Age of Ultron Review

Last week, I finally saw Age of Ultron. It is the first Marvel movie since Thor that I missed going to see in theatres, so I have been anxiously awaiting its DVD release. Now, after a week of thinking about it, I’ve finally managed to compile my thoughts into a mostly coherent review:

Is it a terrible movie? No, of course not. But it’s deeply flawed. I might be able to overlook the film’s problems, or some of them, anyway, if they weren’t evidence that Age of Ultron just doesn’t fit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

One problem is the film’s script. Now, I’ve always been a Whedon fan, but the Age of Ultron script sounds more like selected scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just did not work for me. The bubbly lines contrasted sharply with the darker tone of the film and of the MCU’s Phase Two overall, the theme of which is that the enemy is closer than these characters realize. All the Avengers films from Phase Two confirm this: the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is smoke and mirrors, while Aldrich Killian is the real villain; Loki is shown to be the bigger threat in Thor: The Dark World; and seeming allies like Alexander Pierce and Brock Rumlow are the baddest of bad guys in The Winter Soldier. The plot of Age of Ultron aligns with this theme, since Tony is the real enemy, but the quippy, fast-paced humour of the dialogue was terribly jarring.

The more frustrating problem with Age of Ultron is related to the dialogue, but it goes beyond that. To put it simply, Age of Ultron is not about the Avengers as we’ve come to know them. It’s a film about strangers. They look familiar, but they’re like parallel Avengers, pulled from different source material. All the other problems that the film has (and there are many) can be traced back to the fact that these are different people than they were in their own movies. It feels like Age of Ultron (and the first Avengers as well, to a lesser extent) exists in its own bubble, and, to enjoy it, you have to turn off the part of your brain that wants to connect it to the “bigger universe.” The problem, of course, is that Marvel’s goal is to create a sprawling, cinematic universe where everything is connected; therefore, the fact that Age of Ultron is about different versions of the Avengers is unforgiveable.

Let’s start with Iron Man. I buy that Tony Stark wants to protect the world and therefore creates Ultron. In fact, that makes so much sense to me that I am willing to forget that Ultron was actually a creation of Hank Pym, a pacifist. Age of Ultron does a good job in connecting that dot: Hank Pym isn’t here, so the film takes part of Pym’s motivation — world peace — and combines it with Tony’s anxieties. The result aligns with Marvel canon. For instance, in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Iron Man gets bewitched by the Purple Man and the result is more or less the same.

But that version of Iron Man/Tony Stark doesn’t really exist in the MCU. Or rather, he doesn’t exist anymore. In Iron Man 3, Tony became too protective, built a ton of dangerous technology, and it blew up in his face. He learned from that experience. He grew. He changed. For him to build Ultron, therefore, feels like a big step backwards, like the film hit rewind and went back to a version of Tony that shouldn’t exist anymore, or it created a new Tony Stark entirely.

I get that Tony makes a mistake in Age of Ultron. That part fits in with the MCU’s Tony Stark: he’s always making mistakes. But the film never accounts for why he’s suddenly forgotten the way he grew as a person, and as a superhero, in Iron Man 3, where he seemed to learn not to make mistakes like this. (It also really bothered me that Age of Ultron offered no explanation as to why Tony has at least one suit after destroying all the others, or how the suits are powered without the reactor in his chest.) In sum, this Tony Stark isn’t the Tony Stark we know.

Next, let’s look at Natasha Romanov. There have been a lot of well-deserved negative reactions to Age of Ultron’s treatment of this character, and I could probably rant about it all day, but I’ll keep my remarks short and to the point. Aside from being quite sexist, the film’s characterization of Natasha is another item on the checklist that proves that Age of Ultron does not fit into the MCU that we have come to know and love.

Up until this point, she has been the only female character not slotted into a romantic plot — and when Tony tried that, it didn’t end well. In fact, she has been consistently viewed by the films and pretty much every character in them as aromantic. Note: not asexual — she is a femme fatale, after all, and I have no problem with that.

I don’t even have much of a problem with the fact that she’s pursuing a relationship in this film. The problem I have is with the way that the film frames her choice to pursue a relationship: it becomes the only thing interesting about her as a character, which is ridiculous. Natasha, a woman of formidable skills, is suddenly defined solely by her relationship to a man. Her affection for Bruce Banner is established in the very first scene of the movie as being the most valuable contribution she can make to the team, and that’s a huge problem. It just doesn’t jive with the Natasha that we’ve come to know because, up until this point, the MCU has not contained a Natasha Romanov interested in being defined by a romantic relationship.

Then there’s the infertility thing. A lot of people a lot smarter than me have already discussed this at length, so all I’m going to say is that Age of Ultron, with its sudden revelation regarding Natasha’s inability to have children, creates a version of Natasha that we have not seen before. This Natasha is focused on the fulfillment of some heteronormative dream and devastated that she cannot have it; these additions to her character feel very out of place. Certainly, infertility is devastating for many women. But to have this woman suddenly defined by what the film solely views as a lack — and to suggest that her success thus far is proof that there is something wrong with her — is to create a new Natasha, one that calls herself a monster.

I’m not saying that the past trauma of her forced sterilization isn’t a feature that could have been added to her character, but the film’s handling of it was so clumsy and sexist (defining a woman only by her relationship to men and by her biological function as a childbearer) that the movie begins to feel like a retcon, a rewriting of the character we’ve come to know over the last five years. Like with Tony Stark, this is a version of the character that doesn’t exist outside this film. On a related note, I’m very curious to see what Civil War does with Widow; back in the Russos’ hands, will she be the Natasha from Winter Soldier or will the Age of Ultron version win out?

Finally, we come to my hero, Captain America.

The only thing that saved this film for me was Chris Evans’ remarkable performance as Steve Rogers. It was not surprising — this guy has been doing incredible things with the role for four years now — but Evans’ performance in Age of Ultron subtly contradicts the film’s attempts to rewrite the character. The first Avengers featured a simplified version of Cap as well, but Age of Ultron’s characterization of Steve neglects the emotional turmoil we saw in The Winter Soldier, which was a huge mistake that the script makes again, and again, and again… To be blunt, Cap’s lines are terrible:


I miss the days when the weirdest thing created by science was me.

Elevator’s not worthy.

But I digress. My point is that he just didn’t sound like Steve Rogers — or rather, the Steve Rogers that we spent so much time with in Winter Soldier — and this would have had disastrous consequences but for Chris Evans. What stopped me from turning the film off was waiting for the next moment where he would do something that made me say, “Oh, Captain, my Captain! Thank God, you’re still in there.” In moments when he wasn’t talking, Evans lets us see the “real” Cap.

For example, Sam asks, “You found a place in Brooklyn yet?” and Steve answers, “I don’t think I can afford a place in Brooklyn.” Sam replies, “Yeah, well, home is home” and the look on Steve’s face in the few seconds of silence that follow is heartbreaking. It’s like he’s thinking, “No, Sam. Home is not home. I have no home,” which is, of course, a sentiment that ran through Winter Soldier. Evans’ subtle performance here creates the impression not only that Steve’s sad about still not having a home (no Brooklyn, no Bucky, no Army, no SHIELD), but also that he can’t/won’t say something about what he’s feeling, whether it’s because he doesn’t want to deal with the fall-out of being that honest with Sam (we all know Sam wouldn’t let a remark like that slip by), or whether he’s just doing his stiff-upper-lip thing again. I’m inclined to believe that what’s running through Steve’s head is some combination of the two sentiments. Just before this conversation, when Sam makes a casual reference to “chasing cold leads” in his hunt for Bucky, Steve gives that subtle twitch that he did so much in Winter Soldier, that little movement that says “Nope, don’t want to talk about that.”

Must’ve freaked you out, coming home after the whole defrosting thing.
It takes some getting used to. Good to meet you, Sam.

Note, in the image above, the way he reacts physically to Sam’s question and how his first impulse is to bail. Evans does this in Age of Ultron, too, and it’s heart-wrenching.

Evans broke my heart again when he picked up Quicksilver’s body off the ground. For a few seconds, there was something in Steve’s face that screamed soldier, team leader, captain — the one who knows that the bodies of his teammates are his responsibility. He has had to carry them before, and he will have to do it again. And that’s a powerful, pain-stricken side of Captain America that the film’s dialogue  unfortunately glosses over.

I find it remarkable that Evans can project so much into silent moments. Like I said, he saved the movie for me. Overall, what struck me most about Age of Ultron was that little struck me about Age of Ultron. It is probably the only Marvel movie that feels forgettable. Regardless, these glimpses of Steve Rogers haunt me.

Age of Ultron had a lot to live up to, and it tried to do a lot. It tried to be dark and deep, and bring in the characters’ inner demons (at least I think that’s what it was trying to do), but the flashes of Winter Soldier Steve Rogers are the only times that it worked, and they feel accidental, organic. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were written into the script, but frankly, as I said at the beginning of this piece, I don’t give the script that much credit.

Any film that is a part of a connected series of films needs to fit into that series or account for its deviation. Age of Ultron does neither. Here’s hoping that Civil War gives us back the characters we’ve come to know and love… before they all start trying to kill each other.


Seeing Vs. Remembering

I know I saw the Christian protestors at the Pride Parade today. I know I heard them preaching about sin and repentance and about how God loves you (as long as you’re straight). I saw the sign that said that homosexuality is a sin.

But just because I saw them, doesn’t mean I’ll remember them.

What I’ll remember are the anti anti-gay protestors who had signs that read “God Hates Broccoli”, “Broccoli is destroying the moral fabric of society”, and “1 Broccoli + 1 Broccoli = Sinful Salad” (my personal favourite).

And I’ll remember the brave men and women in uniform who walked hand in hand with their partners down the middle of the street, and the cop who almost fell over she was laughing so hard at the broccoli signs. And the little girl selling rainbow bracelets, who had a shirt that said “If Mom says no, I’ll just ask Cool Mom.” And the two women on a church float in their ivory gowns holding up a “Just Married” sign. The hugs, smiles, kind words of welcome and support as I talked with strangers in the park: these I’ll remember.

In short, what I’ll remember from today are all the little moments when community and love triumphed over bigotry and hate.

Some Thoughts on Katniss Everdeen and Female Emotion

Originally published on Big Tall Words, January 5, 2015

*Spoiler warning for The Hunger Games trilogy*

Oh, the tears.

There are probably reasons why these novels and films hit me so hard. I just finished a class about happiness (or the lack thereof) in Romantic literature led by a professor who feels so acutely that many members in the class tear up at his words. (No, really. The man has some kind of aura around him. I thought it was just me, but he has this effect on many.) Trauma, sadness, pain, and depression figured largely in the class; we read a lot of psychoanalysis and novels about characters who waste away and/or commit suicide. Needless to say, the class was not all that uplifting at times, and it has certainly had an effect on my own state of mind.

I tried to remember this while sobbing my way through the novels. I tried to remind myself that I was reading too much into the novels by thinking of them as stories about recovering from trauma. I tried to remind myself that there was going to be a happy ending because there often is in post-apocalyptic fiction, especially young adult post-apocalyptic fiction. When all this failed, I tried to tell myself: GAWD IT’S JUST A BOOK GET A GRIP! (It didn’t work.)

The thing is, I don’t think I am reading too much into the novels to say that they are about recovering from trauma. Katniss’s world is a damaging place where the odds are never “in your favour”, where bad things happen to good people, where death is often hasty and meaningless. Though she survives this world, she cannot (and does not) emerge unscathed.

At the beginning of The Hunger Games, Katniss’s father has died, and the burden of ensuring her family doesn’t starve to death has fallen on her shoulders. She has grown up too fast, learned too quickly that death is inevitable, that the price of survival is almost never too high. Take Buttercup, for instance. On the very first page of the first novel, Katniss tells us matter-of-factly: “He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed” (3). How many 16-year-olds would be so cavalier about the need to drown a kitten — the very picture of innocence — because they understand that the resources of the household cannot stretch to accommodate it? This is a young woman hardened too soon by too much trauma.

Prim, of course, can afford to be innocent. She can beg and cry to keep the kitten because she doesn’t know its true cost. And Katniss works very hard to let Prim keep the cat, though she has no love for the creature herself. In fact, Katniss’s description of her own relationship with the cat sounds to me like she is incapable of the innocence that loving it would demand: “Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me. Entrails. No hissing. This is closest we will come to love” (4). Prim is about the only person she trusts enough to love; she feels shame that Peeta’s act of kindness gave her hope when she was younger, and anger at her mother’s grief.

These early passages make it clear to me that Katniss has dealt with trauma long before she steps into the arena for the Hunger Games. Afterwards, of course, she is a shell of who she was, and terrified to trust another enough for love to develop. In Catching Fire, when Gale confesses his love for her, she replies, “I can’t think about anyone that way now. All I can think about, every day, every waking minute since they drew Prim’s name at the reaping is how afraid I am. And there doesn’t seem to be room for anything else. If we could get somewhere safe, maybe I could be different. I don’t know” (97). Here we have Katniss confronting the unknowability of the future; the uncertainty as to whether she will ever be able to move past the trauma (the loss, the hardship, the adversity) that has plagued her.

Katniss 3

In Mockingjay, the final novel, Katniss’s grief comes to a head. Like Haymitch, she becomes addicted to a painkiller; like Annie, she acts like a lunatic, screaming and throwing fits and blacking out. This part of the novel made me wish for an exterior narrator. But the fragmented present tense captured something of the raw emotion Katniss deals with after everything she’s been through. Her home has been destroyed; she is constantly a pawn in a larger game, the rules and players of which she may never fully grasp; her closest companion has grown into a ruthless military tactician; the cause she tries to support resembles l’Ancien Regime more and more each day; her mother shuts her out again; and worst of all, Prim is killed, possibly in one of Gale’s engineered bombings. Of course she murders Coin. Of course she becomes a morphine addict. Of course she shuts everyone out. Who wouldn’t?

What I love about the series and its final installment is what some readers really hate about it. It goes to dark places. Katniss suffers. Good people die for no reason. Some readers (particularly Goodreads reviewers) claim that certain characters “deserved better” or that the final novel’s epilogue feels tacked on. Some (again, Goodreads reviewers) protest that Katniss isn’t strong anymore, she isn’t in control in the final novel, she’s messed up and no one wants to read about that. Movie Bob from The Escapist said something similar in his review of the latest film, stating sarcastically that everyone wanted to see the characters “moping around” for two hours.


The Hunger Games is based on a philosophical problem as old as humanity itself: why do bad things happen to good people? The simple answer is because we are not in control. We live in an absurd world where chaos reigns. Katniss is never “in control” at any point in the series. Even when she’s kicking ass, she’s doing it because she is a cog in a larger machine. Anyone who thinks that she was strong early in the series and weak later must have fallen for her propos because she was never as strong as she seemed; she only had people watching her for signs of weakness. Katniss is a hunter. She knows that weakness means death, and strength means survival. So she performs for the cameras. But, more than any of the other novels and films, Mockingjay shows us Katniss away from the cameras. And yes, she cries. Yes, she faints and vomits and hides and blacks out and panics. She suffers. Mockingjay shows us that no one can live in the world without suffering, though some may be better at putting up a brave face.

So why is it that, when Katniss starts to visibly suffer, people accuse her of being weak? Or they accuse the series of losing its appeal because its main character is just “moping around”?

Because Katniss is a woman.

In his review of Mockingjay Part 1, Movie Bob claimed to understand how significant Katniss is as a female protagonist. He claimed that she is an excellent role model for young women (better, he states, than Bella Swan, though that’s saying very, very little). He claimed that he understood why people loved her and loved the books, and loved the series, but he — poor defenceless film critic as he is — just wants to know why they can’t make a better movie, why the final installment had to be divided in two even though it means that the first film is filled with the characters moping around.

I would reply that Movie Bob understands jack about shit when it comes to Katniss as a female protagonist, and he wasn’t watching the film very closely to conclude that it is useless because she was “moping around” the whole time.

In the latest Hunger Games film, President Coin is played by Julianne Moore. I thought this was a bizarre casting choice, since I read Coin as a very hard woman, and Moore is, well, soft. (At least, I always thought so.) The filmmakers added a scene, however, that justifies their decision. In this scene, Katniss breaks away from the crowd, and Coin finds her. The two converse a little, and there is an unprecedented moment of connection between them. Katniss is grieving her losses, and Coin opens up a little about her family being murdered by the Capitol. She concludes by telling Katniss that in difficult times, people like the two of them find something inside that pushes them onward. It is an emotional moment, and both actors give the scene the emotional gravitas that it deserves. I was quite impressed. Here was the film justifying its own focus upon the emotional deterioration of Katniss Everdeen. What I got from the scene was that Coin was telling Katniss, it’s okay to be an emotional wreck; you can be both strong and emotional.

A great woman once said, “My emotions give me power.” This great woman suffered hardship: saddled with responsibility beyond her years, willing to give her life multiple times for the ones she loved, she sacrificed everything for her younger sister, lost a parent before she felt capable of being on her own in the world, became a brick wall that shut out those who loved her, and cried when no one was looking. This great woman also said, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”

buffy 3

And people called her whiny.

Too frequently, I think, texts with female protagonists rely on their leads embodying so-called masculine traits to be “strong” (i.e. physical strength/ stamina, leadership, assertiveness, independence/cutting emotional ties, a tactical mind, technical mastery of a skill or weapon, etc.). Katniss fulfills many of these traits; ironically, Movie Bob pointed this out in a different video, claiming that the reason she is strong is because she is hardly perceived as “female.” Though this may be true of the first installment of the series, as it develops, the weight of Katniss’s trauma becomes greater, and she becomes more visibly emotional (which is, of course a stereotypical female trait). Catching Fire and Mockingjay show us a Katniss who is suffering, who is both emotional and strong, perhaps even strong because she is emotional. This is an unusual stance, and I think very highly of The Hunger Games for taking it.

I know why it is unusual for texts to take this stance: to do so risks being associated with essentialist thinking that claims that women are emotional while men are not. Even what I wrote above may approach the essentialism line. But I think it is possible to say that women are emotional because they are socialized to be able to show emotion more than men because they are expected to be weaker, and emotion is a sign of weakness. Therefore, to have a female protagonist who draws strength from perceived signs of weakness is an accomplishment, in my mind.

Yes, Katniss spends some of the movies and books “moping.” But I encourage those who criticize her for it to think of the Careers — the tributes brought up to fight in the Games. They don’t “mope,” but they are also ruthless human beings, capable of murder and torture. Katniss remains human, which is why she gave Rue such a moving send-off and wanted to save the wounded in the burning hospital. As readers and viewers, we should be pleased that Katniss can feel, that she draws strength from those feelings, that she can heal, rather than complain about having to go with her through the slow and painful healing process.

The beauty of Mockingjay is that Katniss does heal. Slowly. Painfully. Imperfectly. Some readers hated the novel’s epilogue, claiming that she settled for a certain way of life, but I loved it. I thought it was a movingly simple coda: the continuation of life in the face of ongoing hardship. In the novel’s conclusion, Katniss becomes the mockingjay: “A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live” (Catching Fire 92). In the final novel’s epilogue, we see this symbolism embodied (though it’s admittedly on-the-nose). She has adapted to the wild; she has healed, passed on her genetic code, and survived (though I would not say thrived) in a new form. She still has nightmares; Peeta still has flashbacks. They still suffer. But they survive. The world has become a better place, but pain lingers.

Here is a woman who manages to be strong while still in touch with her emotions despite unspeakable hardships. Here is a heroine.

Oh, and P.S. The Hunger Games is NOT about a love triangle. It never was. (Anyone who thinks that the tension of the first two novels was driven by Katniss’s choice of boyfriend needs to go back to the Twilight fandom where they belong. I’m looking at you, Goodreads reviewers.) I have many, many more thoughts on the misreadings of the series, and when I’m not busy writing for my MA, maybe I’ll share them here.

“If you can read this, LEAVE!!!” Storytelling in Left 4 Dead and Zone One

Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 22, 2014

Post-apocalyptic fiction continually attempts to project itself into the future by resisting endings; each ending becomes instead an opportunity for continuation. Storytelling is the main method by which post-apocalyptic fiction attempts to resist closure, and this method can be traced back to the roots of the genre itself. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826, was “the first major work of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction” (Lovegrove 98). Shelley’s novel is written as a memoir and claims to be a translation of ancient writings (Lovegrove 99). As such, it projects itself into the future “for the benefit of posterity (not that anyone remains to read it)” (Lovegrove 99). Even though the memoir ends, it continually hopes to be read anew, subscribing to the “oxymoronic premise that the apocalypse has a future” (Sorensen 563). The narrative, then, sees the “apocalypse [as] a disaster but also an opportunity. It allows humankind to make a fresh start” (Lovegrove 99). In this scenario, the apocalypse is a temporary setback, an event that humans can conquer and recover from; in this scenario, the return to normalcy is inevitable.

Zombie narratives are excellent examples of post-apocalyptic fiction’s resistance to closure. These stories literally embody the belief that human survivors can get through the end of the world intact, believing that “the apocalypse is an object on which humanity can act, not an irresistible force that acts on humanity” (Sorensen 566). As the American Phoenix project heads would say, humanity must merely survive the “interregnum” (Whitehead 54). Max Brooks’s World War Z, written as a series of stories reflecting upon the zombie apocalypse, offers this perspective as well, “assur[ing] the reader that the apocalyptic scenario that it describes will not only end but also become knowable as an event that can be subsumed into human history” (Sorensen 567).

The goal of my discussion here is to examine this paradoxical belief in the end of the end of the world as it manifests in storytelling in two works of post-apocalyptic zombie fiction, a videogame entitled Left 4 Dead and Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One. I will begin by discussing embedded stories in Left 4 Dead that present this belief, before moving on to how the larger environmental narrative justifies the violence required to guarantee humanity’s survival. At this point, I will shift my discussion to Zone One, highlighting the ways the novel’s embedded stories also uphold this hope for the future, but demonstrating that the novel ultimately resists this reading. My discussion will conclude that although typical post-apocalyptic zombie fiction like Left 4 Dead is more uplifting, the bleaker vision of Zone One is a more realistic, Anthropocenic narrative of the end of the world.

Released into the horde of all things zombie in 2008, Valve’s videogame Left 4 Dead carries with it the tendency of post-apocalyptic fiction to look ahead — in this case to a time when humanity will eradicate the zombie threat. It is a First-Person Shooter (FPS) survival horror game; the story, such as it is, finds four strangers travelling together two weeks after the zombie infection started spreading (Valve Corporation). The game has four independent campaigns, “No Mercy,” “Death Toll,” “Dead Air,” and “Blood Harvest,” that each trace the survivors’ progression towards an evacuation point. The locations of these end-points range from urban (the rooftop of a city hospital) to rural (an abandoned farmhouse). Assuming they can hold off waves of the undead, the survivors are rescued by a civilian or military vehicle. There is no mention of what might come after this rescue, but it is hopeful. In “Blood Harvest,” we even get a glimpse of the sunrise before the screen fades to black. The words “The survivors have escaped!” appear, and heroic music swells (see Fig. 1). If one or more of the survivors perish before they reach the escape vehicle, a memorial message comes up on the screen, offering consolation but hope. These visual and auditory signs tell the player that the story is moving on to a hopeful future.

Fig. 1. “Blood Harvest” Escape Sequence (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 1. “Blood Harvest” Escape Sequence (Valve Corporation)

Aside from its hopeful conclusion, Left 4 Dead relies on storytelling to uphold the view that the apocalypse will end. Stories in Left 4 Dead appear throughout the game in the form of graffiti. As survivors head toward the evacuation point, they stop in what are called “safe rooms” or “safe houses” (Valve Corporation). These are zombie-proof rooms stocked with supplies such as first aid kits and ammunition. Though we never meet another team of survivors in the game, these rooms are frequented by others, as we can see from the abundance of writing on the walls. Most of these notes are addressed to loved ones (see Fig. 2). They update the addressee on the status of family members, like Kat’s message to Lars and El’s note to Lisa, or they apologize for being unable to wait for them, like Krista’s message to Kevin and Kate’s two notes to Peter. The larger writing of Kate’s second note speaks to her panic at the thought of leaving him behind, while Kat and El’s matter-of-fact tone sounds numb from so much tragedy. In one memorable case, an unsigned writer expresses anger, telling Claude Huggins that he is a coward. These messages resemble the “oral history” recounted in World War Z in that they offer retrospection (Sorensen 566) or at least the hope thereof. They narrate an experience, looking ahead to a time when they may have to account for their actions. Like The Last Man’s memoirs, they project themselves into the future, assuming or hoping that someone (the addressee or otherwise) will read them.

Fig. 2. Notes to Loved Ones on Safe Room Walls (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 2. Notes to Loved Ones on Safe Room Walls (Valve Corporation)

Other notes offer observations of the zombie threat, theorizing as to its causes and offering solutions or advice to others based on what they’ve seen. The above note, “If you can read this, LEAVE!!!” is the most simplistic of these, but there are others (see Fig. 3).

These as well resist closure, expressing the futuristic hope that their theories will be proven correct one day, or that they can be of assistance to others later.

In many cases, as we can clearly see in Fig. 2 and 3, the notes invite marginalia, as later survivors comment on what others have written, providing the player with insight into the minds of those living through the apocalypse. The comments are sometimes as enlightening and uplifting as YouTube users’ comments (see Fig. 4), but these moronic statements also present a narrative, that of one person’s reaction to another, and its implicit hope of a future readership.

Fig. 3. Theories and Advice (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 3. Theories and Advice (Valve Corporation)

Graffiti that seems like nothing more than social media updates (see Fig. 5) presents this narrative as well. The subtext of these stories is, quite simply, “I was here.” These graffitists anticipate that someone will want to know what they were doing, thinking, saying, feeling, or, in the case of the brief obituaries, whom they were remembering. These memories are stories too, as they record the present for posterity; as such, they further the forward trajectory of Left 4 Dead as a whole, which anticipates the end of the end of the world.

Fig. 4. Post-Apocalyptic Comments Sections (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 4. Post-Apocalyptic Comments Sections (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 5. “I was here.” (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 5. “I was here.” (Valve Corporation)

Some videogame critics, known as ludologists, would probably view the preceding analysis of Left 4 Dead as problematic, since I have chosen to look more closely at aspects of the game that surround gameplay rather than the gameplay itself. A player can, after all, get through an entire campaign without carefully reading any of the graffiti that I have noted above. My examining Left 4 Dead in conjunction with a novel and considering it as a part of a larger canon of post-apocalyptic fiction would probably also irk ludologists, since they argue that videogames are “a whole new medium, […] whose foundation is not in looking and reading but in the instigation of material change through action” (Galloway 4). According to this logic, videogames cannot and should not be analyzed using the same tools as literary or filmic interpretation (Galloway 4).

Ludologists would especially regard my analysis with suspicion given that Left 4 Dead is a First-Person Shooter. In a FPS like Left 4 Dead, “the player controls the actions of an in-game protagonist from a first-person perspective” (Atkins 55). As a result, “the player gets a strong sense of ‘being there’ herself, as no mediating character is brought to the centre of attention” (Mäyrä 107). Indeed, Left 4 Dead has been praised for this very feature: “Upon its release, it was called the first true zombie apocalypse game because it actually created the feel of a zombie apocalypse” (Swain). In a review of its sequel, one writer made a similar observation: “You know that scene in a zombie movie where the pilot turns into a zombie and the vehicle runs wild?  That happens [in Left 4 Dead 2], but you don’t have to watch it because this isn’t a movie.[…] Instead, the characters hop in a helicopter at the end of one campaign and talk about the horrible helicopter crash at the beginning of the next one” (Dunston). Given these features, ludologists would likely argue that Left 4 Dead must only be analyzed via the actions of the player-characters.

To be blunt, I disagree with the ludologists’ standpoint because the actions of the player-character only make sense in the context created by the game using visual and textual signs. Eric Wolpaw, one of the lead writers of Left 4 Dead, calls the combination of these signs “the environmental story” (qtd. in Graft). Galloway may be correct in saying that videogames are not based on “looking and reading” (4), but what he fails to mention is the ways that the action of a videogame relies on its environmental story. Players therefore read as much as play games. The literacy involved in reading the environmental story differs from that involved in reading a novel or film, but it is still an act of reading.

Without the environmental story, the actions of the player-character would be meaningless. This is especially the case in a FPS, where the environmental story “acts to guarantee that the violence that is at the heart of the game is internally justified as a response to the world of the text” (Atkins 61-2). As Brendan Keogh maintains, “The affordances and constraints of videogame play, what the player can or cannot ‘do’, only make sense in relation to the audiovisually constructed fictional world of the game” (6). Thus, ludologists’ sole focus on player action underestimates the player as a reader of signs.

As Barry Atkins notes, “game fictions might communicate their meanings and construct narrative without any dependence on the mediation of language” (58). Therefore, to read the environmental story of Left 4 Dead requires sensory literacy — interpreting visual, auditory and tactile signs to make meaning — and a kind of pop culture literacy, as well, that can recognize signs that connect the game to other media. Many, if not most of these signs are read subconsciously, especially if a player is familiar with the semiotics of videogames: “players effortlessly draw together in the same sentence thumb sticks, virtual characters and environments, living rooms, fingers, laser rifles, loading screens, save points, and the end of the world” (Keogh 2). Just because they may be reading subconsciously, however, does not mean they are not reading.

Left 4 Dead uses visual signs borrowed from film to evoke “a thick atmosphere, unrelenting tension, [and] a sense of danger” (Swain) that justify the game’s ceaseless violence. The game’s level design features narrow, dimly-lit alleyways between ruined, empty buildings. Navigating these areas evokes fear and tension: pathways sometimes lead to dead ends, and it is often hard to see what may be waiting down a chosen path. Lighting is also a major component of crafting the game fiction. In the streets, the majority of the lighting is provided only by the headlights of abandoned cars; in interior spaces, the light often comes from the player-character’s flashlight alone. Safe rooms, however, are well-lit with warm light (see Fig. 6). The jarring contrast between these areas tells the player that the world is short on safe places, furthering the tense atmosphere.

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 6. Lighting in “Death Toll” (Valve Corporation).

Left 4 Dead also makes conscious reference to classic horror and slasher films, meaning that a kind of pop cultural literacy is required. This game expects a player to recognize “codes and conventions of popular culture” in order to interpret the game “as an extended text rather than a sequence of unconnected fragments in which all one does is move the gunsight and press the fire button” (Atkins 61). In Left 4 Dead, these codes and conventions take the form of allusions to low-budget monster movies. Before the game begins in earnest, a loading screen imitates a movie poster, complete with a cheesy tagline, and after the campaign is complete, credits featuring gameplay statistics roll (see Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Auditory signs, such as the game’s minimal dialogue, also reference film media. One of the playable characters, Zoey, quotes Aliens in one part of the “No Mercy” campaign, shouting, “Game over, man! Game over!” (Valve Corporation). On a similar note, the game’s musical score resembles that of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The game also uses subtle musical cues to signal the arrival of particularly challenging zombie foes. This combination of auditory signs creates an environmental story that resembles being in a zombie movie more so than creating “the feel of a zombie apocalypse” (Swain). But sensory signs can also stand alone as signifiers of meaning. Tactile signs, such as haptic feedback from the controller, signal to the player that a large and dangerous enemy is approaching, again building an environmental story in which a hair trigger is permissible.

Thus the environmental story of Left 4 Dead, which players read while gaming, justifies its extreme violence, since it posits that violence is the only way to survive the apocalypse. As such, the game becomes a grander narrative of continuation, one that upholds the same proleptic tendency as its embedded stories written in the form of graffiti. The game’s larger narrative puts the player into the role of the sole human survivor who must and will live on, even if only in memory. If one survivor falls, a memorial message appears before the credits roll; if all the survivors are killed or incapacitated, players must re-start the chapter — the game literally cannot end without at least one human alive. Sorensen notes that in Romero’s films, the survivors always end up dying, but “the reiteration of the plot in each film makes the apocalypse a cyclical, rather than a singular event” (568), and Left 4 Dead does the same. It was designed to be played multiple times: “The thing with Left 4 Dead is that it’s replayable,” states Valve writer Eric Wolpaw. “It’s designed for people to play it 20, 30, and 40 times” (qtd. in Graft). Thus the survival narrative gets repeated ad infinitum, replicating the same trope as Zone One’s American Phoenix: humans can and must and will survive the apocalypse.

The extreme violence, though justified by the game’s environmental story, also shapes the way that we view and read the apocalypse. As seen in most of the images used in this paper, the crosshairs of a gun define the way that players view the end of the world and any stories told therein. With humanity now living the Anthropocene, facing the real possibility of extinction (though probably not because of zombies), stories like Left 4 Dead suggest that the only way to deal with an apocalypse is by seeing it through the crosshairs, that is to say, to be armed and violent in response to its threat. Players in Left 4 Dead can never not be armed; they cannot choose to requisition a vehicle and use it to transport other survivors to safety, or loot grocery stores to hide out in a bomb shelter, or break down and cry. The stories within Left 4 Dead and the larger environmental story of Left 4 Dead as a videogame present this view: to get to the anterior future, the time without violence, we have to adopt the violence of the interregnum to look ahead and live through it.

Embedded stories in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One embody a similar desire and hope in humanity’s ability to get past the apocalypse, though the novel ultimately suggests this aspiration is futile. Storytelling figures largely among the survivors of the plague and the sweepers in Zone One, where everyone has a “Last Night story” (Whitehead 88). It is a means of finding and maintaining an identity and a means of connecting to others: “If you chose to hook up for a time, eventually you traded Last Night stories” (Whitehead 137). Gary’s involves his brief foray as a deputy, while Kaitlyn “never saw her parents again after she departed on her trip” to Pennsylvania (Whitehead 126-7). Mim shares the horror of being separated from her children on Last Night (Whitehead 160), and Margie retrospectively praises her offhand decision to leave Cape Cod on Monday instead of Sunday when the plague first descended (Whitehead 216). These stories, like Left 4 Dead’s safe room wall reflections, employ the retrospection of World War Z’s “historiography as a mode of containment” (Sorensen 567), looking back to see Last Night as one more event in the past.

leave 8

Survivors also tell stories of the future. For example, Gary, “a true pheenie,” talks a lot of his plans, from moving to an island to devising a machine to trap zombies (Whitehead 78). He is certain that his “skel-catcher, or You-Grab-It, or Lasso, whatever,” will make him rich, and he is “undeterred” despite Kaitlyn and Mark Spitz’s criticisms (Whitehead 77-8). Gary’s optimism and other survivors’ hopes are often for an anterior future, alluding to a time when they can look backwards. They hope to remember and be remembered, to get “it all down for some calm, distant day when you were long disappeared and a stranger took the time to say your name” (Whitehead 139). While trapped in an old farmhouse, Tad plans his next project: a soon-to-be hit videogame based on humanity’s battle with the plague: “‘It’ll move a million copies,’ he said. ‘Those old World War II games still sell’” (Whitehead 222). Likewise, Mark Spitz’s former comrade, the Quiet Storm, arranges cars on the interstate to write “herself into the future […]. To Anyone Who Can Read This: Stay Away. Please Help. Remember Me” (Whitehead 290).

While the Quiet Storm’s message seems more personal, Tad’s plan can be classified on the same scale as the American Phoenix project. Both Tad and Buffalo view the zombie apocalypse as a temporary challenge and predict humanity’s victory. Each decision made by the American Phoenix keeps this optimism in mind, from prohibiting the sweepers’ breaking glass windows — “Buffalo wanted the city habitable for the new tenants” (Whitehead 75) — to devising a theme song for the eventual filmic dramatization, “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)” (Whitehead 135). Ms. Macy summarizes this futuristic attitude in her description of wall art to hang in an apartment building lobby: “I’m thinking kids […]. They’re the future, after all. That’s what this whole thing is about, the future” (Whitehead 207). Ms. Macy’s focus is on rebranding, creating a narrative from the apocalypse; she, too, is telling stories.

Ronald Soetaert, Jeroen Bourgonjon, and Kris Rutten, in “Video Games as Equipment for Living,” offer a possible explanation for the survivors’ and the American Phoenix’s dependence upon storytelling: to tell a story is a human act. Using Kenneth Burke’s theory of symbolic action, they argue that human life consists of drama, which can be described as the combination and variation of five elements: act, agent, scene, agency, and purpose (Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). These aspects define how we tell and interpret drama — which is to say, stories. This theory posits that humans are “story telling animals” (Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). Alasdair MacIntyre puts it another way: “[A human] is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. […] We can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” (qtd. in Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). When we look at storytelling in this light, it makes sense that zombie fiction would feature so many stories. In both Left 4 Dead and Zone One, zombies cannot speak, though humans in the midst of transforming into zombies still can (see Fig. 8). The act of telling stories, then, contains something unmistakeably human in zombie narratives, and hence it is used as a means of setting us apart from the horde.

Fig. 8. “Got bit but…” (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 8. “Got bit but…” (Valve Corporation)

Though Zone One contains many characters who subscribe to the view that storytelling will carry humanity into the future, the novel strives to resist this narrative, as Leif Sorensen outlines in his article “Against the Post-Apocalyptic.” The most obvious face of this resistance is Mark Spitz himself, who calls hope a “gateway drug” (Whitehead 222) and “assumes that all refuges are temporary” (Sorensen 561). Mark Spitz is not “like the rest of them, the other sweepers, […]. You never heard Mark Spitz say ‘When this is all over’ or ‘Once things get back to normal’ […] because he refused them” (Whitehead 32). Sorensen argues that,

Mark Spitz’s account of the zombie plague opposes the American Phoenix’s narrative of rebirth. In his narrative, the disruption brought on by the apocalypse is permanent, not reversible. Consequently, Mark Spitz’s narrative does not hinge on a moment in which society can return to its previous heights. It is a narrative of becoming, in which humanity must adapt to a hostile, potentially post-human world. (561)

I agree with Sorensen that Mark’s Spitz’s becoming opposes that of the American Phoenix project, but I think it is important not to lose sight of the fact that his methods are the same. Sorensen’s language here echoes MacIntyre’s description of how human beings understand themselves and the world, through a continuing narrative of becoming. Though the novel attempts to distance itself from the a proleptic tendency of post-apocalyptic fiction, Mark Spitz is always using narrative to situate himself in the present, which is not especially different from Left 4 Dead’s “I was here”

Mark Spitz’s Last Night story epitomizes his use of narrative to define his past and present (though not his future). The tale comes up, as many of his stories do, incidentally: while dropping off bodies for disposal, he feels the rain, which triggers a memory of swimming at his cousin’s house, which prompts him to ruminate over the near-pristine state of the street, which leads him to reflect on how normal his childhood home had looked from the outside on Last Night (Whitehead 79-81). This meandering route leads him to retell the story, seemingly to himself. Later, in a similarly tangential thread, he catches sight of movement across the street, which triggers a reflection on his way of life before coming to work as a sweeper in Zone One. At this point, he reveals that he had refined his Last Night story into three versions. The Silhouette was for survivors he wasn’t going to travel with for long […]. He offered the Anecdote, robust and carrying more on its ribs, to those he might hole up with for a night […]. The Obituary, although refined over the months and not without a rehearsed air, was nonetheless heartfelt, glancing off his true self more than once. (Whitehead 138-9)

From this description, the reader presumes that the story found earlier is the Obituary, but there is some unresolved ambiguity. He mentioned nothing of these categories before, which leads to confusion, but even more unclear is the wording found at the end of the Last Night story when it first appears: “That was the start of his Last Night story” (Whitehead 88, emphasis added). To further complicate things, when Mark Spitz begins to outline the three versions of his Last Night story, he puzzlingly states, “Each retelling of one’s Last Night story was a step toward another fantastic refuge, that of truth” (138). This too echoes MacIntyre’s vision of the human as “a teller of stories that aspire to truth” (qtd. in Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). In light of these two obfuscating details, I would conclude that Mark Spitz is struggling throughout the novel to understand his place in the world via narrative. This revelation shows that Mark Spitz is as interested in rebranding as the American Phoenix, though with an eye to the past rather than the future or the future past.

Mark Spitz’s wandering mind and internal storytelling is supposedly due to his suffering from Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (or PASD), a common ailment among the surviving population (Whitehead 67). His PASD is first triggered when he is confronted with the mystery of the zombie woman in the gorilla suit. Mark Spitz cannot stop “sleuthing” (Whitehead 64). He wonders ruefully,

Was she the spouse, an employee or former employee, and if so, what about this place shouldered its way into her mentality, past the plague, summoning her here? Then there was the suit. […] Perhaps the explanation of her outfit and how she made it to this spot was plausible in the context of her former life. But there was no one to tell her story. (Whitehead 65)

This utter lack of an explanation leads to the attack of his PASD: “He didn’t find her clothes, or any clues, and the next moment he was weeping” (Whitehead 66). In a world where telling stories determines one’s humanity, Mark Spitz struggles with the fact that this person’s story will never be told.

From this point in time — not in the novel, since when it begins Kaitlyn had “picked up on Mark Spitz’s aversion [to ID collection] grids ago” (Whitehead 63) — Mark Spitz’s PASD serves as another narrative with which he defines himself. It is a useful means for the reader to define him as well:

He had nerve damage: input could not penetrate. The world stalled out at his edges. Sometimes he had trouble speaking to other people, rummaging for language, and it seemed to him that an invisible layer divided him from the rest of the world, a membrane of emotional surface tension. He was not alone. ‘Survivors are slow or incapable of forming new attachments.’ (Whitehead 66)

To the reader, this description seems apt for Mark Spitz. Mentally, he never seems to lack for language; his meandering mental narration takes up pages, but his vocalized dialogue is scarce. This uneven ratio creates the impression that his interior space, crowded with names and stories from the past, does not mix with his exterior space; instead, the two seem juxtaposed, suspended in constant tension. One of the few places in the novel where there is an indication that Mark Spitz’s interior monologue is being dictated to the exterior world is when he tells Gary the story of how he acquired his nickname (Whitehead 166-83). This lengthy passage is not delivered using quotation marks to indicate speech, instead relying on interruptions from Gary to create the impression that it is being spoken aloud. Gary’s interruptions, such as “You haven’t got to the Mark Spitz part yet,” “What do you mean?” and “Not following,” suggest that Mark Spitz may be “rummaging for language,” struggling to tell the story, or to tell it properly (Whitehead 174, 176, 177, 66). The wandering narration that characterizes Mark Spitz’s internal storytelling seems ill-equipped for the setting, since Gary may not have much time left. Regardless, in an attempt to comfort himself and his friend, he tells the story of behind his identity.

This is the only place where the novel acknowledges that Mark Spitz is narrating aloud, which I find significant in view of Whitehead’s overall resistance to the proleptic purpose of storytelling in post-apocalypse and zombie fiction. As I discussed above, we know that he has told his Last Night story to other survivors (and, I assume, to Kaitlyn and Gary), but it is unclear as to whether Mark Spitz tells Kaitlyn and Gary any of his other stories. According to Sorensen, Mark Spitz accepts narrative closure and “fully realize[s] himself” (580) at the end of the novel, when he recognizes that his time in Zone One has been but “a breather before the recommitment to annihilation” (Whitehead 318). With this realization in mind, I think it is significant that Mark Spitz tells his story only to Gary, who will die very soon: “It was just the two of them, as Kaitlyn worried over the comm in the front room” (Whitehead 166). Does he choose this moment to share his internal narration because Gary is dying? Given that his commitment to finality comes only slightly after he tells his story to Gary, I see his sharing of this story as a further testament to his resistance of a view of storytelling that anticipates future readership. In this moment, then, he is not interested in impressing himself upon the memories of others as he and the other survivors used to when they told their Last Night stories, or as the unseen letter writers and graffitists do in Left 4 Dead. Instead, his telling of the story here is an expression of his understanding and acceptance that stories, his or humanity’s, will have no future.

Sorensen argues that Mark Spitz is able to rearrange his narrative “into a coherent story of an individual’s exceptional survival,” and, in doing so, he adopts the same “open-ended model of apocalyptic time” as other zombie apocalypse fictions, which the novel then forbids (569). I would agree with Sorensen but for the fact that Mark Spitz does not seem to tell the stories that identify him as exceptional to anyone except Gary, whom he knows will soon die. As such, I think that Mark Spitz does not use his narrative to project himself into the future so much as to trust himself in the present. I would argue that even in his last thought, “Fuck it, […] have to learn how to swim sometime,” there is no “When this is all over;” rather, it is the sense of “Got him this far” that remains (Whitehead 322, 32, 11).

Left 4 Dead may seem to embody the same sentiment of surviving moment by moment instead of looking ahead, but the larger environmental story undercuts the similarity between the two texts. The game’s embedded stories that look ahead to the end of the end of the world, its filmic aspects that uphold the belief in human exceptionalism, and the game’s mandatory hopeful ending combine to present the “irrepressible pheenie anthem” that the apocalypse has a future, and humanity can, must, and will survive to see it (Whitehead 135). The post-apocalyptic genre may write itself into the future and resist closure, but Zone One seems to capture the more likely scenario of an apocalypse: complete ending, with only a very few futile acts of heroics.

Works Cited

Atkins, Barry. More Than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form. Manchester: MUP, Print.

Cook, Jason. “Left 4 Dead [Review].” Popmatters. 16 Dec. 2008. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Dunston, Adrian. “Left 4 Dead 2 [Review].” Popmatters. 21 Feb. 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

Graft, Kris. “Valve’s Writers and the Creative Process [Interview with Marc Laidlaw and Eric Wolpaw].” Gamasutra. 2 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Keogh, Brendan. “Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” Journal of Games Criticism 1.1 (2014): 1-26. JGC. Web. 11 Nov 2014.

Lovegrove, James. “The World of the End of the World: Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction.” Strange Divisions & Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science

Fiction. Ed. Keith Brooke. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. 97-111. Print.

Mäyrä, Frans. An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008. Print.

Soeteart, Ronald, Jeroen Bourgonjon, and Kris Rutten. “Video Games as Equipment for Living.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 13.3 (2011). Purdue University. Web. 11 Nov 2014.

Sorensen, Leif. “Against the Post-Apocalyptic: Narrative Closure in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.” Contemporary Literature 55.3 (2014): 559-92. Project MUSE. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

Swain, Eric. “The Fear Is Gone: Reconsidering the Left 4 Dead Series.” Moving Pixels. Popmatters. 2 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Valve Corporation. Left 4 Dead. Steam: Valve. 2008. Videogame.

Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

My Last Princess: Women as Objects in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Originally published on Big Tall Words, July 28, 2014

“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.”
Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess” (1842)

In The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Link saves a total of nine people from the villain, Yuga. They are (in no particular order):

Gulley, the blacksmith’s son and Link’s childhood friend
Queen Oren, ruler of the Zoras
Lady Impa, advisor to Princess Zelda
Osfala, apprentice to Sahasrahla, elder of Kakariko Village
Irene, a witch and granddaughter of the potion brewer
Seres, daughter of the priest
Rosso, a miner
Princess Zelda, of Hyrule
Princess Hilda, of Lorule

Notice anything about that list? That’s right: six of the nine people Link rescues are women. The sad part is that that’s pretty much normal for a Zelda game. In many ways, the latest Zelda title is very similar to its numerous predecessors, and it’s not exceptional here, either. In Ocarina of Time, five of the seven sages were female (Darunia and Rauru being the only men), and Zelda getting captured is the impetus for nearly every game in the series. But A Link Between Worlds goes one step further than its predecessors in that it turns women into literal objects who not only need saving but also serve no function apart from being a “lovely” piece of property for men to fight over.

zelda 2

Yuga is the villain of A Link Between Worlds and his goal is to merge with Ganon and possess Hyrule’s Triforce. To this end, he captures each of the descendants of the original seven sages and uses their power to open the realm where Ganon had been imprisoned many years prior. He captures them in a unique way: using a magic rod, he turns each sage into a painting. Now, one only has to read Robert Browning’s classic dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” (quoted above) to realize that immortalizing someone in a painting can be as much an act of power as an act of art. Painting someone turns that person from a ‘someone’ to a ‘something’; you can possess a painting in a way that it is impossible to possess a person. So when Yuga is running around Hyrule acquiring pieces for his art collection (to use his words), he is, quite literally, objectifying these people. In my opinion, it is no accident that most of these people are women, since the Zelda games have a history of treating women as objects participating in a man’s destiny rather than agents of their own.

Though Link does rescue a total of six women, three of them stand out in my mind when looking at gender and power dynamics in A Link Between Worlds. These three women are Seres, the first woman to be captured, and a pair of princesses, Zelda and Hilda.

Seres is the daughter of the priest at the Sanctuary north of Hyrule Castle. As an apprentice to the Blacksmith, Link’s first quest is to head up to the Sanctuary in order to deliver a sword to the captain of the guard. Outside the temple he meets Seres and Dampé, the gravedigger. Link (silently) explains the situation to Seres, who promptly goes into the Sanctuary to get the captain. While she is gone, Dampé tells Link that the guard captain is “just makin’ excuses to see Seres.” Thus, all we really know of Seres is her relationship to two men, her father and her suitor. Dampé also calls her “lovely,” a word that will be repeated numerous times throughout the game in regard to women.

Before Dampé can finish his thought, he is interrupted by Seres’ scream. Link heads into the temple and meets Yuga for the first time. Yuga tells the priest that his mission is simple: he has come to Hyrule seeking perfection. “And you, my dear, are perfection,” he tells Seres, and says she is lovely. Embodying Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, he tells Seres, “I will put you on a pedestal. Or rather, upon a wall — perfect forever.” After he transforms her, he says she is “even lovelier as a painting.” Yuga then notices Link, but disregards him and disappears, taking the painting with him. The priest implores Link to save his daughter. So, after only a few minutes of gameplay, the player learns that Yuga and Link ironically share the same goal: both wish to acquire the woman (though for different reasons). Seres’ capture is the first of many times throughout the game that a woman’s only purpose is to be an object sought after by men.

Throughout the game, we see Yuga transform sages into paintings three more times. All other transformations are given to take place off-screen. Including Seres, three of the four sages we see him transform are female. The only male is Osfala, Sahasrahla’s apprentice. Osfala’s transformation happens between Seres’ and Zelda’s, and what is interesting to note is that Yuga hardly has much to say about Osfala’s appearance. He accuses the young man of “posing” and “preening,” but doesn’t say anything about putting him on a pedestal or about how lovely he is in painting form. These words are reserved only for women. In fact, immediately after he transforms Osfala, he states, “Oh, how I long to hang that exquisite Princess Zelda on my wall.” Therefore, Yuga, and the game, seem to emphasize that women are more suited than men to being desired and/or possessed.

Zelda’s transformation into a portrait is very similar to Seres’, with one notable difference: Zelda attempts to discover Yuga’s goals. I say “attempts to discover” because Yuga does not acknowledge Zelda’s questions, let alone answer them. Instead, he compliments her on her beauty (“Ah, what golden hair you have…”), speaking condescendingly and patronizingly. He tells her, “Rid your mind of all concern. I don’t want your portrait to feature any unsightly worry lines. I wish to preserve you at your very best.” Evidently, Yuga doesn’t see her as a viable threat, even though she supposedly rules the realm he wishes to destroy.

Yuga finishes his speech by saying, “I find your protests inelegant. Not to mention irrelevant,” which stresses appearance over everything else in terms of a woman’s worth. He continues, “I wish only to possess your beauty, Princess Zelda, not all of these ugly words of yours!” When he has transformed her, he cries, “My lovely masterpiece! […] Dare I say it’s my best work ever!” Yuga’s lines (complete with their possessive adjectives and pronouns) stress the fact that he sees Zelda only as an object to be possessed.

I would argue that the game sees Zelda the same way. Just as both Link and Yuga view Seres as an object to be obtained, both hero and villain wish only to have Zelda for the sake of having her. The game offers no explanation as to why Link must rescue Zelda, other than the fact that Yuga took her. It’s not like she alone has the power to defeat Yuga (oh wait, yes, she does, but more on that later). She doesn’t even govern Hyrule; it is called a “kingdom,” signifying that, somewhere, there is a King of Hyrule, perhaps Zelda’s father (as in Ocarina of Time). Seen in this way, Zelda represents no more than a political figurehead when she is not in Yuga’s possession, and when she is, she is merely a piece of property that has fallen into enemy hands. She is thus an object playing a role in both Yuga’s and Link’s clashing destinies, with no agency or control over her own fate.

The original Legend of Zelda was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, so by now, we’re used to seeing Zelda as a damsel in distress — the sole impetus for Link’s heroic journey. But the saddest part about A Link Between Worlds is we see the iconic “Princess Gets Captured By Villain” scene three times (not to mention the other three women who are captured off-screen). The third woman to be captured, much later in the game than Zelda and Seres, is Princess Hilda of the Kingdom of Lorule. While Link is in Lorule, Hilda is Link’s Navi, if Navi were invisible and only spoke once before becoming entirely silent. Link enters Dark Wor– sorry, Lorule, via portals scattered across Hyrule, and each time he arrives in a new area, Hilda offers some helpful advice about where he should go. Each time Link rescues a sage, the player is treated to a cutscene in which Hilda stares at Zelda’s portrait, sighing, “Oh lovely Zelda,” and lamenting the general crappiness of Lorule. Finally, once all the sages have been rescued, Hilda urges Link to Lorule Castle to confront Yuga.

Hilda reveals her true colours after the first phase of Link’s battle with Yuga. She reveals that she set Yuga upon Hyrule in an attempt to steal its Triforce. She steals Zelda’s Triforce of Wisdom and orders Yuga to give her the Triforce of Power so that she can finish what they started. But because a Zelda game just can’t handle a woman who isn’t a damsel in distress, Hilda gets transformed into a painting. Yuga is careful to put Hilda in her place: “Now you, my dark beauty, must serve your purpose.” After the transformation, he gloats: “I can hardly decide which of my princess portraits is prettier. But I do know which of you foolish royal girls has what I need. And now it will be mine.” At this point, because objectifying and insulting her just isn’t enough, he absorbs Hilda’s power.

When Hilda first revealed herself as the mastermind behind Yuga’s attack, I got really excited. I thought, “Wow, what an awesome plot twist!” (Though, really, I should have seen it coming, what with Yuga’s “Her Grace” comments earlier.) I thought, “Finally, a woman (other than that one time when Zelda dressed up as a dude) with agency! How refreshing for The Legend of Zelda series!”

And then Yuga turned her into an object and ate her.

And then Yuga turned her into an object and ate her.

Is it not 2014? Haven’t we been rescuing princesses for nearly 30 years? Can’t we have something different?

Some could argue that, because Yuga is the one who patronizes and objectifies women, and because Link eventually kicks Yuga’s ass, the game itself is presenting these behaviours as unacceptable. I disagree. Just as a text is not feminist just because its heroine is strong (MrsDawnaway. “The Stake Is Not The Power: Patriarchical Power Systems in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Arkham City.” bigtallwords. Dec 15 2013). A game does not become un-sexist when it features a villain rather than a hero acting in a sexist manner. Let’s face it: The Legend of Zelda’s history does not do it any favours.

Even apart from the series, there are within A Link Between Worlds aspects of the game (other than Yuga) that suggest that women are “lovely” objects to be possessed. For instance, there is “Blacksmith’s Wife.” She has no name. Plus, all she talks about is her son, Gulley, so she is strictly defined by the two men in her life. She has no personhood aside from them. To be fair, “Blacksmith” doesn’t have a name, either, but just as “Mrs.” is short for “Mr’s,” signifying the husband’s possession of his wife, here, she is only an object to be owned by the blacksmith.

I’ve already discussed how Hyrule (and Lorule) are called Kingdoms, meaning that their respective princesses are ceremonial figureheads, but something I’ll add to my previous point is that Zelda tells Hilda of a “sacred duty” that a princess has to her land and people. I don’t know what that duty entails, partly because Ravio interrupts the conversation, but mainly because I have never seen Zelda performing any duties. She is always admired and beloved by her people, but how is that a duty? Furthermore, in Link’s final battle with Yuga, Zelda gives Link a special bow (the light arrows) that he can only fire when he is in portrait mode. This twist confused me quite a bit. Up to this point, the game had told me that sages who had been transformed into pictures could not do anything to change their fate (hence, Link had to rescue them). Suddenly, Zelda is able to communicate and conjure a weapon for Link. My biggest question, though: why couldn’t Zelda have used it herself? Though she has the only power that can defeat Yuga, she is not allowed to use it. The game forces her to sit and wait for the hero to rescue her; therefore, the game does not allow her to be an active participant in her own destiny. She can only play a role in a man’s fate.

And one final note that I’ll end on: A Link Between Worlds features a quest in which Link’s goal is to save the Queen of the Zoras from… getting fat. Yes, you read that right. A thief stole her magic diet pill and she begins to swell. Link is tasked with retrieving the stone before the Queen becomes too large to fit in her throne pond. If that, on top of everything else I’ve discussed here about women being favoured only for their appearance, doesn’t convince you, I’m not sure that anything will.



The Stake Is Not The Power: Patriarchal Power Systems in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Arkham City

Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 15, 2013

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, by many accounts, a feminist text. But what does that mean? Many would argue it means that it features a “strong female character.” But what does that mean? Buffy is certainly strong physically: she kicks ass (everyone knows that). But the fact that its heroine kicks ass — is that what makes the show “feminist”? I’d argue not.

Just because a text features a woman who can beat the crap of anyone who says that she can’t does not mean that that text is inherently feminist. Furthermore, not all feminist texts feature a heroine who is physically strong or capable of beating up bad guys. (For instance, Orange is the New Black is a woman-centred drama that lacks an ass-kicking heroine; regardless, it examines and critiques the oppression and exploitation of female inmates in the American prison system.) On a related note, some texts that feature an ass-kicking heroine can still be labelled “sexist.”

A sexist text is one that is defined by, and supports, the attitude that one gender is inherently weaker or less valuable than another. Bob Chipman of The Escapist (a.k.a. “MovieBob”) tackles sexism in a recent “Big Picture” video, in which he addresses “The Pink Aisle” (“Pink is not the Problem.” The Escapist. Dec 3 2013.). He notes that The Hunger Games, while featuring a strong, ass-kicking female character, still supports the notion that women are inherently weak or evil. Therefore, Katniss is an anomaly; she is essentially a male hero who happens to be female, while the villains of the film are effeminate (and therefore weak) men. I think Chipman makes an excellent point: sexism is so insidious that it can creep into even woman-centred stories.

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A few years ago, Film Crit Hulk criticized Arkham City for being sexist (“GODDAMMIT VIDEO GAMES: THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF ARKHAM CITY IS LOTS OF FUN BUT SUPER-DUPER SEXIST.FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! Oct 19 2011.). The internet protested that the game simply could not be sexist! Yes, prisoners used the word “bitch” a lot and the Joker was unkind to Harley, but Catwoman kicked ass! She beat up all the men who cat-called her (pun absolutely intended). How could this game be sexist when it features such an ass-kicking woman? Isn’t she a “strong female character” that feminists wanted in the first place? Well, no. An ass-kicking heroine does not a feminist (or even non-sexist) text make. Film Crit Hulk is right: Arkham City is a sexist game, even if Catwoman kicks ass.

Like seemingly all media related to comic books or comic book lore, Arkham City seems to view women only as a supporting cast for the men, the “real heroes.” Notable women in the game, like Harley Quinn and Thalia al Ghul, have no role outside of the men in their lives, whether that man is a love interest (the Joker and Batman) or a father (Ra’s al Ghul). Even Catwoman, despite her ass-kickery, only appears in relation to men. The first time we see her is in relation to Two-Face; then, the Joker tries to kill her for the sole purpose of rattling Batman; and for the rest of the game, she appears only to further Batman’s quest. She saves Batman from the Joker (“See, she’s so strong!” cries the internet) but only because if she doesn’t, the game ends. In fact, should you, as Catwoman, choose not to save Batman, you will be treated to a brief credit roll that implies all is lost without Batman, and you are forced to go back in time to save him. In this way, Catwoman is literally a plot device: she is a means of advancing Batman’s story and nothing more.

At other points in Arkham City, women use their sexuality as a weapon, making them femmes fatales. Poison Ivy, Thalia Al’Ghul, and Catwoman herself are notorious for this, since they are Batman’s most prominent female foes. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with women who are sexually confident and comfortable in their own sexuality. Where there’s an issue is when being sexual is their only shtick. In one of her “Tropes vs. Women” videos, Anita Sarkeesian points out that the femme fatale trope is dangerous if overused, since it feeds into the sexist myth that women are deceivers who use their bodies to manipulate men (“Tropes vs. Women # 4: The Evil Demon Seductress.” Feminist Frequency. Mar 19 2011.). Therefore, Catwoman is not as “strong” as she may appear since she in fact embodies this damaging, sexist trope.

The only women, arguably, who do not fulfill the femme fatale trope in Arkham City are Harley Quinn and Oracle. But they offer, at best, problematic representations of women. Harley Quinn is highly infantilized. The game treats her as a spoiled brat who throws temper tantrums, thus justifying Joker’s abuse as “punishment.” Oracle, meanwhile, is only a ghost, a voice in Batman’s head. Her encouragement could even be perceived as justifying Batman’s quest, since he is going after the Joker, the man responsible for paralyzing her. If we think of her this way, she’s “in the refrigerator.” (“Tropes vs. Women #2: Women in Refrigerators.” Feminist Frequency. Apr 7 2011.). Thus, Oracle is merely a plot device as well: a means of keeping the story going.

The biggest strike against Arkham City, and the main reason Film Crit Hulk is correct in calling it sexist, is the way that it internalizes the sexism or patriarchy of our world and doesn’t seek to challenge or change it. In this world, Catwoman (like Katniss) is an anomaly. She is a “strong woman,” no doubt, but she doesn’t challenge the oppressive systems that hold her down; she manipulates them to her advantage. By featuring a “strong woman” who does this, Arkham City is implicitly stating that women cannot change the systems that oppress them. Instead, they must do as Catwoman does, and turn these systems to their advantage. Doing so means that resistance (symbolized in the game by Catwoman’s violence) is ultimately fruitless; for all the men that she beats up, there are a dozen more who shout derogatory names at her and attempt to attack her.

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It is important to note that Buffy is an anomaly in her world as well. Buffy, like Catwoman, proves everyone wrong when she kicks their asses — in fact, one of the reasons behind the series’ creation was the hilarity of the idea that a tiny blonde girl named Buffy can actually be powerful, again displaying the sexist notion of our culture that women are weak and/or stupider than men. (For a great example of the joke in action, check out the first few minutes of S1.12, “Prophecy Girl.” The look on that vampire’s face is priceless.)

The show often does not hesitate to show that the patriarchy is just as powerful in Buffy’s world as it is in our own by having characters that perceive femininity as weakness. The sixth season’s villain, Warren, is the most obvious examples, calling hot women “baby” and Buffy “bitch,” and telling Xander he hits “like a girl” (S6.19 “Seeing Red”). In the seventh season, when Amy’s curse turns Willow into Warren, she starts crying, then he says, “look at me, crying like a little girl” (S7.13 “The Killer in Me”). But we expect these phrases from him; he is a misogynist, and the show actually identifies him as such: “Warren was a cold-blooded killer of women,” Xander says in S6.21, “Two to Go,” and in “The Killer in Me,” Willow calls him a “murderous, misogynist man.”

The truly insidious nature of sexism becomes evident, however, when characters other than outwardly misogynist villains also identify femininity as a weakness and use “woman” or “girl” as an insult. Many beloved characters do this in the show’s earlier seasons. For example, Giles and Riley both use the expression “throw like a girl” (S3.12 “Helpless” and S5.1 “Buffy vs. Dracula” respectively). Xander warns Anya, “I’m actually turning into a woman as I say this,” before explaining that sex is supposed to be emotionally meaningful (S4.3 “The Harsh Light of Day”). Even Buffy insults Wesley by saying “If I need someone to scream like a woman, I’ll give you a call” (S3.21 “Graduation Day”). Some have criticized the show for portraying sexist ideology, and rightfully so, but when you examine the show as a whole, its trajectory is one of overcoming oppression. Thus, it needed to show us oppression before it could show us freedom from that oppression.

So, both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Arkham City prove they exist in our (flawed, patriarchal) world. Buffy and Catwoman aren’t expected to be strong because women are perceived as weak. But whereas Arkham City has strong women who manipulate the system to their advantage and thereby seems to implicitly to accept this flawed world as is, Buffy seeks to change it, arguing through its ultimate trajectory that oppression can be overcome by strong women.

Buffy isn’t content to just have her power, which was given to her by a group of powerful men. Buffy would rather share this power with women everywhere, radically altering the power imbalance between Watchers and Slayers (men and women). In S7.22, “Chosen,” the series finale, Buffy’s voiceover captures the freedom from oppression that her spell symbolizes:

In every generation, one Slayer is born because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. […] I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. […] From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power — can stand up, will stand up. Slayers. Every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

The images used during this voiceover include two powerful shots: one of a woman on the floor, the other of a woman stopping a hand from slapping her face and standing tall to look her attacker in the eyes. These two shots, combined with Buffy’s words make it clear that her goal is to undo millennia of oppression. This goal — the ultimate trajectory of the series — is what makes Buffy feminist.

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To conclude, I leave you with this snippet of dialogue from S7.1, “Lessons”:

Buffy: It’s about power: who’s got it, who knows how to use it. So, who’s got the power, Dawn?

Dawn: Well, I’ve got the stake.

Buffy: The stake is not the power. […] Who’s got the power?

Dawn: …he does.

Buffy: Never forget it.

When looking critically at texts (be they movies, television shows, video games, or comic books), it’s important to remember that the stake is not the power. Female characters may be able to kick ass, but that doesn’t mean that a text is feminist. That text may even uphold sexist norms and values. Just because a woman holds the stake does not mean she holds the power.


NOTE: In a recent discussion on BBC Radio, Neil Gaiman noted that television missed the point of Buffy, stating that though she’s strong physically, that’s not why she’s a strong character. I think that’s pretty neat. (Alderman, Naomi. “Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon on the legacy of Buffy.” BBC Radio. Dec 19 2013.)

“Be Not Afraid of Greatness”: An Analysis of the Third Season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

buffy 1Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 7, 2013

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

These lines are from Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s comedies, which features a subplot where a narcissistic Puritan servant is fooled by a fake letter from his mistress that confesses her deep love for him. Oddly, out of this silly and hilarious plotline come these infamous lines: “be not afraid of / greatness. Some are born great, some achieve / greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon / ’em” (2.5.131-3).

As many of us know, Joss Whedon knows comedy, and he’s a huge Shakespeare fan. We would know this even if he hadn’t filmed a fabulous adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing at his house last year; he and his ’verse used to gather for Shakespeare readings, after all. Thus, maybe it’s not a surprise to see some Shakespeare in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The third season of Buffy is really one of the best in terms of character development. We see a lot of foreshadowing in terms of who each character is going to become as they struggle with the prospect of leaving high school (and, you know, saving the world). The lines quoted above, however, serve as a particularly efficient analogy for Buffy, Willow, and Xander’s process of growing up throughout the season. Buffy proves she is born great; Willow chooses to become great; and Xander has greatness thrust upon him (and proves himself worthy of it, too).

Buffy, obviously, has greatness thrust upon her, given that she is the Chosen One. Nevertheless, the third season proves Buffy was born great in a many ways, not the least of which is the way that she continuously shoulders the burden of being chosen. Throughout the series, she chooses to sacrifice her freedom, happiness, and even her life, to save the world that she’s been chosen to protect. The first time we see her do so is in “Prophecy Girl” (S1E12), of course, and, the third season does see her sacrificing her own happiness for that of others, especially in “The Prom” (S3E20). In this episode, she becomes obsessed with the high school prom going off without a hitch. When her friends admit the possibility that they may not be able to go due to supernatural forces at work, Buffy lets them go in her stead, ordering them: “Have. A nice. Time.” Even though this sacrifice may be small, it marks the beginning of Buffy’s development into the self-sacrificing hero that we see in the rest of the series, most notably in “The Gift” (S5E22).

Another way that Buffy shows she is born great is through the emergence and development of her leadership abilities. In the fourth season episode, “A New Man” (S4E12), Riley tells her: “You’re in charge. You’re like, make the plan, execute the plan. No one’s giving you orders.” But Buffy-In-Charge couldn’t exist without her growth in the third season. Prior to this season, Buffy had been put in charge, and, while she may have protested, she eventually succeeded in that role. But in the third season, Buffy actively seeks out leadership positions and flourishes in them. For instance, in “Graduation Day” (S3E21), she devises a plan in which she detonates the library and turns the graduating class into an army to combat Mayor Wilkins. The third season, then, is the first time that we see Buffy the Strategist or Buffy the General in action. Here, Buffy begins to become the hero she is destined to be. The leadership that she develops throughout the third season ultimately leads her to become the key strategist in the fight against evil and break ties with the Council.

Though always a little defiant of Giles’s authority and reluctant to follow orders, Buffy, in the third season, begins to actively rebel against the Watchers’ Council. In “Helpless” (S3E12), Buffy protests the barbaric test the Watchers put her through with a simple but surprisingly effective “Bite me.” In “Graduation Day,” she stands up to the Watchers’ Council (in the first of their many showdowns). “Orders,” she says when Wesley tells her the Council’s wishes. “I don’t think I’m going to be taking any more orders. Not from you, not from them. […] Wesley, go back to your Council and tell them until the next Slayer comes along, they can close up shop. I’m not working for them anymore.” When Wesley protests, “This is mutiny,” Buffy pauses reflexively, and then replies: “I like to think of it as graduation.” This line summarizes the process of growing up that Buffy has undergone throughout the first three seasons, and also hints at the independence she has developed.

Buffy’s defiance of the Council in the third season also sets in motion another central motif of the series, and that is the defiance of patriarchal authority. The unjust divide between Watchers and Slayers (hinted at in “Prophecy Girl”) was developed in “Helpless” and “Graduation Day.” In the fifth season episode, “Checkpoint” (S5E12) Buffy again protests the injustice of a powerful woman (the Slayer) being made to submit to male authority (the Council). Ultimately, in the series finale, “Chosen” (S7E22), Buffy defies the entire patriarchal structure of the Slayer’s history when she gives her power to all the potential slayers across the world.

Thus, the third season shows that, while Buffy may have begun her career as a Slayer by having greatness thrust upon her, she was born great. She may have been Chosen to be a Slayer, but she was born to be a great hero.

While Buffy proves she was born great, Willow achieves greatness in the third season by choosing to pursue magic in a serious way. This choice leads her to become more powerful. At the end of the second season, she chooses to re-ensoul Angel despite the dangerous potential consequences and Giles’s accurate prediction that she will not be able to close the door that the spell has opened. Throughout the third season, we see her developing her magic more and more. Ultimately, Buffy is only able to grant her power to potential Slayers in the series finale because Willow and her magical prowess have grown over the course of the series. Willow achieves greatness through her magic, and this process begins in the third season when she chooses to study witchcraft in earnest.

More importantly, however, Willow achieves greatness in the third season by becoming more confident. She comes out of her shell more in this season. In “Gingerbread” (S3E11), we meet Willow’s mother, an over-bearing academic. When she claims to understand what Willow’s going through, Willow chooses to talk back, seemingly for the first time: “No, you don’t. Mom, how would you know what I can do? The last time we had a conversation over three minutes was about the patriarchal bias of the Mr. Rogers show.” When Willow takes this tone with her mother, it is one of the first times that we see the confident, self-aware woman that she will become. For Willow, the third season is about breaking out of the meek shell that she’d inhabited prior.

“Choices” is a major turning point for Willow.  In this episode, Buffy leads an infiltration to the mayor’s office, but her plan goes awry, and Willow is captured. After floating a pencil and using it to stake her vampire guard, Willow comes face-to-face with Faith, a rogue Slayer who has created rifts between Buffy and her friends, including Willow. Faith, a murderer, threatens Willow. Instead of backing down, as she normally would, Willow stands up to her: “You made your choice,” she tells her. “You had friends like Buffy. Now you have no one. You were a Slayer, and now you’re nothing. You’re just a big, worthless waste.” At this point in the conversation, Faith punches her, but Willow stands her ground: “I’m not afraid of you.” This episode is the first time we see Willow choosing to take a stand, and it’s one of the few times she gets to mouth off to someone.

“Choices” is not only about Willow choosing not to back down from Faith. At the beginning of the episode, she is wrestling with the decision of where to go to college, having been accepted to what seems like every major university across the US and in Europe. At the end of the episode, she makes her choice. She chooses to stay in Sunnydale and fight evil at Buffy’s side, despite having the option to go anywhere and do anything. She tells Buffy:

The other night, being captured and all, facing off with Faith, things just kinda got clear. I mean, you’ve been fighting evil here for three years and I’ve helped some. And now we’re supposed to decide what to do what to do with our lives. And I just realized — that’s what I want to do: fight evil. Help people. It’s a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.

Even without the development of her powers or confidence, Willow makes her choice pretty clear: by choosing to stay in the fight against evil, she is choosing to achieve greatness.

Arguably, Xander doesn’t have greatness thrust upon him so much as he blunders into it. While his two best friends are becoming more powerful, Xander is not. Regardless, he is no less heroic. In the third season, he finally finds his place as an integral part of the Slayer’s group. In this season, he accepts that he is “the one who isn’t chosen,” as he admits to Dawn in “Potential” (S7E12). And, though the process isn’t completed in the third season (in the fourth, Xander is still a bit adrift and out-of-sorts), it has begun. The turning point for Xander’s growth is found in the series’ only Xander-centred episode, “The Zeppo” (S3E13).

The teaser for “The Zeppo” is a fight scene, as in most episodes. Buffy and Faith, aided by Willow and Giles, defeat a couple of vicious demons, and almost two minutes pass before the viewer becomes aware of Xander’s presence, foreshadowing how easily the main characters of the show will overlook him throughout the episode. Once Xander emerges from where the demon presumably threw him, we learn that he had tried to be heroic by leaping into the fray. Buffy suggests, “Maybe you should be fray-adjacent,” despite Xander’s protests that that was where he belonged: “Excuse me? Who in a crucial moment distracted the lead demon by allowing her to pummel him about the head?” By the end of this episode, however, he has realized that it is not where he belongs, and he’s okay with that. He has greatness thrust upon him and lives up to it, though almost no one notices. Thus, he becomes the person, the hero, that he will be by the end of the series.

Throughout the rest of “The Zeppo,” Xander wrestles with his seeming uselessness, which leads him to have a few run-ins with a bully named Jack O’Toole. Since this is Sunnydale, Jack is not only a juvenile delinquent, but he also has access to magic, which he uses to raise some of his friends from the dead. They break into a hardware store, using Xander as their wheelman until he eventually runs away from them. At this point, he wanders into an unexpected sexual encounter with Faith. Afterwards, he realizes that the walking dead hoodlums had stolen supplies to build a bomb. He tries to get Buffy to help him, but she and the others are preoccupied with another apocalypse. Xander is thus saddled with the task of stopping the zombies from blowing up the school (and thereby killing all of his friends).

For the first half of the episode, Xander reacts to situations in a comically fearful way — trying to make jokes, running away, running to Giles and Buffy — but once he realizes he’s really on his own, he steps up to be the hero; however, he doesn’t really understand what it means to be heroic at first. Xander tries to be an action hero. When he finds Jack and his friends walking down the street, he grabs one of them from his car and accelerates. He proceeds to question him about the bomb’s whereabouts. He threatens the zombie: “All right, I’m only going to ask this once, and you better pray you get the answer right. How do I defuse —” but his line gets cut off when the zombie hits a mailbox, lopping off his head. Later, he tries being threatening again, adopting an action hero grumble: “You should have learned by now: if you’re going to play with fire, you gotta expect sooner or later —” but again, his self-aggrandizing is cut short as the zombie turns and flees. What he doesn’t seem to realize that these words, this macho posturing, is unnecessary. He has fought well against the zombies, proving himself to be clever and resourceful in battle. And when it really counts, in the final showdown with Jack as the clock ticks down towards the detonation, he’s calm and logical. He loses the Clint Eastwood growl, and speaks normally, logically: “I know what you’re thinking: can I get by him, get upstairs, out of the building, seconds ticking away… I don’t love your chances.” Jack replies, “Then you’ll die, too.” Xander answers: “Yeah, looks like.” By showing no fear, Xander persuades Jack to defuse the bomb. This courageous, calm, and resourceful Xander is the Xander that we come to know throughout the rest of the season.

The most significant part of “The Zeppo,” however, is the very end of the episode. Buffy, Willow, and Giles discuss the previous night’s adventures. When Giles notes that the world continues to turn, Willow replies, “No one will ever know how close it came to stopping. What we did.” At this moment, Xander enters, and Willow tells him, “You’re lucky you weren’t at school last night. It was crazed.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Xander says, “Well, give me the quiet life.” He doesn’t seek recognition for his part in saving the day. He hands the glory to the others. A few episodes later, in “The Prom,” he does something similar by paying for Cordelia’s dress without seeking thanks. He does the right thing because he knows it’s right, not because he wants glory. This attitude leads him to save the world through saving Willow in “Grave” (S6E22). It is what he praises Dawn for in the seventh season episode, “Potential,” and it is also the reason Caleb targets him as “the one who sees everything” in “Dirty Girls” (S7E18). Xander could not become the man he is at the end of the series without conquering his identity crisis in “The Zeppo.” Thus, by accepting that he will not be in the spotlight, that he will not be great, he has greatness thrust upon him, and he becomes great.

In actuality, we could probably say that every character on Buffy has greatness thrust upon them, even the more peripheral ones like Angel, Faith, Giles, Spike, Cordelia, and even Andrew (Tucker’s brother). However, in the third season, the central three characters of Buffy seem to embody this line more than others. Buffy is born great, Willow achieves greatness, and Xander has greatness thrust upon him. In the third season, they grow up; they grow into their greatness.