the humor.

It’s fun to see Cage so directly poking fun at his public persona. Sometimes that sort of thing ruins the joke and sometimes it makes it more fun. Here it’s definitely the latter.

The real key to the movie is the chemistry between Cage and Pedro Pascal. Their pairing turns what could have been a one-note joke into something enduringly watchable.

Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dr. Strange is yet another MCU character that I didn’t care about until I saw him in the crossover movies. He’s great in Infinity War but then again so is everybody.

Multiverse of Madness was pitched as “the first MCU horror movie” which sounded like an interesting premise. But the director who made that pitch left the project and Spider-Man and Evil Dead veteran Sam Raimi was brought in. He seemed like the perfect replacement with a solid pedigree in both genres.

Despite Raimi’s involvement, this is a thoroughly “meh” sort of movie. It’s the MCU at its most forgettable – neither awful nor worthwhile for any redeeming qualities. It’s not even worth picking apart in any greater detail. The multiverse concept can be explored in so many interesting ways but this movie ignores all of them on its way to a conclusion that feels neither earned nor consequential.

The disappointment of this movie kept me from seeing Thor: Love and Thunder and from what I hear, I didn’t miss much. I haven’t even bothered to watch it streaming yet. Spider-man excepted, Marvel’s Phase 4 has been pretty rough, huh?

More like the Multiverse of Meh-ness! Sorry.

Tonk Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off

This documentary made me worry that one day we’ll all hear about how Tony Hawk died of skateboarding and while that’s an appropriate fate for Tony Hawk the icon, it’ll be a tragedy for Tony Hawk the father, husband, brother, and son.

Until the Wheels Fall Off focuses mostly on Hawk’s skating career which is interesting enough even though I’m only mildly interested or knowledgable about the sport. What’s just as if not more compelling are the moments about Tony Hawk the imperfect man.

No one would have questioned if Hawk’s less flattering characteristics were entirely omitted. He’s not known for them. As far as I can tell, his reputation in the broader pop culture is fairly clean. He seems like one of the famous people who would actually be a joy to meet in the wild (provided you successfully recognized him).

During his career, he’s fallen prey to a lot of the usual foibles of the suddenly rich and famous. To see him grapple with his past foolishness is compelling and heartening. It’s also fun to see his peers in the sport like Bob Burnquist and Rodney Mullen who I’d only previously known as low poly models from the video games (they briefly touch on the games but it’s a footnote compared to the rest).

Glass Onion

I neither hate nor love The Last Jedi. But no matter your position, it’s hard to argue that, situated between the two J.J. Abrams installments, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars episode is a square peg in a round hole.

Knives Out proved to me what so many fans of The Last Jedi argued: that Johnson can write and direct a really sharp, intelligent movie. He’s better at that when he’s operating in his own sandbox though.

To me, Knives Out is something of a modern classic so I was pretty excited when the early buzz for the sequel claimed it was just as good. I should have known better.

Glass Onion is fun. I enjoyed my time with it. It’s just not nearly as good as the first. It is trying so hard to be. It’s trying too hard.

Knives Out was consistently playful, frequently humorous, and occasionally sincerely heartfelt. Glass Onion is too goofy and over the top to achieve that last quality even if it possesses all the others. Daniel Craig’s southern detective, Benoit Blac, is just as much fun to watch as in the original though some of the mystique has worn off and he never has a line equal to the amazing “donut hole inside a donut’s hole”. The rest of the cast is good if less enjoyable than the Knives Out ensemble.

The mystery is fine even though the twists, turns, and structure are a little familiar. It would have all landed much better if the finale hadn’t been so blunt and lacking in cleverness.

Games

There are two reasons I didn’t make my usual year-end video for 2022. Most significantly, I just don’t have the time. I’m usually scrambling to get it done by New Year’s Eve on a good year. But we just had a kid and time for things like video editing (much less writing about and playing games) is extremely hard to come by.

I thought about rushing something out – something stripped down and simple so I could feel like I tried. But then reason number two became apparent. It would have been sort of pointless to do an ostensible Game of the Year video without a Game of the Year.

If I casually assign ratings to the (new) games I played this year, none of them get 5 stars. I played some good games. But none that I feel very passionate about – certainly nothing that sticks its head above the rest and declares itself to be my favorite. And yet, I like talking about games and still have things I want to say.

Horizon Forbidden West

Forbidden West was the okayest game I played this year. People like to clown on Horizon now, but they’re quality games. I’d certainly take either of them over the myriad of Assassin’s Creeds.

The first game, to its immense credit, unraveled the entire mystery behind the scifi post-post-apocalypse setting. Pretty much all the major questions about the state of the world and the presence of robot dinosaurs got satisfyingly answered. It made you wonder if they had any place left to go with a sequel.

Forbidden West finds new territory that feels like a natural extension of the story but still manages to be surprising. This game goes places and that’s kind of fun. It’s also a technically gorgeous game – probably the best visual showpiece for the PlayStation 5 so far.

No, it’s not the most inspired game design in the whole world. Yes, the slow, tedious process of firing a hundred arrows into a giant mechanical T-Rex somehow gets dull. The characters are kind of hit-or-miss and Aloy is often a flat note in her own story.

But on the other hand, they let you ride a robot bird by the end, Lance Reddick and Carrie-Anne Moss show up, and there’s a level set in a tech-bro billionaire’s tomb underneath the Transamerica Pyramid. So that’s cool.

Tunic

Tunic reminds me of Breath of the Wild. It’s not nearly as good as the Zelda game mind you, but it does conjure similar kinds of feelings. It’s an experience that exists between the known and unknown, the familiar the subversion of the familiar. It’s also, quite obviously, a send up of classic top-down Zelda games – the kind that Nintendo doesn’t seem to be making anymore.

If you’ve played video games for a long time, you can probably figure out the basics just by looking at it. That’s good because Tunic tells you nothing upfront. The more advanced mechanics have to be discovered by finding pages of the game’s instruction manual. It’s a fun idea especially because of how well the fake manual mimics real ones from old Nintendo games.

I got far enough into Tunic to see a lot of what it was doing, but I didn’t finish. Life interrupted and by the time I was able to play again, I was too intimidated to go back. The game relies on the player remembering a lot of secret paths and mechanics. That handy instruction manual I mentioned is written half in a runic script that really dedicated players are supposed to decipher.

Tunic has a wonderful sense of atmosphere and mystery and one of the year’s best soundtracks. I would have loved to have focused on it without getting interrupted. I still got a lot out of it. It’s one of the most memorable experiences I had this year.

God of War Ragnarok

In my 2018 video I listed the previous God of War as a disappointment. I have to issue an apology to that game. I replayed it in preparation for the sequel and connected with it a whole lot more the second time through. I came away thinking God of War 2018 is just shy of a masterpiece.

I wonder if I might have a similar experience when – if – I replay Ragnarok. It’s a very good game. It does a lot exceptionally well, but it exchanges the previous game’s elegant focus for a more sprawling, meandering narrative and world design.

Gragnarok has some terrific story beats and wonderful performances both in subtle and bombastic moments. But the overall narrative lacks the central thrust of the first game. Like a lot of prestige PlayStation games, there are pacing issues.

Sony Santa Monica decided to wrap up their Kratos-in-Norse-Mythology storyline in two games instead of the expected trilogy. There’s a lot of ground to cover in this game but the plot keeps starting and stopping which is especially problematic for the grand conclusion of a multi-game arc. I wonder if the story would have been more effective in a traditional three game-three act structure?

I enjoyed almost all of the time I spent with God of War Ragnarok. It plays incredibly well. It looks great. It has consistently compelling characters. But I can’t shake the feeling that the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II

Liking Call of Duty isn’t popular with the cool kid gamers. It isn’t sophisticated. It isn’t unique. It’s a jock game in a nerd-dominated space.

For years, I too ridiculed Call of Duty. But when I finally got the hang of playing FPS games on a controller, I saw the light.

Call of Duty’s core mechanics of moving and shooting are exquisite. They change subtly but meaningfully from year to year and title to title. The core is always solid and a lot of fun. Anyone who tells you differently either doesn’t like the genre or is too pretentious to enjoy the gaming equivalent of an amazing cheeseburger. I don’t listen to those kind of people.

I wasn’t going to buy Modern Warfare II but the open beta and a Black Friday sale changed my mind. I’m having a ton of fun with the multiplayer. The traditional modes are my bread and butter, but the new Invasion mode that takes place on bigger maps with larger teams filled out by AI grunts is a nice way to break things up and try different playstyles and weapons.

That’s all I’ve got. Time’s just about up on 2022. Happy New Year to all! Hope that 2023 treats us alright.


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