Instead of reviewing or discussing a specific piece of entertainment this week, I’m going to talk about an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while. As a lifelong aspiring writer, I’ve always taken a different approach to critiquing books, movies, and anything else with a story than most people I know. I’m sure any creative can relate: even if all you want to do is sit down and enjoy a fun movie, you can’t help but listen to that voice in the back of your mind asking “If I wrote this story, what would I have done differently?” or “What can I learn from the triumphs and failures of this work that I can apply to my own creations?”
Whether you are a creative or not, the books or movies that frustrate you the most are usually the ones with the most potential. Nobody gets upset about how bad The Room or Saw 12 is. The movies that really get under your skin are either the ones that you went into with high expectations and came out of disappointed, or the ones that could have been extraordinary with a few minor tweaks.
Just reading about the subject, you’re probably already reliving your anger with the last book or show that let you down. The fact that we can get so upset over bad entertainment is a telling sign of how truly pampered we are in our first-world bubble – as Tyler Durden would say, we have no Great War, no Great Depression, only Greatly Disappointing X-Men movies. But that’s not the point.
The point is I don’t think watching a movie that fails to live up to its potential has to be a negative experience, at least not for us lucky enough to be cursed with a creative spirit. I have friends who walked out of Logan saying “That could have been a lot better” but I walked out saying “How could that have been better?” I have no doubt that the next story I write will be a tiny bit better than it would have been if I had not seen Logan and reflected on its strengths and weaknesses. In keeping with the positive, improvement-oriented mission statement of Desdenada, I would like to introduce Potential Criticism.
Reviewing Better, Creating Better
I have long been in love with World of Warcraft and its expansive lore, but I’m not about to argue that any of the storylines in the game or its companion novels constitute great literature. Not that Blizzard ever set out to write Shakespearean tragedies. Instead, they created a truly enormous world, populated with archetypes and familiar tropes. Many of the characters and plots of the Warcraft universe feel familiar, and that’s okay, because the game’s best stories have always been the ones you and your friends create.
But every now and then I’ll stumble across a spark of real promise. My favorite example would have to be Garrosh Hellscream. I’ll never forget my first encounter with this troubled young orc: he was the son of a legendary hero and his people expected great things of him, but you find him brooding and dejected, staring into a bonfire with tears in his eyes. There’s a whole quest line where you reveal to him that his father, who Garrosh sees as a monster, redeemed himself and died a hero in the end.
With his faith restored, Garrosh takes a more active role in the leadership of his people – with mixed results. His heart is in the right place, but he was raised with a different ideology than the other leaders and he is haunted by his father’s name and his own insecurities. It’s a tumultuous journey: at one point a disagreement with the current Warchief of his faction, the Horde, gets so heated it actually erupts into physical violence; later, that same Warchief steps down and names Garrosh as his successor.
At this point in the game, not only were in-game characters split about his leadership, but so were the players themselves. The majority of players hated him, but I and a few other holdouts still empathized with the character.
Then, as Warcraft characters often do, he kind of went off the deep end for no reason. Garrosh was always aggressive and warlike, but he believed strongly in honor and at one point executed an underling who went too far and started attacking civilians. Later on, he changed his mind without explanation and bombed a whole city full of civilians. Like many characters who start off with interestingly gray moralities, he was ultimately corrupted by cosmic forces of evil and became a cartoon villain with no other motivation besides doing bad stuff for the sake of doing bad stuff.
I was frustrated, to say the least, by the ultimate handling of what was possibly my favorite character. In retrospect, I can see that this anger was pointless and misplaced. The conclusion of his story is a letdown, but it does not erase the story beats I found appealing in the first place. As a writer, I have a unique opportunity to recreate my own version of his story arc. An abandoned son who is unsure if his father was a hero or a monster, and in trying to live up to the family name must himself walk the line between hero and monster – now that’s a concept I can use. The best part is, I’m free to write whatever ending I want, using the poor conclusion of Garrosh’s story to avoid making the same mistakes myself.
Going forward, I’m going to do my best not to get angry or upset about entertainment that lets me down. There’s an ugly tendency these days to see creators as the enemy, as if they are maliciously sabotaging their own art just to make us suffer.
I prefer to think that we are all in this together. Creators do their best to make something we can enjoy. Sometimes they fail. As fellow creators, we can learn from their mistakes to better ourselves. As consumers, we can give them honest but fair feedback, so that they can learn and serve us better going forward.
There is so much potential beauty in this world, so why put effort into creating ugliness? With a little optimism and a little empathy, we can all contribute to the creative process in our own way.
That’s my thinking, at least. What’s your strategy for criticizing entertainment?