Review in Tweets: Captain America: Civil War

For my full review of Captain America: Civil War, please go check out my post on Avenging Force, where I write regularly about movies, television, and fandom. 

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This weekend, I saw the much-anticipated newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: Civil War. Twice.

I mean, I had to see it once to make sure it was okay for my kids, and then obviously I had to actually bring the kids. (For the record, though they both went in thinking they’d be Team Iron Man, one of them came out Team Cap.) So it was only reasonable that I see it twice.

I had, as you can imagine, a lot of thoughts. And while I put them together in a much more coherent actual review over on Avenging Force (and then delved even deeper into the little details of the movie here), I figured that over here, I’d post all my reaction tweets that I wrote immediately after coming out of the theater the first time. Because not all of you follow me on Twitter, and I tweeted enough about this movie to pretty much equal a full-length review anyway.

(For more of my thoughts on Spider-Man, Peter Parker, and the MCU, see this post)

I mean look at this

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Review: A GATHERING OF SHADOWS by V.E. Schwab

I’ve been struggling with how to write my review for V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadowsthe sequel to last year’s amazing new fantasy A Darker Shade of MagicThough I read it a while ago, it’s one of those books that kind of defies writing an articulate review, since all I really felt capable of doing after reading it was make dolphin noises.

Actually, if dolphin noises and this Dancing Hiddleston are enough for you, that’s really the most apt review for this book.

For everyone else who needs actual words…I’ll do my best.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Four months have passed since the shadow stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Rhy was wounded and the Dane twins fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift, and into Black London.

In many ways, things have almost returned to normal, though Rhy is more sober, and Kell is now plagued by his guilt. Restless, and having given up smuggling, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks like she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games—an extravagant international competition of magic, meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries—a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

But while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life, and those who were thought to be forever gone have returned. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night reappears in the morning, and so it seems Black London has risen again—meaning that another London must fall.

My Thoughts:

A Gathering of Shadows is a different beast from its predecessor, A Darker Shade of Magic. While the first book in V.E. Schwab’s excellent fantasy series devoted itself largely to establishing the rules of its multiple (and occasionally magical) Londons, introducing its characters, and then throwing them all into tumultuous conflict, the second takes its time luxuriating in the world so meticulously crafted in the first book. It is lighter on conflict, heavier on character development, and chock full of fun. Which may seem an odd thing to say about the sequel to a story that started with so much darkness, but just trust me. Or better yet, trust V.E. Schwab, whose gift for beautiful prose and attention to detail is evident on every page.

Whereas Darker Shade divided its time rather evenly between three of the four Londons, Gathering takes place primarily in Red London, where we spend most of the story swept up in the Essen Tasch (Element Games), a magical tournament pitting the best magicians of each kingdom against one another. Unlike Darker Shade, which follows Kell for the first few chapters, Gathering opens with Lila Bard, whom we last saw dropping anchor in a world that is not her own. We quickly learn that Lila has spent the past several months acquainting herself with the magic and customs of Red London, and has made a place for herself aboard a grand ship, the Night Spire, and endeared herself to its captain, Alucard Emery.

Through Alucard (a delightful and charismatic addition to the cast of characters), Lila learns of the Essen Tasch, and in true Delilah Bard fashion, decides she must enter. Only a few obstacles stand in her way:

  1. The competitors have already been chosen, and she is not among them
  2. Her opponents have been training in magic their entire lives
  3. Lila has never been trained in magic at all

Of course, for a cross-dressing piracy-aspiring thief like Delilah Bard, these are not actually obstacles at all, but merely challenges to overcome. And if we’ve learned anything about Lila in Darker Shade, it’s that she loves a good challenge.

Fortunately for her, Alucard Emery is no stranger to either magic or the courtly customs of Red London. Less fortunately for her, he is also competing in the Essen Tasch. And he intends to win.

And then, of course, there is Kell, whose dreams have been haunted by images of Lila ever since they said farewell. Kell’s relationship with his foster brother, Prince Rhy, changed dramatically at the end of Darker Shade, and as a result, in Gathering we find him still adjusting to both his responsibility to his brother and his role in court.

Without the need to set up the rules of the world anymore, there is more room to explore the people within it. As the Essen Tasch gets underway, we see Kell and Lila, and magic itself, in a way we haven’t ever seen them before. With the delightful and thrilling setting of the competition acting as a backdrop, Gathering delves deeper into its two lead characters, and takes its time in bringing them back together, making the reader yearn for their eventual and inevitable reintroduction. Rhy plays a larger role this time around, as he struggles to come to terms to what happened to him in the previous book while striving to be the prince, son, and brother his family expects, and Alucard brings a refreshing wit and edge to the story, throwing a wrench into the inner workings of all three main characters.

And then beneath, in notes so sparse it’s easy to forget they’re there, lies the menace of Black London. While readers relax into the spectacle of the Essen Tasch, and the interactions of Gathering’s colorful cast of characters, both old and new, Black London simmers underneath, reminding us that this is, indeed, a V.E. Schwab book, where nothing can ever stay light and happy for long.

As Gathering reaches its boiling point, readers may start to panic, wondering how the story can possibly wrap up in the number of pages left. And, well…it doesn’t. As most early readers have noted, Gathering ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger, and even if you’re prepared for not everything to resolve in this book (this is, after all, a trilogy), it’s a shock to hit that last page and abruptly realize there is no more. But just because it doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to love in this book. From the deeper exploration of the characters to the thrill of the Essen Tasch to the quiet ramping up of Black London, A Gathering of Shadows adds layers and richness to all the things I loved about A Darker Shade of Magic, then throws in a few more for good measure. If you enjoy exquisitely imagined and beautifully written dark historical fantasy, I highly recommend this lush, confident, and wholly immersive series.

Review: SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

This past week, I had the privilege of attending Ruta Sepetys’ launch for her newest novel, Salt to the Sea. Although Ruta is a Nashville author and this is her third book, she’s never had a launch party before. Another friend mentioned she was nervous no one would show up (most authors worry about this, no matter how successful they are).

Turns out, she needn’t have worried.

Photo by Parnassus Books

A standing-room-only crowd packed into Parnassus Books in Nashville, and together, we listened, rapt, as Ruta talked about the story behind Salt to the Sea. Like her debut, Between Shades of Gray, which shines a light on the Baltic deportations in the early 1940s, Salt tells the story of a forgotten and tragic piece of history — this time, the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

Most people know about the sinking of Titanic and Lusitania, but far fewer have ever heard of Wilhelm Gustloff, even though it’s the largest maritime disaster in history. Over 9,000 people lost their lives when the Wilhelm Gustloff was ripped apart by Russian torpedoes, more than three times the casualties of the Titanic and Lusitania combined.

Over half of those, Ruta told us, were children and teenagers.

And yet most of the world doesn’t know about it. There are several reasons why this might be; I won’t get into them here. If you ever get a chance to attend one of Ruta’s events (and you should if you can), ask her about it. It’s fascinating. Equally fascinating are the true stories of the survivors Ruta interviewed while researching Salt to the Sea. She told us a couple of them at the launch, and by the time she finished, many of us were in tears. It was a dark, terrible period of our history, but much like in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta was able to uncover stories of heroism, of love, of sacrifice and compassion in the midst of all that horror. These true stories served as the foundation for Salt to the Sea, a fictional account of four teenagers who set sail on the doomed Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

My Thoughts:

Ruta Sepetys has a unique gift. She finds the tragic stories that history forgot and brings them to life through her books, educating her readers on these lost pieces of the past while simultaneously taking them on a heartfelt and emotional journey alongside her characters. Salt to the Sea is a work of historical fiction, but it is based on a very real event — the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 — and the true historical backdrop is every bit as compelling as the stories of the fictional characters.

Salt to the Sea is told from the point-of-view of four different teenagers, each with a secret. There is Florian, a disillusioned Prussian art restorer; Joana, a clever and determined Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a young Polish girl struggling for hope in a world that continues to betray her; and Alfred, a young Nazi sailor desperately seeking recognition.

I am going to pause here, because you may be nervous about the same thing I was during Alfred’s first chapter — namely, is this book going to attempt to make me sympathize with a Nazi? The short answer is no. I’m not going to say Alfred’s chapters are easy to read — on the contrary; Alfred is an infuriating character, what you would get if you took Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, aged him down a bit, and handed him a copy of Mein Kampf. And while Salt to the Sea never tries to make the reader sympathize with Alfred or make excuses for him, some readers may not be able to stomach reading his toxic and hateful inner monologue. Only you can decide whether you can handle reading from the POV of a Nazi (and a sniveling, lazy Nazi at that), and I won’t try to change your mind if you don’t think this is something you can do. All I will say is that Alfred’s chapters do contribute to the narrative as a whole, and neither the stakes nor the tension would be the same without his perspective.

However, as much as Alfred is The Worst, the other characters balance the scale. Joana was probably my favorite, a wonderful combination of resourceful, smart, kind, and brave. (Joana also ties into Between Shades of Gray, for those of you who have read both books.) But they all had their moments. Emilia is kind and sweet, but with an underlying determination and selflessness that, on several occasions, took my breath away. And then there is Florian, reserved and secretive, yet motivated by a quiet nobility that kept me rooting for him throughout. I was so very invested in the fates of these three characters that I find myself still daydreaming about them days after finishing.

As for the story itself, I was surprised to find that the characters don’t even board the Wilhelm Gustloff until the second half of the book. (Perhaps I would have been more prepared for this had I realized that the Gustloff was only scheduled for a 48-hour trip, not a weeks-long voyage like the Titanic. So it makes sense that most of our time getting to know the characters happens before they reach the ship.)

The first half of the book chronicles the long trek of the refugees through the snowy countryside on their way to the port (or, in Alfred’s case, his preparations to sail). The journey to the ship is harrowing, as the characters are constantly trying to avoid both German and Russian soldiers, while also staving off frostbite, dehydration, and malnutrition. On the way, there are several horrifying incidents that show the terrible price of war, and even once they reach the port, the descriptions of the refugees are gutting. Sepetys thankfully never lingers on any single gruesome image for long, but through her careful descriptions and meticulously crafted sentences, you get a thorough mental image of the squalor, desperation, and terror of the characters and their surroundings.

Then there is their time on the Gustloff, cut tragically short by the sinking. Since I don’t want to get into spoilers, all I will say is that even though I knew the ship was going to sink, it was still devastating to read about. I was invested so deeply in the characters that watching them go through such an awful experience — no matter their personal outcome — was heartbreaking, and I spent the last chunk of the book reading through tears. It’s one thing to know about a tragic historic event; it’s another thing to experience it. Salt puts the reader right on the deck of the sinking ship, making us feel the panic and terror of the passengers, the biting cold of the water, the hopelessness of the death all around them, and, in spite of that, the steely resolve to keep struggling for survival.

As in her previous books, Ruta Sepetys’ prose shines, instantly transporting the reader to the world of her characters. Some authors struggle to convincingly juggle multiple points-of-view, but that is not the case in Salt to the Sea. Each of her four main characters has a distinctive voice and way of thinking which makes them easily distinguishable from one another. Also, the chapters are very short, with most lasting only two or three pages, so you never have to wait long to hear more from your favorite character. The brief chapters make that mental nudge to read “just one more chapter” easy to indulge, making this an incredibly swift read.

Salt to the Sea is a beautiful tale of a forgotten tragedy, set during one of the darkest periods of our history. It is respectfully and meticulously researched, but never feels like it’s working too hard to educate; instead, it sweeps the reader up in its vivid characters, gorgeous prose, and compelling storytelling, and if we are more historically knowledgeable by the end, that just feels like a bonus. One may expect a tale like this to leave the reader with a sense of despair, but although the story is full of moments of horror and death and unspeakable devastation, it balances them with moments of friendship, love, sacrifice, heroism, generosity, and kindness. In spite of the bleak time in which it is set, and the disastrous event that serves as its centerpiece, the Salt to the Sea ultimately manages to be hopeful, moving, inspiring, and immensely satisfying.

STAR WARS: The Spoilers Awaken

Guys, I tried. I did. I tried to write a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens without posting spoilers, because posting spoilers on the Internet is the path to the Dark Side. I thought I could be vague (“There’s a thing that happens and it’s amazing!”) and still get most of my pertinent feels across.

But…I can’t. I thought I could, but I can’t.

So if you haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, please — and I really can’t emphasize this enough, because this is a movie that deserves to be viewed completely unspoiled* — STOP. READING. This is not the spoiler-free review you’re looking for.

*I don’t care if you think you don’t mind spoilers, just this once, you should care.

Okay, so if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen the movie, right? RIGHT?

Don’t you lie to me.

*looks around* So now there shouldn’t be anybody left that hasn’t seen Episode VII. If you haven’t seen it and you keep reading, that’s not my fault. Your fault. Not my fault. Got it? Cool.

*clears throat*

STAR WARS, GUYS, I CANNOT EVEN, CAN YOU EVEN? NO? GOOD BECAUSE I CANNOT EITHER.

Seriously, despite being One of Those People who teared up at every single trailer (how could you not at “Chewie, we’re home”?), and despite being an unapologetic Fan of J.J. Abrams (say what you will about the endings of LOST and Alias or Star Trek Into Darkness; the man knows how to begin things), I was not prepared for how much I loved The Force Awakens. I was ready to love the characters from the Original Trilogy, but I’d figured the others would require a warming period. After all, I’ve loved the Original Trilogy my entire life. I have three decades worth of emotional investment in these characters. How could the new blood possibly measure up?

Oh, how gloriously wrong I was.

So let’s take them one at a time, in the order they are introduced, shall we?

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)

I was surprised that Poe is the first major character we meet. Based on the trailers, I thought it would be Rey, or possibly Finn. I also didn’t expect to have all that many feelings about him. But in just a few minutes of screen time, I was solidly Team Poe. His first line when he comes face to, er, mask with Kylo Ren endeared him to me forever. (“Do I talk first or you talk first? I talk first?”) Everything about Poe Dameron was utter perfection, from his clear affection for BB-8 (another surprise! I’d been all prepared for the Rey-BB-8 buddy show, but much as R2’s loyalty was to Luke, BB-8’s metal heart belongs to Poe Dameron) to his affable swagger when he teams up with Finn (“I can fly anything”) to his triumphant return later in the movie and his elated hug with Finn when they realize the other is still alive.

Let’s just dwell on that hug for a second. Poe and Finn had met exactly once, and while Finn latching on to Poe as his BFF is semi-understandable since Finn was a brainwashed Stormtrooper and had exactly zero friends, Poe is a charismatic guy with, presumably, other people he cares about, and who care about him. (Granted, probably a lot of them died in that opening scene, but hopefully not all of them.) And yet he is so elated to see Finn alive. It warmed my heart to see him care so genuinely and deeply about poor displaced Finn, and I am now significantly hopeful that a good chunk of Episode VIII will include The Broscapades of Finn and Poe.

BB-8

First, let’s just get out of the way how utterly adorable the bond between BB-8 and Poe is. When Leia entrusted R2-D2 with her message for Obi-Wan in A New Hope, she was all business. There was no affection between her and the droid (C-3P0 didn’t even really know who Leia was, other than that she was a figure “of some importance”), and it wasn’t until R2 delivered his message to Obi-Wan and Luke that we really saw an emotional bond begin to form. But The Force Awakens puts the human-droid bond front and center, with Poe literally tearing up as he gives vital information to BB-8 and tells him to get as far away as possible, then promises, “I will find you.” (Dangit, now I’m getting emotional about Poe again, and I’m supposed to be talking about BB-8.) But I thought this was an excellent way to get the audience immediately invested in this new droid (I can’t have been the only one highly skeptical about a new cutesy addition to the Star Wars-verse, right?), since if Poe Dameron cares so deeply about him, and Poe Dameron is so clearly awesome, then surely I should care about him too.

And it didn’t take long for BB-8 to establish himself as worthy of that emotional investment. From the delightful physical gags (how a bike helmet on a beach ball managed to give a thumbs up was one of the funniest visuals of the movie) to his sassy personality (sure, we can’t understand him, but Rey can, and watching her react was enough), BB-8 quickly proved that not only did he deserve his place beside R2 and C-3P0 as one of the most beloved droids in Star Wars, but he might…actually…be my new favorite?

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)

I am so excited about Kylo Ren, guys. Until now, Star Wars has given us a very clear line between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. Even Luke and Anakin/Vader, the only truly conflicted characters, tended to not straddle the line so much as pole-vault across it when it served their purpose. But Kylo! He is something we haven’t seen before. A character who actively chose the Dark Side but is tempted by the Light. A character estranged from his parents (no one was really surprised to find that Kylo Ren — formerly one Ben Solo — was Han and Leia’s son, right?), pressured by his father to turn away from what he knows and give into temptation — but in the opposite way of how we’ve seen this play out before.

Kylo Ren is like a film negative of Luke Skywalker, and I love it. Such possibilities for future installments! Will Kylo give into his temptation to join the good guys? What was it that pushed him to join the Dark Side in the first place, since his full heart clearly wasn’t in it? (Obviously he has some anger issues, but that can’t be the whole story, can it?)

I know now is where I should talk about That Major Thing He Does, but I’m not ready for that. I’ll get to it in a bit. Just as soon as I talk about —

Finn (John Boyega)

I’d like to thank J.J. Abrams, along with whoever else was responsible for casting, for bringing John Boyega into the Star Wars-verse. From surprising fans at Star Wars screenings to freaking out on his first viewing of the Force Awakens trailer to just being genuinely classy in the face of some genuinely unclassy comments about his casting, he’s just been a real treat to watch and I’m glad that Star Wars brought him onto my radar.

But I’m not here to talk about John Boyega. I’m here to talk about Finn. Finn.

Admittedly, we don’t get a ton of backstory on Finn (which is nothing new for Star Wars; the Original Trilogy gave us practically nothing on the Main Trio), but what we do know — taken from his family at an age so young he doesn’t remember them, trained as a soldier, treated as a slave, “conditioned” not to have any thoughts of his own — makes him even more interesting. When we see the Stormtroopers burning Poe’s village to the ground, Finn is the only one hesitates to kill the innocent civilians. Finn is the only one visibly shaken by the death of his comrades (perhaps even friends?). Finn is also the only Stormtrooper in the entire series to willingly remove his helmet (correct me if I’m wrong, as I’ve purposely blocked out the prequels, but in the Original Trilogy, the only helmets we see removed are worn by Luke and Han).

What is it about him that allows him to break free? Could it be…a capacity for the Force? Or is Finn just an innately good person, and that goodness couldn’t be wiped out of him, no matter how much First Order conditioning he received? Surely his line when he rescues Poe — “It’s the right thing to do” — shows his strength of character (where did he even learn the difference between right and wrong during his conditioning?). Despite Finn’s struggle throughout the movie between taking care of himself and taking care of his new friends, nothing highlights that inner strength more than at the end when he takes up Luke’s lightsaber(!) and battles (!) Kylo Ren(!!!).

Compared to how flashy and over-choreographed the prequel lightsaber battles were, can I just tell you how much I loved how raw the fights were in The Force Awakens? You have Kylo — a partially trained Jedi with a serious temper problem — and Finn, a former Stormtrooper who knows his way around a blaster, but has never trained with any other form of weaponry, just flailing madly at each other. It’s not polished, it’s not pretty, but it is amazing. Never before have any of the other Star Wars movies ever driven home the pure brutality of these weapons, but in this fight we have sizzling snow and smoldering garments and burned flesh. Even when Vader was lopping off Luke’s hand in Empire, it was all very clean and precise, but this fight was messy. And so when Finn loses — Finn loses — it hurts. It hurts him, and it hurts us, because we saw how much effort that battle took, how scared he was, how far out of his league, but how he kept fighting a losing battle because it was the right thing to do.

I need a minute. I’m awash in Finn feels and my screen is suddenly blurry. And I need my full wits about me to talk about —

Rey (Daisy Ridley)

Can we just…take a moment and bask in the glory that is Rey?

I was not prepared for how much I loved Rey (and how much I loved Daisy Ridley as Rey. It reminded me of the feeling I had watching Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, another character I was not prepared to love half as much as I did/do, and how even though I’d only seen her in the one movie, I was now willing to follow her to every movie ever). Every time I thought, okay, this is it, I love her as much as I possibly can, the movie would give us something else to love. The entire sequence where she meets Finn, from her knocking out her assailants before Finn can “rescue” her, to her constant “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” protests, to her reluctance to steal the “garbage” Millennium Falcon, followed by her surprise!ability to pilot the Millennium Falcon, was pure gold.

And then I could take you through all the best Rey moments in the rest of the movie, but I won’t, because that’s like the entire movie? Every single scene she was in was magical. When she taught herself to use the Force on the Stormtrooper? When Luke’s lightsaber flew past Kylo into her hand? When she met Leia’s eyes and went straight into her arms without ever meeting her (IN THIS MOVIE, ANYWAY)? When it was just understood that the Falcon was hers now, and Chewie was her new co-pilot, and she found Luke and held out the lightsaber and a world of understanding passed between them?

*deep breath*

Suffice it to say that Rey is a phenomenal character to hang this new franchise on, and I can’t wait to see the rest of her journey.

The Original Trilogy Characters 

I don’t want to say I was worried about seeing Han, Leia, Chewie, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Luke again. I wasn’t. I was actually overjoyed to see them again. But I worried a bit that they’d feel shoehorned into the new story, that their inclusion would wind up feeling more sad than triumphant, that they’d feel peripheral to the main plot.

I was so wrong. I was so pleased with how the old and new wove together seamlessly. I loved that we are not dealing just with “the next generation” in terms of age, but with the literal next generation of these characters, since Kylo is Han and Leia’s offspring. Not only did they fit in this story, but this story could not have existed without them. But at the same time, the new characters were allowed to carry most of the weight. That is no small feat, and I was so, so impressed with how they pulled it off. I’ve rarely (right now, I’d say never, but I could probably think of something if I gave myself enough time to think about it) seen such a smooth passing of the torch in a franchise.

I loved the little ways they aged up the characters. Han and Leia, being human, aged more obviously, but they also gave us C-3P0’s red arm (“You probably don’t recognize me.”), and even Chewie has become a bit of a crotchety old man. I was nervous about Mark Hamill, having just seen him as The Trickster on The Flash, where he was looking markedly un-Jedi-like, but I thought he pulled off the Force Hermit look well. I do wish we’d gotten at least one line out of him, but with Han gone, I’m guessing Episode VIII will be the Luke and Rey show.

Which brings me to…

That Big Thing Kylo Does

Guys, I know, I know, I am as devastated as you are, but Han had to die. Not just because Harrison Ford has wanted him dead for 30 years, but because this is not Han’s story. It never was, really. It was always Luke’s story. Han arguably had a small arc in the original trilogy — he went from being someone who was only out to save his own skin to someone who would risk himself to save his friends — but Star Wars has never been about Han Solo. At its core, one of the central conflicts of Star Wars has always been about identity, and the struggle between who you think you are vs. who others want you to be. Han Solo has always had a firm grasp on who he is and what he wants, and that hasn’t changed throughout the entire saga.

But by killing Han Solo off — killing him at the hand of his son, so that he can complete his transition to the Dark Side — we’ve once again put that central conflict of identity front and center. Because it’s not about Han, it’s about Kylo. Who Kylo wants to be versus who Han still hopes he is. It’s that pivotal Luke Skywalker choice all over again, but flipped, and it is even more gutting than Luke’s original confrontation with Vader, because when Kylo triumphs over his father, it’s not what we want at all. For so much of this movie, we were lulled into believing that if Rey is this generation’s Luke, Kylo is Vader, but that’s not the case. They’re both Luke — one as we know him, the other as he could have been. And this choice — for Kylo to kill Han as Rey looks on, horrified — drives that parallel home.

So much of The Force Awakens was re-treading familiar ground, but Han’s death sets the story on a new path we haven’t been down before. What if Luke gave in to the emperor’s taunts and struck down his father? What if, despite the part of him that still felt pulled toward the Light Side, he chose the Dark? What if, instead of balancing on that line, he toppled over it? Could he ever climb back to the other side? Would we even want him to?

Honestly, my only beef with that entire scene — which was so, so well done — was that the writers missed an opportunity for this exchange:

Kylo: [holds out saber hilt]

Han: [taking Kylo’s hand] Your mother and I…we love you.

Kylo: [tears in his eyes] I know.

Kylo: [stabs Han]

WHY DID THIS NOT HAPPEN? I can only imagine it’s because they’re saving the “I love you”/”I know” exchange for Leia/Kylo in a future installment. Because if this franchise does not give me the Solo Family turning that iconic endearment from an expression of romantic love into one of familial love, I just don’t even understand what I’m doing here.

ETA: Also! I just want to point out the beautiful symmetry between how we meet Han in A New Hope and how he leaves in The Force Awakens. The first time we see him, after he’s finished wheeling and dealing with Obi-Wan, is when he’s confronted by Greedo, and Han — as all true Star Wars fans can attest — shoots first. It’s Han on the offensive, acting before anyone else can, motivated by a strong sense of self-preservation.

But in his last scene, his death is the direct result of Han deliberately choosing not to act. Han Solo has finally found something he cares about more than himself, and he is willing to forego that self-preservation instinct — to go as far as having a weapon placed in his hand and still not using it — if there’s a chance it might save his son. Like so much else surrounding Kylo Ren, this scene mirrors that first one, but takes it in the opposite way of what we’ve seen before. I thought it was a brilliant, moving way to say goodbye to this beloved character, and highlighted the character growth in Han that’s been happening off-screen for the past 30 years.

So there are (most of) my spoilerific thoughts on The Force Awakens! (There are more, but this post is already a dissertation.) What were your favorite parts? Who was your favorite character? I can discuss this forever, so please, if I forgot to mention something awesome, LET ME KNOW.

ETA: Rey is totally Luke’s daughter, right?

Film Review: THE MARTIAN

You may remember how much I loved THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, the novel about an astronaut accidentally stranded alone on Mars, forced to become a sort of Science MacGyver in his efforts to survive, while his crewmates and NASA and basically all of humanity band together in a heroic and desperate attempt to rescue him. This book was amazing. Absolutely my favorite book of the year, and probably one of my favorite books of all time.

You may also remember that the reason I read the book was because I’d seen the trailer for the movie, which also looked amazing. And after reading the book, I was even more excited for the film. It looked like it would be a faithful adaptation that really captured the spirit of the novel — but of course, trailers often lie. So. Did it hold up?

This is going to be part film review, part compare and contrast with the book, because although the movie totally stands on its own, I find it really difficult to talk about it without referencing the source material. I’ll hide all spoilers, so don’t worry if you haven’t read or watched yet.

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I loved the movie. Loved. I thought it was one of the most faithful book adaptations I’ve seen in years, the visuals were stunning, the casting was terrific, the writing was tight, the pacing was solid, and the humor, optimism and collaborative, heroic spirit of the book were all wonderfully represented. So. Even though I’m going to get critical in a minute, keep in mind that it’s the criticism of a true fan who enjoyed this movie and wants to watch it a dozen more times.

First, let’s talk about things I think the movie did better than the book. The big one is character. Watney aside (Matt Damon/Mark Watney is a category all his own), I cared about the characters in the movie — the Hermes crew in particular, but all of them to varying degrees — far more than I did in the book. One advantage to seeing the movie trailer before reading the book was that I was able to picture the movie cast as all the characters as I read. So although I’ve heard a few people here and there say Matt Damon was not “their” Mark Watney, for me, he was Mark from page 1.

It also helps (or maybe hinders, if you read the book first and pictured a character totally differently) that there is almost no physical description in the book for any of the characters. We are given names and genders and personalities, occasionally ages, but that’s it. No skin or hair color, no ethnicity beyond what’s implied by their names, no body types or backstory. So when it came to casting, there was a lot of leeway to cast the person who best embodied the character, and personally, I thought that worked out in the movie’s favor.

The vast majority of the cast was tasked with the daunting challenge of fully fleshing out their characters with relatively little screen time, and they managed it admirably, giving the non-Watney scenes an even greater depth and humanity than they had in the book. Whereas in the book, my heart was on Mars with Watney, making me anxious to return to him anytime the point-of-view would switch to another character, in the movie, I was fully invested in every scene, not just those on Mars with Watney, but on earth with the NASA team and in space with the Hermes crew. With an ensemble cast like this, it’s hard to call out individual players without it turning into a laundry list, so suffice it to say, everyone brought their A-game to this production.

The Hermes crew, ltr: Matt Damon, Sebastian Stan, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Michael Peña

The movie was also able to drive home the physical deterioration of Mark Watney in a way I never fully felt with the book. It was one thing to read about how he had to severely cut his rations in order to stretch them, but another to see him go from a clean-shaven, muscular guy at the beginning of the movie to a bushy-faced, skeletal figure covered in malnutrition bruises by the end. His transformation really underscored the brutality of passing time in a far more tangible way than reading about it could.

Also, while I loved the [highlight for spoiler: final rescue scene by the Hermes crew] in the book, in the movie it was extended, and thus felt both more harrowing and heroic to me. I also really enjoyed that the movie ended the equivalent of a few pages past where the book ends. It gave the story and the characters a better sense of closure, and viewers a greater sense of satisfaction.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Matt Damon’s fantastic performance as Mark Watney. I don’t think he was better than the book, per se, but he totally embodied the Watney in my brain, from his grim optimism, to his nerdy, irreverent, and sometimes fatalistic sense of humor, to his conversational and accessible way of talking about sciencing his way out of certain death. While I’m sure there are other great actors who could have played Watney and done the character justice, I can’t imagine anyone portraying him better or more true to the book than Damon. He was my Watney, from the first minute to the last.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney

However, there were some aspects in which I think the movie didn’t fare quite so well. Even though the movie runs long for Hollywood, at 141 minutes, it never felt like it had enough time to fully convey just how perilous Mark’s situation was. Like in the book, the movie sticks solely with Mark on Mars for his first couple weeks of isolation, but it never really has time to build up that sense of profound loneliness and desperation before cutting to NASA. And from then on out, by constantly cutting between Mark and NASA, the movie is never fully able to make us feel that every minute of Mark’s life is teetering on the edge of complete and utter failure, because we can see NASA working the problems and coming up with solutions — seemingly, almost instantly.

I don’t want to say the film felt rushed, because it didn’t. The pacing was, as I said before, solid. But in adapting the story from the book, it had to lose a lot of small scenes that, while not integral to the plot, may have been helpful for the tone. [Minor spoilers follow, but nothing that’s not in the trailer.]

We see Mark having to make soil to grow potatoes, but we never understand just how hard or unlikely that process is, or how long it takes. We never become emotionally invested in those potatoes, like I did reading the book. When [spoiler: the HAB airlock explodes and Mark loses all his crops, it doesn’t have nearly the impact of that scene in the book, where it felt almost like the death of a beloved character.]

Mark faces many of the same problems he does in the book — lack of water, lack of communication, extreme cold, limited battery life for his equipment — but instead of getting stuck, instead of feeling like he’s run up against an insurmountable obstacle, instead of being struck over and over with that sense of imminent failure, his problems are often solved in the very next scene. Sure, the timestamps may tell us that a few days (or Sols, as time is measured on Mars) have passed, but for the movie-going audience, it was only a minute or two. While in the book, he spends multiple chapters prepping [spoiler: for his 2-month drive to the MAV], building up a huge sense of anticipation in the reader as he details everything that could go wrong, in the movie, he conceives his plan and then — time jump! — executes it.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney

At that point, a friend leaned over to me in the theater and whispered, “I doubt it felt that quick and easy for him.” And that, I felt, was an unfortunate theme throughout this movie. While the actors did an amazing job of showing us how worried and conflicted they were, and while we could see Mark putting up a wall of humor to push away the hopelessness in every one of his scenes, without the time to really linger on each setback Mark and NASA faced or to mourn their failures, their problems never felt impossible. The solution was never more than a scene or two away.

So while the movie didn’t need [spoiler: Mark hiding in the Rover with no idea what to do when he realized he’d accidentally turned the HAB into a bomb, or shorting out Pathfinder and losing his only means of communication, or rolling the Rover on his way to the MAV], by losing all those moments where Mark had to pause and really face the question, is this what kills me?, I felt like the movie never quite managed the overwhelming part of “overwhelming odds.” There were odds, sure, and I believed them. But overwhelming? I never thought it got there.

Also, this is not really relevant to anything, but I was pretty bummed that we never got Watney measuring things in units of pirate-ninjas. Just needed to state that for the record.

All that said, I still think this was an excellent film, and a wonderful adaptation of the book. Plus, in a story landscape littered with supervillains and antiheroes, this is one of those rare stories with no bad guy. I love me a good villain, but this is a tale of Man + Science (+ Duct Tape, really) vs. Nature, and really, that is fully enough. It is hopeful and optimistic, both in its vision of what humanity might someday be able to accomplish, and in its characters, who push themselves beyond their limits to help one another. So while it may have a few shortcomings, as all movies do, I can still fully endorse it for what it is — a beautifully told, riveting, inspirational tale of survival, cooperation, and loyalty, peppered with humor and science, IN SPACE.

Really, if that doesn’t get you to the theater, I don’t know what will.