Revenger Submission: “Why Embracing Fantasy Will Be The Key To Extending The Current Geek Boom”
By Carlos “Tavo” Borrego (@TavoPR)
The other day I was listening to the ninth episode of The Revengers Podcast, which I will say was very cool, but was missing Vanessa’s special touch (Sorry guys, but Vanessa is the MVP!). During the show, Mario and Brett started to give their opinions regarding their excitement- or lack thereof- about a fifth Indiana Jones with Harrison Ford starring and Steven Spielberg directing. While they were not that thrilled about the prospect, which I do agree with, there was something that Brett stated that caught my attention. Brett stated that he needed, and I’m paraphrasing, for the movie to be “grounded because of all the shenanigans that happened during the last installment.” He pointed at things like surviving a nuclear explosion inside of a refrigerator.
In terms of a fifth Indiana Jones movie, it seems that both Brett and Mario want the movie to be grounded. But here’s the thing. I am going to let you in on a little secret of mine that has been with me for a long time. Come close.
And please, don’t tell anybody…
My secret goes a little something like this:
I hate the term “grounded.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love movies that have been able to ground the story in order to make it more relatable to the audience, but at the same time, “grounding” a movie, or trying to define magic as “science that we do not understand yet,” can become a burden to stories where both magic and science can coexist in harmony. I feel that certain stories would be so much better if they were actually less grounded and if they let science and magic be their own thing that can interact with each other. There have been instances where either a TV series or movie have meshed both science and magic to great effect, though I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find examples of that anymore.
A lot of the current craze around making things “grounded” or “gritty” or “realistic” began 13 years ago when Christopher Nolan gave us Batman Begins.
But, really, why do we need TV shows or movies to be grounded in order for them to be relatable? Or why, as geeks, must we separate our entertainment in order to fit inside the box we know as “Science Fiction” or “Fantasy,” when in reality, they can work well together? There are so many good examples entertainment that integrate grounded stories with fantasy, that I sometimes feel that it is a real shame that we still need to see these two ideals as separate.
As a child of the 80s, I was fortunate enough to get a lot of movies and TV shows that dealt with either science fiction or fantasy. For every sci-fi movie made, such as the Terminator or E.T., you could find a fantasy movie like Excalibur or Highlander. In fact, there was one particular director that I love that actually made both one of each- and amazingly well- during the 80s. Movies which, to this day, I find to be two of my all-time favorites. The director in question is John Carpenter, and the movies I’m referring to are Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live (1988). As a kid, I would go to the local VHS rental store, and rent these movies as much as I could (and yes boys and girls, once upon a time, before Netflix, and before Blockbuster, there were actual local rental stores who always wanted you to be kind and rewind!) and watch them over and over again, just so I could memorize every little thing the movies had to offer in terms of character, story, and exciting visuals.
Those films became such a part of my psyche that I’d answer everyday questions with lines from these films. If you’d ask me if I paid my dues, I would answer, “Yes sir, the check is in the mail.” If you asked me if I was ready, I would answer, “I was born ready!” If you asked me what the best movie fight was ever put to cinema, I would answer, “Just watch Nada and Frank go at it for six minutes fighting about some sunglasses!” And, if you ask me what is one of the best lines of the 80s, my answer is “I am here to chew bubblegum and kick**s! And I’m all out of bubblegum!” But aside from all of the wonderful things these movies had going for them, they also had one thing in common that Mr. Carpenter was able to bring to the table, and that was that, even though these movies are, respectively, a sci fi and a fantasy movie, these movies were also very grounded in their own unique way. Not in the way we associate Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, or some of the other modern takes on “grounded” cinema, but by grounding these larger than life concepts in a world that felt relatable and truthful to itself.
Let’s take one particular scene from Big Trouble in Little China for the main example, which happens at the very beginning of the movie.
As the movie begins, we are introduced to one of the characters, Mr. Egg Shen, who is actually sitting in what looks like a very common attorney’s office. As the scene progresses, we see the attorney interrogating Mr. Egg Shen regarding the whereabouts of the protagonist, Jack Burton. Mr. Egg Shen decided to protect Mr. Burton by telling the attorney to leave him alone because he has done a great service to his community. By now, the movie seems to be pretty straightforward, and to be honest, pretty grounded and relatable. But then, something very cool happens: The conversation between the lawyer and Mr. Egg Shen starts to get all sorts of weird and all sorts of cool. The main part of the scene occurs when the attorney asks Mr. Shen if he believed in magic. At this point, not really knowing what the movie was about because in the 80s it was very hard to get information on a movie, Mr. Shen answers, very calmly, that he believes in magic, but particularly in Chinese black magic. And, here is my favorite part, when the lawyer asks him why he should believe, Mr. Egg Shen, as the total bad**s he is, demonstrates just a little taste of his power by showing a little light show between his hands (and yes, this is a total geek out moment for me).
In this exact moment, everything you think about the movie changes. The movie becomes a complete fantasy where magic is as normal as breathing. But, at the same time, the setting, for that matter, the whole world, is completely normal. I mean, the movie takes place in San Francisco, not in some ancient mystical land, not even in the ancient orient, but in San Francisco in the 1980s. As a 13-year-old, I thought to myself, this is the coolest thing I have ever seen in my life. In front of me was a movie that let me discover Kurt Russell, had a decent amount of Kung Fu, dealt deeply in magic, and was set up in a world that I recognized as a place where I could actually live, while, at the same time, being an awesome movie.
Here we have a perfect example of a movie with magic and fantasy as the main driving force but set in the real world. In a nutshell, this is what a grounded movie should look and feel like. It shouldn’t be about stripping a fantastical tale of its magic, but rather creating a realistic world where it feels like anything is possible.
I’m also a firm believer that there’s a great opportunity to tell stories where fantasy and science fiction can coexist. While I always wished Carpenter would make something along those lines, since he showed such great aptitude for each with Big Trouble and They Live, my desire for such a project would come true in a very unlikely way the following decade in the form of an animated series.
While I was in college between 1993 through 1997, and while I was in Law School between 1997 through 2000, something wonderful was happening in the world of TV animation. Shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Animaniacs were airing on TV. And what do these shows have in common? Simple, they were animated series that were actually geared to an older demographic, not just kids. During this time, it was great to be a geek. I mean, my roommates and I would actually try to schedule our classes so that we could all get to our dorms and watch Animaniacs. But that was not the only show that we decided to watch together. During this time, there was another animated series that captivated us. A show that would actually mix elements of sci-fi and magic in a very organic way. A show created by Disney which actually does not get the recognition it deserves. A show that actually made my geek heart skip a few beats because it completely integrated both science fiction and fantasy into one world. The show? Gargoyles, one of the best animated series made during the 90’s, period (Yes, come at me bro! And Aaron, I am stealing this line every time I get the chance!)
The premise of the show is extremely simple which is explained during the opening monologue. The Gargoyles, stone by the day, warriors by night (I’m getting goosebumps right now!) were betrayed by the people they swore to protect and put under a spell that would last a thousand years until they were awoken in 1990s New York. What was remarkable about the series was that it had all of this fantasy as part of its mythology, yet it was set in a realistic world, and had a lead character (David Xanatos) who was extremely logical and driven by science. There’s a character named Coldstone (No, he’s not an ice cream shop owner) who exemplifies the merger of fantasy and science, because Xanatos creates using science and technology to reanimate elements from three destroyed gargoyles to create one heck of a Frankenstein’s monster.
Heck, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is probably the ultimate example of the fusion of fantasy and science fiction set in the real world.
I state all of this because, in the post-Nolan world we live in, we need to remember that there is beauty in crafting a tale where all of these elements can coexist. And based on the latest rumors about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to start getting very cosmic and fantastical, we all need to embrace this.
As we move forward and see what the future brings, like seeing Doctor Strange interact with Tony Stark, or watching a TV show where Constantine interact with the Legends of Tomorrow, I want everybody to remember two things: 1) Sci-fi and fantasy can work together in order to create new and exciting things that will go beyond your own imagination, and 2) Not all movies, TV shows, comic books or other types of entertainment must be “grounded” in order to be relatable. If you look at the things you watch through that lens, you might miss out on some things that are very special and very worthy of your attention.
P.S. Brett, the last thing, and I mean the last thing: That Indiana Jones is…is grounded! Deal with it.
My name is Carlos “Tavo” Borrego, and I am a Revenger.