Friday, May 29, 2015

Comparing the NBA and NHL Playoffs

I have followed both the NBA and the NHL playoffs closely this spring, and it has been an interesting exercise in comparing the two, particularly as both leagues have taken a very different path to their respective Finals that will begin next week. Each of these league's playoffs have been interesting for their respective reasons. This year's NHL playoffs have been very intriguing, with multiple multiple-OT games and comebacks and new rivalries aplenty and this weekend featuring Game 7 in both NHL Conference Finals.  The  narrative has focused on whether the Rangers can win the Cup (after losing it last year), whether the Hawks can make the case for a "dynasty" with three Championships in 6 years (which is probably as close as you can get in the new NHL), or whether the Lightning and/or Ducks can break through.

It seemed that anyone who had watched these Stanley Cup Playoffs - particularly these series - had little doubt that the teams that trailed 3 games to 2 - the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers - would win their respective Game 6s and force the series to the distance. Both teams demonstratively won their games, and for the second time in 34 years, both Conference Finals are going to Game 7; the last time was in 2000, when the Devils-Flyers and Stars-Avalanche series both went to the limit. In the modern era of Conference Finals in the NHL (since 1982), these are the 15th and 16th series to go to seven games out of 68 total possible times, marking just over 20% of the time that a berth in the Stanley Cup Final rests on one game. And people remember these games, even decades later; I wasn't even really a Leafs fan yet, and I still remember the 1993 series against the Kings.

This year's NBA playoffs are being met with less enthusiasm, and many commentators are lamenting the dearth of competition in this year's playoffs, save for the Spurs-Clippers series in Round 1 that went to a classic last-second ending in Game 7. It's a bit of a misnomer, as the NBA's second round series between Golden State and Memphis and Cleveland and Chicago provided some great last-second heroics, but the overall feeling of a fait accompli of the Finals between Golden State and Cleveland has pervaded these playoffs. At any rate, it makes for an interesting time for comparison between the two leagues.

On Game 7 and the Conference Finals

Despite the competitive imbalance apparent in the NBA Conference Finals this year, I was curious to see how the NBA usually stacked up against the NHL in providing entertaining matchups in the penulimate round, and I was actually surprised at what I found. Game 7s are actually slightly more prevalent in the NBA Conference Finals, with 21 out of 90 possible since 1971 (a rate of 23%), a fact that surprised me at first until I considered it more deeply. There are a few reasons why I think this is the case.

1. Upsets are much more common in the NHL playoffs. I could go through the stats to back this up, but that would be a lot of work to prove what is certainly true: there are more lower seeds that win in NHL series than in the NBA, especially in the first round. The NHL tends to provide a more equalized field in the playoffs, and it has even happened that a team seeded 8th has won the Cup in convincing fashion (the LA Kings in 2012 after leading each series 3-0). Even this year, two of the four Conference Finalists (Tampa Bay and Chicago) were upset victors in their previous series. In basketball, on the other hand, the best teams are the best; in the past 35 years, only a handful of teams not seeded between 1st and 3rd in their conference have made it to the Finals, and there is only one notable example (1995 Houston Rockets) of a lower-seeded team winning the title. More upsets in the early rounds in the NHL in both theory and practice means that there are more imbalanced series in the Conference Finals, a fact that bears up both anecdotally and statistically.

2. More series go to Game 7 in the first two rounds in the NHL playoffs than in the NBA. In the 13 playoffs since 2003, when the NBA extended the First Round to Best-of-7 from a Best-of-5, there have been 32 series that have gone the distance in the NBA, including a ridiculous five in 2014. In the same time span in the NHL, 44 series have gone the distance, an average of almost one additional series each year. That means that NHL teams are likely more tired by the time they hit the Conference Finals and that, correspondingly, fewer series are likely to go to Game 7.

3. It is easier for one player to dominate a basketball series than a hockey series. Other than a hot goaltender, it is very difficult for one player to swing a series in hockey; in basketball, however, it is much easier for a player to take over for a game or two and to push the series further.

4. Hockey is a more "momentary" game. As mentioned, the best team almost always wins in an NBA series. It is rare that a team comes away feeling that they played a better series and still lost, even in the case of an upset. I suppose it seems a little facetious to assert that the team that lost could be the "best team" (which by definition should seem to apply to the winner), but it is more likely that the "best team" can lose a hockey series due to moments. An OT goal here, a great save there - it's a lot easier for a hockey series to be won or lost in a moment than an NBA series, which is why it seems less likely that as many NHL Conference Finals go the distance.

5. Basketball, unlike hockey, is measured in dynasties and legacies, and teams and players are usually only legitimized by multiple titles. In hockey, almost every player eventually gets their shot at the Cup; not everyone wins it, of course, but almost everyone gets a shot at some point. Furthermore, a hockey player's legacy can be justified with just one Cup win, especially if it is very memorable. The NBA's history is full of players who just could not be the best, and even if they had some success, it was limited by the teams and players who were better. Think of the 1990s Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle Supersonics, or Utah Jazz; all teams that had success, some even making it to the Finals, but all of whom ended up in the shadow of the defining player of their generation: Michael Jordan. Every once in a while, a team sneaks through (the 2004 Detroit Pistons beating the loaded L.A. Lakers or the 2006 Miami Heat beating the Mavericks come immediately to mind), but the narrative of the NBA typically revolves around its best teams and players. But this also means that, since players have more on the line, that the best teams will push themselves to the limit more often, meaning that the series that in theory should feature the best teams (ie. the Conference Finals) would be more likely to go to Game 7.

So there are my thoughts on the difference between the NBA and NHL in terms of why the Conference Finals go longer slightly more often in the NBA, but also as a reflection on the difference between watching the two sports. I'm enjoying them both about equally this year, and I think that no matter what happens over the next two nights of hockey that we're in store for a great Stanley Cup Final. I also think that Golden State and Cleveland has the possibility to be a great series, and that despite the injuries on both teams that this will be a legacy-making series. Also, the great thing for LeBron is that he has nothing to lose; if he wins, big bonus, but if he loses, he's still the only player since the 1960s Celtics to make five Finals in a row, and he has cemented his legacy as one of the top players of all time (top ten for sure, maybe even top five).

And for anyone keeping score at home, my rate of predicting the playoff series winners in both leagues has been comparable so far. My NBA picks, though still strong overall, have been slightly less successful, with three series in total incorrect so far thanks to the Clippers beating the Spurs in the first round; I still have both Finalists active, though, so I'll take that as a point in my favour. My NHL picks rest on the events of the next two days: if both Chicago and New York manage to win, I'll have picked both Finalists correctly; if they lose, I'll have proven just how fickle trying to pick winners really is in hockey - or at least that's what I'll tell myself if I'm wrong. After all, anything can happen in Game 7, right?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Spiel des Jahres: a retrospective (1995-2015)

The nominees for the 2015 Spiel des Jahres (SdJ for short) were announced on Monday, May 18. I don't see how you could have missed it with all the media attention it received. What? You missed it? Well, let me tell you a little story about board games in Germany and why this should matter before I discuss this year's nominees.

The Spiel des Jahres is a "game of the year" prize given to the best family-style board game to be released in Germany during the previous year. For the first several years, starting in 1979, games were eligible every year they were published, so some of the early winners were games that had been in production for years. The SdJ was a fairly small enterprise for its first decade and a half, but that all changed in 1995 with the publishing of a little game called The Settlers of Catan - you've probably heard of it. Since then, the SdJ has received significant attention both in the gaming community and beyond, and nominations often result in significant sales increases for winners and some nominees.

Games are evaluated on four criteria: game concept (originality, playability, game value); rule structure (composition, clearness, comprehensibility); layout (box, board, rules); and design (functionality, workmanship). From all of the releases during the year, the panel selects three nominees in each of three categories: Spiel des Jahres; the Kennerspiel des Jahres, a category created in 2011 for "connoisseurs" who appreciate slightly more complex (but not too complex) games; and the Kinderspiel des Jahres, which focusses on games made for children that are outside of my experience and expertise (as they are for many gamers without young kids).

Thoughts on this year's nominees

The nominees for the 2015 SdJ are Colt Express, "The Game" [arguably the worst title for a game ever], and Machi Koro. The Game was a significant surprise, as it has not obtained much popularity outside Germany, but the other two were widely picked (including by me). There were also six additional titles recommended by the SdJ jury (which means they were close to being nominated, but not quite good enough): Abraca...what?, Cacao, Loony Quest, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Patchwork, and UGO! Of the three, I have only played Machi Koro - which I suspect will be the winner when it is announced in July - and I really enjoy it as a light filler, especially with the Harbour expansion. I will play Patchwork this week, and Cacao is also on my radar to play soon.

The nominees for the 2015 Kennerspiel are: Broom Service, Elysium, and Orleans; the recommended titles are Deus, Fields of Arle, and The Voyages of Marco Polo. The big surprise here was the complete shut out of Five Tribes, which many prognosticators had thought would actually win the award, as well as of designer Stefan Feld, whose releases La Isla and Aquasphere have both been very well received. I have only played Deus of the this group, as several have not yet been released in North America; I really enjoyed my one play of it, and I think it will have some staying power. I'm keen to try all but Broom Service, as they have all been widely anticipated titles in the board game world. But I think that this year's Kennerspiel competition really speaks to just how impressive the industry is as a whole, as there are at least a half-dozen other games that could have been seriously considered for the award. I'm not sure which of the three nominees will win, but I'm sure I will enjoy playing all of them.

My thoughts on the SdJ

Much of the general critical thought on the SdJ and Kennerspiel from board gamers is mostly flippant disregard or cynicism. In one recent article on iSlaytheDragon - a site I frequent - the writer discusses this year's nominees and how to deal with the disappointment when your favourites are not nominated. (I do think, however, that his title - "When the Spiel des Jahres fails you" - is a little misleading, as he seems to have more faith and stock in the award than it would have you initially believe.) But one point he makes - and that I seek to make - is that the SdJ, whether for good or bad, has a lot of clout in board gaming, and that it is important to have such awards, even as a point of disagreement at times.

My original window into gaming was through the SdJ thanks to Catan; in that sense, it's kind of the meta-gateway game and a great starting point into the hobby. When I was first becoming aware of board games, I began with the SdJ winners; after all, they represented the best as chosen by a panel of experts. I suppose it's kind of like how a lot of people when they start getting into movies watch the Academy Award Best Picture winners because it just makes sense to do so. Of course, in the past several years of pursuing gaming as an interest and hobby, my experience and understanding of games has far exceeded those limits, and now I feel that I can speak with more authority into my thoughts on not only this year's nominees, but on the past two decades of SdJ winners since Catan changed the entire board gaming industry.

Reflecting on my experience with the SdJ

As I started to reflect on my experience as a gamer and I realized how much the SdJ influenced my early years of gaming, I thought that it might be useful as a tool to help others as they decide where to start. Much like I did in 2012 when I retroactively rated two decades of Best Picture winners at the Oscars, this is my attempt to rank the Spiel des Jahres winners of the modern (ie. since Catan) era since 1995, both on an institutional and a personal level. That's where

Full disclosure: I have played and I am very familiar with 14 of the 20 winners since 1995. The only games I have not played from those years are: Qwirkle (2011); Niagara (2005); Villa Paletti (2002); Elfenland (1998); and Mississippi Queen (1997). It's probably not a coincidence that this particular group of titles are considered some of the weakest winners of the modern gaming era (as I will discuss). Even though I'm not familiar with them from playing experience, I still have a fairly clear idea of their content and general reception, so my personally not having played them should not be seen as an invalidation of my entire discussion. I have, of course, not played all of the nominees from each year (that would represent hundreds of games), but I do feel that I can make some general comments and observations on the SdJ as a whole and on many of the individual games along the way.

Classifying the winners

Here are the winners from the past twenty years, along with their designers and publishers (thanks, Wikipedia!). (A list of the full winners, nominees, and recommended titles can be found here.)

2014Camel UpSteffen BogenEggertspiele
2013HanabiAntoine BauzaAbacusspiele
2012Kingdom BuilderDonald X. VaccarinoQueen Games
2011QwirkleSusan McKinley RossMindware Spiele
2010DixitJean-Louis RoubiraLibellud
2009DominionDonald X. VaccarinoRio Grande Games
2008KeltisReiner KniziaKosmos
2007ZoolorettoMichael SchachtAbacus Spiele
2006Thurn and TaxisAndreas Seyfarth and Karen SeyfarthHans im Glück
2005NiagaraThomas LieschingZoch Verlag
2004Ticket to RideAlan R. MoonDays of Wonder
2003AlhambraDirk HennQueen Games
2002Villa PalettiBill PayneZoch Verlag
2001CarcassonneKlaus-Jürgen WredeHans im Glück
2000TorresWolfgang Kramer and Michael KieslingRavensburger
1999TikalWolfgang Kramer and Michael KieslingRavensburger
1998ElfenlandAlan R. MoonAmigo Spiele
1997Mississippi QueenWerner HodelGoldsieber
1996El GrandeWolfgang Kramer and Richard UlrichHans im Glück
1995The Settlers of CatanKlaus TeuberKosmos

One of the first questions that I sought to answer was "which of these winners are the most essential to know?" That is, if I was bringing someone into the hobby, which games would I say are the "absolutely must play" and which ones are less significant? I decided to use boxing classifications to group the games into four categories of decreasing importance according to their critical, commercial, and general popular appeal.

Heavyweights: These are the big games - the games that have sold millions of copies and spawned franchises and changed board games. They are the ultimate mega-winners, the games that every gamer should know how to play and that are great gateways to the hobby. If you learn and understand these games, you will be able to play many more that use similar mechanics. They are within the top 150 or so on BGG. They are: The Settlers of Catan (1995); Carcassonne (2001); Ticket To Ride (2004); Dominion (2008)

Middleweights: The next level are the games that, in my opinion, have had some influence and staying power. Many of these games are still well-regarded on BoardGameGeek (top 150) or they have been commercially successful over the years (Alhambra, which ranks just under 300, but has sold many copies). They are: El Grande (1996); Tikal (1999); Alhambra (2003); Dixit (2010); and Hanabi (2013).

Lightweights: The next level are games that have some popular acclaim (between 250 and 500 on BGG) and that would be the next step for many gamers. Kingdom Builder might push up into a "middleweight" eventually, but for now I've put it here. They are: Torres (2000); Thurn and Taxis (2006); Zooloretto (2007); Qwirkle (2011); Kingdom Builder (2012); Camel Up (2014)

Flyweights: These are the games that are the least essential winners of the past decade. The main reason they are notable at all is because they won in their year (although I don't think most of them should have), and they rank between 500 and 1100 on BGG. (They are also, perhaps coincidentally, the games I have not played, but that likely just indicates that they are not really favoured much anymore. They are: Mississippi Queen (1997); Elfenland (1998); Villa Paletti (2002); Niagara (2005); and Keltis (2008).

Re-evaluating the winners

What has surprised me in this journey of reflection is that, for the most part, the SdJ jury has gotten it right. Even in the years that were a little weaker overall, they have usually picked the right game in terms of the criteria of the award and the general attitude toward the games of that particular year. But, as with any award, there are a few results that could (and probably should be questioned). Here are the seven years since 1995 that I would change with "retro SdJ" awards.

2014: Splendor (nominated) over Camel Up. This is my most debatable change, as Camel Up may prove to stand to the test of time. It's not that Camel Up is a bad game, per se; in fact, it's a lot of fun. It's that Splendor is such a great game that I feel like it should have been recognized, though I'm willing to concede that Splendor's efficiency might result in its fading over time.

2011: The Castles of Burgundy (recommended) over Qwirkle. Burgundy is a little on the heavy end for the SdJ now, but it's right in the company of Settlers, El Grande, and Tikal in terms of complexity. It is one of the top titles on BGG (number 10!), and it is still easy enough to learn despite the number of different little factors because the game itself is not very complicated. I'm somewhat surprised that it wasn't considered for the Kennerspiel that year, but I have a feeling that it did not fit there, either.

2008: Stone Age (nominated) over Keltis. This year had the feel of Martin Scorsese winning for The Departed at the Oscars, as long-time nominees and incredibly prolific designer Reinier Knizia finally won after many other games that should have. And, like those Oscars that overlooked Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men, there was a snub that seemed fairly inconceivable, even at the time: Stone Age, now considered one of the best introductory worker placement games, which have incredibly never won a SdJ (though Village did win the Kennerspiel in 2012).

2005: Power Grid (recommended) over Niagara. There is an elegance to the complexity of Power Grid, and the fact that a game with a mostly dry theme of rerouting power from plants to different cities has proven to be very popular is an indication of the game's quality. Power Grid would have been a likely shoo-in for the Kennerspiel, but let's give it the retro SdJ for now.

2002: Puerto Rico (nominated) over Villa Paletti. Puerto Rico is certainly far too complex for the SdJ now, but it should have won at the time. Villa Paletti is the token "dexterity" game of the series, kind of like how the Oscars have to choose a comedy every 25 years to go with all of the dramas. PR is still a top game, and it would be a shoo-in for the Kennerspiel if it had been awarded.

2000: Taj Mahal (recommended) OR Citadels (nominated) over Torres. The designers of Torres had won just a year earlier for a game that used the same action point mechanic, so this is an easy award to revise. If the criteria is in a sense of "needing to be awarded sometime", Knizia deserved to win at some point, and this is the best spot for him to take an award. Citadels, however, is such a great and simple game, and it has aged very well over the years, so I would also take it as a winner.

1997: Bohnanza (recommended) over Mississippi Queen. How many people play "the bean game" now compared to the relatively rare Queen? Bohnanza is great for kids and adults, it's fun, and it's a great gateway game (one of mine, actually). Plus, designer Uwe Rosenberg has only won a special award (deservedly in 2008 for "complex game" for Agricola), so this corrects another wrong.

And a quick note: the best game that still would not win, in my opinion, is Pandemic (2009); the grand-daddy of the popular growth in co-operative games lost that year to Dominion, the grandfather of deckbuilders, so it's not like that year's decision should be overturned. It's like There Will Be Blood losing Best Picture to No Country for Old Men; it's just a shame it could not end in a tie.

Personally ranking the winners

By now, you should have a sense of the kinds of winners I tend to favour. They are simple but still strategic, and they are the kinds of games that provide significant opportunity for replay. They are games that are easy to teach but that continue to grow with repeated plays. Perhaps the most obvious way to rank my opinions of the winners is to look at the number of plays I have for each one. When ranking by number of plays (accumulated since January 2011), here is my ranking of the games I have played.

  1. Dominion - 24
  2. Hanabi - 14
  3. Ticket To Ride (including Europe and maps) - 13
  4. Carcassonne - 12
  5. Dixit - 11
  6. Kingdom Builder - 8
  7. Alhambra / Tikal - 7 (T)
  8. Camel Up / Catan - 5 (T)
  9. Torres - 3
  10. El Grande / Thurn and Taxis - 2 (T)
  11. Zooloretto - 1 

(Note: I started tracking only in December 2010, so Carcassonne and Catan are significantly higher, whereas Ticket to Ride, Alhambra, and Thurn and Taxis should also be slightly higher.)

Of course, all that really tells you is which games I have played, not necessarily which games I would choose to play if given a choice. A number of these plays were default "played the game that other players knew" plays, and I'm not sure that this list necessarily represents my preferred order. There is something to be said about finding ways to play games more, but it's not always possible depending on your fellow players. I played a lot of Dominion for a while, but I don't much any more, so I think some further commentary might be needed. Here, then are my five real favourites - the SdJ winners I would choose to play the most - with some reasons of why I enjoy them, along with one honourable mention.

Honourable mention - El Grande. I have only played it twice, despite owning it for a year. It's such a great game; it just has a higher barrier to entry than its peers. I couldn't put it on my favourites with so few plays, but I would love to get it to the table much more often.

Carcassonne - One of the first games I really invested in, this game is both simple and very complex. It has (mostly) gotten better with expansions, and I have not yet found it to be lacking in either simplicity or strategy. It's as close to a perfect SdJ winner as there is.

Hanabi - Hanabi consists of 60 cards, and it is the only "small box" game to win the award, but it has a lot of gameplay. The notion of seeing the other players' cards and not your own keeps the game fresh, and I have never scored over 19 (out of 25) points.

Alhambra - Again, the balance of simplicity and strategy keeps me coming back to this game that uses both economics and spatial manipulation. Add in 26 different modules that are available to expand the game - some slightly, some significantly - and I'm still exploring it after 7 plays.

Kingdom Builder - The simplicity (one card and one action per turn) and variability (the modular board and randomly selected kingdom cards provide, with expansions, hundreds of millions of possible arrangements) make this one of my default gateway plays for non-gamers.

Tikal - Like El Grande, this is a game that I really enjoy and would love to play more. The action point system, the use of hexes, the intermittent scoring - it's just a very tight game.

On the Kennerspiel and other complex games

Previous to the institution of the Kennerspiel, the SdJ committee occasionally gave special awards to "complex games" that fell outside of the realm of the SdJ mainly because they were too strategically complicated for a family game. Although the award was officially awarded starting in 2011, there were "special awards" for complex games consistently given starting in 2006, which is a mostly accurate marker of when the board game industry as a whole became much more aware and celebratory of that level of games, thanks to the success of Andreas' Seyfarth's 2002 classic Puerto Rico. Here are the winners of the Kennerspiel and of those special awards back to 2006:
2014IstanbulRüdiger DornPegasus Spiele
2013Legends of AndorMichael MenzelFantasy Flight Games
2012VillageInka Brand and Markus Brandeggertspiele and Pegasus Spiele
20117 WondersAntoine BauzaRepos Production
2010Game Of The Year plusWorld Without EndMichael Rieneck and Stefan StadlerKosmos

New game worldsSpace AlertVlaada ChvátilCzech Games Edition
2008Complex gameAgricolaUwe RosenbergLookout Games
2007No special prize awarded
2006Complex gameCaylusWilliam AttiaẎstari Games

Unlike the SdJ, I think the committee has mostly gotten their choices correct, with one possible exception: 2013, when Legends of Andor won over Bruges as well as recommended titles Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar and Terra Mystica (numbers 16 and 2 on BGG, respectively). I have not played Legends of Andor, but the quality of those competitors leads me to believe that they missed the mark. 

The real question is what would have won in the years previous to the institution of the Kennerspiel. Here are my retro-Kennerspiel winners going back from 2010 to 1996.
2010 - Fresco
2009 - Le Havre
2008 - Agricola
2007 - Notre Dame
2006 - Caylus
2005 - Power Grid
2004 - Saint Petersburg
2003 - Amun-Re
2002 - Puerto Rico
2001 - Lord of the Rings
2000 - The Princes of Florence
1999 - Tikal (probably a little too complex for the SdJ, plus it allows Ra to take a retro SdJ for that year in my head.)
1998 - Tigris and Euphrates
1997 - Lowenherz
1996 - El Grande

Final thoughts on the Spiel des Jahres

I was pleasantly surprised at how I was able to be less cynical than I had expected with my re-evaluation of the SdJ. Sure, the award is a little more watered down now than it was, and it does not nearly capture the breadth and depth of the complexity of the industry as a whole; then again, what award actually does that for its medium? The SdJ actually does a surprisingly good job of capturing the spirit of the European market, and one of the biggest criticisms its detractors have is that they mostly ignore American games. That is changing - after all, several winners of the past few years are American - and the rise of awards through websites like The Dice Tower and Board Game Geek are counteracting that imbalance.

The Spiel des Jahres does remain a good gateway into the hobby, and perhaps the best point in its favour is that it does give wider exposure to board games in general. I'm glad to have had the experience I have had with the SdJ, and I will still pay attention to it, even if I do not necessarily always agree with or enjoy the games that are picked. I know that they are games that will mostly get wider exposure, and much like watching movies that achieve a certain level of popular attention, I will play most of these games to get a sense of what they offer to the gaming world. But I do find my personal tastes diverging somewhat from the SdJ; come to think of it, many of my choices fairly closely mirror another German game award, the Deutscher Spiele Pries (DSP), so maybe I should just pay more attention to that award when it comes out in October. In the meantime, I have a few games to play before the SdJ and Kennerspiel are announced in early July...

Friday, May 08, 2015

Review: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

[Spoiler alert! If you haven't watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I cannot guarantee that spoilers will not follow. Proceed at your own risk.]

As I came out of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, my initial reaction was that I was both overstimulated and underwhelmed. I enjoyed the movie, and I will definitely see it again, and I definitely appreciate what Whedon was trying to do and what he ultimately accomplished, but I also agree with the general feeling among critics and moviegoers that something was slightly amiss. It seems that even Whedon himself might be slightly disappointed with the film, as his original cut was significantly longer and he has indicated in interviews that making this movie drained him, leading him to bow out of directing the next Avengers movies.

As I have considered what I watched and read the general critical analysis of the film, one fact has stood out: it's not so much about the movie itself, but it's about the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Much of the analysis has included or even revolved around this fact, and I have realized that many of my issues with the movie were not with Whedon's vision for the film but in the overarching narrative that is being attempted with the MCU. But in order to really understand this point, we need to return to what things were like Before Joss.

The world before The Avengers

It's a slam dunk now to make all of these movies, but let's be honest: superhero movies were not always the immensely successful enterprise they are today, and the formative years were bipolar at best. X-Men and Spider-Man and their immediate sequels were huge successes, but those early years (2000-2005) also featured Ang Lee's Hulk, Daredevil, Elektra, and Catwoman. The next few years (2005-2008) featured more experiments, some of which were successful: Hellboy and Batman Begins chief among them. Of course, for every success, there was a Ghost Rider or Fantastic Four (or 2) or X-Men: The Last Stand or Spid-Emo (AKA Spider-Man 3). In short, nothing about superhero movies - even their possible profitability - was entirely assured when Marvel started its Phase 1 in 2008.

That brings us to 2008, the year that superhero movies changed. Iron Man established Marvel itself (not the Sony or Fox versions) as a power player, and The Dark Knight established the new ceiling for superhero movies (a ceiling that has yet to be exceeded critically and commercially other than by The Avengers' domestic gross). There's a lot of talk now about "Phase 1", but without Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man hitting big, the MCU as we know it doesn't work. And here's what's really interesting: Marvel's Phase 1 was actually not that great. The Incredible Hulk was middling, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger had some serious drags and lags, and Iron Man 2 was mostly a mess. Despite the relative commercial success of the films, there was reason to have some significant doubts about The Avengers, save for one important factor: Joss Whedon.

The Avengers was far from a sure thing when it was being hyped in the lead up to its release in 2012, and it was really questionable whether it would work to put all of these characters together. But Joss made it work, and although fans of Buffy, Firefly, or even Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog believed he could do it, everyone still had some doubts that it just might not work. So when The Avengers worked fantastically, between Loki's antics, a Hulk that erased all memories of previous attempts, Joss' pinpoint-sharp dialogue, and a rollicking good time, it erased all memories of any misgivings that had come in the five years leading up to it and expanded the Marvel (and superhero) movie universe to the sprawling behemoth we know now.

Phase Two

Since then, we have been treated to an increasingly labyrinthine series of sequels that have continued to build the world with the inexorable pull toward The Avengers: Age of UltronIron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier mostly served as lead ups to this summer's showdown, and my viewing of those three films was driven at least in part by a sense of inevitability rather than intrinsic desire to see them, though Iron Man 3 and Winter Soldier were at least entertaining on their own. Thor: The Dark World, on the other hand...

The only notable exception: Guardians of the Galaxy, which had the privilege to do what it wanted in the way it wanted with having to worry only minimally about being part of the MCU, its main nod to the primary storyline a somewhat abstract line about infinity stones that works on its own in the movie's cosmic context. The appeal of Guardians was what had been appealing initially about The Avengers; it gave us a chance to experience something that felt new and fresh, and we didn't know how it was going to work out. This brings us to Age of Ultron and its seemingly (and ultimately) impossible task: to take something that has started to feel tired and bloated and to make it feel fresh again. Spoiler alert - it didn't exactly work.

Reviewing Age of Ultron

Unfortunately, Ultron succumbed to the temptations of the MCU, which is what I imagine had Whedon feel burnt out and leaving its confines after this movie's completion. As I mentioned earlier, the problems were not with the story itself, nor were they with the villain Ultron, as some critics have asserted. The problem was with this insatiable need to make the whole thing fit together like some sort of inscrutable jigsaw puzzle that will not be fully visualized for another five years. I suppose it is possible that we could look back on Ultron after Civil War and Infinity War and see how the whole thing was meant to work, but it's just as likely that the general current malaise about the film will continue to pervade and perhaps even influence the way in which the future entries are received.

The bottom line is that Ultron is a bit of a mess. It has half a dozen scenes that don't seem to fit in the context of the rest of the movie, it has plot lines that seem to go nowhere, and it raises more questions than it gives answers - and not in an entirely satisfactory way. I counted two dozen different characters to track in this movie, and some of those were references to movies that will not be released for three years. That's a long time to wait for what will ultimately amount to more than glorified easter eggs for many of these one-off scenes. It seemed that there was almost as much time and attention devoted to things outside of the movie as there was to those in the movie. With that said, I think that the future will be kinder to this episode, especially once the extended cut that Whedon had originally intended is released on the home video release. There are a lot of great moments visually, narratively, comedically, and in regard to character, and many moments worked well despite being hamstrung by the needs of the MCU.

The future of the MCU

"There are two ways Marvel can go from here. As the MCU sprawls out, it could become a gangly mess of plots, characters, and themes that intersect only when it's convenient for Marvel and its creatives - you could consider this the comic-book approach, in which there's a huge amount of room to fill. Or Marvel could make a heroic effort to keep it tight, requiring tremendous amounts of coordination and overlap that could constrain the movies to a degree that eventually suffocates the life out of them; this appears to be more or less the reason why Edgar Wright left Ant-Man. That's the point at which these films would really start to feel like products instead of porous, shapeshifting things; it's a line they've been walking from day one."
- Kevin Lincoln ("Masters of the Universe: Marvel's Unprecedented Storytelling Gamble"), Grantland, May 6, 2012)

When The Avengers was released in 2012, there were no specific plans for the future. It was known that there would be another Avengers movie and that Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor had sequels coming up, and there was rampant speculation about the Winter Soldier and Civil War and the Infinity Gauntlet, but none of that was finalized before The Avengers. This time around, Marvel has their schedule set for the next five years: Ant-Man (July 2015); Captain America: Civil War (2016); Doctor Strange (2016); Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017); Thor: Ragnarok (2017); Spider-Man (2017); Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 (2018); Black Panther (2018); Captain Marvel (2018); Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 (2019); and Inhumans (2019).

Civil War in and of itself seems like it will be as significant - if not more so - than The Avengers movies have been, with well over a dozen characters making an appearance and the movie itself feeling like an Avengers movie. Between the integration of the movies and television, the MCU is only becoming increasingly (and arguably unnecessarily) complicated, and it's too much of a cash cow to shelve any of the heroes for any amount of time. If Ultron is proof of what's to come - and there is little reason to believe that it isn't - the next several years will feature even more intricate efforts to integrate all of these stories, and those efforts will succeed with varying levels of success.

A personal perspective

As for me, it seems most likely that I will continue to alternate between being perplexed and enraptured by what the MCU is trying to do, much as I was by moments of Age of Ultron. What remains, however, is that I am not really frustrated as I might have expected to be at one point; I'm actually rather indifferent to the whole enterprise (though the number of words I have used in this explanation may otherwise belie that fact). I think that the years of inundation with superhero movies have numbed me beyond the point of being outraged, as I was at one point by Spider-Man 3. I think that Ultron is an example of what the future holds. Despite my misgivings about where the MCU may go, I'm still in for the ride. I'll probably increase my distance from its confines, continuing to eschew it on the small screen, but I'm still interested to see where it goes. I'll probably watch Age of Ultron again, maybe even in theatres; heck, I'm even tempted to give Ant-Man a chance.

After all, the seeds of my interest in the MCU goes back to when I was eight years old and my collection of Marvel cards started to shape my interest in the whole Marvel universe. I suppose that childish fanboy tendency will never truly fade away, and that, as indifferent as I might be (or try to convince myself I am), that there is a part of me that wants this whole thing to work, and that, like Whedon, there is probably a part of me that is disappointed or even heart-broken when it doesn't - the eight-year-old part of me, perhaps. Age of Ultron was good, but it could have been great, and my hope is that the kids who grow up watching these movies know there could be even more possible.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 2nd Round Update

Alright, so I'm a couple of days late in posting this, but I figured that it would be better late than never. Rest assured, these were my picks at the beginning of the second round. But first, a quick review of my first round picks. The only series I got wrong was Vancouver over Calgary, and I think almost everyone got that one wrong. I got half of the series lengths correct as well; I thought the Jets would steal a game, and they didn't and the Senators stole one game more than I thought they would. The only one I got wrong was that Detroit put up more of a fight with Tampa than I expected, but the end result was still the same. Just to review, here were my picks in Round 1.

Eastern Conference:

Montreal over Ottawa in 5: RIGHT team, wrong number of games.
Tampa Bay over Detroit in 5: RIGHT team, wrong number of games.
Washington over New York Islanders in 7: RIGHT team, right number of games.
New York Rangers over Pittsburgh in 5: RIGHT team, right number of games.

Western Conference:

Anaheim over Winnipeg in 5: RIGHT team, wrong number of games.
Vancouver over Calgary in 7: WRONG team, wrong number of games.
Minnesota over St. Louis in 6: RIGHT team, right number of games.
Chicago over Nashville in 6: RIGHT team, right number of games.

Second Round Commentary and Picks

Since I had such a successful first round, I have very little to add or change from my previous picks, other than a few notes on each series and the length of each series.

Western Conference:

Anaheim (1) vs. Calgary (3): I just don't see Calgary overcoming the physical powerhouse of the Ducks, who may have now become a possible Finals contender. I think the Flames can heart out a game at home, so I'll say Ducks in 5.

Chicago (3) vs. Minnesota (4): Both teams looked great in the first round, but this is where recent playoff history and the veterans should take over. Chicago in 6.

Eastern Conference:

New York (1) vs. Washington (2): New York looked really good in the first round, while the Caps had some struggles. This is the fifth time in seven years that the teams have met, and I just don't see Washington overcoming them this time. That said, if they do, I think this could be Ovie's shot at the Finals. New York in 6.

Montreal (1) vs. Tampa Bay (2): Both teams looked good in the first round, but both teams had weaknesses as well. I think this one is a toss up now, but I'll stick with my earlier pick and go with Tampa Bay in 7.

Final Notes and Thoughts

So, in spite some early apparent mismatches (Tampa and Chicago both up 2-0 in their series), I think that most of this second round should be really good hockey, and no matter which teams make it through to the Conference Finals, they should be entertaining. There have already been a couple of great games (that Chicago-Nashville Game 4 that went to Triple OT comes to mind) and a few standout performances from young teams and players, and I'm sure there will be more to come.


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