Friday Flotsam: Whither Milo Murphy?

1. BW Media Spotlight posted a good piece defending Milo Murphy’s Law, the sequel series to Phineas and Ferb that, alas, failed to find the same audience its predecessor did and lasted only two seasons.

Me, I’m a big fan of Phineas and Ferb: it’s one of my all-time favorites, and I really liked Milo Murphy a lot as well. Both those are very strong, very creative shows and both hit my taste in humor pretty hard with a blend simultaneously weird and intelligent (“Our mascot is Murray the Middleman, who buys products from manufacturers and sells them to retailers at a hefty profit!”). Reading BW’s post made me wonder just why it is that PnF was so much more successful at finding an audience than Milo (this despite Milo starring the priceless Weird Al Yankovic himself in the title role).

2. Part of it, I suspect, is simply a form of sequelitis. PnF set the bar so high in the minds of its fans that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for Milo to match it (especially when you remember that PnF actually took a while to get really good: it wasn’t until near the end of the first season at least that they really found their stride). Besides, audiences had four years or more to get to know and love the PnF characters; going from that to a new show set in the same world with all-new characters is just not going to be the same experience.

Come the second season of Milo and the addition of the reformed Dr. Doofenshmirtz as a series regular, there was also the perpetual problem that the creators ran into while trying to spin off Doof and Perry into their own show. Namely, that Doofenshmirtz simply isn’t as much fun as an incompetent good-guy as he is as an incompetent bad-guy. His stupidity and bumbling comes across as less funny and more pitiful when he’s trying to be heroic, and he and Perry don’t play off each other as well when they’re allies (actually, I think their best bet would have been the ‘Doof teaches high school’ option, since then he would be able to show a degree of competence while his brand of mayhem would be livening up a dull and pointless environment rather than causing havoc in an otherwise positive one, but that ship’s long sailed).

But I don’t think either of those were the main reason; if anything, they were only a catalyst exacerbating other issues. Having seen both shows multiple times, I think the main difference comes down to a few rather complicated factors. I’ll do my best to explain.

3. Both these shows are very optimistic, upbeat stories. On reflection, though, I think Milo might be a little too consistently sweet and optimistic. I don’t mean that Milo himself is too optimistic or a flat character or something (he isn’t: he’s actually quite well-written and performed, with a full emotional range). What I mean is that there isn’t enough emotional ‘texture’ going on. I don’t mean just conflict, but a variety of different audience reactions.

I’ll see if I can clarify what I mean.

In PnF, for all its cheery good-will, you had several notable points of conflict and tension among the main cast: Candace was always trying to ‘bust’ her brothers. Buford bullies Baljeet. Isabella is in love with Phineas, who is blissfully oblivious to her feelings. And, of course, Doofenshmirtz is always trying to take over the Tri-State Area or exact petty revenge and Perry tries to stop him without blowing his cover.

These problems were never resolved, or were resolved very slowly and only at the end of the series, and we didn’t expect them to be, but they provided points of interest and what I’m calling emotional texture: points of differing audience reactions to specific characters and with it alternating tension and release.

Candace’s role is especially important in this regard, where she is simultaneously an antagonist and a protagonist, with her antagonism lying on the surface and her sympathetic qualities underneath. If I can judge from my own experience, we the audience come to really like Candace, despite the fact that she’s vain, petty, and kind of a brat. The show, despite being called Phineas and Ferb, is really more about her and her back-and-forth struggles with maturity. The fact that she can be both the main obstacle or threat to the brothers and their loving sister, chief ally, and the show’s heroine helped to keep things consistently interesting. It provided a continual ebb and flow of engagement as she sometimes does the right thing, sometimes doesn’t.

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Doofenshmirtz played a similar role, in that he was a ‘villain’, but we quickly could see that he wasn’t really a bad guy, just an extremely immature and petty one, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Like Candace, we soon come to like Doof and want him to succeed, just not to succeed at his stated goal. Plus he has his charming, but strained relationship with his daughter, Vanessa (their relationship being one of the most notable instances of the fact that the characters do develop over the course of the show) and his odd ‘frienmity’ with Perry.

What I’m trying to get at is that, even with a very formulaic structure and relatively static characters, the nature of those characters provides a variety of emotional experiences wherein we’re not really sure which one we’re going to get from scene to scene: is Candace going to be in ‘jerk’ mode or ‘sympathetic’ mode? Are we going to get one of Doof’s petty spiteful moments or one of his loving affectionate moments? This is what I mean by emotional texture: the characters move in and out of eliciting now one reaction, now the other.

4. Now, in Milo, there really isn’t anything like the above, or not to the same extent. Milo has a smoothly comfortable relationship with his friends Zack and Melissa, his family is supportive and loving, his sister patiently puts up with his curse (the closest she comes to antagonizing him is anxiously asking him to stand back), and even most of his classmates are friendly, if cautious towards him. The only hostile characters are Bradley, who is simply a jerk and doesn’t get much development, and Eliot the crossing guard, who does get some development and eventually warms up to Milo, but doesn’t have enough redeeming qualities or enough of a relationship with Milo to make him really sympathetic or interesting. For a while it looked like they were going to do something with Cavendish when he briefly thought that Milo was the villain, but it’s dropped pretty quickly when Dakota suggests that they simply ask Milo if he’s trying to destroy them. Likewise, Cavendish and Dakota have a bit of friction in their bickering, which is fun, but not really the sort of thing described above since it’s usually just standard ‘vitriolic best buds’ stuff, rather than, say, Buford and Baljeet oscillating between genuine friendship and genuine hostility (Dakota’s not going to be flying Cavendish into some cacti just for fun, for instance).

The conflict is almost entirely external, from Milo’s curse and various antagonists. Very rarely are the main characters in opposition with each other or in complicated or difficult positions with each other.

The result is that the emotional landscape of Milo is much flatter than that of PnF. Conflicts get resolved a little too quickly and the characters are uniformly likable and affectionate, except for when they’re supposed to be more or less just plain jerks and villains, or else they grow out of their contentious attitudes within a short amount of time (e.g. Melissa’s dad doesn’t like Milo, but learns to appreciate him over the course of a single episode). It’s all charming and pleasant, but it has considerably less bite than PnF.

The long-term conflicts include Milo’s budding relationship with Amanda (a hyper-organized girl at his school) and Cavendish and Dakota’s various time-related adventures, particularly involving the pistachio plants. There is also a low-key romance between Zack and Melissa that remains largely under the surface until near the end. These are all perfectly fine and charming, but none of them really create enough waves to give the show much texture.

Milo and Amanda in Milo Murphy's Law - YouTube

Now, a show doesn’t have to have this kind of thing – e.g. sympathetic pseudo-antagonists who are also protagonists and move between different emotional responses from the audience – to be good or to gain an audience. But thinking over the two shows, I think that is something that PnF had that Milo lacked and, what is more, lacked anything suitable to replace it with. It’s certainly not bad – again, it’s a very good show – but it’s less interesting.

5. The next factor is even more ephemeral, but I think equally important. It’s that PnF has more of an immediate appeal to it than Milo. It takes the form of an almost generic Saturday morning cartoon: kids have adventures in their backyard while their secret-agent pet battles evil scientists, their mother is oblivious to it all and their sister tries to reveal it. At the same time, that package is used to indulge the fantasy of kids who are able to do what real kids imagine doing: building roller coasters, being superheroes, flying rocketships, etc. Whether by design or accident, you end up with a show that captures the imagination of childhood and of the carefree games of summer, presented in the form of something like the very sort of cartoon that would go along with those imaginary games. The central idea of the show is embodied in its very structure, you could almost say. It’s basically a show all about childhood and the carefree experience of childhood.

Milo, on the other hand, is a bit more specific and less immediately appealing: about a kid who brings impossible disasters down upon himself wherever he goes, but soldiers on optimistically nonetheless. It’s a good premise, touching on optimism, persistence in the face of bad luck, and so on but it doesn’t tap as deeply as the other.

Childhood and childhood imagination is something everyone’s experienced and many people can still remember, and that kind of ‘boy’s adventure’ story is a familiar story-type. It slots neatly into the imagination, allowing its more specific characteristics to shine out better. Milo is a lot less familiar and a lot less ‘apt’ to the imagination; it feels more like a very personal, “let’s just go crazy” kind of story that the creators did because it was what they specifically wanted to make. It’s fun, but it doesn’t make an immediate or clear appeal the same way that PnF did.

6. Adding to these two factors is also the fact that Milo is a much more serialized show than PnF. Each episode follows its own plot and its own pattern and, apart from the three-to-five core characters, (Milo, Zach, Melissa, Cavendish, and Dakota), the casts vary considerably from episode to episode, and most of the characters are introduced piecemeal, coming and going unevenly across the two seasons.

In PnF, the show deliberately follows a fairly tight formula most of the time, and the same main characters recur and play more or less the same roles in every episode (Phineas, Ferb, Candace, Perry, Doof, Isabella, Baljeet, Buford). This was part of the joke, but it also had the effect of giving the show a very strong sense of identity, as well as solidifying the characters in the audience’s mind.

7. The net result of all these points is that Milo felt a lot less focused and a lot less, hm, sturdy than PnF, especially coupled with the aforementioned rapid conflict solving. It came across a little flatter, a little lighter and more superficial (ironically enough, considering how much lower the stakes in PnF tended to be). Both shows are delightfully crazy, but PnF concentrated its craziness through its strictly formulaic episodes, keeping the show familiar and grounded even as it went off the walls. Milo didn’t have that same kind of structure and so feels more fluid and scattershot. It isn’t so much that it does anything much worse than the earlier show, it’s more that it was just harder to connect with.

I still think it deserved to find more of an audience than it did (it’s much better than, say, Gravity Falls, not to mention more wholesome), but that’s my theory as to why it didn’t.

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I’m glad we have them both

Flotsam: Various Writing Observations

1. A few observations on different works:

2. When Uncle Walt adapted Alice in Wonderland, he and his writers ended up giving it a bit more of a plot than the book had. Not much, but a little. And if you notice, the plot they gave it was pretty much lifted directly from The Wizard of Oz: an imaginative girl living what seems to be a dull life wishes for something different and is whisked away to a world of magic and strangeness where she incurs the enmity of an authoritative female antagonist and soon comes to wish for nothing more than to return home. In the end she wakes up to find it was all a dream, leaving her with new appreciation for the mundane world she wanted to leave.

But the interesting point is the one big difference between the two: Dorothy doesn’t only have to deal with the Wicked Witch of the West and the general strangeness of Oz. She also gets to enjoy the friendship and help of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, as well as the protection and guidance of Glinda, and even the avuncular kindness of the wizard.

In contrast, Alice doesn’t get anything of the kind. No one in Wonderland is Alice’s friend. There is precisely one character in the film who is consistently helpful to her, and that’s the doorknob. And all he can do is give her some information. Everyone else is, at best, barely aware of her presence and at worst actively malicious toward her (interestingly enough, the doorknob is the only character in the film that wasn’t in the books).

(Meanwhile in the books, the only character who might count is the White Knight from the second book, who is at least consistently kind and helpful to her, even though he’s pretty hapless himself and she spends most of their time together trying to help him stay on his horse).

For me, this is one of the things that makes the story unique and compelling: that it doesn’t sentimentalize or cheat with Alice’s dreams. They’re weird, chaotic, and ephemeral full of mad people, with all that implies.

3. Again, I haven’t seen the film, but from what I can tell this is one of the things that really bugs me about the Tim Burton version: the Mad Hatter is not Alice’s best friend. The inhabitants of Wonderland are not her childhood playmates happy to have her back. They don’t care about her. This isn’t Narnia or even Oz: this is a world of madness and nonsense.

4. To switch gears (so to speak), I’ve also found myself revisiting Transformers: Beast Wars, at least as far as reading about it and re-watching some clips. Really, as I recall, that was a surprisingly well-written show, where the writers actually thought through the implications and consequences of the events of the story.

For instance, in that incarnation Megatron is played as being a dangerous radical / terrorist with no official standing in the Predicon hierarchy. He had a grand scheme that he’s trying to put into action, but one that is both an extremely long shot and spectacularly dangerous and potentially destructive (to the point where he himself holds off on carrying it through until he gets backed into a corner because it’s that risky).

Now, no one in his right mind would follow someone like that, right? Right. And almost no one in his right mind does. Megatron’s troops are, to a man, either a). intensely stupid, b). looking to betray him for their own ends, c). completely insane, or d). some combination of the above.

He has precisely one competent, rational, and reliable lieutenant – Dinobot – who is later revealed to have joined him for personal reasons…and who almost immediately defects once it seems those reasons no longer apply.

5. This actually achieves a number of things. In the first place, it helps to establish Megatron’s position in this world: for all his arrogance, he isn’t important or high-ranking, he’s a loose cannon following his own agenda. In the second, it allows him to consistently lose his engagements without undermining him as a villain, since however clever and dangerous he is, he has to entrust the execution of his plans to either the idiot, the lunatic, the traitor, or the lunatic-traitor. Finally, it actually makes him a much more imposing villain, since it gives him scope to demonstrate his cunning without pitting him directly against the heroes. So he’ll do things like work the fact that his minions are plotting against him into his own plans, allowing him to turn their treason to his own benefit. Or another episode has Terrorsaur successfully usurp Megatron’s place and throw him in the brig…whereupon Megatron reveals he programmed an override into the cells to let him escape whenever he wants and proceeds to let Terrorsaur lead the Predacons in battle to let them see how incompetent he really is.

The structure of the show also answers the question “why does he keep people around the he knows would betray him the first chance they get?” Because he only has four or five minions and simply can’t afford to lose any of them unless it’s absolutely necessary.

6. Something else I noticed this week: I really like Princess Peach as a character. I mean, she’s just such a delightfully nice character, so pleasant to be around, but also with a bit of an undefinable edge to her (and this isn’t a new thing, either: she was adventuring all the way back in Super Mario Bros. 2 and then again in Super Mario RPG). She’s a perfectly sweet, wonderfully feminine character, but all the while she’s got an underlying pluck and courage that comes out every now and then, all the more amusing for its rareness.

I especially like in the first Paper Mario game where she’ll periodically sneak around Bowser’s castle to try to spy out information that’ll be useful to Mario. That, it seems to me, is exactly what a character like her would do in that situation and gets her involved in a more elegant way than just have her trying to take on Bowser herself (though that can be fun too). I also love how she insists that her closet full of identical pink dresses are ‘all unique and all very fashionable.’

This is something we almost never get these days: a thoroughly and emphatically feminine character who is positively portrayed and allowed to remain so throughout.

Superman Cartoons

Between depression and job hunting, been really behind on writing. So instead of any new original fiction, I’m just plugging along offering you works I like. And I’ve got a treat for you today: the first three of Dave and Max Fleischer’s original Superman cartoons.

My goodness, the artistry on these old cartoons is amazing. Look at the shadows, the expressive movement. There was such a great style to these things, where they didn’t feel like they were supposed to be imitating real life, but were following more of a loose, imagination-based set of rules. These particular ones are more ‘realistic’ than most of the time, but even they keep that exaggerated, animated style. And of course the great use of music and sound to supplement the animation (the main ‘Superman’ score sounds like an embryonic version of the John Williams theme, which I’m sure is no coincidence).

The imagination on display is fantastic as well. I love those mechanical monsters: such a cool, weird, science-fiction design. And I like the way they move: like how the one just walks through the door without breaking stride.

I also like the simple, straightforward storytelling. You don’t need to know the Mad Scientist’s whole backstory, just that “people laughed at me and I will show them all!” The other villains are just after money. Simple enough, even if they use some rather extreme measures to get it. We don’t need anything else.

The Clark – Lois – Superman dynamic is nicely realized, even in shorthand. She blows off Clark and cheerfully plays dirty to try to get ahead of him (though they seem to have a friendly dynamic), while Superman anonymously keeps her safe and Clark quietly lets her take the professional credit.

(By the way, I like how Lois just grabs a plane to fly up and ask for an interview with the mad scientist. That right there pretty much sums up her character. Also love her taking charge of the crisis in Billion Dollar Limited).

This is Superman’s first appearance in cinematic form, and a key step the character’s development since this was when he gained the ability to fly (in the original comics he could simply ‘leap tall buildings in a single bound’ The Fleischers rightly judged that this would look ridiculous on screen and so just had him fly, though the influence of his original powerset can be seen in some of the action scenes, especially in Billion Dollar Limited). The streamlined origin story leaves out Ma and Pa Kent – who had been part of the comics, though their names and role varied between issues – and neither Lex Luthor nor Jimmy Olsen were yet staple characters (although the Mad Scientist in the first short is reminiscent of the early Luthor).

And in conclusion, this is another work that I’m giving canon status, and twice over. In the first place the cartoons themselves are a pivotal piece of American animation and culture: one of the Fleischer brother’s key contributions (along with Popeye and Betty Boop). Anyone interested in animation really needs to watch these.

And in the second, the Superman story as such in at least one of its classic forms is certainly part of the canon. Whether its Siegel-Shuster comics, Fleischer cartoons, Kirk Alyn serials, George Reeves TV, Christopher Reeves films, Lois and Clark, or the DCAU, or, best of all, all of them, anyone interested in western fiction should be familiar with Superman (no, Snyder does not count. And let’s just get ahead of things and say neither does J.J. Abrams).

Enough chat: enjoy pure, classic Superman.

‘Make Mine Freedom’

Allow me to present a startlingly accurate warning from 1948, back in the days when the American system actually tried to defend itself.

You know, I have my own criticisms of the position taken by this short, but my goodness, it’s refreshing to see it actually articulated, and pretty well too.

Also, note the call for balance and unity based on the American identity as such, along with the rejection of class, racial, and religious-based conflict (including showing racially-integrated classrooms. 1948, remember: that was indeed a thing at the time). And the specific prediction that Dr. Ism would use those very things to divide and conquer.

And the depiction of the ‘Ism’ formula, its sales pitch, and its effects is dead-on, alas, though they completely missed the role of media, not to mention corporations themselves.

(By the way, I found out the name ‘Joe Doaks’ is an old slang term for the average guy (just like his neighbors, Joe Blow and Joe Sixpack). I always think of it as the name of the guy in the ‘X Marks the Spot’ short from the ‘King Dinosaur’ episode of Season Two of Mst3k. That Joe Doaks (ironically enough given his incarnation in this one) was defined as being a terrible driver who is on trial in the afterlife to see whether his driving record qualifies him for a second chance at life. It was a wartime short, emphasizing the loss of manpower caused by traffic accidents. Crow sums up the message as “If you kill yourselves here we can’t kill them over there.”)

Thoughts on ‘Mulan’

With the unnecessary and unwanted remake becoming the ‘who the heck thought this was a good idea?’ film of the season (previously occupied by such luminary pictures as Birds of Prey and The Rise of Skywalker), I decided to revisit the original Mulan, which I had not seen in many, many years.

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Mulan came near the tail end of the Disney Renaissance of the 90s, about the time the formula was beginning to wear thin and the films were going into decline. I may attempt a full recap of the Disney canon someday and then it will be time to tackle its place in the series, but for now let’s just consider it by itself as a film.

In Medieval China the Huns (led by the intimidating Shan Yu) have invaded over the Great Wall. In response the Emperor sends out his imperial troops to stop them and orders up conscription; one man from every family to supplement the regular army.

We then meet Mulan, the intelligent, tomboyish daughter of a crippled war veteran. When the call for conscription comes out, her father sets aside his crutch and steps forward, though its plain his fighting days are behind him. Mulan, who loves her father dearly, can see that if he goes to war, he will certainly die. She first tries to talk him out of it, which prompts him to anger, then resolves on the desperate course of disguising herself as a boy and taking his place.

Her ancestral spirits, concerned of the impact this might have on the family, dispatch the demoted ex-guardian Mushu to fetch her back (they try to send the ‘stone dragon,’ but Mushu breaks it. We’ll not try to work that one out). Mushu, however, hits on the idea that he can regain his own lost status if he can make Mulan a war hero and so decides to help her succeed in the army instead.

At the camp, Mulan receives a crash course in the male mode of life and begins training under the young captain Shang, son of the Imperial General. At first she struggles just to keep up with her fellow soldiers (themselves pretty unimpressive), but through perseverance, hard work, and cleverness she and her comrades grow into competent soldiers. Before long she and her ragtag unit find themselves marching into battle against a vastly superior foe.

Watching Mulan, I can see why it’s often considered a rather forgettable, middling entry in the Disney canon. It’s uneven in its tone and the Disney Renaissance formula elements (soulful hero who feels ‘different’ and yearns for something more, cute sidekicks, Broadway-style songs etc.) are sometimes jarringly out of place. Yet, at the same time, I was struck by how much better it is than most of the films being made today. It’s a really good story, for one thing, and the characters, especially Mulan herself, are written with a degree of skill and nuance. It’s, well, a good movie. Not a great movie by any stretch, but a pretty good one.

In particular, the film takes a fairly intelligent approach to Mulan’s situation. She doesn’t put on her armor and immediately become a badass, or find her only obstacle is prejudice or some such nonsense. She runs into many of the problems you would logically expect someone in her situation to encounter. When she first starts her masquerade, she gets tripped up by merely talking to the other soldiers, since she has absolutely no idea how men relate to each other (Mushu’s advice doesn’t help). This causes her to make several bad first impressions, though amusingly enough, it also helps her masquerade a bit, as her apparent incompetence makes it easier for the royal official to believe that her father “doesn’t talk about me much”.

Then when training begins, she’s the most hopeless of the largely hopeless unit, struggling even to master basic tests. But she sticks with it, works hard, and starts finding ways to work in her new environment. Her inventiveness (established in her very first scene) allows her to figure out a particular challenge Shang has set them, and she and her fellow soldiers all grow over the course of training. They not only master the difficult tasks set them, but develop comradery with each other. The soldiers, Mulan included, earn one another’s respect through shared hardship and developing competence.

One thing I particularly like is that she actually is given a chance to go home part way through training. Rather than leaping at the chance, however, she stays and gives the arrow challenge one more shot. This is both very admirable of her and fits perfectly with what’s been established without having to make it explicit. Going home would mean bringing shame on her family and her father for having sent a worthless reject to defend the Emperor. It isn’t just a matter of helping her dad dodge the draft; the family name and honor is at stake. She’s taken it upon herself, and so she has to keep trying to uphold it.

Which is another thing that this film does well; it has the sense to understand that Mulan’s story is not only about her. Her family and her country are also on the line. Her becoming a soldier, even if she’s the best soldier of her unit, doesn’t ultimately mean anything unless she can preserve them.

Of course, the film also makes obligatory gestures toward modern individualism, with Mulan wanting to be ‘who I am inside’ and all that. Though to its credit, when she wrestles with the question of whether that was her real motive, she’s clearly ashamed by the idea of its being so (more credit to the film in giving her such mixed motives in the first place).

In short, Mulan actually takes super-personal matters of honor, familial duty, and feudal obligation seriously and treats them as if they had legitimate claims rather than being mere obstacles to personal development.

On that note, despite its surface-level feminism the story is actually remarkably patriarchal (and I have to clarify, I think that’s a good thing). The whole plot is centered around protecting the Emperor (more on him in a minute), which is reflected in miniature with Mulan trying to save her father.

Her father is a thoroughly admirable character; a former war hero and a kindly man who loves his daughter deeply. After her disastrous meeting with the matchmaker, he doesn’t rebuke her for screwing up but comforts her by likening her to a flower that hasn’t bloomed yet. In his one moment of anger with her (telling her to “know your place”) he’s actually shown to be fundamentally correct. She’s trying to convince him not to go to war, saying there are plenty of young men to fight and he isn’t necessary. He answers, essentially, that it isn’t about him, and that honor – doing what is right – is worth dying for. Which, as noted, pretty much drives everything she does from then on.

Basically, she was right that he can’t go to war – since he’s a cripple and wouldn’t survive in a battle – but she was wrong about what to do about it, which prompts her to take a desperate and unexpected solution to save him.

(There is the fact that he may have just been sent home upon failing training, which arguably is a plot hole. However, I don’t think that actually detracts from the story: the fact that he is a war hero – Shang is impressed upon finding out who ‘Ping’ is related to – means that he probably would have been kept on out of respect if nothing else. And if he were sent home, that would have also brought shame on the family, assuming that he accepted the dismissal, which it’s reasonable to think he wouldn’t have, so it would have been a disaster nonetheless. And finally, we can reasonably assume that, in any case, Mulan wouldn’t have thought of that. So, even if she didn’t strictly have to go, she would have believed she did and once committed to the scheme she would have to see it through to the end).

Her filial devotion to her father is mirrored by China’s devotion to the Emperor. The new troops who are called up are specifically called to serve the Emperor. When they find the Imperial Army destroyed, Shang tells his troops that they’re “the only hope for the Emperor now.” Note the specificity: not China, but the Emperor. Since, of course, he embodies China.

This all gives us a wonderfully positive image of monarchy. The Emperor answers the filial devotion of his people with a paternal love and care for them (at one point he calls them “my children”). Upon learning of the invasion, orders his armies away from his palace to defend the outlying provinces. When Shang meets him after the battle, the Emperor’s first move is to condole with him on the death of his father. Then when Shan Yu has him captured and at sword point, he still calmly and resolutely refuses to bow to the Hun, willing to accept death rather than dishonor his people.

In all this the Emperor is convincingly portrayed as the father and embodiment of his nation, and as a man who takes this role very seriously. He wields absolute authority but tempered with the personal touch of a man relating to other men.

As for Mulan herself, I touched on it a bit, but she’s a likable heroine; her evident courage, devotion, and willingness to persevere make her admirable, while her initial clumsiness and warm-heartedness make her endearing. She’s a bit of a common trop – the smart, independent woman chafing in a traditional society that we’ve seen a hundred times – but fortunately the aforementioned piety she shows, as well as her efforts to fit in the military while still having a distinctly feminine personality peeking through the cracks is more than enough to keep her interesting. 

Her heroics are generally excellent. Again, the film is smart enough to know that she cannot hope to match her male allies or enemies in strength and so she doesn’t try. Instead she employs her grace, agility, and cleverness to get around their advantages, as when she uses their one remaining cannon to start an avalanche to take out the entire Hun army, or when she uses her fan (a distinctly feminine article) in her showdown with Shan Yu. But I love that, though she’s fighting in unorthodox way, she is still putting herself on the line for the sake of her comrades and the mission. Her trick with the cannon requires her to get right up to the charging hoard, resulting in her being wounded. In the climax there’s a moment where she has a chance to join her friends and the Emperor, but chooses to forego it to prevent Shan Yu from following them, leaving her and Shang trapped with an extremely angry Hun. The film does an excellent job of showing that in all her schemes and gambits, the mission and her friends always come first for her. This, much more than simply beating the bad guys, is what makes her a worthy heroine.

I also like how she keeps her feminine habits and outlook throughout the film. She’s nearly unmasked at one point because she’s used to regular baths and tries to sneak one in the local watering hole (“There are a couple of things I know they’re bound to notice!” Mushu laments as her new buddies rush to join her). In this scene there’s also a small detail where, when one of her friends tries to shake hands, she instinctively offers hers as though presenting it to be kissed.

It’s clever too that at no point does Mulan actually like being in the army. She makes friends and is able to pull her weight, but she’s clearly feeling awkward and out of place the whole time. Kudos to the animators for making her armor look bulky and ill-fitting throughout, visually cluing us to her discomfort. Even in her most heroic moments, the animators are sure to show that she is frightened, and she does feel out of her depth (I love the bit where she throws her shoe at Shan Yu to focus his attention on her and then fumbles to put it back on so she can run away from him). This carries on to the very end, where even in her final gambit she’s quietly frantic as she tries to get out of the way of the results (“getofftheroofgetofftheroofgetofftheroof…”).

Also, not all of her ‘quirks’ are positive. At the start of the film she’s shown to be kind of lazy: oversleeping, trying to cheat on her test, and getting her dog to do her chores for her. This habit realistically come back to bite her in the army and she has to learn to temper her natural inclinations with discipline and hard work.

Then there are her interactions with Shang, where, as intimidating and stern as he is to her, she still takes the time to reach out to him emotionally when she sees he is down, trying to build him up and support him (that and she can’t help staring when he takes his shirt off and reveals his chiseled physique).

I also have to give the film credit for the logic of how she’s eventually discovered (she’s wounded in battle) and what happens next; Shang actually does seem about ready to execute her, and his (stated) reasons for not doing so make perfect sense. His reaction on seeing her again when she comes to try to warn them are likewise pretty well done. He’s surprised, but he isn’t really angry with her; he just wants her to go away.

Shang himself is a decent character; a tough, capable, masculine hero with his own story arc. He’s established right away as, like Mulan, being very close to his father and wanting to live up to his expectations and uphold the family honor (his introduction also lets us see the good-humored man beneath the commander as he stammers over his thanks for the promotion before collecting himself). We get to see a fair amount of his struggles as well; saddled with green, uncouth soldiers – not to mention an obnoxious bureaucrat who is constantly criticizing him – and trying to whip them into shape in order to live up to the responsibility entrusted to him (though I will say one minor flaw is that he seems to throw away at least one sword too many over the course of the film).

I appreciate that, though Mulan is of course the star, Shang is allowed to be a dashing and heroic figure in his own right. Among other things he rallies his pitiful unit to continue their mission even after finding the main Imperial Army has been wiped out (including his father), ready to fight out the war to the bitter end. He’s also the one who actually saves the Emperor and though he loses to Shan Yu in a one-on-one fight, he does so in a way that shows him be an impressive combatant in his own right (that is, it’s clear he’s simply out-classed rather than unskilled). And when he and Mulan end up facing the Hun commander alone, his first move is to try to protect her and focus Yu’s attention on himself.

Their romance actually works a lot better than I remember it. Her glimpses into his interior life and the compassion she shows him form a believable basis for an attachment. His interactions with her (such as the way he calls for her to come back during the mountain fight) hint that has an idea there’s something different about this particular soldier, though he can’t quite put his finger on it, mirroring how she sees past his commander persona to the human being underneath.

Mulan fans 'fuming' after Disney drops character over #MeToo concerns | The  Independent | The Independent

Kudos again to the animators for his facial expressions after she’s unmasked; in both the scene where he considers executing her and when they meet again in the city they manage to show that a lot more is going on inside him than his dialogue would indicate (again, his surprised and not-unpleased look when he first sees her in the latter scene is particularly good).

Then there’s the villain. Shan Yu’s an interesting entry in the stable of Disney bad guys, in that honestly he could just as easily have stepped out of an anime or even a live-action film. There’s almost nothing ‘cartoony’ about him. He’s a big, hulking monster at the head of a massive army, seemingly looking to conquer China more for the satisfaction of beating the Emperor than for any desire for political power or wealth. He gets a striking introduction, burning the Chinese flag and declaring his delight at the prospect of facing the whole Middle Kingdom. Later he tells two captured scouts to “tell the Emperor to send his strongest armies. I’m ready for him!” He then has one of the scouts killed just because.

Basically, he’s a barbarian through and through, looking for nothing but to prove himself in battle by smashing the best the civilized world can throw at him. This makes him a good foil to Mulan, Shang, and the Emperor, who all are motivated by filial piety and devotion to duty. Mulan fears that she might be only fighting to prove something to herself; Shan Yu actually is fighting for just such a reason, only he never doubts that he’ll succeed. He relies largely on overwhelming strength, while Mulan uses cunning and finesse to get around it.

On that note, I have to say the scene of the Mongol hoard coming over the mountain is nothing short of breathtaking, particularly paired with the awesome music.

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The film really does allow itself to be a war movie, even if a Disneyfied one. The heroes kill people, characters die in battle, and at one point the Huns even massacre a village complete with explicitly killing children (off-screen of course, but it’s still pretty grim. By the way, note how Shan Yu’s sarcastic desire to return the little girl’s doll mirrors and inverts the way Mulan intervenes on behalf of another little girl in the opening musical number by returning her doll from some bullies).

So, overall, the film’s pretty good. My main criticism of it is definitely Mushu. Now, Eddie Murphy is a great comedic talent, and he does a fine job with the character. I laughed quite a bit at his antics. The trouble is that Mushu is simultaneously crucial to the story at several points (including being instrumental in killing the villain) and the rest of the time he’s almost entirely disconnected from it. No one except Mulan seems to see or hear him even when they really, really should, save again for one or two specific scenes. He never interacts with any of the other characters (except in disguise), and his dialogue and behavior are tonally distinct from the rest of the story.

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Contrast this with the genie from Aladdin, who was explicitly an otherworldly being in service to Aladdin, and hence could be seen or unseen as he liked and would be expected to stand out from the rest of the film (also the Genie was central to the plot). Mushu is more or less just along for the ride, except for when he suddenly intrudes on the story to get it out of a difficulty. You could tell exactly the same story without him and nothing would change except for a few specific incidents (e.g. the reason for their being called up to the front).

Also, Mushu never really completes his character arc. He admits to his selfish motives, but he never has to walk them back or offer to sacrifice them for the greater good. He does offer to go back home with Mulan to take his punishment, but at that point they have pretty much no other options (again, contrast the genie offering to let Aladdin use his final wish to become a prince again, even though his motives were much less questionable than Mushu’s ).

Now, I like the idea of a family guardian as the sidekick character, but they needed to integrate him into the story better. You could, for instance, make it explicit that only members of Mulan’s family can see or hear him unless he allows himself to be seen. As it is, his presence feels very forced, almost as though there’s a whole separate film going on with him and the cricket that only occasionally crosses over with the rest of the story through Mulan.

On the other hand, Mulan’s three soldier buddies fit in much better as comic relief, and I’m glad that they were allowed to actually be competent soldiers and put their training to good use when it came to the point. I also liked her grandmother (“Woo! Sign me up for the next war!”), but she has very little screen time.

Meanwhile, the songs are…okay. There aren’t very many of them for a Disney film (four I think), and with only one exception (I’ll Make a Man Out of You) I found them to be pretty forgettable. The big Oscar-bait song Reflection in particular was thoroughly blah, with the lyrics amounting to simply a flat reiteration of the film’s most tiresome and commonplace themes. Also, the movie just sort of stops being a musical about the start of the third act, apart from a very brief reprise. While there’s not a lot of places they could reasonably have fit a song in after that (you really can’t have characters singing on a battlefield, or at least, you’d have to really, really work at it), it once again creates a sense of disconnection, as if the movie is struggling to make its story fit into the Disney formula.

That, I think, is what it comes down to; that Mulan has a very good, classical story at its core, with big, interesting ideas of familial and national piety, honor, and duty. But the filmmakers feel they have to check off certain boxes; they have to include some stuff about personal identity (“Who I am inside”), they have to include some boilerplate feminism, and they have to have cute sidekicks and songs.

Some of these they manage integrate better than others, but they all feel as though the writers had to fit them in rather than being organic parts of the story.

These are flaws, and they detract from the film, but they don’t derail it. As I say, the good parts of the film are very good, and the bad really aren’t awful, just kind of annoying. Overall, I’d call Mulan a worthwhile movie; a very good core story with uneven execution that amounts to a generally charming experience.  

Happy St. Valentine’s Day: Some Favorite Couples

And Saint Valentine said [unto the Emperor Claudius]: Certainly Jesu Christ is only very God, and if thou believe in him, verily thy soul shall be saved, thy realm shall multiply, and he shall give to thee alway victory of thine enemies.
The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day 
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
Chaucer, The Parliament of Foules

Happy St. Valentine’s Day, “when every bird chooses himself a mate.” In celebration, I present a sampling of a few of my personal favorite animated couples:

-Robin and Starfire, Teen Titans
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These two make for a great ‘opposites attract’ couple: super-sweet, innocent, naive Starfire, who is emotionally vulnerable and embraces every new thing she encounters with delight, and brooding, ultra-serious, single-minded Robin, who was raised by Batman and who obsessively focuses on the mission. The two balance each other wonderfully: Starfire brings joy and sunlight into Robin’s dark life, while Robin acts as an emotional anchor whom she can always rely on to guard her and keep her focused. Plus I love the fantasy aspect that he’s an orphan from the circus and she’s a princess from another world.

-Kim and Ron, Kim Possible
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Amid all the gadgets and spy antics, the heart of Kim Possible is the relationship between Kim and Ron as it grows from lifelong friendship to romantic love. Again, they are very much an ‘opposites attract’ kind of couple: Kim is an overachiever, straight-A student, and boasts that she “can do anything.” Ron is an underachiever, slacker student, and can’t seem to do anything. But all the while underneath they’re actually much closer than they appear: Ron is shown to be very capable when he needs to be, suggesting that his problem is more a lack of confidence, while Kim is actually very self-conscious about her image and puts up something of a false front to try to maintain her status (there’s a significant episode where they’re both hit by a ray that forces them to tell the truth: Ron’s success soars while Kim’s takes a hit). Again, the two complement and support each other very well, with Kim encouraging Ron to improve himself and Ron preventing Kim from taking herself too seriously.

-Phineas and Isabella, Phineas and Ferb
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One of the many running gags of Phineas and Ferb is that Isabella, the super-cute leader of the Fireside Girls, is head-over-heels in love with Phineas and not at all subtle about it, but Phineas somehow never notices. He likes Isabella a lot, regarding her as his best friend outside the family, but he really doesn’t get the whole ‘girls’ thing very well (e.g. his idea of a romantic dinner for two involves dumping a huge pile of rose petals onto the table). So, it isn’t that he doesn’t return her feelings, it simply that he doesn’t think about it. Unlike the previous two couples, these two are more of a ‘birds of a feather’ matchup: both are overachievers, eager to make the most of life, with a great love of learning and creating, and they share a wonderfully natural, easy relationship. Isabella isn’t as brilliant, but more attune to normal life and emotions than Phineas, which means that in the rare times when he gets into a funk, she’s usually the one the pull him out of it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

AMDG

The Difference Between Flat and Complex Characters

Now that the Ducktales revival is about half-a-season old, I can say that, while it is good, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped it would be. Part of the problem is that they go for the joke far too often, preventing the characters from developing much weight and consequently from engaging us in their struggles. They don’t do this all the time, but often enough for it to detract from the show (e.g. a potentially intimidating mummy monster is defeated by folding it up in a giant burrito).

This especially applies to Launchpad. Now, I haven’t gotten around to revisiting the original show in a long time, so I can’t remember if he was portrayed as this stupid in that one, but whichever is the case, it definitely is to the show’s detriment. See, Launchpad isn’t only an idiot, he’s just an idiot. As in, that’s basically his entire character: genial moron. He’s completely incompetent at what he does (raising the question of why Scrooge hired him in the first place), more childlike than the children, and most of the time seems barely functional. Yes, he’s gets a laugh fairly often, but he’s a very flat character.

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Take a recent episode that focuses almost entirely on him; he’s afraid of losing his job if Scrooge decides to go with a robotically-driven car being marked by a business rival, so he challenges the machine to a race to see who will get the job. There is the potential for genuine character development. But, no; the whole thing becomes just another ‘Launchpad’s an idiot’ joke, with him filling up his windshield with reminder notes, crashing immediately, and trying to finish the rest of the race on different vehicles.

That’s what I mean by Launchpad is a flat, one-dimensional character: if you say “he’s a genial idiot,” you’ve basically described everything there is to know about him, and everything he does proceeds from this description.

Contrast this with a complex and three-dimensional character: Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.

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You could describe her as a lovable goofball, but that’s not all she is. For one thing, though she’s the source of much of show’s humor, she’s not just an idiot. Actually, she’s not an idiot at all; she’s shown to be very intelligent, just eccentric and happy to play the fool if she think’s it’ll get a laugh. But she can be thoughtful and perceptive, especially on matters that interest her (for instance, she’s the first one to notice something wrong with the way the ponies in Starlight’s village are smiling, since “I know smiles”). She puts in the time and works hard in pursuit of her goals, and is a recognized expert in her own subject of baking and throwing parties (By contrast, Launchpad doesn’t even understand the controls of his own plane and destroys it trying to figure out what a specific blinking light meant).

Pinkie’s also shown to have very clear motivations: her mission in life is to make others happy, and her whole being is directed to that end. However, this sometimes causes problems if the person she meets doesn’t share her tastes in fun, or if she misreads what they want, or if she’s too preoccupied with having fun herself to realize the other person isn’t sharing it. Thus she constantly has to work at balancing her own immediate desires with her more fundamental motives. Coupled with that is the fact that she does work very hard and can easily be hurt or depressed if it seems her efforts aren’t appreciated (e.g. there’s an episode where she finds out that Rainbow Dash has been secretly throwing out all the pies Pinkie’s made for her, which causes Pinkie to explode with anger at her).

So, Pinkie’s allowed to be very smart and very competent on her own ground, and she has clear, multilevel motivations. But what really makes her a well-developed character is that she has a full range of human emotions and reactions. She’s not sunny and optimistic, or even just funny all the time; she has moments where she gets honestly angry, frustrated, depressed, sad, and hurt. She experiences self-doubt, she makes mistakes and learns from them, she’s forced to recognize her own limitations and try to overcome them. She has a clear motivation that she has to balance against her immediate needs and desires. None of that applies to a character like Launchpad, whose role is only to make the audience laugh.

For instance, there’s an episode where Pinkie takes on a babysitting job, only to find herself overwhelmed. Then, midway through, Twilight shows up and offers to take over. Pinkie’s all but desperate to have her do so…until Twilight innocently comments that some ponies simply aren’t up for the responsibility of watching little kids. Pinkie then immediately turns her down, determined to prove that she is responsible. That’s a very real, very human progression: Pinkie finds herself overwhelmed and wants someone to bail her out, then realizes that bailing out would mean admitting that she’s just as irresponsible as everyone seems to think, so she determines to see the thing through no matter what.

You can’t picture the new version of Launchpad, or a similar character like Soos from Gravity Falls going through that kind of progression, or experiencing that blend of desperation, doubt, and hurt pride: of being stung by what others think of you even as you fear they might be right.

Or you have things like Pinkie genuinely trying and failing to like her sister’s new boyfriend, then working to figure out how to react to this, or her progression from suspecting Rainbow Dash’s friend Gilda of being a jerk, to suspecting herself of being overly possessive, or trying to figure out how best to help someone who insists they don’t want to be helped.

Basically, even though she’s comic relief, Pinkie Pie is convincingly a person, whereas Launchpad is just a vehicle for jokes. Pinkie’s character makes sense on its own terms and in relation to the others, and she’s perfectly capable of carrying a dramatic scene without breaking character (heck, Pinkie gets some of the strongest dramatic moments in the series). Despite her goofiness, her emotions and reactions are convincingly real, which means we feel them right along with her.

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Launchpad’s presence is dictated by the writers (there’s really no reason for the other characters to keep him around) and he could never convincingly create drama because he’s too inconsequential. He’s so stupid and his reactions so overblown and ridiculous that his emotions don’t matter: we don’t ‘feel’ his pain because we never see him as anything but a source of humor.

That’s the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional character: Launchpad exists to be comic relief. He has very simple motivations, very simple reactions, and he predictably will always be used as a joke. Pinkie Pie, though a major source of comic relief, is an integral part of the cast with her own multilevel motivations, her own conflicts, and her own struggles. Launchpad is a tool for the writers; Pinkie is a person.

Multilevel Motivation:

Today I want to talk about a characterization trick I’m going to call multilevel motivation. This is where a character’s actions are driven by several different and often conflicting motives at the same time, creating a more psychologically complex and realistic storyline.

Let me explain with an easily understood, but very well done example: the episode What About Discord from My Little Pony.

Brief summary: Twilight emerges from a weekend alone to find that her friends have apparently had a fabulous time with the local trickster god, Discord, and are bubbling over with shared jokes and stories of their escapades. Twilight’s confused by this, since, except for Fluttershy and maybe Pinkie, none of her friends have ever gotten along well with Discord, as he’s kind of a jerk. She naturally suspects that something is up and sets about trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Now, let’s take this apart: Twilight tells her friends that her motive is to better understand their bonding experiences so that she can use that knowledge in her friendship studies. To that end, she has them go through the whole thing again with her watching so that she can figure out what they found so enjoyable. At the same time, she’s suspicious of Discord, since he seems to be acting slightly out of character and she knows he likes to cause trouble. So she wants to find out what he’s up to.

But there’s a third thing going on, which is simply that she regrets having missed the good times and is jealous that her friends now have these experiences and jokes that she can’t share in. This is the motive that she doesn’t want to acknowledge, even to herself, as it conflicts with her values and role as a princess, but which is the real driving force behind what she does in the story.

So, in summary, there is the motive she claims to have, the motive she thinks she has, and the motive she actually has. That creates an engaging internal conflict, as she wrestles with feelings she thinks she ought not to have, and instead of putting them aside she claims an alternative motivation that she feels could satisfy her actual needs without having to acknowledge the feelings she’s ashamed of. Since it’s still not one that would go down well with her friends, she works up a plausible alternative, which perhaps she wishes was the actual motive.

All this works in to make Twilight an interesting, three-dimensional character. It shows her struggling with natural, human feelings that conflict with her morals and role in society and trying to find a way to deal with it. She does so by telling herself that her real feelings are something different and more altruistic.

But that’s not all: there is a similar and parallel characterization going on with Discord, who also has a multilevel motivation. The end of the episode reveals that he specifically arranged for the others to not let Twilight know about their upcoming fun weekend, purposefully cutting her out of it.

He claims his motive was simply to let Twilight alone and not bother her. It’s not very convincing, and almost no one believes him. He then all-but says that his real motive was to teach Twilight a lesson about the need to face and acknowledge her less savory emotions (with the added nuance that this is a lesson Twilight legitimately needs to learn). That’s the motive he thinks he has, and perhaps actually does make up part of his actions. But, at the same time, the actual motive is simply that he likes making trouble and jerking Twilight around. Like with Twilight, this showcases Discord’s three-dimensional characterization: though now a good guy, he still has the habits and instincts he had as a villain, which keep bubbling out subconsciously. Thus, he still wants to torment and trick Twilight, but she’s supposed to be his friend and he is honestly trying to turn over a new leaf. This is his way of trying to have his cake and eat it: to still indulge in his favorite vices while telling himself that he’s actually trying to help her.

So, the episode sees Discord and Twilight wrestling with their respective flaws and dealing with them by trying to tell themselves that their real motives are something more honorable. Only their actual motives can’t help but shine through and their fake motives can’t bring the satisfaction they want, forcing them to confront the reality of their behavior (and just to make it more nuanced, Discord never actually acknowledges his true motives, leaving us the audience to discern them from his behavior and our knowledge of him). It’s a psychologically complex set up centered around two very interesting and engaging characters.

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You see how it works? The character have selfish, but understandable motives, ones that conflict with their own values, so they try to convince themselves their real motives are something quite different, while maintaining yet a third motive to the people around them in order to try to make the other two motives work out to the same conclusion. It brings their interior conflict into focus, further fills out their characterization, and creates some interesting character based drama.

 

 

Doofenshmirtz and Identity Politics

Phineas and Ferb is one of those shows that, though simple on the surface, lends itself to endless fascinating interpretations. Like so many great works of fiction, it tells the truth merely by trying to tell a good story.

One of the chief themes of the show is the balance between childhood and maturity: Phineas and Ferb are trying to make the most of their childhood – symbolized by the summer vacation – by learning as much as possible, making as many friends as possible, and having as much fun as possible. By contrast, the ‘evil’ Doctor Doofenshmirtz had a miserable childhood, which seems to have left him emotionally stunted and for which he is constantly trying to get revenge or recompense. Balancing the two extremes is Candace, who is caught between adolescence and adulthood and is unsure how she fits in either, which manifests by trying to ‘bust’ her brothers: a childish and immature attempt to assume adult responsibilities.

So, to sum up, Phineas and Ferb revel in their childhood, Candace makes a clumsy effort to grab at adult responsibility without understanding it, while Doofenshmirtz tries to avoid responsibility until he’s settled with his lost childhood. The final main cast member, Perry the Platypus, is more or less the only adult in the room, seeking to balance his responsibilities both to his family and to his job.

For today, I want to focus on Doofenshmirtz and his arc. This will involve spoilers, by the way.

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The thing about Doofenshmirtz is that he’s a man who is completely obsessed with his own backstory. He has an endless series of gripes from his miserable childhood, each of which he considers enough to justify a complicated and often enormous and dangerous machine. He once made a giant, spacefaring robot just so that he could show-up the kid who beat him at shadow-puppets. Another time he decided that if he had one more bad date, he’d use a ray to eliminate romantic feelings from the entire Tri-State Area (in the end, the only one it hit was his own date).

The interesting thing is that Doof truly did have a terrible childhood, and was treated completely unfairly by his parents. Many of his gripes are perfectly legitimate. This is a guy whose father forced him to work as a lawn gnome and then disowned him after he choked on the high-dive, and whose brother was given presents he didn’t even like just so that Doof wouldn’t have them. Basically, his parents took an inexplicable disliking to him at birth and made sure he knew it every day of his life (it actually would be pretty grim if it weren’t so hilariously over-the-top).

However, the show is clear that none of this justifies Doof’s behavior. Yes, he was treated inexcusably by his parents and peers, but that doesn’t mean he can take it out on the world in general, or even on the people who were involved after all this time. There’s one episode where he decides to get back at the girl who was always dumping water on him as a child by dropping a huge bucket of water on her party in the park. He discovers too late that, one, the girl’s grown up to be very attractive, and two, the dumping water had been her way of saying she liked him. When Doof awkwardly has to confess to what he was planning, she’s understandably infuriated, pointing out that she was eight years old and that it’s insane that he still holds a grudge at the age of forty.

But not only does Doofenshmirtz feel the need to seek revenge for past wrongs, he also feels entitled to getting his own way in the present. If he wants something, his first instinct is to cheat. If he’s going to run a telethon to trying to gin up more cash, he makes a machine to preempt every other show and force people to watch. Even when he has a real chance of winning legitimately, he still tries to stack the deck just to be sure (as seen when he entered his scrumptious family meatloaf recipe in the annual meatloaf contest and invented a “Rotten-inator” to ruin everyone else’s entries). His main overarching goal is to take over the entire Tri-State Area, mostly in order to show up his younger brother, Roger, who is the mayor and was far his parents’ favorite. Basically, he thinks he’s entitled to everything Roger has simply because Roger was treated well by their parents and he wasn’t. But the thing is, that wasn’t Roger’s fault, and even if he’s a bit of a pompous jerk that still doesn’t mean Doof has a right to anything. What Doof can justly lay claim to has nothing to do with how he or anyone else has been treated by life.

There’s an interesting bit where Doofenshmirtz invents a ‘Luck-inator’ to give himself unnaturally good luck, intending to use the reverse setting on Roger to give him bad luck. Roger, however, is unconcerned, basically saying that luck is a matter of attitude and forethought. Doof answers that he prefers to “Inator my way to success.”

In short, Doofenshmirtz feels that the injustices he suffered in childhood entitle him both to recompense for past wrongs and to success in the present, and that he can cheat his way to getting them regardless of how it affects other people (“Sure it’ll be hard for brain surgeons, and people driving…”). But the truth is that, though he has indeed suffered injustice, his actions are also unjust. He is either taking his anger out on people who had nothing to do with his problems, grasping at things he has no real right to, or trying to get back at people decades late for things they probably don’t even remember and which really weren’t all that important to begin with.

In the end, though, Doof’s heart isn’t really in his bad behavior. He’s not really evil; he just thinks he is because he believes that being evil is the proper response to a past like his. As his daughter Vanessa tells him in the finale, he’s “basically a nice guy who’s pretending to be evil.” He pushes away the idea of taking responsibility for his own life, of letting go of the past and focusing on the present, because he somehow feels that this would be betraying his backstory. The fact that his heart isn’t in doing evil is shown by the fact that he seems to expect and even rely on Perry the Platypus foiling his schemes (he specifically designs his traps so that Perry can get out of them with a little effort), and that whenever he teams up with genuinely evil villains, he very quickly turns against them. Unlike his rival, Rodney, who is truly evil and tries to cause real harm, Doofenshmirtz’s schemes mostly amount to the nature of childish pranks. It’s all just his confused attempt to find satisfaction for the wrongs he suffered in the past.

Now, I think you might see where I’m going with this: Doof is, in his own way, in much the same position as just about any ‘marginalized group:’ smarting over past injustices and expecting some kind of recompense as well as smooth sailing in the future to make up for it. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that. Past injustices suffered do not ‘cancel out’ present injustices committed. Nor does having suffered entitle you to, well, anything except sympathy. Recompense can be demanded of an individual who has wronged you – you take my money, I can demand it back. You insult me I can demand an apology – but not of whole societies. This isn’t to belittle what has been suffered, only to say that creating even more injustice is not the path to healing.

Doof’s healing doesn’t come from seeking revenge or finally beating his brother: when he does take over the Tri-State Area in the finale, he finds it unsatisfactory. Healing comes when he finally decides to let go of his past and focus on what he has: his beloved daughter, his friends, and satisfying work. When we look in on him ten years hence, he’s so happy that he has to make an inator when he wants to experience a midlife crisis.

Identity politics, you see, aren’t evil just because they divide people: they also take people’s eyes off of the things that can actually improve their lives and fix them on things that will never bring satisfaction and which probably can’t even be cured. The endless and ridiculous expansion of things to feel aggrieved by only serves to demonstrate how futile such efforts are. And, of course, since you can’t solve a problem that depends on personal interpretation, there will always be a justifying excuse; you can always say “ah, but if only we eliminate x, y, and z, everything will be fine. They don’t want us to because they hate you. It’s only one more proof…”

Interestingly, the genuine evils Doofenshmirtz has suffered in the past lead him to take everything unpleasant that happens to him as just one more injustice. Having honestly been treated horribly and unfairly, he takes any and every setback, offense, or even just annoyance as a personal attack. Again, similar to how sources of ‘racism’ grow ever more ridiculous and petty (though even Doofenshmirtz never saw coded insults in his dinner) . People who have suffered genuine injustice tend to expect injustice and see it everywhere, which ironically leads them to commit injustices in their turn.

This is one of the biggest problems with Identity Politics: it simply ignores and excuses this phenomenon. Identity Politics, or critical theory essentially would argue that Doof is perfectly justified in, say, shooting a giant tire at the guy who ran over his foot. Because he was wronged, that means he cannot do wrong, or that any wrong he does is really the fault of his parents or brother. But not only does this excuse and encourage Doof’s harmful behavior, but it actually denies him the possibility of improving his own lot. And since what his parents did is in the past, they can’t undo it, even if they wanted to, meaning that it’s not a means to achieve anything, only to prop up an ultimately intolerable situation.

Doofenshmirtz spends almost the whole series trying to force the world to conform to his wishes, whether it wants to or not. His triumph comes when he realizes that he doesn’t have to; he has to change his own perspective and actions. He overcomes his past suffering by ceasing to allow it to control him.