Home Alone is a Dickensian, Supernatural Test of the McCallisters

A Fan Theory

This post is the first in a new series called Fan Theory Fridays, in which we will share and explore a new fan theory about a film, television series, book, or other fictional narrative. For more on what a fan theory is—and what it isn’t—please read D. F. Lovett’s previous explorations of the subject.

I thought I hated Home Alone.

So when a friend invited me to attend a matinee viewing of it at the new Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis, I wasn’t sure whether to accept. The idea of watching the film did not spark nostalgic giddiness or ironic snark, but more a sense of nameless dread that I would be trapped in a dark room for two hours with a swarm of squirming children and a few of my fellow childless buddies, wondering why we had thought this a good idea.


Of course, despite my dread, there were a few reasons I went. Namely: my friend had already bought the tickets and he assured me it would be “more hipsters than children”. That, and as he reminded me, “it’s a John Hughes movie with Joe Pesci, John Candy, and Katherine O’Hara in it.” Finally, I’m currently writing a novel partially set in the ‘90s and I thought it would be good to subject myself to a forced trip down memory lane.

Here’s the thing about Home Alone: I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a much better film than I remember it being and probably a better film than you remember it being. The plot structure should be taught in film school. The performances are sublime. The John Williams soundtrack is masterful.

There was, however, one thing that threw me off about the film: it was both much darker and more vaguely supernatural than I recalled it being.

I remembered the bed wetting subplot but had no memory of Kevin’s uncle calling him “a little jerk” or the objectively bad parenting that resulted in Kevin being left home alone in the first place. I remembered John Candy’s role as a polka king but had forgotten his haunting story about forgetting his own child in a funeral home for an entire day.

I remembered the scary old man and Buzz’s tall tale that he was a murderer or something. I did not remember that his name was Old Man Marley. I did not remember his story about being estranged from his son. I didn’t even remember him serving as a Deus Ex Machina, arriving to save Kevin from what would have been certain death at the hand of two bumbling crooks who, in the film’s final moments, escalate from cat burglars to attempted child murderers.

While Home Alone is indeed better than I remember it, that’s not what I’m writing about today.

I have come not to review Home Alone, but to theorize about it. And, specifically, the role played by Old Man Marley.

The Previous Home Alone Fan Theories Worth Mentioning

Now, before we move forward, I’d like to acknowledge that Home Alone—like Star Wars and Game of Thrones—attracts fan theories like flies swarming a bloated carcass. It is important, therefore, to revisit classic Home Alone fan theories before jumping into a new one.

This is not a Home Alone fan theory listicle. If you wish to learn more about these, I recommend reading them in full. For now, I’m providing brief recaps,

  • Peter McCallister is affiliated with the mob: A theory suggesting the crooks chose the house based on McCallister being a criminal with lots of cash or other illegal goods at home. This theory finds evidence in the McCallisters’ fraught interactions with law enforcement throughout the film, plus their lavish lifestyle and propensity toward disrespect.
  • Gus Polinski (John Candy) is a demon: This centers around Polinski first appearing when Kate is at the Scranton airport, declaring _____________. He then reveals himself to be a terrible parent and ultimately gets Kate home only moments before the rest of her family, an ironic twist befitting deals with the devil.
  • Old Man Marley is Kevin from the future: This is the one Home Alone fan theory I can find that acknowledges the near-supernatural presence of Old Man Marley throughout the film. While it doesn’t quite check out, I think it’s worth mentioning.
  • Kevin still sleeps with in his parents’ room: Like Joey wanting pancakes, a needless yet well-argued fan theory.
  • Harry and Marv are Christmas Spirits: A fun theory that doesn’t quite check out, as their scenes together pretty heavily suggest they are criminals who are ultimately comfortable murdering a child.
  • Kevin is the bad guy from Saw: This is bad and not a fan theory and that’s all I’ll say about it.

Yes, there sure are a lot of Home Alone fan theories out there. Enough that one could comfortably ask why would anyone write another fan theory about this film?

The Mystery of Old Man Marley

The trouble with the existing fan theories and Home Alone takes is that the vast majority of them minimize the role played by Old Man Marley. If you do not recall, Old Man Marley is a neighbor of the McCallisters who shovels and salts sidewalks.

This scary old guy.

The audience is first introduced to him when Buzz, Kevin, and a cousin watch Marley shoveling and salting what appears to be either their own sidewalk or the one immediate next door:

Buzz: You ever hear of the South Bend Shovel Slayer? … Back in ’58 he murdered his whole family and half the people on the block with the snow shovel. Been hiding out in this neighborhood ever since… Not enough evidence to convict. They never found the bodies, but everyone around here knows he did it. And it will just be a matter of time before he does it again… He walks up and down the street every night salting the sidewalks…See that garbage can filled with salt. that’s where he keeps his victims. The salt turns the bodies into mummies.

Let’s note two things about this scene: a) it’s unclear if Buzz is reciting something he’s heard before or making up a new story to scare Kevin and b) as soon as he finishes reciting this tale, Marley looks directly up at the window, scaring the three boys.

From here, Marley functions as a secondary antagonist until the third act, serving as an additional source of Kevin’s fear (alongside the furnace in the basement, the police, and the Wet Bandits themselves). They encounter one another in the following incidents:

  • Kevin runs outside yelling “I’m not scared anymore”, sees Marley, and runs back inside, scared.
  • Kevin goes to the drugstore to buy a toothbrush. When Marley appears, buying Band-Aids for an unexplained cut on his hand, Kevin flees the drugstore (thus becoming a shoplifter).
  • When Kevin wanders into church on Christmas Eve, he and Marley have a heart-to-heart about fear. Marley reveals he is estranged from his family for unspecified reasons. Kevin stops fearing Marley and suggests the old man reconcile with his adult son.
  • When the Wet Bandits finally capture Kevin and threaten to dismember him beginning with his fingers and toes, Old Man Marley appears, wielding his shovel as a weapon and knocking the crooks out.

While the latter two scenes reveal Marley to be fundamentally a good person—or, at the very least, someone who doesn’t think that Harry and Marv should murder an eight year old on Christmas Eve—there are a few questions that remain:

How does Marley know the children tell stories about him? Are there are stories we don’t know about?

In the church, Old Man Marley says to Kevin:

“You don’t have to be afraid. There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”

First off, that’s a pretty intense thing for an old man to say to a little kid he functionally doesn’t know. (But don’t worry: I’m not taking this fan theory in as dark of a direction as the above piece of dialogue might lead your mind.)

Which begs the question: are the rumors that Marley is “the South Bend Shovel Slayer” something that Buzz didn’t just make up on the fly? Is this an actual nugget of gossip going around the neighborhood?

Has Marley heard children saying “there’s that guy who murdered his family”? Or, even crazier, is this something other adults are saying? Is there a some truth to this?

Why doesn’t Old Man Marley seem concerned that Kevin is unaccompanied for days?

The next big question about Old Man Marley is why doesn’t he care that Kevin is home alone? The church scene is striking, as Marley watches Kevin enter the church, sit down, then checks to see if Kevin has anyone else on their way. When it appears that Kevin is alone, he sits down next to the child… for seemingly no purpose but to tell Kevin that he isn’t a scary guy, that his granddaughter is in the choir, and that he wishes he was on speaking terms with her father.

Again, let’s avoid the really dark take here and simply ask: why isn’t Marley worried that Kevin is rolling into church solo, a day or two after he saw the kid shoplift a toothbrush?

Why don’t Kevin’s parents call Marley from Paris?

A running theme is that Kevin’s parents call literally every neighbor they can and that no one helps them. They leave messages on answering machines. They call the police at least once.

Sure, it’s an acknowledged theme that Kevin’s parents don’t try that hard to reach him via phone or police—their own phone line is down for most of the movie, due to the storm—but surely Marley would’ve been on their roster of calls, right? Especially considering he appears to shovel and salt all the sidewalks in the neighborhood, seemingly including their own… aren’t they on speaking terms with the guy?

This suggests either a) Marley is never home when they call and doesn’t own an answering machine or check his messages b) They don’t have his number and can’t find it, unlike every other neighbor or c) for some other reason it does not occur to them to call him (i.e. they don’t know he exists… )

Finally, why doesn’t Marley tell the police about the attempted child murder he prevented?

After Marley saves Kevin from the Wet Bandits, he brings the kid straight home. Neither of them stick around to talk to the police.

The big moment

Yes, the police arrive to arrest two infamous bandits—who Kevin has just tortured in his home with a series of traps, before they caught and almost killed him—and Marley doesn’t bother telling them about the near-murder. He apparently just goes home. (Writing for Vice, Larry Fitzmaurice did argue that Marley is the worst character in the film for this exact reason.)

At this point, there are only two explanations for the previous unexplained questions: either a) Marley really is some kind of on-the-lam murderer (or worse), distrusted by his neighbors and afraid of the police, or b) he’s a supernatural being whose entire purpose is teaching the McCallister family a Dickensian Christmas lesson.

Because the first option seems like a little too much  especially for a family Christmas movie—and because it fails to explain some other unanswered questions—let’s go with the second one:

Old Man Marley is a Supernatural Being Whose Entire Purpose Is Teaching the McCallister Family a Dickensian Christmas Lesson

In attempting to answer the above questions, it’s hard to think of any explanation for Marley’s behavior other than the idea that he is some kind of magic spirit covertly coordinating the events of the film.

But it’s not just his behavior that drives such a conclusion. There are three other main pieces of evidence: a) the vast number of coincidences that had to occur for Kevin to be left at home b) the dynamics of the McCallister family that make them deserving of a Dickensian Christmas lesson and c) Marley’s name itself.

Let’s start with the name. Marley, himself.

The Other Old Man Marley

This is a good time to remind ourselves of the most famous fictional Marley in the history of literature: Jacob Marley, the deceased business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge. Marley is such a central figure in A Christmas Carol that his name is the first word of the book:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

The Dickensian Jacob Marley appears to Scrooge on Christmas Eve, the first of four spirits—and the only one who is undoubtedly a ghost of a dead human—to warn Scrooge that, if he does not change his ways, he will share the same fate as Marley: an eternal afterlife of chains and remorse.

“I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

This is not to say that Old Man Marley’s exact nature is identical to that of Scrooge’s old business partner. I am not suggesting that he is the dead business partner of Peter McCallister, come back from beyond the grave to change Peter’s ways.

Although I’m not ruling it out either.

What I am saying is that Marley is both supernatural and responsible for the trials and tribulations faced by the McCallisters in Home Alone. But before we discuss those specific trials, first let’s explore the exact nature of the McCallister family’s debased nature.

The Despicable Behavior of the McCallister Family

We do not know where the McCallisters got their money, but we do know that they had a lot of it. This is not to say that money itself makes someone a bad person. But in the case of the McCallister family, their money only furthers the extent to which they are crude, calloused, arrogant, selfish, and—above all—terrible to one another.

Consider a few of the following examples:

  • Peter and Kate McCallister leaves a pizza delivery person standing in the entrance, drags their feet in paying him, and doesn’t tip.
  • Kevin is ignored, neglected, and—on the occasions he’s acknowledged—verbally abused.
  • He prefers cheese pizza (an ordinary preference for an eight year old) and doesn’t get to eat any of it at dinner. His older brother bullies him for this desire and pretends to vomit on him. When Kevin retaliates, he’s accused of ruining dinner and sent to sleep in the attic.
  • His family members call him, to his face, in quick succession, the following insults: “such a disease”, “you little jerk,” and “les incompetents”.
  • In addition to the pizza guy, the family (particularly Peter and Kate) also belittles and insults people in almost every level of employment at the airport—while also pushing strangers away from pay phones.
  • Uncle Frank steals cutlery while aboard the airplane to Paris; notably, the children are sitting in coach while the parents are all comfortably in first class.

There are more, of course. Until the violent third act and its sudden resolution, every interaction between every member of the McCallister family is fraught with tension, condescension, and aggression.

Kevin’s very abandonment in the home on Christmas is a manifestation of the family’s indifference toward him. Recall, of course, that their realization of their abandonment is not immediate but occurs once they are flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

However, Kevin being left home alone is not solely the result of neglect and indifference. There are a number of incidents that all must occur in order for Kevin to be abandoned, on such a level that it’s hard to believe the catalyzing events are anything but supernatural intervention.

All the Things That Had to Go Wrong in Order for Kevin to be Left Home Alone

While the moment that sticks in most people’s minds is the miscounting of the McCallister children at the airport vans, there are several other crucial elements that contribute to Kevin being forgotten.

  1. It all begins with the dinner incident, in which Kevin’s airline ticket is thrown into the trash after getting milk and pizza spilled on it.
  2. Next, a storm moves in, causing both power lines and telephone lines to go down. The power lines come back in, but not before resetting the clocks.
  3. The neighbor boy is mistaken for Kevin when his cousin is doing a headcount of all eleven children.
  4. Kevin sleeps in, through the ruckus of the ten other children and four adults getting ready in a panic.

This all is preceded by one other thing, of course. Kevin wishes his family would disappear. He wishes this directly to his mother’s face and, later, in bed alone.

Kate: Just stay up there. I don’t want to see you again for the rest of the night.
Kevin: I don’t want to see you again for the rest of my whole life and I don’t want to see anybody else, either.
Kate: I hope you don’t mean that. You’d feel pretty sad if you woke up tomorrow morning and you didn’t have a family.
Kevin: No, I wouldn’t.
Kate: Then, say it again. Maybe it’ll happen.
Kevin: I hope that I never see any of you jerks again.

And then, once he’s in bed…

Kevin McCallister : I wish they would all just disappear.

He gets his wish, of course.

But who is it who grants this wish? And what intervention ensures that it will be near-impossible for Kevin to escape from his state of being home alone?

Let’s also consider the factors that result in Kevin being left alone through the attempted burglary and his own near murder:

  1. The police are called and asked to check on Kevin. They knock, once, no one answers, and no one ever bothers again. (A suggestion, again, that the McCallister parents are rather unfit.)
  2. Marley recognizes that Kevin is alone and chooses not to intervene, help, or tell the police.
  3. Not a single other neighbor on the block is home.
  4. The pizza guy is tricked into thinking a VHS tape is an actual attempted murder.

So many things have to go wrong for this child to be left alone and remain home alone. So many coincidences, so many dominoes, so many links in the chain…

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

Back to Marley. Old Man Marley. What is the specific nature of this Marley? Is he demon or angel? A spirit from beyond the grave? A ghost only children can see?

Notably, Kevin is the one character with whom Marley speaks throughout the film.

Consider this old man, or angel or Christmas Spirit or dead business partner returned to life: has he watched this despicable family, for years, tearing one another down? Has he listened to Kate McCallister sending her son to bed without dinner and blaming him for his own sadness? Has he watched Buzz bully his younger brother for ages, frightening him with tales of murder and threats of tarantulas?

His motives are clear, even if his exact powers remain mysterious. Christmas time is the time of lessons learned, lessons of love and family, death and time travel. People are pushed to the edge and come back with a newfound understanding of the world, people like the married couple in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” or the suicidal George Bailey or Ebenezer Scooge himself.

It becomes hard to explain Home Alone otherwise. It’s particularly hard to explain the nature and motives of Old Man Marley is he is anything but a close facsimile of his namesake.

But did they learn their lesson?

The film has a happy ending, of course. Kevin’s family returns to him. They apologize. They make up. Everything is okay.

One has to wonder if they hadn’t learned their lesson, of course. Would Marv and Harry successfully murdered Kevin? Would Marley chose not to intervene? It’s possible, considering that the moment in which Marley saved Kevin was probably about 10 pm on Christmas Eve night… around the exact time that Peter McCallister and family would be preparing to board their earlier-than-planned return flight from Paris.

If they had decided not to return for Kevin, leaving Kate to make the journey alone, would it have sealed Kevin’s fate?

“You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

There is one final, substantial difference between A Christmas Carol and Home Alone. In A Christmas Carol, there is no implied hope for Marley to escape his fate. He was dead to begin with and he remains dead at the end, a ghost in chains.

Home Alone ends with Marley and his family reuniting—perhaps a suggestion that, by improving the family dynamic of the McCallisters, Old Man Marley earned his family back. For him, it was not too late. He had to rescue a different family, first, in order to return to his own.

Enjoy this read? Check out more fan theories by D. F. Lovett, including what happened to Ross Geller’s son and the truth about James Bond



The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives

In the summer of 2016 everyone started telling me that I had to watch a show called Stranger Things. I was reluctant. The reluctance came from the way it was sold: the entire series was one large nostalgia fest for ‘80s Spielberg, Stephen King novels, and Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s not that I don’t like Stephen King or Indiana Jones or battling bugbears. But I had just finished consuming two pieces of media that banked heavily on nostalgia and ham-fisted homages: the show Mr. Robot and the novel Ready Player One.

A poster for the upcoming Ready Player One, which this is not a review of.

I had walked away from both Mr. Robot and Ready Player One with a general uneasiness, a queasiness, the stomach ache that comes from too much of any one sweet thing. In the case of both of these, that one thing was the overdose of both

  1. knowing that I had consumed something whose originality was constantly undermined by heavy doses of allusion and homage and
  2. knowing that I had consumed something for which I, a heterosexual white millennial male with an English degree and a penchant for science fiction and a job in digital marketing, was the target demographic.

When I finally did watch Stranger Things, it did not disappoint me in the way that Mr. Robot and Ready Player One both had. Sure, the entire thing has major IT and The Body vibes and there was even a moment where a character is reading Stephen King’s Cujo. The entire thing is, as Stephen King himself said, crowded with Stephen King easter eggs and nods:

But there’s something different about Stranger Things. Something deeper. More tactful, subdued, and thoughtful.

(Stranger Things is not the only nostalgic work that works. FX’s Fargo, crowded with references to O. Henry and Samuel Beckett and, naturally, the Coen Brothers, is a good example of another show that executes where others fail.)

What is it that made Stranger Things work while Ready Player One and Mr. Robot both, in this blogger’s opinion, come up short? It’s a very fine line, but also a bell that, once crossed, is hard to unring, regardless of whom it tolls for. Continue reading “The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives”

Some takes on 2017, before it ends

The end of 2017 is nigh. And with it, the top ten lists, the retrospectives, the predictions. Rather than the Top Books Published in 2017 or the Best Films of the Year or anything like this, here’s my list of opinions, ideas, and arguments that I have not already written about in 2017 and would like to make sure I write about before the year is up and they become potentially irrelevant.

So, here we go.

The Literature Takes

One. Are we living in Vonnegut’s unfinished final novel?

I’ve already written about how painfully the current world resembles a Vonnegut novel. But as nuclear war ticks closer, metaphors invade real life, and madmen in decline occupy the highest positions of power, it’s worth wondering if we might simply be living in Vonnegut’s world.

According to his book A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut had an unfinished novel at the end of his life, a novel with little-to-no prospect of ever being finished. He called it If God Were Alive Today and describes it as

“…about Gil Berman, thirty-six years my junior, a standup comedian at the end of the world. It is about making jokes while we are killing all the fish in the ocean, and touching off the last chunks or drops or whiffs of fossil fuel. But it will not let itself be finished.”


Is it possible that this is where we are right now? Is Vonnegut writing our history from a different place? Is this idea really dramatically different than Elon Musk saying we living in a simulation? Or the suggestion made by philosopher David Chalmers that we are not just in a simulation, but one that is breaking? Wouldn’t it be at least more reassuring to think that we are in a Vonnegut novel, rather than a computer program that is slowly breaking down? Continue reading “Some takes on 2017, before it ends”

Why That Game of Thrones Fan Theory Is Not a Game of Thrones Fan Theory

The internet loves a good fan theory. The trouble is, the phrase “fan theory” has started to go the way of words like content or hipster or artisan or any of the other words whose definitions are so vague, so all encompassing, that they have very little meaning at this point.

“Fan theory” is currently used as a descriptor for the following things:

  • A prediction for an upcoming storyline
  • Analysis of a character’s motivations
  • Analysis of a storyline
  • Fan fiction
  • The dissection of a trailer and conclusions drawn from moments in said trailer
  • Explanation of subtext, predicated on the explainer failing to recognize subtext.
  • Recognition of dramatic irony or a plot turn before the reveal

None of the above should be considered fan theories, in the opinion of this blogger.

So then, you may ask, what the heck qualifies as a fan theory?

And yes, I’m including “R + L = J” as something that is not, and never was, a fan theory. It’s a storyline, folks, not a theory you invented.

What is a fan theory?

I’ve been seeking to answer this question for a while, and previously dedicated an entire blog post to it: What We Talk About When We Talk About Fan Theories. And while I’m happy with that article and its reception, I find that the term “fan theory” is increasingly bandied about, with increasingly little meaning, especially during Game of Thrones season.  Continue reading “Why That Game of Thrones Fan Theory Is Not a Game of Thrones Fan Theory”

From Short Films to the Big Screen: The Parallel Journey of Batman and Christopher Nolan

The following was written by WWBD columnist Intern-iana Jones. Enjoy!

The inexplicable fascination behind the Batman film franchise reflects the mystery of its main character, as well as the brilliance of one Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight, as you all know, is the alter ego of Bruce Wayne, while Nolan is a talented filmmaker who brought this famous comic book superhero to lifelike proportions. This partnership has somewhat bridged generations of fans – from casuals to diehards – and has evolved throughout the years.


Batman’s Pop Culture Influence

The Dark Knight’s versatility mirrors some facets in real life that influence a lot of people. Just like in online games, DC has created a protagonist that fans can easily relate to and see development as each story progresses. From what started as a simple 60s TV character, Batman transformed into this intriguing vigilante that’s the subject of even the most trivial of things in video games and in real life. For one, Macau is building a Gotham City-inspired casino worth $3.2 billion. Even console and online gaming companies have got in on the act. The Batman Arkham Knight game on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One incorporated a casino storyline involving one of his many arch-nemesis, The Riddler. On the other hand, UK-based online gaming platform, Spin Genie, dedicated a slot machine variant for the film The Dark Knight Rises. In a way, the Batman character wouldn’t have been this huge worldwide if it weren’t for the man behind his resurgence on-screen, Christopher Nolan.


Christopher Nolan’s Eye for Excellence

Way before he hit the multi-million dollar box office with masterpieces such as The Dark Knight and Interstellar, Christopher Nolan has been altering the norms of convention with his psychological thriller project called Doodlebug. The 1997 short film featured Following (Nolan’s feature debut) main star, Jeremy Theobald. Here, Theobald’s character tries to kill a bug inside a dingy apartment while holding his shoe by its toe. Doodlebug captures Christopher Nolan’s inborn talent in storytelling and how he sets the overall mood of a film. Aside from this, he’s also the man behind short films such as Larceny and Tarantella. Like Doodlebug, the former starred Jeremy Theobald in his very first acting role, while the latter is Nolan’s 1989 collaboration with friend, Roko Belic, while he was attending UCL’s film society. These short films paved the way for Christopher Nolan to hone his craft and come up with future blockbusters that touch into the human psyche – similar to Batman’s journey from a naïve orphan kid to a crime-fighting superhero.

No More Gritty Reboots: Why Lego Batman and Legion Are the Future of Superheroes

Yes, this blog is dedicated to “an ongoing exploration of the dark and gritty reboot.” But, as written about in the previous post on this blog, The World Needs Bad Men, it’s time to admit that the dark-n-gritty reboot has run its course. The anti-heroes have ascended to the White House. It’s time for a new superhero narrative.

The last week has given us two new incarnations of the superhero show: Legion, a television show on FX, and The Lego Batman Movie, a family-friendly animated feature.

Perhaps the first Batman promotional image to show a smiling Caped Crusadser.
The Lego Batman Movie is as meta as any superhero film has been, and that includes 2016’s Deadpool and 2015’s Ant-Man. The jokes are more family-friendly than those of Deadpool, but TLBM is arguably the more mature of the two films. TLBM, coming on the heels of The Lego Movie and followed soon by The Ninjago Movie, is the sign of much more to come.

Legion, meanwhile, is a serious and frightening television series about a man in a mental hospital who is either mentally ill, a mutant with superpowers, or both. It’s from Noah Hawley, the creator of the Fargo television series, and unravels in a non-linear manner.

But I’ve come here not to review these two works. Enough people are already reviewing these two works. The reviews are both positive and, in my opinion, accurate. What I’m here to say is that these works are two complementing examples of what we should start demanding from our screen adaptations of superhero tales.

The superhero is tired; these narratives give him hope. Let’s look at why they work, and how other narratives can learn from them.  Continue reading “No More Gritty Reboots: Why Lego Batman and Legion Are the Future of Superheroes”

The True Theme of 2016: Never Meet Your Heroes

Hating 2016 and wishing for it to end has perhaps been the meme of 2016. It has been called a dumpster fire and was declared to “even sucked for Kim Kardashian.” Beginning in July and continuing non-stop, this year was deemed to “suck” and we saw a flood of hot takes either labeling it the worst year in living memory or at least asking the question of how bad it really was.

How bad was 2016?

I’ve only lived for thirty years, but am confident this wasn’t even the worst year I’ve seen of my lifetime. 2001 was awful. 2004 wasn’t great either. 2008 had the financial crisis, the rise of Sarah Palin, the death of Heath Ledger, and apparently Elon Musk’s personal rock bottom. Armed with the right confirmation bias and armory of evidence, one could make an argument that really any year is the worst.

It’s also worth noting that not every take on the outgoing year is as reductive and hyperbolic as “the worst!” Jia Tolentino called it “The Year We Played Ourselves” in The New Yorker. Stephen Pinker pointed out that, if you ignored headlines and value facts, 2016 is better than its previous years in almost every way. It was arguably the best year ever for black filmmakers and apparently the year that solar panels finally became commercially viable. The Economist, meanwhile, awarded “The Economist‘s country of the year award” to “plucky Estonia.” Congrats Estonia!

But there is one theme I see everywhere I look, from the Nobel Prize to the election of Donald Trump to the author of Harry Potter. One piece of wisdom, one particular theme, one pervasive lesson: the classic advice that you should “never meet your hero.”

Yes, this article is about heroes and 2016, and Bowie sang about “Heroes” and died in 2016, but it has little to do with Bowie.

To recap exactly how this theme presented itself throughout the last year, I’ve catalogued a list of disappointing heroes and their disappointed fans from the last twelve months.

Why shouldn’t we meet our heroes?

Before we jump in, it’s worth reminding ourselves of why exactly we should never meet our heroes. Ultimately, it always comes down to disappointment. They aren’t who you thought they would be. They’re not doing what you wanted them to do. The things they said that made you admire them? Either your hero never meant those things or they don’t mean them anymore or they never meant what you thought they did.

And now, let’s take a look at all the disappointment heroes unleashed on their admirers. Continue reading “The True Theme of 2016: Never Meet Your Heroes”

The 10 Best Moby-Dick Homages, Adaptations, and Celebrations

Happy Birthday, Moby-Dick!

Not the whale, but the book. 165 years ago today, Herman Melville’s epic novel was published in America for the first time. (A different version of it had come out in England one month earlier, but today is accepted as the anniversary of the version the world knows).

In honor of this anniversary, I think it’s worth taking a moment to look at the books, movies, music, and more that we have as a result of Moby-Dick‘s legacy.

Leviathan ’99 by Ray Bradbury

“The doomed crew of a starship follows their blind, mad captain on a quest into deepest space to joust with destiny, eternity, and God Himself . . .”


Sound familiar? This novella—collected alongside “Somewhere a Band is Playing” in Bradbury’s Now and Forever—is an unapologetic retelling of Moby-Dick. It’s also sci-fi, set in space, like one or two other works on this list.

Note that this isn’t only a book, but has also been a radio production and a playContinue reading “The 10 Best Moby-Dick Homages, Adaptations, and Celebrations”

The Beginner’s Guide to Kurt Vonnegut: How to Finally Start Reading Vonnegut’s Novels

There has never been a better time to start reading Kurt Vonnegut. To begin with, today is his 94th birthday. Second, we appear to be living inside one of his novels, with an egocentric billionaire slouching toward the White House, the National Anthem at the center of controversy, and our entire existence increasingly descending into a parody of itself (for more on all of this, see my article What Would Kurt Vonnegut Say About the 2016 Election?)

But where to begin? The first Vonnegut novel was published over six decades ago. In the next fifty years of his life, he wrote another thirteen novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, one play, and created a series of paintings and drawings.

I’m here to tell you where to start, and how. You should read Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, if you haven’t already. Should you read all of them? That depends. But you should at least read one of them. (Note: this blog post originally began as something I wrote for the /r/truebooks subreddit, for people looking to read more Vonnegut and not sure where to start.)

One of many.

In order to give you some guidance in determining a reading order for his lists, I’ve divided his novels into three tiers:

  • Tier One: The novels to start with. His masterpieces. Or, if you’re only going to read one or two of his novels, choose one from this list.
  • Tier Two: The ones to read after you’ve burned through the first tier. Not that these are worse, but they are perhaps less accessible, or won’t make as much sense unless you’ve read the others first.
  • Tier Three: The novels that are either very bizarre, very meta-fictional, less novels than thought experiments, or the ones that expect you to have a greater understanding of who Vonnegut is before tackling.

Make sense? Let’s begin:

Which Vonnegut Novel to Read First?

So you want to read a Vonnegut novel, but not sure which one? I recommend beginning with one of these four:

Cat’s Cradle (1963)

I consider this to be the first (chronologically) of his best novels. It’s also a great introduction to Vonnegut, and it’s easy-to-read, through his use of short chapters and fast pacing. Opens with a Moby-Dick reference, explores religion, science, war, and the apocalypse, and includes some very fun characters. Continue reading “The Beginner’s Guide to Kurt Vonnegut: How to Finally Start Reading Vonnegut’s Novels”

What Should Mr. Robot Pay Homage to in Season Two?

The critically-acclaimed, award-winning cable series Mr. Robot is notable for a number of reasons, with a big twist: in the final two episodes, you realize you’ve been watching a ten hour unlicensed Fight Club reboot. One could say that the twist is “Elliot was Mr. Robot all along!” just like the twist in Fight Club is “Edward Norton was Brad Pitt all along!” but to me the twist was simply that Mr. Robot was Fight Club all along.

Where is Mr. Robot’s mind?

Some people saw the “twist” coming, but I didn’t know I was watching a Fight Club reboot until the final few episodes, when a character is revealed to be imagined, the protagonist fights himself,  and a piano cover of “Where is My Mind” plays in the background. (Probably worth noting it was the same song used in The Leftovers, which I saw first and still think used it better.) Continue reading “What Should Mr. Robot Pay Homage to in Season Two?”