How Fantasy Inspires Hope Part 2

Now let’s fast forward a couple decades to meet two very different ragtag bunches of misfits in the land of Exandria.

The Legend of Vox Machina


This show started out as an animated adaptation of a very long-running web series where a bunch of nerdy voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons. (Yes, I memorized the tagline.) But for the purposes of this blog, I’m looking at how the team in the animated series inspired hope in a time when hope is very hard to come by.


The mercenaries that make up Vox Machina are way more chaotic, crass, and dysfunctional than the Fellowship of the Ring. At the very first episode, the druid Keyleth even questions why they’re still together when they have nothing in common. Vax and Vex only look out for themselves and their own needs, Pike and Keyleth have morals that conflict with the rest of the group, Grog and Scanlan both act as the “id” of the group with very basic motivations (ale and sex), and Percy treats everyone with disdain.


However, in spite of their differences, the team works well together. Vax and Vex act as the leaders, keeping everyone in line and encouraging them, albeit in very unorthodox ways. Vax has an ongoing competitive rivalry with Grog, akin to Legolas and Gimli’s friendly rivalry. Grog and Pike have basically been friends forever and Grog’s straightforward honesty helps Pike with realizing that she can still serve the Everlight and still be a part of Vox Machina (as crass as they are). Scanlan gets the chance to prove that he’s more than a joke by going off on his own to distract Duke Vedmire, one of the baddies living in Whitestone. Vax helps Keyleth with her confidence issues.


The best example of Vox Machina’s unlikely but heartwarming bond is how they all decide to help Percy once Lord and Lady Briarwood enter the picture. Percy spends most of the season keeping Vox Machina at arms length as a coping mechanism. Since Percy already lost his family to the very sudden and violent coup that the Briarwoods pulled, he doesn’t let anyone else in for fear of losing anyone else.
Percy was focused on one thing and one thing only: Vengeance for the death of his family.

The animated series starts off with Vox Machina taking down a dragon, but this very typical fairy tale task was no easy feat. In fact, their first encounter with the dragon was a near-disaster, leading to the dragon desecrating an entire village. Thankfully, with a bit of ingenuity, the team manages to slay the dragon and avenge the deaths of the villagers.

The real arc, however, begins when Lord and Lady Briarwood come to Emon. As soon as I realized that the Briarwoods were vampires, I screamed with excitement. Vampire hunting is one of my favorite things, after all. But what really made it compelling were the personal stakes: Percy’s vendetta was against the Briarwoods.

The party journeys to Percy’s hometown of Whitestone, which has a very bleak aesthetic due to the Briarwoods taking the town over. Much like Star Wars, however, there’s a band of residents who act as the Resistance. Percy is quickly tasked with rallying the Resistance members, as he is the only surviving member of the De Rolo’s who’s out of reach from the Briarwoods.

There are two moments in The Legend of Vox Machina that inspire hope for me. Both of them came from the episode “The Tide of Bone,” which is my favorite episode of the season.

The first moment is when Percy decides to rise to the occasion, just as everyone has their backs to the Sun Tree as an army of undead surrounds them. This is the first and only time thus far that Percy ever used his full name. (In the livestream, Taliesen introduced Percy with the full name every time they met someone.)

The other moment I wanted to share is, well, basically a deus ex machina/divine intervention. But Vox Machina made it work:

Even though Pike was separated from her friends, she found her resolve. She realized that she loved her friends and that being a bit chaotic wasn’t in conflict with her job as a cleric for The Everlight. Pike becomes the hope that Whitestone needed, inspiring the rest of Vox Machina into fighting back.

The entire arc in Whitestone shows instances of the members of Vox Machina rising to the occasion. Before the battle at the Sun Tree, Scanlan succeeded in distracting Duke Vedmire while the rest of the team rescued Percy’s sister, Cassandra. Grog helps the team escape from an acid trap. Vex holds the team together, even when her brother is charmed by the Briarwoods and taken away. When the team finally takes on the Briarwoods at the Ziggurat, Keyleth unleashes her full potential and literally lets the sunshine in, destroying Silas.

The Legend of Vox Machina was one of the few things that made me smile this year. As of now, I’m deep into Critical Role. I’ve watched the Vox Machina adventures up until the end of the Briarwood Arc and now I’m enjoying myself with the misadventures of the Mighty Nein.

Something I love about the Mighty Nein thus far is just how relatable they feel. The members of Vox Machina eventually became, well, the stuff that legends speak of. The members of the Mighty Nein all have mysterious pasts and live in less of a fantasy world a la Lord of the Rings and more of a Game of Thrones style kingdom, even with all the fantasy elements. The land of Wildmount is a lot more barbaric and harsh with an Empire and lots of underground criminal activity. And yet I still find myself wishing I was adventuring with this ragtag bunch of misfits.

I’m not exactly sure what it is about the Mighty Nein that inspires hope. It might be because they’re aware of the powers that be and have the potential to bring down establishments. It might just be because they’re full of puns. But regardless, I’m having a very good time.

How Fantasy Inspires Hope Part 1

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

JRR Tolkien-On Fairy Stories

I mentioned on my last blog post that fairy tales always teach a lesson. As cheesy and contrived as it sounds, I’ve always been drawn towards stories that are a lot more fantastical than realistic. When I was a child, I grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. Now that I’m an adult, however, the fantasy stories that inspire me and give me the most hope comes from two vastly different works: The Lord of the Rings and The Legend of Vox Machina (and the related adventures of the Mighty Nein on Critical Role).

These two works couldn’t be any more different. The Lord of the Rings is a very traditional, safe epic fantasy. The Legend of Vox Machina is crass and gory and chaotic. What these works have in common, however, is the hope that even the least likely of people can rise to the occasion and become heroes.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy isn’t shy about showing the horrors of war and how people with the best of intentions can be corrupted. There are three scenes from each of the movies that I want to talk about along with my favorite part of The Legend of Vox Machina and my thoughts so far of the Mighty Nein campaign. All of these moments that I’ll go into inspire hope in the most unique and strangest of ways.

My Favorite Parts from The Lord of the Rings

The Fellowship of the Ring

I can literally count the number of movies that made me cry on one hand. The moment where Boromir dies is one of them.

In the context of the book, this is the turning point, where all hope seems lost. The Fellowship has broken apart by Boromir’s betrayal. Merry and Pippin are taken captive. Sam and Frodo have gone off on their own.

And yet, it’s the exchange between Aragorn and Boromir that creates a glimmer of hope in the Fellowship’s first darkest hour. Boromir laments his despair, but Aragorn makes a promise.

Aragorn promises to protect Gondor and to honor Boromir’s desire to defend their people. This is when Aragorn finally accepts his calling to be the king that was promised. Then Boromir’s dying words are a vow. If circumstances were different, he would have followed Aragorn to the end of the line, serving his true king. And mind you, this was the same guy that earlier claimed “Gondor needs no king.”

Even though this scene makes me cry every time I watch it, Aragorn’s promise (and really Aragorn himself) is the spark of hope. This wasn’t going to be the end for the Fellowship.

The Two Towers

Tolkien fans pretty much have Sam’s speech memorized by this point. During the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the Battle of Isengard, all hope seems lost again. But as Sam inspires Frodo, we see shots of the battles turning around.

The context of this scene is especially poignant. Sam and Frodo have no clue how everyone else is doing or how their journey will end. Frodo just tried to kill Sam in a moment of despair, but Sam takes it in stride. Sam and Frodo have no idea that Merry and Pippin are taking back Isengard with the Ents. They have no idea that Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf are turning the tide at Helm’s Deep. In fact, they assumed that Gandalf is dead because the last time they saw him, he fell to his death in the Mines of Moria.

And yet, in spite of all this seeming despair, Sam holds onto hope. It seems so foolish and yet it’s all that Sam has. This hopeful speech is enough to bring Gollum to tears and convinces Faramir to let them go on ahead to Mordor.

Now that’s what I call a Natural 20 on your performance roll.

Return of the King

There’s a moment in the original book that wasn’t included in the movie:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

I think this quote sums up how Tolkien creates heroes and inspires hope in his stories. Instead of taking the Beowulf/Might Makes Right approach and creating an ultra-strong, muscular protagonist who fights and kills his way out of every problem, Tolkien’s heroes are all clever, wise, and empathetic.

This extends to the prophecy/poem:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

In this movie, Sam and Aragorn both shine as beacons of hope. My favorite moment of Aragorn’s is when he literally summons an army of ghosts and promises that when they fight on his behalf, their debt will be repaid and their souls will be laid to rest. This shows that hope can come even to those who have passed on.

Sam’s best moment, of course, is when he chooses to carry Frodo into the fires of Mount Doom. Even though a handful of characters resisted the Ring’s allure, Sam was the only one that the Ring couldn’t corrupt and this is way more evident in the book than in the movie.

You see, to quote one of my favorite musicals, the opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.

Sam’s desires are simple: to have a happy life in the Shire with a garden to tend to and a family to raise. This desire couldn’t be distorted by the Ring in any sense. So it’s no surprise that Sam willingly gives the Ring back to Frodo, even if Frodo couldn’t resist the Ring himself.

While a lot of people complain about how the last part of Return of the King went on for a long time with its multiple endings, I honestly didn’t mind because it shows the payoff to everything that the Company has been through. They finally get the happy reunion they deserve. However, Frodo is still unable to completely heal from his scars and so goes off to the West with Bilbo and the Elves from Rivendell. There’s an implied promise that Sam and the other Hobbits may soon follow Frodo into the west as well.

(Side note: It feels so poetic that the place where Tolkien passed away just happened to be a seaside town. It’s like the author himself decided to sail off into the West and join his creations.)

Come back here tomorrow for Part 2 where we go into the land of Exandria and meet a couple of different unlikely heroes.

The Fairy Tale Motifs in Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness

For the longest time, Disney had this reputation of sanitizing fairy tales for a family-friendly audience. Now that Disney has evolved into an eldritch abomination of a mega-corporation, however, there’s a movie within the umbrella that takes fairy tales back to their horror-themed roots: Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness.

Spoilers for Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness.

Each of the main characters in this movie fall under a fairy tale archetype. While the movie is categorized as horror, fairy tales and horror have a long history of going together. The original Brothers Grimm fairy tales usually had some sort of body horror along with lots of dark atmospheric settings.

America Chavez: The Princess In Distress

Yes, my dear readers, America Chavez is secretly a Disney Princess. And like a lot of Disney Princesses, she starts out as a damsel in distress. This precocious young girl is in way over her head with powers she doesn’t understand along with demons chasing after her. However, America learns that she needs to tap into her self-confidence and trust in her ability to hone her powers. Once she does so, she ends up saving the day. I really hope that I see more of America Chavez in future MCU installments.

Wong: The Noble Knight

Wong is the Sorcerer Supreme and while he plays a supporting role in this movie, his archetype is that of the Noble Knight. He is stalwart, courageous, and loyal to his friends. He stands up to the villain and keeps Doctor Strange in check.

Wong seriously needs his own movie or series on Disney Plus.

Christine Palmer: The Helper-Maiden

In Saint George and the Dragon as well as the myths of Jason and Medea (and Theseus and Ariadne), the helper-maiden is a woman who helps the hero. Christine Palmer is essentially Doctor Strange’s anchor, reminding him of what he needs to do. Much like Wong, Christine constantly questions Strange and does her best to protect America Chavez.

Wanda Maximoff: The Evil Witch/Queen

Every fairy tale has one. And I’m not gonna lie: Wanda being the villain of this movie hurt, especially after Wandavision. Corrupted by the Darkhold and driven by a grief that she hasn’t been able to process, Wanda grasps at dark powers, all for the desire to have some sense of control over her life.

What separates Wanda from every other Evil Witch and Evil Queen is that her motivations are ones that any grieving mother and widow can understand. And eventually, she learns her lesson, realizing that she turned into a monster that frightens her own children.

(I also do not think that Wanda is dead, even with her collapsing the Darkhold tower around her. She is way too powerful to go down that easily.)

Doctor Stephen Strange: The Clever Trickster

Doctor Strange’s archetype is one that’s found more often in mythologies and folklore than fairy tales. The Clever Trickster takes the form of the cunning fox or the sly crow, the gods Hermes and Odin, and Loki, heroes like Odysseus, Jason, and Theseus.

Doctor Strange’s lesson in this movie is humility. Every other Strange in every other universe was arrogant, prone to corruption, and always took charge at the expense of what everyone else needed. Strange knows better than anyone that actions have consequences and by the end, he takes a good step in humility by bowing to Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme and his most trusted friend.

One other way that Doctor Strange learns humility is that he is humble enough to let Christine Palmer be happy. Even though he loves Christine, he won’t hold her or any other version of her hostage. Their love was never meant to be and Strange has accepted that.

I’ll end this blog post with a quote from GK Chesterton, who knew a thing or two about fairy tales:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

And that is why fairy tales and horror go hand in hand.

How Moon Knight Reminds Me of Anime

It’s said in the MCU fandom that each MCU film and show falls under a different genre. For example, Captain America: The First Avenger was a historical wartime film while Guardians of the Galaxy would be considered more of a sci-fi action/comedy. In the case of Moon Knight, the best genre I can compare this show to is actually anime.

Anime in and of itself has many genres, but elements of Moon Knight reminded me a lot of various anime shows I watched. Here’s a list as to how:

1) The Egyptian/Middle Eastern aesthetic of Moon Knight’s costume reminded me of Moonlight Knight from Sailor Moon R.

Back in the very early days of Sailor Moon’s infamous DIC English dub, there was a filler arc in the 2nd season (Sailor Moon R) where Darien/Mamoru’s “subconscious” manifested itself into an Arabian Night inspired hero called Moonlight Knight, complete with a saber sword and everything. I mean, look at this picture.

The resemblance is uncanny.

2) Like Sailor Moon, Steven Grant starts out as a crybaby but develops into a courageous monster hunter

Steven Grant is, by far, the most relatable reluctant hero in the MCU. He’s got the most ordinary job: gift shop worker and inventory for a museum in England. However, he also struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder and he was unaware of his condition until he comes across the villain, Arthur Harrow. And even when Steven Grant tries out the Moon Knight powers for the first time, he doesn’t get things perfect right away. By the end of the series, Steven developed his own fighting style.

It’s very similar to how Usagi Tsukino became Sailor Moon. She started out as a below-average middle school student who gets powers she doesn’t understand. When she goes into her first fight, she literally cries so hard, her wails turn into a sonic scream. However, like Steven Grant, Usagi eventually develops into a true soldier of love and justice.

3) The relationship the hero has with the supernatural world

There are a lot of anime shows involve protagonists with some connection to the supernatural world. Dragon Ball Z was partially inspired by The Legend of Sun Wukong which includes lots of gods and mythical figures from Chinese mythology. Yu Yu Hakusho featured an entire underworld and one of the supporting characters was a psychopomp, a guide of lost souls. In these anime, the supernatural world interacts with the world of the anime, having real consequences.

Moon Knight is the first show outside of the Thor movies to have a connection with an established pantheon of gods. What makes Moon Knight unique, however, is that the gods themselves interact with the protagonist and play a larger role in the story, interacting with the human world, rather than being separate from it like the gods of Asgard are. My favorite of the deities featured was Taweret, the sweet hippo-humanoid goddess of childbirth and mothers who became an essential ally to Steve/Marc as well as to Layla.

4) The Egyptian aesthetic is similar to Yu-Gi-Oh

The first Yu-Gi-Oh series centered on a very meek, mild-mannered student named Yugi Moto who (for a while) was unaware of the spirit that lived in his Millennium Puzzle. He’s quite similar to Steven Grant as both Yugi and Steven had a love for Egyptian history. Similar to Marc Spector, Yami (or Atem as he would later be known) was ruthless, relentless, and created some nightmare-fuel punishments for those who crossed his path. However, Yugi eventually worked alongside Yami/Atem and the two of them became great friends.

Also, to note, one of the Millennium items was the Millennium Scales, used by Shadi. These Millennium Scales He also attempted to summon Ammit in order to devour Yami Yugi’s soul. More info about the Millennium Items can be found in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKRbLZh8vcw

5) The hypercompetent tsundere

I. Love. Layla. As far as MCU girlfriends and love interests go, she takes the top tier, stealing the spot from Pepper Potts. She is a very smart, strategic woman who just happens to have a love/hate relationship with Steven and Marc. And by that I mean she starts falling for Steven all the while being very estranged from Marc.

The “tsundere” is a classic anime archetype, usually reserved for female characters. The best way to describe a tsundere can be found in this video:

So yeah. Layla is very much a tsundere. And I love where she ends up in the finale. But that’s spoiler territory.

Overall, I really loved Moon Knight as it’s the perfect mix of urban fantasy, supernatural, and adventure.

How long until Season 2, people?!

A Chat With Mack Attack

One subculture I got into during the pandemic was the anti-MLM community, which includes people who deconstruct self-help culture. The anti-MLM community exposes all sorts of business scams and has people who make videos who make fun of popular self-help “gurus” such as Tony Robbins, Gary Vee, Rachel and Dave Hollis, etc.

Today, I’ll be featuring Mack Attack, who started out making videos exposing the shady business tactics the MLM Monat. His videos are very fun to watch if you like snark, sarcasm, and music. When he’s not making videos, Mack teaches people how to ski and he’s also making music under the name Millimeters of Mercury. What I love most about Mack is that he shares parts of his personal journey and background as his credentials for why criticizing MLMs and the self-help influencers is necessary. I think Mack shows that you don’t have to have everything all figured out, that you’re allowed to make changes in life when necessary, and those changes can lead to some fun things in the future.

So with that all out of the way, time for a chat with Mack Attack!

Tell me your story, as much as you feel comfortable sharing, anyway.

Hey, I’m Mack , I’m 31 and I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio. I went to the University of Southern California for my BA in Biological Sciences, and then got my Doctorate of Pharmacy (PharmD) from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. I worked as a pharmacist for a little over 3 years, but some personal issues forced me to take a step back and regroup. While I could return to working as a pharmacist, I have little interest in doing so – I like my current job and a lot of the stressors and abusive working conditions in the retail pharmacy landscape have only intensified since my departure, and that deterioration is going to accelerate dramatically as the job market for pharmacists goes from stagnant growth to actual contraction.

Why did you get into Anti-MLM?

I’ve always had a mild fascination with cults and manipulative groups and the factors that make people vulnerable to them. I also have always had an underlying anger at the growing levels of dishonesty being perpetrated by “influencers” that is not being taken seriously by the regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect us. This is probably how I started to run across the proto-antiMLM-YouTuber wing of the larger antiMLM movement (which of course already existed long before the YouTube niche), back before Kiki Chanel, etc., when it was Cuestar and iiluminaughtii and Fresh who from time to time would read posts from r/antiMLM. (It kind of seems like that “era” of the YouTube antiMLM space has been forgotten but I would be willing to bet most of the current creators remember haha).

It was also particularly infuriating to me to hear the health claims being made by the health and nutrition and essential oil MLMs given my healthcare background, which is why my first 2 videos were about Young Living

Monat came onto my radar mostly because they were really rapidly growing and they were just an incredible source of content that was both entertaining and very useful as an example, and that just kept being true, but they also really got slimier and slimier with their practices, which also makes me rage and want to take them down.

What’s your current line of work?

Currently I am a warehouse manager for a small startup company.

Where do you see your career going in the future?

Oh boy, I have no idea, haha. Because I several years ago had to sort of regroup and get back on my feet, I’m still making sure I’m situated well, so I haven’t had as much of a forward grand vision or anything. I’m just deciding as I go.

What advice do you have for those who want to change careers or for those who just want advice for what they want to do for their future?

I would say that if you really want to then you shouldn’t let the fact that people will have questions for you about what might seem like a puzzling decision to them stop you. Life is way too short. However, be careful and be thorough in your research. What are your chances of getting this opportunity? What does it pay? How does that compare to what you are making now? Can you swing that?

Most importantly: DO NOT EVER, under ANY circumstances, quit your job for ANY reason without another job lined up. If you must stop working there and I can’t convince you to stay, then make them fire you. Then you can get unemployment, which you cannot get if you quit.

In terms of YouTube, I mean, the best advice I have on that is persistence is everything. You have like, years or longer of nothing happening until something happens. 

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You can find Mack Attack on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/MackAttackReturns

Mack Attack’s music: https://www.millimetersofmercury.com/

Mack Attack on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/returnofthemackattack/

Mazarine by Cece Louise: A fantasy book review

What happens when a cursed mermaid rescues an exiled prince out at sea? You get the unlikely romance between Marilee and Darius. Readers of Desperate Forest will remember Darius as the mercenary, power-hungry prince who was exiled from Marsnovia. Darius’s time in exile has hardened his heart even more. At the start of the novel, he nurses a grudge against Jay and Roselynn.  

Meanwhile, Marilee is a prisoner of the sea, cursed to be a mermaid by day and a regular woman at night. Desperate to free herself, she strikes a bargain with Darius: return her to her home, the kingdom of Kirdsortt in exchange for a reward, as it’s reported that the Princess of Kirdsortt has gone missing.  

Before she became a mermaid, Marilee was desperate to escape an arranged marriage to the prince of Ebonwood. Tricked by a female mermaid, Marilee was introduced to the underwater kingdom of Vaitha Nera and became the prisoner of Khaled, the ruler of the sea. 

Darius and Marilee both have to deal with the consequences of their selfish ambitions and foolish actions. Darius has to forgive Jay for the accident that killed his father and the huge misunderstanding that ensued. Marilee, in turn, has to live with the guilt of abandoning her family during a time when the kingdom was in ruin due to an outbreak of a terrible fever. The arranged marriage could’ve brought Kirdsortt to prosperity, but the prince of Ebonwood had a horrible reputation. 

Similar to the romance in Desperate Forest, Darius and Marilee’s romance is a slow burn, one that spans their entire sea-faring journey. By no means is Marilee a “manic pixie dream girl.” Her lively attitude doesn’t change Darius overnight. Her trust in Darius, however, even after he shows his true colors, inspires the former prince to try and live up to Marilee’s unfounded expectations. Since Darius is the only one who knows how to navigate the vast Mazarine Sea, and Marilee can only be human for twelve hours out of the day, Marilee puts her trust in him often. Marilee, in turn, helps Darius out of some sticky situations along their journey. 

I recommend this fantasy story to fans of fairy tales such as The Little Mermaid. What makes this particular novel unique is that Darius and Marilee end up redeeming themselves and saving each other. They end up changing each other for the better. 

Tick, Tick…BOOM!–A Movie Review

I mentioned on this blog before that Rent was one of my first musical loves back in my teenage days. I knew of Tick, Tick…BOOM! But up until now, I didn’t do a deep dive into the musical. The Netflix adaptation, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, was my first experience watching it. I knew I would be hooked from the trailer because it included “Boho Days,” a deleted song from the original musical.

What’s interesting about this movie is that the stage show of Tick, Tick…Boom! acts as the framing device. Susan narrates the beginning and the ending, but most of the show centers on Larson narrating his life as he tries to get a show that he created produced on Broadway.

I want to give all the kudos to Andrew Garfield for being such a chameleon of an actor. Many people on Twitter have pointed out how Garfield nails ever tiny movement and expression Jonathan Larson had. 30/90 was the song I looked forward to the most.

Throughout the opening number, Jonathan makes small talk with his fellow diner workers. Jonathan is planning to quit his job at the Moondance diner so that he could focus more on his big musical: Superbia. It’s really interesting that while Tick, Tick…Boom! starts out on the stage (and still shows parts of the on-stage performance), there are also a lot of moments where Larson is singing in his apartment and even at a bookstore, complete with backup dancers and singers. Howard Ho, you better have a good insight on this!

Just so you know, there are a lot of shout outs to Rent throughout this movie. For a complete list, check out Kristen Maldonado’s video:

There are a lot of moments throughout the movie where Jonathan Larson writes lyrics into a memo pad. These lyrics would eventually build up to become “Louder than Words.” It feels like such a realistic way for a song to come together, especially when you look into the Rent demos and see how much the musical changed from the New York Theatre Workshop.

One particular subplot that is woven throughout the movie is Jonathan’s relationship with Susan, who performs in modern dance shows. Susan got a job teaching dance in the Berkshires which is all the way up in New England. Jonathan, unfortunately, isn’t sure if he wants to move up there with her. On the other hand, Michael is moving up to a swanky apartment, complete with a doorman and other luxuries. “No More” reminds me so much of how “Rent” sounds, musically.

In the midst of all this, Jonathan is working on Superbia, a musical he worked on for eight years. (Eight years was also the same amount of time he worked on Rent.) Unfortunately, much like Roger in Rent, Jonathan needs one more song to complete the musical. In “Johnny Can’t Decide,” Jonathan deals with a major case of writer’s block while trying to decide if he want to move with Susan.

As timeless as the movie feels, though, there are plenty of reminders that this story takes place in the early 90s, most notably the AIDS epidemic. At night, Larson watches the news as some Republican congressman shows how little things have changed in the past 30 years. The following morning, one of Jonathan’s coworkers, Freddy, misses out on work because he got hospitalized.

“Sunday” is a really interesting because for one thing, there are over a dozen cameos from various Broadway stars. I hate to say it, but Andrew Garfield was majorly out-sung in this number. I could hear Philippa Soo really well in this one. My favorite part of the number was when Jonathan starts arranging all the people in the diner and the bums on the street like a stage director.

Another instance of 90s nostalgia is “Play Game,” which is styled as a very retro MTV music video. It’s based on an actual song that Jonathan did, complete with him dancing around in a baseball cap like he’s Vanilla Ice. I am very glad that Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to do the retro style and only showed a small segment of Jonathan Larson trying to rap cuz rap is not Larson’s strong point. High concept musicals, however, definitely are.

When Jonathan explained the concept of Superbia, my jaw dropped at how ahead of its time the idea of the musical was. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, Superbia, to quote Larson in movie is…

A satire set in the future on a poisoned planet Earth, where the vast majority of humanity spend their entire lives just staring at the screens of their media transmitters watching the tiny elite of the rich and powerful who film their own fabulous lives like TV shows.

That musical concept was made for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, Larson is dealing with so much on his plate: his friend is in the hospital, he still can’t create the song he needs for Act 2, he misses Michael, and he can’t decide what to do with Susan. Larson decides to take on a focus group gig if it means getting the money to pay for a keyboard player and a drummer. Turns out the extra money was worth it.

Seriously, social media, GET ON MAKING A SUPERBIA REVIVAL! Songs and dances from TikTok, story bits from YouTube, characters with accounts on Twitter and Instagram.

One hilarious part of the movie was “Therapy.” It plays out like a 500 Days of Summer “expectations vs reality” situation. The song performed on stage is a comedic, neurotic argument that goes faster and faster while Susan and Jonathan have a very raw argument in Larson’s apartment.

Things start to spiral downward from there. Larson goes to the focus group session, but it’s very draining and brain-numbing, which leads to an argument with Michael. Then, just as Jonathan gets inspired, the power blows. This leads to the song “Swimming.”

“Swimming” reminds me a lot of “Contact” as it’s a very stream-of-consciousness song that Jonathan narrates himself swimming as he’s trying to look for inspiration and deal with the problems in his life. Then the inspiration finally hits him as he swims and he starts composing his song the old fashioned way.

Finally, the big day comes when he presents Superbia to the world. And it’s everything he wanted…but it doesn’t lead to his big break like he hoped. All Jonathan can do is work on whatever comes next and his agent tells him the first rule of writing: Write what you know.

Jonathan is in a crisis because he feels like he’s running out of time. Of course, he doesn’t know what we, in the future, know, that he actually was running out of time. But Michael brings Jonathan back to reality, revealing that he has HIV.

“Why” acts as the big 11 o’clock number and it’s a big tear-jerker. Jonathan comes back to Michael and tells him about a support group that actually exists called Friends In Deed. Jonathan also decides to keep working at Moondance, with the promise of a mentorship from Stephen Sondheim.

The end of the film is a bittersweet one because Jonathan and Susan part ways and the inevitability of Jonathan Larson’s real life death comes crashing down. “Louder Than Words” acts as the finale, sort of a bridge between Tick, Tick…Boom! and Rent. The parallels are definitely there. “Louder Than Words” asks “Why,” “Rent” asks “How.”

As someone on the cusp of turning 32, this musical really hits for me and I feel like I was watching this movie at the perfect time. So much and so little has changed, but if there’s one thing I took from this, it’s that artists shouldn’t give up on their dreams of creating something that has meaning.

Cancel Shawn Boston: A Book Review

Lindsay Drake is your typical Chicago Gen-Z artist. Her Punk Kitty designs are adorable, but don’t get much attention. Her best friend, Athena, is also trying to sell off her art and taking online courses from famous influencer Elise Shiloh.

When another famous influencer, Shawn Boston, promotes the cover of his upcoming new album, Lindsay immediately recognizes the artwork as belonging to Athena. From that point on, Lindsay makes it her mission to get justice, even if it means getting him cancelled.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Rick is just trying to get by in life. At the moment, he works as a bartender and using his drumming skills to accompany comedians who perform at the nightclub he works in. His grandpa is carrying on an affair with their landlord. Rick is semi-famous from a viral video, but he feels more like a joke. What’s even worse is that seemingly mediocre musicians like Shawn Boston are rich and famous without even trying.

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a national threat, Lindsay and Rick take to the internet to expose Shawn Boston for the fraud he is. In almost an instant, they become internet sensations. What’s equally surprising is that they end up meeting online and falling in love with each other.

Cancel Shawn Boston is a really fun contemporary new adult novel that feels like a 2020s version of American Pie and other raunchy college-aged rom-coms from the late 90s and early 2000s. It’s not all fun and games, though. Rick’s chapters remind me of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, only Rick is always the butt of the joke. This novel explores the fickle nature of the internet, how attention from others can affect the ones receiving said attention, and the deceptive nature of parasocial relationships.

The character of Shawn Boston is inspired by YouTube Influencers like Shane Dawson, Jake Paul, Logan Paul, etc. As somebody who didn’t really follow the biggest “influencers,” I was still able to relate to the “cancel culture” nature of the storyline. On the one hand, people should be held accountable for their actions. The problem is that when it comes to the Internet, nuance gets lost in the void of comments and clickbait headlines.

Lindsay is not exactly immune to the effects of internet fame or to Shawn Boston’s charm. But as Into the Woods says “Nice is different than good” and Lindsay learns that the hard way. My only gripe with this book is that it felt too short and I really want to see Lindsay and Rick get a happy ending. (NOT in that way, y’all! Please!)

I recommend this book for fans of YA contemporary that want just a little R-rated edge to the typical clean rom-com stories. It’s a quick read and available to read on Kindle Unlimited for free, but it’s also relatively cheap to buy. You’ll be in for a lot of fun!

In the words of Savy and RK: Stay safe, stay sane, stay sexy!

Loki (The Series): Conviction, Self-Love, and Glorious Purpose

This is not gonna be a typical recap and review of Marvel’s Loki series on Disney Plus. I think the general consensus is that after that jaw-dropping finale, nothing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is ever gonna be the same ever again.

What I want to do instead is give my thoughts on Loki’s character arc and the debate of free will vs determinism. If there’s anything that we can learn from Variant-Loki, it’s that a person’s purpose isn’t limited to what other people say. When given the right motivation, even the worst people can learn to love themselves, find the conviction to do the right thing, and discover their own glorious purpose. So obviously, there will be spoilers!

The biggest lie that gets introduced right off the bat is the philosophy of determinism, that everything was predetermined and that free will is non-existent. If there’s anything I learned from The Matrix and The Good Place, it’s that in reality, while we are somewhat limited by our circumstances, our actions within those circumstances will always have consequences and we have the potential to create a change within said circumstances, even when powerful institutions try to prevent us from doing so.

Loki starts out constantly (and rightfully) questioning the TVA’s authority and eventually teams up with Sylvie to find the man behind the curtain, so to speak. In contrast, Renslayer digs in her heels and tries to find a sense of meaning even with the revelation that the entire TVA is a lie. As someone who’s Catholic, but deconstructing, I can relate to Renslayer’s personal crisis and have seen people dig in their heels and believe the lies created by various institutions in the hopes of finding something that makes sense and feels secure and safe.

In contrast, the truth of everyone in the TVA being variants allows for an opportunity for Mobius and the hunters to find their authentic selves, in a similar way that Loki did. Loki coming face to face with his “inevitable” death was a huge “Memento Mori” moment. I also like to think that while he was totally falling in love with Sylvie (which is not something the entire fandom is happy with, myself included), Loki was basically learning how to love himself as he was in the present. He may not be the Loki we knew from 2012 up until Infinity War, but this Loki learned how to love himself in a completely non-narcissistic way, which (according to Whitney Houston) is truly the greatest love of all.

He Who Remains is a very interesting “final villain.” He is very understated and way too chill, but that comes from just being omniscient (to some extent). He’s like a very genre-savvy MCU fan who knows Loki and Sylvie as well as what they seem to desire most. However, the paths the two Variants take deviate because by the last episode, Loki has a sense of conviction that came from seeing the multiple, equally bad versions of himself (literally) and the desire to make sure that Sylvie stays safe. I also think that Loki was trying to look for a third option that would dismantle the TVA while preventing a multiversal war, but obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.

The difference, in the end, between Loki and Sylvie is that Loki found a sense of conviction and the glorious purpose he so desperately desired while Sylvie was merely driven by revenge. While her desire for revenge is completely understandable, it won’t really get her far. Revenge isn’t much of a glorious purpose, nor is it much fuel for conviction.

So in the end, was it all for nothing? The entire Infinity Saga? Loki’s efforts to dismantle the TVA? Loki and Sylvie’s (ahem) questionable romance? I honestly don’t think so. Loki might have ended up in a different timeline, but somewhere out there is the Mobius he knew. I like to think that somehow, the TVA will be dismantled or at the very least reformed and repurposed because the real threat isn’t the multiverse itself, but the evil variants of He Who Remains aka Kang the Conquerer.

The Infinity Saga has ended and therefore, the Infinity Stones have served their purpose. (As much as I wish that Thanos could’ve been stopped before he snapped!) One era has ended and now a new era is beginning. And we don’t know what to expect.

I’m gonna close this philosophical contemplation with a quote from Angel that kinda sums up the idea of finding meaning within a universe that doesn’t make sense. “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do…if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

Of course, our actions actually do matter and they do make a difference. We shouldn’t be doing the right thing out of a sense of getting some kind of reward, though. Our glorious purpose is to just keep trying in the hopes that things might turn out right, that our actions can make the world just the tiniest bit better.

Black Widow: One Story Ends, Another Begins

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It’s no secret that a Black Widow movie was long overdue. For what it’s worth, long story short, I feel like this movie was very good. It’s by no means an “S Tier” movie on the same level as Captain America and the Winter Soldier, but we get to see Natasha on her own journey to redemption, revealing some things about her past that everyone wanted to know, and I hope that there will be more “interquels” with OG Black Widow in the future.

But non-spoiler: The best thing I can say about this movie is that I got a good sense of closure. If this is the only Black Widow movie we get, I’ll be okay with it. I loved the major characters, especially Red Guardian. He was a total ham and I hope he gets to show off more of what he can do in later materials. Yelena was such a great foil for Natasha and I love that she points out how ridiculous Natasha’s “superhero landing” was, even as she ended up doing it herself! So yeah. Definitely an A-Tier movie that I would probably put up there in the same level as the Ant-Man movies. Solid and enjoyable and definitely worth watching at the movies.

Spoilers from here on out!

Unique to the MCU films, we have an opening sequence with a darker and edgier version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I loved that there was an opening sequence, but I also missed having a creative closing credits.

The Ohio sequence reminded me a lot of Stranger Things in terms of aesthetic. And I’m not gonna lie, hearing “American Pie” was a real dissonance to me cuz I am way too used to Weird Al’s Star Wars parody version. In between the creative opening and the real start of the story, we finally find out what happened in Budapest. Sadly, it was not anything involving a couple of vampires. Instead, Natasha was on a mission with SHIELD, killing General Dreykov, the creator of the Red Room/Black Widow Program, with Dreykov’s daughter apparently dying in the process.

Natasha starts out her new life on the run while Yelena is deprogrammed from the Black Widow’s mind control and sets out to free the rest of the young ladies, sending the deprogramming antidote gas to Natasha. The vials put Natasha on Taskmaster’s radar and I loved the fight they had on the bridge. We can clearly see that Taskmaster imitated some familiar Avenger fighting styles, but I wish the fight choreography was more distinct because I could only recognize Captain America with the obvious shield. None of the Avengers use a sword!

Nitpicking aside, I love when, eventually, Natasha reunites with her sister and (down the line) breaks her foster father Alexei (Red Guardian) out of jail. As I said before, Red Guardian is a total ham. And his delusions about fighting Captain America can make sense from a certain point of view. He may not have fought Steve Rogers, but given that he was this Communist Russian hero, there’s nothing that says that he didn’t encounter Isaiah Bradley during the Korean War. He has such a big ego, he’s hilarious, and while he’s obviously got his ideals in the wrong place, he genuinely loves his wife and daughters.

Melina, Natasha and Yelena’s mother, is a lot more unnerving as the scientist behind the Black Widow brainwashing program. That said, she’s intent on taking Dreykov down. She’s a lot more understated compared to her bombastic, hammy “husband.” So as far as helping our heroes get the job done, I definitely liked her.

Blockbuster Buster pointed out that having a Super Soldier and a mad scientist as parents really explains why Natasha was always so close to Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. (Cue to Steve/Tony fanfics.) The brother/sister relationship she had with Steve can now be seen with the lens of Natasha seeing Steve as a healthier version of Alexei. (Sorry Steve/Nat shippers!) I also liked Yelena’s little bit about Natasha teaching science and having a husband who flips houses. It’s a small nod to both of the men in Natasha’s life (Bruce Banner and Clint Barton).

The second half of the movie focuses on Natasha, Yelena, Melina, and Alexei taking down Dreykov and putting an end to the Red Room/Black Widow Program once and for all. Dreykov is an antagonist that really makes me feel uncomfortable because he exploits young women and tampers with their bodies and minds without their consent. There are some major real world parallels here, but I’ll let y’all connect the dots. (Hashtag Me Too movement.)

What I liked the most about the overall story arc of this movie is Natasha getting closure on the Red Room and killing Dreykov’s daughter. Dreykov was the Big Bad of the movie, with Taskmaster being more of an enforcer, similar to The Winter Soldier.

And yes, I am perfectly okay with Dreykov’s daughter, Antonia, being Taskmaster. Within the narrative, she’s the living embodiment of Natasha’s biggest regret and also represents who Natasha probably could’ve been if she remained within Dreykov and was submitted to that level of mind control. Defeating Dreykov and dismantling the Black Widow program really calls to mind a famous quote from Labyrinth: “You have no power over me.”

The post-credit scene

While I’m still sad about the fact that Natasha is truly dead and gone, it’s nice that her grave has been honored with lots of teddy bears and flowers. I also liked seeing Yelena maintaining the grounds.

I was looking forward to seeing Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine and she definitely didn’t disappoint. But I’m also glad that this was actually her second appearance. If this was the first instance that I saw her, she would’ve left a bad first impression. Blowing her nose and saying that she was allergic to the Midwest is very snobby and rude. It fits her character, but it doesn’t match the swagger she had during Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I mean, in the latter, she knew how to make an entrance and introduced herself in a way that got everyone’s attention and established her as someone who had a lot of authority and did not give three straws about what anyone else thought of her.

Also, why the heck would Yelena think that Clint Barton would be behind Natasha’s death? I guess we’ll find out in the Hawkeye series.

Final thoughts

I am very happy that this was the first movie that I saw in theaters after getting vaccinated. It’s a movie that’s worth seeing for that unique cinematic experiences. This movie was a great sendoff to Natasha Romanoff and I look forward to seeing how Yelena will pick up the mantle.