What's Next for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Let's take a look at the next two years of the MCU, and see just what the greatest film franchise on the planet has in store for us…

A Story About Password Managers — About a decade ago someone tried to hack into my Gmail account. It was then I decided to install 1Password…

iPhone 12 Pro Pacific Blue Review — I'm not sure if it's the color, the new design, or if I'm just running into Apple fans, but I got the "Is that the new iPhone?" question a lot last week. This is arguably one of Apple's most striking visual changes in years, and people are noticing. It's also my favorite…

The Last of Us Part II ReviewThe Last of Us Part II is a tedious and abrasive story of revenge. The game is a visually stunning masterpiece but lacks all the heart and hopefulness and joy of the original…

Splash Mountain — It hasn't been a “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” day on Splash Mountain lately. There have been calls for Disney to re-theme the ride and remove the Song of the South songs, characters, and other elements from the popular attraction…

A Brief History of Spider-Man in Cinema — Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man has been web swinging on the pages of comics and newspapers, in cartoons, television shows, movies, video games, amusement parks, and even on Broadway…

The Blue Shell: The Worst Item in Mario Kart — Throughout human history there has always been a last place. If you were last place in the Stone Age you were probably eaten. If you’re last place in Mario Kart, your character cries after crossing the finish line…

What's Next for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

July 9, 2021

Pretty sure this is fair use AND free promotion, Disney Lawyers

After a year-plus delay due to a global pandemic, Black Widow is finally releasing in theaters and on Disney+ today. The film marks the long-delayed theatrical start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Phase 4, so let's take a look at the next two years of the MCU, and see just what the greatest film franchise on the planet has in store for us:

Scarlett Johansson reprises her role (for the final time?) as Natasha Romanoff in Black Widow. Black Widow takes place in the period between Civil War and Infinity War as Natasha returns home and confronts her history. MCU newcomer Florence Pugh stars as Yelena Belova, another Black Widow who will show up in some future Disney+ series later this year.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stars Simu Liu in Marvel's first Asian lead role exploring the clandestine Ten Rings organization, which has been referenced as far back as the first Iron Man film. Shang-Chi is a skilled martial artist with a difficult past. Tony Leung is The Mandarin, the leader of the Ten Rings. You might recognize the name of The Mandarin from Iron Man 3, in which Ben Kingsley played an actor playing the roll of The Mandarin, but now we're going to meet the real deal.

The Eternals are an immortal alien race created by the Celestials who secretly live on Earth. They fight the Deviants, both of whom are offshoots of the process that created life on Earth (and Thanos was a hybrid created by both races). The Eternals film will be a massive origin story of not just an entire new race of beings but of individual characters played by big names like Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, and Kit Harington. Also, the score is being composed by Ramin Djawadi, which only feels right for a movie of this scale.

Spider-Man: No Way Home will wrap up the first year of Phase 4, which will see an entirely new type of Spider-Man film due to Far From Home's shocking mid-credits scene. Tom Holland, Zendaya, and Jacob Batalon return as Peter Parker, MJ, and Ned Leeds, with Benedict Cumberbatch reprising his role as Doctor Strange, as well as (according to rumors) Alfred Molina and Jamie Foxx as Doc Ock and Electro, respectively, reprising their roles from the original Toby McGuire Spider-Man and Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man film series. Rumors also report that the original Spider-Men will make appearances, but I am highly suspect of these rumors.

The Spider-Man hype this year is huge, and rightly so. There's also discussion of a fourth Spidey film in the MCU as Peter Parker starts college (rumors say it's a possible trilogy, taking us well into 2027 or beyond with the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and don't forget Tom Holland is due to reprise Spidey in a major MCU Avengers-style film within the next few years (I have a theory on this, but keep reading).

So that's four big MCU films finally getting released after a two year drought of Marvel cinema, but we're not done yet.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness releases in theaters in March 2022, just three months after No Way Home's release. In addition to Comberbatch, the cast includes the Scarlet Witch herself straight out of Westview, Elizabeth Olsen, and newcomer Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez, an extremely powerful superhero from Utopian Parallel, a reality out of time. America has the unique ability to punch star-shaped holes between realities and travel the multiverses. I'm beginning to detect a theme here.

Thor: Love and Thunder reunits Taika Waititi with the MCU (after taking a fun little detour to a galaxy far, far away) and reunites Chris Hemsworth's Thor with Natalie Portman's Jane Foster (who becomes the Goddess of Thunder, but this isn't a spoiler, it'll literally be the plot of the film as revealed at Comic-Con 2019). Also joining Thor (and reprising their roles) are the Gardians of the Galaxy, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, and Waititi as Korg. Good old, Korg. There are a lot of big names in this one, but don't expect to see Zoe Saldana as Gamora just yet — this is Thor's film, and the search for Gamora will likely be put on hold until the Gardians get their Vol. 3. There are enough big names, big heroes, and big egos in the fourth Thor film to make it feel like a mini-Avengers in space. Love and Thunder releases May 2022.

Next summer Ryan Coogler will take us back to Wakanda in Black Panther: Wankanda Forever. With the role of T'Challa not being recast following the death of Chadwick Boseman, the film will explore other characters within Wakanda and — likely — pass the mantel of the Black Panther to Shuri. Filming begins this summer with a July 2022 release date, and I'm honestly amazed they can begin filming and a year later have a completed movie.

The Marvels (AKA Captain Marvel 2) will see release in November 2022, with Brie Larson returning as Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel, Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau (from WandaVision) and Iman Vellani reprising her role as Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel from the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel — more on that in a second!

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has a planned release date of February 2023, with Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly both returning as the title characters, and with Jonathan Majors reprising his role from Loki season 1 as Kang the Conqueror!

James Gunn returns to complete his trilogy on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in May 2023. The core cast — Saldana included — is expected to return, with Hemsworth expressing interest in returning as Thor. Yes, please!

Blade staring Mahershala Ali is also joining the MCU and the film is now in development but may not be part of Phase 4.

Finally, Jon Watts — director of the three MCU Spidey films — will be directing the MCU's Fantastic Four. No cast or release date has been announced, but 2023 sounds like a reasonable timetable for release. Now, remember how I mentioned that Tom Holland is due to join a non-Spidey MCU film within the next couple of years? And how I just wrote that Watts was director of all three previous Spider-Man films set in the MCU? Marvel hasn't announced anything yet, but the pairing seems obvious. Putting Spidey in Fantastic Four gives Marvel's First Family a huge introduction and, maybe most importantly, sets it apart from previous FF films that have not been super successful (or good). Telling a story with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man is something never before seen on the big screen, and possibilities for putting a paper bag over Tom Holland's head are endless.

That's every theatrical release for the next two-ish years for the MCU that has been announced by Disney. But the MCU has expanded beyond the cinema: Disney+ is joining the fray and providing home audiences with a new episode of something almost every day of the year. You already know WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki, let's recap:

WandaVision officially kicked off Phase 4, and although it wasn't the start Marvel intended, it was a huge weekly event for the MCU and Disney+. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are Wanda and Vision, with a bunch of supporting Marvel MCU characters reprising their roles, including Randall Park, Kat Dennings, and Evan Peters (sorta-kinda?) and introducing Teyonah Parris as the adult version of Monica Rambeau. Kathryn Hahn almost steals the show as Agatha Harkness, and Marvel is crazy not to bring her back in a future series or film. WandaVision was also intended to lead directly into Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, but it appears Wanda will be spending a little longer in her log cabin of seclusion than was intended as we wait a full year for the continuation of Wanda's story in theaters.

The next Disney+ series to air, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, was intended to be the first MCU series on Disney+, but delays in filming due to the pandemic pushed the series back to mid-March. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan return as Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes as they team up to save the world. Wyatt Russell also stars as John Walker / U.S. Agent, and Daniel Brühl and Emily VanCamp reprise their roles from previous MCU films. We also meet Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, who will appear again in Black Widow and is obviously trying to start something. By the end of the series we get a new Captain America, who will star in the forth Captain America film now in the early stages of development.

Loki stars Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson and takes place in an alternate timeline Loki creates after stealing the Tesseract during the time traveling antics of Avengers: Endgame. Loki introduces the MCU to the Time Variance Authority and sets in motion the creation of the multiverse. Jonathan Majors appears in the final episode as He Who Remains, but is also confirmed to be playing Kang the Conqurer in future MCU films. Chris Hemsworth cameos as Throg, the Thor frog.

What If…? is a multi-season animated anthology series that takes events from the films and reimagines them in a whole new way. Many of your favorite MCU stars reprise their roles for the series, including Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Jeff Goldblum, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, Michael Rooker, Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo, and Taika Waititi, to name just a few. Notably absent are the voices behind Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Stephen Strange, Carol Danvers, and Peter Parker, who are expected to appear in the series. While What If…? takes place in the MCU, the events of the series aren't expected to impact the continuity of the films and other television series. A second season is also in development.

Later this year we'll meet Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who writes Captain Marvel fan fiction and gains incredible shape-shifting powers to become Ms. Marvel. Newcomer Iman Vellani is set to star in the series, which will setup Captain Marvel 2 where Vellani will reprise her role next year.

Jeremy Renner returns as Hawkeye, reprising his role from way back in the original Thor (and a few more recent MCU films) and introduces Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop. The Hawkeye series will show us more of Ronin, and guest star Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova (reprising her role from Black Widow). As a fan of Kate Bishop from the comics and Hailee Steinfeld from everything she does, I'm super excited to see this new Hawkeye pick up the bow. Hawkeye also introduces another new superhero: Maya Lopez / Echo. Echo is a deaf Native American who can perfectly copy of movements of others (and in the comics briefly maintained the identify of Ronin). Disney has announced Echo's own series is in development for Disney+.

The next year's worth of shows are currently in early development or just beginning filming, and we don't have a lot of information about them yet, but here's what we do know:

Oscar Isaac will star as Marc Spector in Moon Knight. Moon Knight is a vigilante who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, with each identity being a unique character. Th backdrop of the series is Egyptian iconography and has a Raiders of the Lost Arc vibe. Moon Knight should premier in early 2022, but likely sometime after Thor hits theaters (otherwise we'll have overlapping phases which could tear apart the multiverse or just be really confusing to audiences).

She-Hulk stars Tatiana Maslany as Bruce Banner's cousin Jennifer Walters, who gains Hulk-like strength after receiving a blood transfusion from Bruce. Mark Ruffalo will reprise his role as The Hulk, and Tim Roth reprises his role as Abomination from 2008's The Incredible Hulk. Walters is a lawyer specializing in superhero legal matters, leading to Producer Kevin Feige teasing, "You never know what Marvel character is going to pop up from episode to episode." Could this be the series to relaunch Daredevil in the MCU? Pure speculation on my part but it's a shame the Defenders have been sidelined on Netflix.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, written and directed by James Gunn, is a one episode "television special" that will take place between the events of Guardians Part II and Guardians Part III and is set to premiere in late 2022 on Disney+. There's also a series of short films staring Baby Groot coming soon titled, of course, I am Groot.

Also newly announced for Disney+ is Secret Invasion staring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, which will lead into future MCU films. Ironheart will star Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams, a character created by Miles Morales creator Brian Michael Bendis just before he left Marvel Comics for DC. And Armor Wars will star Don Cheadle as James Rhodes / War Machine and will explore Tony Stark's biggest fears when his tech falls into enemy hands. Finally, an untitled Wakanda series is in the early stages of development. I would expect some of these series released mid or late 2022 and even into 2023.

Lastly, Disney+ has a few behind-the-scenes series available to the MCU obsessed: Marvel Studios: Legends recaps moments with different characters across the films and television episodes of the MCU. New episodes usually premier just prior to the release of a new series or film, beginning with Wanda Maximoff and The Vision back in January of 2021. Marvel Studios: Assembled is a behind the scenes documentary series with cast of crew of the shows and films.

That is the MCU over the next two years as it stands in June 2021. We're getting some huge series on Disney+ and a massive set of movies over the next two years culminating with the first previously-owned FOX property finally entering the MCU, Marvel's First Family, the Fantastic Four. I'm super excited for what Marvel and Disney have planned for the MCU.

A Story About Password Managers

Stock image from 1Password of the 1Password lock screen

March 15, 2021

About a decade ago I received an alarming email from Google. A suspicious login attempt from somewhere in Ohio had attempted logging into my Google Account. Being in California, I was certain that wasn't me trying to login.

Thankfully, Google's systems realized the same and blocked the login attempt. After they alerted me to the breach I spent the rest of the day changing passwords. Back then I used a password system that was terrible and time consuming to manage. I created the passwords myself and kept nothing written down, either digitally or physically. It was all in my head. And it was a mess.

In those days I spent a good deal of time thinking of, changing, and remembering new passwords that I believed were complex and impossible to guess, yet somehow, someone had guessed it or phished it. Maybe they found a similar password in a compromised database of passwords and figured out my not-so-complex pattern. But to this day I have no idea how they got my password.

This hack attempt was a serious wake up call to my own personal security. I knew that what I was doing wasn't working, and I hated typing and forgetting password after password. The entire ordeal finally pushed me to what I'd been putting off for years: I installed a password manager.

“Passwords are a terrible system. I mean, passwords are awful," said 1Password's Jeffrey Goldberg, in Ars Technica's The secret to online safety: Lies, random characters, and a password manager. It's true: I talk to people everyday who are frustrated and annoyed and sometimes downright angry at being forced to remember a variety of (let's be honest) weak passwords for their computers, websites, and programs. And this is where a password manager can really make a difference.

The most simplistic way a password manager works is by storing your passwords in an encrypted database, then when you need a password you unlock the database with one good, strong password, get the password you need, then lock the database. But a good password manager can do so much more. The best password managers will generate ridiculously strong passwords, warn you when an account has potentially been compromised, warn you if a password you're using is being used with another account, and give you the ability to share passwords with family or co-workers. Some also include 2FA, and the best will give you the option of working from a local database you maintain or storing data in the cloud. The best sign of a good password manager to me, though, is a well-written white paper explaining how your data is stored and secured, and a sustainable business model (yes, that means you pay for the software, but I'll get to that in a minute).

Throughout my work day, I see many people using a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet to store their passwords. This is a bad system. Encryption on these documents is not strong (and rarely enabled), and many people leave the documents open on their computer screens all day. The documents also display everything in plaintext to anyone watching, either remotely logged in or simply standing behind them. The documents also can't generate a password, so the user creates a new, weak password to replace a previous weak password. But these people are so close to using a password manager — they just need to take one last step. (And if this is you, keep reading!)

The other option is to use your browser to save and store passwords, although this is also less than ideal. The obvious downside is it locks you to a single browser. Your passwords are usually encrypted and synced across devices, but the browsers often lack the features that make password managers more than just a database, like scanning your accounts for compromised logins and storing additional information like IDs or bank accounts. And if you need to sign-in to an app like the Disney+ app or TikTok you have to awkwardly launch the browser, go into the settings, and copy and paste the password out (which exposes the password to clipboard snooping by nosy apps). Plus, anyone who has access to your device or browser now has access to all of your online accounts, including banking, shopping, and social media. A password manager requires you to login (either with a password or biometrics) before being able to access the stored passwords. Saving passwords with a web browser is an all around bad idea.

When I decided to finally install a password manager, I don't recall spending too much time agonizing over the choices. At the time, AgileBit's 1Password was one of the few password managers available for Mac, Windows, and iPhone. Today, there are many password managers to choose from, but I've stayed with 1Password. I've also recommended 1Password to friends, co-workers, and family, and I rarely need to provide any tech support for 1Password. The service just works.

I remember, back when I first signed up for 1Password, it was scary to trust everything to this one encrypted database. I added passwords slowly over the first year and as time progressed I “forgot” more and more passwords. It was actually very, very freeing to forget so many ridiculous passwords, and before I knew it, I had just one password: the password for 1Password.

The prophecy was fulfilled.

I also became a big user of `Command+` on my Mac, the shortcut key to invoke 1Password's browser extension and auto-fill a username and password into a website. A few iOS versions ago, auto-fill came to the iOS keyboard, and my days of copying and pasting passwords came to en end. That's right, you read that correctly: I don't type passwords, and I don't copy and paste passwords, either. Everything is auto-filled with a keystroke or a tap. It's easy, but it's also the most secure way to login to a website (short of memorizing dozens of 40-character alphanumeric passwords and typing each in by hand). Like most popular password managers, 1Password has support for a number of browsers and operating systems: you'd be hard pressed to find your passwords unavailable on your system of choice.

1Password also has support for biometrics, including Touch ID on the Mac and Face ID on the iPhone. Occasionally you may need to manually type your Master Password for 1Password, either after a reboot or after several days of having not typed it. But most days your face or fingerprint are all you need to login.

I use 1Password for much more than passwords, too: I store credit cards, personal history information, software serial numbers (like the Alfred Powerpack license), emergency info like my healthcare card, and secret recipes. Anything that I feel needs an extra layer of protection that the old Notes app can't provide.

This might feel like a marketing pitch for 1Password, but the truth is 1Password is the best password manager I've used. In fact, the original draft of this article started out by not naming any password managers. Draft two included a long section comparing the different services, like LastPass, Dashlane, and Keeper; I even went so far as to install the apps on my iPhone and MacBook and use the trial modes for a few days to better understand how they work. But I honestly didn't like any of them. Keeper tried suing Ars Technica over a story they didn't like (and lost) and the app's design looks dated. Dashlane includes an unnecessary VPN service which makes the whole thing way too expensive. And while LastPass is a very popular password manager, as I was writing this a co-worker messaged me to say that he didn't like LastPass on Android and wanted to know if I had any suggestions for another password manager. I told him to try 1Password, and within days he became a paying user. While LastPass does have a "free" option, it is mostly unusable, restricting users to a single device. 1Password has a full featured 30-day trial, and regardless of which password manager you go with, you should be paying for it.

Paying for your password manager means you are very unlikely to ever lose access to your passwords. Apps and programs, and especially cloud services, can come and go in a blink, but the ones that persist are the ones that make a profit and continue to pay their server bills. If you find your password manager useful and necessary — and I believe you will — pay for it.

We all use passwords. And we all hate passwords. But if you have a password manager like 1Password you won't need to worry about memorizing passwords, forgetting passwords, or ever typing passwords ever again. You'll know if one of your accounts has been compromised, and you'll have additional features like secure notes and a strong password generator. For as much as I like 1Password, I still want the take-away for this article to be a simple one: use a password manager. Make it a goal to pay for a password manager before the end of the year — you'll be glad you did! Passwords are a fact of life for anyone with an Internet connection, and a password manager turns a terrible system into something slightly less terrible.

iPhone 12 Pro Pacific Blue Review

Badly photoshopped image of an iPhone 12 Pro

November 5, 2020

A few hours after I finished setting up my new iPhone 12 Pro, the fingerprints were everywhere. This is — of course — an Apple device, and like with my iPad Pro fingerprints are part of the aesthetic.

But unlike fingerprints on a screen, which can distract and annoy, the fingerprints on the side of the iPhone aren't easily noticed on the dark — yet shiny — Pacific Blue stainless steel when using it.

I'm not sure if it's the color, the new design, or if I'm just running into Apple fans, but I got the "Is that the new iPhone?" question a lot last week. This is arguably one of Apple's most striking visual changes in years, and people are noticing. It's also my favorite.

I think the iPhone 12 Pro is one of the nicest looking and nicest feeling phones I've ever used. The Pacific Blue color was a little different from my usual Space Gray or Jet Black color picks, but I quickly became a big fan. I really hope the positive reviews on the Pacific Blue color embolden Apple to be a little more daring with future iPhone colors.

I prefer the shiny stainless steel sides of the iPhone 12 Pro to the dull matte finish of the aluminum sides on the iPhone 12, but this isn't my only reason for choosing the iPhone 12 Pro. I needed more than 64 GB of storage, and I wanted the extra RAM, the telephoto camera, and, yeah, the shiny sides. As many reviewers have pointed out already, if you need to upgrade the internal storage of the iPhone 12 from the 64 GB base, the price difference between the two suddenly decreases by quite a lot. At that point, if you're like me with disposable income to waste on a new iPhone every year, you might as well get the Pro.

And while the improved camera systems and larger battery of the Pro Max are important to me, the Max size is just too big. Before the pandemic I spent a lot of time in Apple Stores playing with all the different sized phones — Android included — and while I like the idea of a 6.7 inch display, I find it's a bit awkward for my hand.

Mid-pandemic update: After getting vaccinated, I had lunch with a friend in an outdoor patio for the first time in over a year. He has the iPhone 12 mini and, I have to say, the fit and feel of the mini design is really nice. If I'd had the opportunity to go into an Apple Store last year to test the sizes before buying, this review would very likely be about the iPhone 12 mini. I don't have any regrets going with the Pacific Blue iPhone 12 Pro, but the mini is a really good size, and I'm sad to see reports that Apple might already be planning to stop making it. Okay, back to the iPhone 12 Pro review:

The physical design is really the marquee new feature of the iPhone 12 line this year, and that design, as I've said, is great. The Face ID, multi-camera system, and OLED screen are all slightly refined from previous iPhones, but the technological leaps are mostly in the new A14 SoC processor, which most people will never see or think about. According to Geekbench, in the single core test, the iPhone 12 Pro scores 1587 while the three year old iPhone X scores 921. Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S20, Samsung's newest flagship phone with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, scores 878 — trailing even the iPhone X. Apple's SoC team is ridiculously good at their job, and I think Tuesday's November event is going to put the current line of Intel CPUs to shame, but I digress. The point is, the iPhone X remains a powerhouse with a long lifespan, making it a good, longterm investment.

Let's get into the rest of the phone now:

Face ID is still terrible when trying to use Apple Pay or even check a text message while in public. It's not Apple or the phone's fault, it's just the world we're unfortunately living in, and upgrading from a X, XS, or 11 doesn't make the situation any better or worse. Mid-pandemic update: Apple has added the ability for the Apple Watch to unlock an iPhone connected to it. It's a pretty good feature and has made unlocking the phone while in line at the grocery store a little easier.

The three cameras are all improved, and night mode is great, but of course Apple is doing sneaky things with the cameras. If you are in a low light situation and tap the 2x zoom, the iPhone doesn't switch to the telephoto camera. In low light, it digitally zooms the 1x wide camera to 2x zoom. The digital and low light smoothing is so good (algorithms!) you don't even notice the digital zoom happening. Don't believe me? Go outside tonight and open the Camera app. Tap the 1x zoom, then cover the bottom-most lens on the back of the iPhone 12 Pro with your finger (that's the telephoto lens). Then tap the 2x zoom on the Camera app. Assuming it's dark enough, the wide camera zooms in. If you tap and hold the 2x zoom to bring up the digital zoom wheel, you can keep zooming, and the iPhone will keep using the wide camera. Go inside, turn on all the lights, and repeat. When you tap the 2x zoom now, you get a black screen because your finger is on the lens.

Night mode, regardless of Apple's trickery, just keeps getting better. This time around the larger sensor is a major contributing factor to the improved night mode photography, but I'm certain the photo team has been refining the software over the past twelve months as well. Apple's hardware-software one-two combo is what makes the iPhone camera system so incredibly good (along with everything else).

Battery life is about as good as the iPhone 11 Pro, although I don't have the ability (or desire) to do strenuous, scientific testing on my battery. I rarely drain the battery on my phones to zero over the course of a day, so I don't know if I'm the best person to listen to when it comes to battery life. I will say that after a year with the iPhone 11 Pro, the battery's max capacity was still at 100% — specifically due to, I think, the Optimized Battery Charging setting. I don't see any reason my iPhone 12 Pro won't have the same result in a year, and I think this is a really underrated aspect of Apple's battery and charging technology. The iPhone's are designed to last for years — a lot of people still have iPhone 7 and 8's, and some are even older — but a battery powered device is no good if it can't hold a charge throughout the day. The iPhone's ability to smartly and slowly charge the battery and learn your charging patterns means these phones really can last for years, and that same smart battery technology is built into every iPhone at every price point.

And because Pizza Emoji is committed to fully testing and reviewing the iPhone 12 Pro, I also did a few drop tests with the new phone to test the ceramic shield. I can confirm that an iPhone dropped from about a height of six feet onto a pillow will not result in any noticeable damage to the screen. Your results may vary!

Okay, let's talk 5G. 5G is one of the most disappointing new features, if we're being honest, on the new iPhone 12 Pro. How much bandwidth do you really need to refresh a Twitter feed or watch a YouTube video? Verizon and the carriers advertise 1 Gbps or faster speeds on 5G Ultra Wideband, and it's true, but those insane speeds only apply to 5G UW — the short range, outdoor only signal that you can only get in a handful of downtown cities. The vast majority of us won't ever get to use 5G UW anytime soon. 1 Gbps 5G is slightly more than a marketing gimmick. But even so, with only 20 or 30 gigs of monthly bandwith on most cellular plans, why would you burn through all of your data just to download a few movies while standing on a street corner in downtown? Give us data plans to match the 5G UW bandwidth and we'll talk. For us non-street corner loitering folks, the "regular" 5G is even more disappointing. Around town, I'm getting an asynchronous 50 to 60 Mbps with 5G; if I switch to LTE, I get 70 to 80 Mbps. (And, supposedly, better battery, but I'd wait for some serious battery tests for a definitive answer on that). Last week I spent a good deal of time driving around SoCal, streaming music and podcasts and doomscrolling on Twitter, and I never noticed the phone's network connection behaving any better compared to the iPhone 11 Pro. Everyone has already said this, but if you're upgrading your phone for 5G, you're upgrading for the wrong reason.

I don't have an iPhone 12, so I can't compare and contrast from a first person perspective, and I can't even go to an Apple Store to test it out, but I spent a good deal of time debating internally between which to pre-order a few weeks ago. I'm very happy with my choice, but I think Apple's in a tough spot these days making both the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro. On paper and from a stock photography perspective, there's just not enough to differentiate between the two to justify producing two models. Even the price difference is barely notable. I like the Max and the Mini being at the opposite ends of the product line, as they serve two clear and distinct markets, but iPhone-in-the-middle and iPhone-in-the-middle-Pro are just too similar. I'm also not a fan of the Pro moniker at all, but I guess Apple's committed to it. (Pro wireless earbuds? Pro iPads? What's next, a pro Watch? Or a pro Lightning cable?) I'd like to see the iPhone Mini, iPhone, and iPhone Max, and drop the Pro naming, but this is all semantics and not at all relevant to the iPhone as a smartphone.

Naming aside, the iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max are the gold standard for smartphone design, performance, and quality. The iPhone 12 Pro in this stunning Pacific Blue finish is my current favorite iPhone ever (replacing the iPhone 5 and the Jet Black iPhone 7 as the previous top contenders). Coupled with the iPhone SE 2, there's a current-generation iPhone for everyone, at any size, price, or color. The iPhone stands as one of the most powerful consumer commuting devices ever made, and the iPhone 12 Pro is the best iPhone Apple has ever made. If you need, want, or crave the best new smartphone, the iPhone 12 Pro is the phone to buy.

Mid-pandemic update: On the eve of the next iPhone announcement, the iPhone 12 Pro in Pacific Blue remains one of my favorite iPhones ever. I have no knowledge of what the next iPhone will be, but I'm a big fan of the post-Ive design team at Apple, and can't wait to see what they have for us next.

The Last of Us Part II Review

July 25, 2020

Ellie, holding a pipe, in The Last of Us Part II

Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us Part II follow.

There’s a point in The Last of Us Part II where Ellie needs a woman to provide her with information about Abby, the person she’s been pursuing across the city of Seattle. The woman is choking on spores in a hallway and will be dead in a matter of hours, but she tells Ellie she won’t give up her friend.

Ellie says, “I can make it quick, or I can make it so much worse.”

A metal pipe is clenched in Ellie’s hand, but the woman is defiant. At this point, the camera cuts to Ellie’s face; anger flashes in her eyes, her breathing intensifies, she grits her teeth. The game prompts the player to press Square. When the player pushes the button, Ellie strikes the woman with the pipe. The prompt to press Square returns, and so the player again pushes the button. Ellie strikes the woman a second time with the pipe. Ellie’s face is splattered with the woman’s blood, and the Square button prompt returns once more. The player presses the button, Ellie swings the pipe, a scream, and the game cuts to black.

It’s a violent, terrible way to die, and it’s a violent, terrible way to kill someone. Even in a video game.

And I didn’t want to press Square. There are many points in this game where I don’t want to do what Ellie is doing. Ellie does terrible things to every person she encounters in this game, including her friends, but especially her enemies.

Sequels are rarely what we want. We think we want a part two, but as is so often the case, the sequel is a disappointment. And we’re partially to blame for that disappointment: we spend months and years speculating and envisioning all the ways we want that sequel to play out, the character arcs, the settings, the major and minor story points. But in The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog takes Ellie into such a grim and cruel place that I struggled to find anything redeeming about the character or story by the end of the game. This wasn’t the version of Ellie I wanted to spend my nights and weekends with, and I’m upset by this terrible journey Ellie’s been on and everything that’s been taken from her.

This was not the same girl from just four years ago who I traveled across the country with, stopping to hear bad jokes and watching her watch grazing giraffes in awe and wonder. In the final flashback of the game, of the night prior to the inciting incident, Ellie tells Joel she wished he hadn't saved her in that Salt Lake City hospital, so that a vaccine could be developed and her life — and death — could have purpose. Days later she leaves for Seattle to enact revenge. Ellie's blind rage is a character flaw so great that it devours the character and everything good along with it. If anything, Ellie's character arc changes from a girl with depth and desires and feelings and needs into an undeveloped comic book villain from the 60's, just another cookie-cutter bad guy. The problem with the main character in a video game being a cookie-cutter villain is it makes for a boring main character.

Working through this game was a slog; the game felt tedious and overly long. The constant gray skies and rain didn’t help the exhaustion. Part of that exhaustion is replaying the game as Abby, Ellie’s new antagonist. Abby could be likable if not for her own story of revenge (take a number). The player assumes control of Abby immediately after she kills Ellie’s friend, and it is a jarring and difficult transition. It took me a long time to get to a point where I found a type of forgiveness for Abby. But Naughty Dog builds Abby on a worn out formula, and while the game likes to remind the player that Abby is a layered and flawed character, it never gives the player an opportunity to decide that for themselves. Even less is learned about her stereotypical friends, who come off as nauseatingly charming right from the start and are cannon fodder for Ellie’s rampage. They help to reveal nothing about Abby, and then they die. Abby's companion through most of Part II is Lev, and I feel like we get a better idea of who he is on their journey together. I was honestly moved by his story, his loss, and his bravery. But Lev isn't driven by revenge, his motivation in the beginning is love. It's a stark and refreshing contrast to Abby's cold blooded golf club torture and murder. I wonder if she ever tells Lev about the cabin in Wyoming, and I wonder how he'd react. Someone tell me when the Lev DLC is coming. (It's not?! What's the matter, Naughty Dog, you guys just don't like money?)

By the time the player is back in control of Ellie, for the extended epilogue of an already too long game, Ellie’s setting out to slaughter more dudes. Again, these are the actions of someone I just don't recognize, and the only reason I can find for Ellie to set off again is to keep the game going. By the time Ellie can finally confront Abby, they’re both weak and nearly dead. And here’s the final spoiler of the game, so last warning — Ellie doesn’t kill Abby. Ellie has killed dozens of people by now — militia and cultists and biker dudes — to get to Abby, but she can’t take just one more life. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation. With Abby nearly dead, after tracking her up and down the West Coast, fighting off monsters and Infected, Ellie just lets her go. For the final, final epilogue in the game, Ellie returns home only to realize that she’s lost everything.

While the ending of the first game left players with many questions and interpretations, it provided closure for Joel, and by extension, the player. During the final hike together, Joel talks openly about his daughter with Ellie for the first time. It's taken Joel twenty years, but he's finally starting to heal from that unthinkable night in Texas. But Part II just keeps taking things from Ellie. She never gets the chance to come to terms with her loss, or her grief, or her PTSD attacks, and because of that I don't think the player gets that chance, either. It's a tough ending that doesn't sit well with me. While I have no doubt Part III will try to wrap up these loose feelings, I don't think it's good storytelling to force your audience to wait six years for closure.

Technically, gameplay hasn’t changed at all from the original, with enemy encounters feeling mostly reused from the previous game. Crouch, sneak, press Triangle. You either enjoy it or you don't. I enjoy the scavenging and being forced to try different tactics to conserve ammo or use weapons I'm not particularly fond of using, but there's not a lot of variety in the setups. Some dudes are patrolling an area, usually one will walk out of sight of the others, you send an arrow into his head, rinse and repeat. Ellie and Abby are visually different and use a slightly different set of weapons, but the tactics and techniques you learn for Ellie are identical for Abby. Even Mario and Luigi have different run and jump styles in most Mario Bros. games, so I'm disappointed the woman's physics are essentially a copy and paste job. Sometimes the stealth system was a little persnickety when it comes to hiding from enemies, and I found the dogs highly unpredictable and buggy. Hopefully future patches can iron these little illusion-breakers out.

Visually, there’s nothing wrong with this game. Cutscenes are rendered beautifully and the detail of the models — even on an eight year old console — are some of the best I’ve seen on a PS4. Eyes look wet and life-like, and faces carry so much expression that it’s easy to see actors Ashley Johnson and Laura Bailey in their performances of Ellie and Abby, respectively. And I don't want to gloss over the performances: from the voice acting to the motion capture to the animation and modeling, the artistry on display here is extraordinary. I grew up playing with pixels and I'm now walking along roads on horseback with actual living, breathing people — or at least my brain wants to believe these collections of polygons and audio files are real people. It's funny how real Ellie and Joel and Tommy and Abby and Lev and Sarah are (or were) to me, and ironically it's this attention to realism, the performances from this amazing cast and animators, that make me care so much about Ellie that I find the story of The Last of Us Part II so damn polarizing.

The Last of Us Part II is a tedious and abrasive story of revenge. The game is a visually stunning masterpiece but lacks all the heart and hopefulness and joy of the original. While Ellie's actions often feel as if they're needed simply to keep the game's plot moving, there's no atonement or return home for either Ellie or Abby, and the journey of the hero is left unfulfilled. This story takes everything from Ellie and leaves the player with less. It's not just a sequel I didn’t want to play, it’s also a bad sequel.

Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain with eviction notice

June 17, 2020

It hasn't been a “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” day on Splash Mountain lately. There have been calls for Disney to re-theme the ride and remove the Song of the South songs, characters, and other elements from the popular attraction.

I like the theme. I don't know if I've ever seen Song of the South in its entirety, but I know a lot of the songs, and I like them. Of course, in researching this post I learned that “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” may have been inspired by a racist pre-Civil War folk song, “Zip Coon.”

But I still like the music, and I still like the theming, and I still think Splash Mountain must be re-themed.

Sure, I’ll miss hearing “Zip” after coming down the flume and turning the bend into the riverboat finale (which seems broken more often than not — maybe the fact they can’t keep these animatronics from the 70’s working for more than a day is another good reason to say bye-bye to Br’er Rabbit?) but I try to picture myself at The Happiest Place on Earth, seeing a towering icon in front of me that was based on stereotypes meant to degrade and humiliate me, and I can’t help but feel a little sick and angry. Disney can do better.

Side rant: I’ve always held that Disneyland should have been swapping out dark ride interiors every decade or so. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride could have become a taxi ride through New York with Oliver and Company, and Peter Pan’s Flight could have become a soaring Magic Carpet Ride with Aladdin over Agrabah. Yes, these are beloved rides, but only because us aging Disneyland fans have rode them dozens or hundreds of times for the last 65 years. Imagine what a Moana or Big Hero 6 dark ride could have been to this newest generation of Disney-fan. They don’t know much about the kid with the nose, but they love that ice princess. Disneyland can’t survive if they aren’t willing to do a little recycling in the space they have. What’s a kid born in 2050 going to think of the Alice ride?

My point is, this could be an exciting opportunity for Disney to turn something old into something new. Nothing about the core of Splash Mountain — not the name (which was named after Tom Hank’s mermaid movie Splash), not the flume, not the logs, not the water aspect — nothing about the ride has the slightest relationship to the Song of the South film — except for some of the animatronic characters. But most of the animatronics were recycled from the former America Sings attraction and don’t appear in the film. There’s no argument that can be made that a log flume ride requires songs and characters from a 1946 live-action/animated hybrid film with heavily racist stereotypes and overtones.

The Princess and the Frog has been heavily recommended as the new theme for Splash Mounatin, and the art and characters and songs for that film are wonderful — a large part of the film even takes place on the water! And The Princess and the Frog on a flume ride would be a thrilling way to celebrate black lives at Disneyland, with the New Orleans land theming extended way out into Critter Country. (That name will probably have to go, but I’m sure Pooh and Tigger won’t mind.) Let's also give Disney time to do the next film or theme right — there's no need to rush this. (The resort is going to be closed for a while, anyways.)

As Walt used to say, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” Let’s use that imagination on Splash Mountain 2.0 and make something better, something filled with Disney magic, something that doesn’t break down every week, and something celebrating black lives matter.

Update: Disney has confirmed that Splash Mountain will be re-designed with characters and songs from The Princess and the Frog, and you can read more about the story and design on the Disney Parks Blog, here and here.

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Not that anyone asked me, but, my idea for a new Splash Mountain theme is Goofy’s Splash Mountain, and every time you go over the falls you hear an “AAH HOO HOO HOO HOWEE!!” on the way down. Anyone? Hello?

A Brief History of Spider-Man in Cinema

February 4, 2020
Updated September 1, 2021

Toby, Tom, and Andrew, the Spider-Men

Spider-Man has been a popular comic book superhero since he first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spidey has been web swinging on the pages of comics and newspapers, in cartoons, television shows, movies, video games, amusement parks, and even on Broadway. This post attempts to catalog Spidey’s first 50 years on the big screen, including behind the scene struggles to produce films, his imprisonment within Sony Pictures, and what the future holds for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Spider-Man premiered on film in the 1969 fan film Spider-Man, featuring special visual effects, miniatures, explosions, and stunts performed by a Spider-Man blow-up doll. The climax (at about the ten minute mark) features Spidey swinging after the villainous Dr. Lightning (played by Doctor Doom in a t-shirt) as he attempts to make his escape in a red muscle car. The film was made by amateur filmmaker Donald F. Glut (who also stared as Spidey) and who had previously made several other superhero-related fan films. Glut would later go on to write for the classic 80’s Spider-Man cartoon series and a variety of other cartoons, including an episode of X-Men: The Animated Series. Glut’s Spider-Man fan film was actually screened at the University of Southern California, truly making it the first Spider-Man film shown in a cinema.

The first official live-action Spider-Man film was the 1977 CBS TV movie Spider-Man, featuring mind-controlled bad guys and staring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The ’77 Spider-Man, while not a true cinematic release, launched a live-action TV series that ran for 13 episodes. Some of the wire work that gave Spidey his ability to wall crawl is honestly impressive, but the whole show is badly dated by cheesy dialogue, a disco soundtrack, and bellbottoms. Two theatrical releases were eventually produced by re-editing episodes but these were released only in Europe.

Also in the late 70’s, Toei Company, a Japanese production company, released their own version of Spider-Man on television and in theaters. While Spider-Man has all of his normal abilities — shooting webs, climbing on walls, Spider Sense, and the classic red-and-blue costume — his extraterrestrial origin and the enemies he faces are entirely unique to Japan. In the 40 episode series, Spider-Man usually fights a monster-of-the-week type villain, but near the end of the fight the monster grows into a giant version of itself. At this point, Spider-Man calls down his spaceship that transforms into a giant robot with a sword, and he defeats the monster in a huge explosion. This was a very different Spider-Man created for kids and designed to sell toys, with Spider-Man's robots and cars created out of necessity as a way to finance the show. If all of this is beginning to sound mighty familiar to you, this is probably because Spider-Man's success in Japan heavily influenced the Toei-produced Super Sentai series, better known in the West as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. When Toei began work on Spider-Man, they put the current Super Sentai series on hiatus for a year. When the Super Sentai series returned, Battle Fever J introduced the giant mechas to the franchise. And later, Spider-Man's transforming robot, Leopardon, would also heavily influence the creation of the Marvel comic book The Transformers (in which Spidey briefly battles Megatron). Stan Lee praised Japan's Spider-Man TV series for the action and special effects, noting that Japan's culture necessitated different approaches to the traditional Marvel character.

Back in America in the mid-80's, Stan Lee veto’ed the “Peter Parker transforms into a giant, hairy, eight-armed tarantula and is locked in a basement after refusing to join a mutant master-race” concept at Cannon films and Spider-Man languished in development hell as budgets were slashed repeatedly. Due to the failures of Superman IV and Masters of the Universe, Cannon eventually bailed on the whole idea of a superhero movie and the film rights to Spider-Man found their way to 21st Century Film Corp. At one point James Cameron submitted a script draft with Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to play Doc Ock. (Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine the alternate reality where that film was made. Okay, let’s move on.) As part of a severance package from Cannon Films, co-owner Menahem Golan walked away with 21st Century Film Corp. and the film rights to Spider-Man (and Captain America). To get financing for the Spider-Man film, Golan sold the TV, home video, and theatrical rights to three different companies, but of course the film was never made. In 1995 a judge ruled that the film rights as originally sold to Cannon had now reverted back to Marvel, but a year later, with the entire comics industry hurting, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. With the bankruptcy came the ToyBiz merger, with co-owner Avi Arad becoming Marvel’s CEO. Marvel sold the film rights to their most popular characters for whatever amount they could get in the late 90’s. Sony Pictures picked up the film rights to Spidey in 1999 for a mere $7 million, which is where Spider-Man remains jailed in perpetuity.

Staring Toby Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi, 2002’s Spider-Man was a massive success and the first film to earn $100 million in an opening weekend. (I know, how quaint, right?) The original teaser trailer for the film shows a helicopter trapped in a giant spider web strung between the World Trade Center towers, and the original theatrical poster has the towers reflected in the eyes of Spider-Man’s mask. Both trailer and poster were recalled after the 9/11 attacks. In the film, Spider-Man’s classic origin story is played out in full as Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, gains spider-like abilities, watches Uncle Ben die, kisses Mary-Jane Watson while hanging upside down, battles the Green Goblin, saves New York City, and – oh yeah – shoots webbing out of slits in his wrists. Now, spiders don’t shoot webbing out of their little spider legs, they actually pull webbing from their – well, it doesn’t matter, the film was a huge hit.

The 2004 sequel Spider-Man 2 featured Doctor Octopus and focused on Peter Parker’s desire to be “Spider-Man No More!” (a plot thread largely influenced by Amazing Spider-Man #50). The film was made so long ago that it was cheaper to use practical tentacles for many of the shots of Doc Ock instead of computer visual effects. This movie was another huge hit.

Peter Parker takes on Sandman, the Goblin, and Venom in 2007’s poorly received Spider-Man 3. In the film, Toby Maguire does this and Sam Raimi’s rein on theatrical Spider-Man films is finally put to a stop. Part 4 will never see the light of day, and Spider-Man is officially rebooted just five years later.

The Amazing Spider-Man, staring Andrew Garfield, is another big success in the Spider-Man franchise despite re-treading the same origin story audiences saw just a decade earlier. Soon-to-be-Academy-Award-Winner Emma Stone stars as Gwen Stacy, replacing MJ as Peter’s love interest, and the Lizard is the new solo Big Bad. Amazing features the return of Peter’s self-designed, artificial web shooters and the first time Peter’s parents are seen on film before ominously disappearing. There were many plot threads left open by the end of the film and many characters in the shadows we never see, with the clear intention of continuing these in...

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 returns Garfield and Stone to all the fake teen relationship drama you didn’t want to see in a superhero movie. Electro and the Green Goblin are Spidey’s foes this time around, while Felicia Hardy (aka Black Cat) and the Rhino make some blink-and-you-miss-them cameos. More is revealed about the disappearance of Peter’s parents, but before all the mysteries are revealed the film is over and the bad reviews are out.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was supposed to be the start of Sony’s Spider-Man Cinematic Universe, designed to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Venom, the Sinister Six, Black Cat, Spider-Man 2099, and two additional Spider-Man films were planned and in various early stages of production, but after Amazing 2 performed poorly at the box office with lackluster audience and critic reviews, Sony gave up on all future films.

In 2014, Sony Pictures was hacked by North Korea (maybe, probably, who knows) and among the leaked documents were details of a Disney/Sony team-up that will introduce Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Tom Holland is cast as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. Spidey finally joins Iron-Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, Winter Soldier, Falcon, War Machine, Vision, and also making his MCU debut, Black Panther, in a German airport to fight against Cap as he attempts to track down the man who has brainwashed Bucky and caused the death of— you know what? The plot of Civil War is pretty convoluted. Spider-Man, however, makes a huge introduction to the MCU in this film. Peter Parker is young (Holland is an actual teenager), funny (classic Spidey quips during the battle), and the Stark Suit is Very Cool (the re-sizing of the eyes allow for expression in the mask that hasn’t been seen on film before). He swings in almost exactly at the half-way mark of Civil War (wearing a pizza t-shirt) and through a six minute chat with Tony Stark the audience skips the “bit-by-a-spider” origin story and we’re off to Germany. The chemistry between Tom Holland and Chris Evans, Sam Wilson, and Robert Downey Jr. is proof of the great casting that went into finding Holland for the role. Civil War is another huge success in both the MCU and Spider-Man franchises.

Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up immediately after where Civil War left off, with Peter Parker still euphoric over his fight against 50% of the Avengers. Homecoming introduces a few new characters to Peter’s world, including best friend Ned (based partially on Miles Morales’s best friend in the comics, Ganke Lee, and Ned Leeds, from the original Amazing Spider-Man comics) and future love interest Michelle, who goes by her initials MJ. Zendaya has created a strong and funny character in the role of Michelle/MJ and she plays off Holland’s awkward Peter Parker masterfully. Spidey battles Michael Keaton as the Vulture, and Robert Downey Jr. has a $10 million cameo as Iron-Man. Also showing up in cameo form is Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, aka The Prowler, aka Miles Morales’s Uncle, aka Childish Gambino, but so far, Miles has only shown up in animated form (more on that a little further down). Special nod towards Tony Revolori, who shines as Peter’s obnoxious nemesis Flash Thompson. Homecoming showcases Holland’s expert performance at being an awkward geek and a wise-cracking superhero. Missing from the Maguire/Garfield films were those moments in the comics when Spider-Man makes a trademark quip (or two, or eight) during the fight with the villain. The audience also gets much more screen time with Spider-Man in-costume as the origin of his powers (and the explanation for where this bright red and blue suit magically appears from) have already been satisfactorily explained in Civil War and the movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comic books that have come before it. The MCU seems tired of retreading long, overplayed origin stories at this point and we’re now bee-lining into original stories with our heroes. No complaints here!

Spider-Man’s next MCU appearance will be the massive Avengers: Infinity War spectacle in 2018 and the following year’s Avengers: Endgame. In Infinity War, Spidey heads to space with Iron-Man and Doctor Strange where he meets up with the Guardians of the Galaxy to battle Thanos. Star Lord goes off-script and Thanos defeats the team in space before heading to Earth to complete his collection of Infinity Stones. With the snap of his fingers, Thanos breaks the heart of every person in the theater as they watch Peter Parker dissolve into dust. Five years of movie time (and one very long real year) pass when Endgame picks up again as the remaining Avengers devise a plan to travel into the past and borrow the Infinity Stones from previous MCU films. (Endgame is also the final film with a Stan Lee cameo.) The Avengers snap-back everyone dusted by Thanos, who’s past self shows up to try the whole snapping plan again. Spider-Man joins the Avengers and everyone else from every MCU film (sans Natalie Portman?) as they fight the big purple guy once more and his massive army of Chitauri. Tony Stark sacrifices himself to save the world, proclaiming once again that he is Iron-Man. The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes hold a funeral for their friend.

Spider-Man: Far from Home once again picks up just days after the events of the previous film, coining the disappearance and reappearance of those affected by Thanos’s snap as “the blip.” Conveniently, all of Peter’s classmates are blipped, so they all return for the sequel. The class takes a little field trip to Europe, where Spider-Man meets a version of Nick Fury and Maria Hill, and encounters new BFF Quentin Beck/new arch-nemesis Mysterio. Spider-Man is given special Tony Stark designed spectacles, called E.D.I.T.H., that can summon killer drones and hack smartphones. Peter also self-designs a new black and red suit in a homage to the original Iron-Man suit design montage, complete with “Back in Black” soundtrack. (Happy gets the reference.) By the end of the film Peter’s secret identity is now known by Happy Hogan, Aunt May, Ned, MJ, Mysterio, everyone working at S.H.I.E.L.D, everyone fired from Stark Industries, and, oh right, the entire planet, as J. Jonah Jameson shares Beck’s final parting words with all of New York: “Spider-Man’s name is Peter Parker!”

Yikes. This is all new territory in the world of Spider-Man. Very rarely has Peter Parker been unmasked, with a public unmasking occurring once in the comics only to be reversed a few issues later with a massive continuity reset for the character. But the MCU has never treated secret identities as anything more than a design element of the costume. At the end of Iron-Man, Tony Stark proudly (and a little egotistically) announces, “I am Iron-Man,” and from then on the masks were off — or never put on in the first place. Captain America wears a mask, but his identity is known publicly. Black Panther’s identity is known to at least all of Wakanda, and Ant-Man is a known felon to the local police. Even Wanda Maximoff has never gone by her “Scarlet Witch” hero/villain name. By unmasking Spidey, the filmmakers get to explore all new adventures with Peter Parker as a public figure. This is a road the films have never trodden with Spider-Man, and with Marvel behind the storytelling, I’m fully onboard for whatever they have planned next.

Shortly after Far from Home crossed the billion dollar box office mark, a new record for a Spider-Man film, Marvel and Sony announced they had been unable to reach a new agreement to continue co-producing future Spider-Man films. Spidey would exit the MCU, and Sony would return to independently producing future Spider-Man films, with Tom Holland reprising his role as Spidey. A few weeks later, Marvel and Sony announced a new agreement had finally been reached, and Spidey would continue with the MCU for another multi-character crossover film (Avengers or Civil War style) and Marvel would co-produce the next standalone Spider-Man film. Financially, Marvel’s parent company, The Walt Disney Company, will be footing 25% of the cost of production and taking 25% of the box office haul – and as Far from Home has proven, 25% of a Spider-Man box office is still a massive payday, even for Disney.

This was an important agreement for Disney to make. With the Marvel lands opening at various Disney Parks over the next couple of years, and the Spider-Man ride specifically swinging into DCA in 2021, getting Spidey back into the MCU was a must. The story as Disney CEO Bob Iger tells it is Tom Holland actually called him on the phone about the deal with Sony and encouraged him to fix it. Iger called Sony and he said, “we have to get this done, for Tom and for the fans.” And they did.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic) is scheduled for release on December 17th, 2021, co-produced by Marvel and Sony, with Tom Holland returning for the sixth time as Spidey. Joining him are Zendaya as MJ, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Jon Favreau as Happy, Jacob Batalon as Ned, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, J. B. Smoove as Mr. Dell (Peter's science teacher), Benedict Wong as Wong, Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, and Jamie Foxx as Electro. Dafoe, Molina, and Foxx reprise their roles as some of Spidey's most notorious villains from the previous Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films, creating rumors that the previous Spider-Men will also appear in the film — but I personally don't think this will happen.

Spidey will return again in 2022 or 2023 with an ensemble cast of MCU characters; while this film has not yet been announced, I have a huge theory:

Jon Watts — director of the three MCU Spidey films — will be directing the MCU's Fantastic Four. No cast or release date has been announced, but 2023 sounds like a reasonable timetable for release. And the inclusion of Tom Holland as Spider-Man in the film seems like an obvious pairing of the heroes. Putting Spidey in the Fantastic Four gives Marvel's First Family a huge introduction and, maybe most importantly, sets it apart from previous FF films that have not been super successful (or good). Telling a story with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man is something never before seen on the big screen, and the possibilities of putting a paper bag over Tom Holland's head are endless. I'm confident that if Marvel doesn't do this in 2023, this likely never happens in our current MCU continuity.

While this ensemble film (with the Fantastic Four or someone else) is the final film in Holland’s current contract with Disney and Sony, this doesn't sound like the final appearance of Spidey in the MCU. There is talk of a second Spider-Man trilogy with Peter Parker going to college, likely encountering the Lizard and other sinister foes. These plans are in the very early stages as production on No Way Home wraps up, but the thought of getting Tom Holland as Spidey for another decade is pretty exciting.

Sony released Venom in 2018, a reboot of the character from the Toby Maguire Spider-Man days. In the comics, much of the character of Venom is based on Spider-Man, but this film version of Venom is not set in any Spider-Man universe, and his film origin shares nothing with the wall crawler. In the comics, the design of Venom is based heavily on Spider-Man. Venom’s eyes, the way he attacks with those tentacle-like globs, his ability to wall crawl, his ability to react to danger – basically everything that makes the character who he is, he learned from Peter Parker as the symbiote. Including, crucially, Peter’s sense of power and responsibility, which changes Venom from the monster that he was into the comic book hero he’s become in recent years. Venom as a standalone character without the Spider-Man origin feels hollow and turns the Venom film into a generic monster movie.

Despite Venom receiving mostly negative reviews from critics, it made a lot of money at the box office, so Sony has a sequel releasing on October 15, 2021: Venom: Let There Be Carnage. As the name implies, the sequel introduces the Carnage symbiote into Sony's Venom-verse. Tom Holland filmed a Spider-Man cameo for the first film but Marvel asked Sony to remove it. With the new agreement between the studios, Sony will be allowed to use Holland’s Spider-Man in their non-MCU films, including Let There Be Carnage and the upcoming Morbius starring Jared Leto, but it hasn't been revealed if Holland will be making an cameos in these new films. The films are set to serve as Sony’s second attempt at launching a cinematic universe using Marvel’s Spider-Man characters. The films are not considered canon in the MCU, although Sony considers the MCU events canon for their films. Confusing? Think of it like this: Sony's films are fan fiction for the MCU. I’m betting Sony is counting on this crossover confusion and will use it to drive MCU fans to their own films.

Meanwhile, Sony won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This was my favorite film of 2018 (a year with a lot of great movies, including Infinity War) and its Oscar win was well deserved. Into the Spider-Verse finally brings Miles Morales to the Big Screen, telling an amazing Spider-Man story with real heart, humor, and stunning animation. Swinging along with Miles is Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, but a kind of washed up, out of shape, down on his luck Spider-Man who recently suffered a breakup with MJ. Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage), the anime-inspired Peni Parker and her SP//dr mech, and Peter Porker/Spider-Ham also help Miles as he fights the Kingpin and saves the world from a collapse/explosion of the multiverse. Multiple animated Spider-Verse sequels are already in production, including a direct sequel with Miles and Gwen with an October 7th, 2022 release date, and a Spider-Women spin-off with Gwen, Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman), and Cindy Moon (Silk). I highly recommend watching Into the Spider-Verse on the biggest, highest-definition screen you can find with HDR enabled.

In 2021, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters Stage 4 with new heroes, new movies, and new streaming series on Disney+ (Spider-Man appears in the Disney+ series What If... as Zombie Hunter Spider-Man). Marvel and Sony have a unique opportunity to work together and share these fan-favorite characters over the next decade to tell powerful, Spider-Man centric stories that have never before been told on screen. As long as Marvel and Sony can continue their Spider-Partnership, and as long as audiences continue going to the movies, the cinematic future of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has never been more amazing.

The Blue Shell: The Worst Item in Mario Kart

September 1, 2019

Blue Shell on the Rainbow Road

The third game of the 2017 Nintendo World Championships was Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch, the latest in Nintendo’s long-running, turtle shell throwing, mushroom boosting, banana dropping, power sliding, kart racing series. The first race was 50cc Mount Wario, with the slower speed class chosen to possibly throw off the competitors who were more likely accustomed to the faster cups.

By the end of the first leg of the race, the top four racers had settled into their placements, with “Kyle W” taking a commanding lead in first. The commenters attempted to keep the race exciting but the skilled racers kept red turtle shells at bay by holding defensive banana peels behind their karts. It was, from a spectator’s viewpoint, a boring race (not surprising given the slow speed class).

But then, with “Kyle W” seconds from the finish line, the notorious Blue Shell made its appearance and the commenters lost their collective minds. “Oh! But here comes the Blue Shell! Here it comes!” they excitedly shouted while talking over each other. The Blue Shell, fired from a racer in last place, flies quickly down the track, exploding when it reaches the player in first. With nothing but coins in hand the Blue Shell hit “Kyle W’s” kart, but the gamer mitigates the majority of the hit by purposely driving off the track. As he’s moved back into place by Lakitu, the commenters question if the second place driver now has a chance to take the lead. However, “Kyle W” recovers quickly and it’s clear the Blue Shell had no significant effect on the match. “Kyle W” crossed the finish line with his closest opponent seconds behind him — an eternity in a 50cc Mario Kart race.

As anyone who’s played a Mario Kart game knows, running across question blocks and strategically using items is an essential part of winning a race. Good driving skill will get you near the top, but skillfully fired shells and stratigically held bananas will get you into first. The Blue Shell, however, is something of a unique case.

The Blue Shell (sometimes referred to as the Spiny Shell) first appeared in Mario Kart 64, the second game in the Mario Kart series. The Blue Shell acts as a long distance homing missile, locking onto the player in first place and exploding on impact, causing the player’s kart to spin out and stop moving for a few seconds. The Blue Shell is only obtained from the question blocks by racers in or near last place.

The Blue Shell’s original design purpose, according to Hideki Konno, the director of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64, was to keep a tight race right up to the finish line by keeping everyone tightly clumped together. However, the Blue Shell is failing at its original objective. As the Nintendo World Championships this year clearly demonstrated, and as you can experience for yourself by playing online or watching the Pros race on Twitch, the Blue Shell is ineffective at keeping a race close.

The Blue Shell has many problems in its design and implementation in the Mario Kart series, but crucially, the Blue Shell doesn’t benefit the racer who fired it. The last place racer who gets a Blue Shell can’t see what items the first place racer is holding (Super Horn, Mushroom), so they can’t see if the hit will be successful. But it never matters to them, because firing the Blue Shell doesn’t change the race for that player. Is their kart suddenly faster? Can they no longer fall off the track? Are they transported to the point of impact in first place? No. The player firing the Blue Shell remains in last place. The Blue Shell may have helped second or third place pull ahead, but it’s a blank for last place. You, as the last place racer, may get a good laugh when you see the kart spin out on the mini-map, but — bad news — you’ve still lost the race. Any item would be more advantageous to have in last place than a Blue Shell for a racer hoping to make a comeback.

Second, the Blue Shell is a skill-less item. Most items, from the Red Shells to the Lightning Bolt, still require some sort of skill to effectively utilize them. You can’t blindly fire off a Red Shell, you’re more likely to hit a banana peel, and the effectiveness of the Bolt is dependent upon your ability to drive and drift past the slow, tiny racers. Firing a Blue Shell requires about as much skill as pushing a button on your controller.

Which brings me to point three: It doesn’t matter your placement in the race, the Blue Shell makes the game less fun for everyone. No one in last place wants to get it, as it does nothing to help them, and no one wants to be hit by one, as it feels cheap and undeserved. Isn’t the point of the game to have fun?

The director of Mario Kart 7 and 8, Kosuke Yabuki, has said about the Blue Shell: "You know, sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes in life you have something where you feel that’s not right, and that’s frustrating." I agree, but Mario Kart is not life. Mario Kart is a game created by people who have the ability to make games that are both balanced and fun. When the Blue Shell hits the player in first on the last turn of the last lap, and the next three racers fly past her across the finish line, the designers have created a situation in a game that is not balanced and is not fun.

The Extra Credits video "The Blue Shell — Why Mario Kart’s Most Hated Item Exists,” posits that being in first place the entire game, and thus not being able to interact with other players or items, isn’t very fun. By being hit by a Blue Shell and knocked back into second or third place, these players are now having more fun. While true that Mario Kart’s best items are usually found by racers in 4th to 12th place, the challenge of holding first place can be equally enjoyable. And I’d argue that being knocked out of first by someone in twelfth never feels fun. Just an unearned knock.

In Entertainment Weekly, Kevin Sullivan argues that the Blue Shell keeps the game fun, preventing you from coasting to an easy victory, and giving you “the edge you need to come back from the bottom.” But the Blue Shell does none of this. Releasing your first Blue Shell is fun until you realize, “Well damn, I’m still losing.” But being hit by one? Let me ask you: Has your console of choice ever crashed during a boss fight? Has you PC ever blue screened just before the next auto-save? Did the wifi ever go out when your online team was closing in on victory? That’s the same level of fun as getting hit by a Blue Shell on the last lap of the race. This “edge” to climb back from last isn’t the Blue Shell, it’s a Starman, Golden Mushroom, or a Lightning Bolt — and good drifting.

There’s no single item in Mario Kart that can equalize two players of unequal driving skill, at least not one which will be fun and fair for both players. A racer who knows the tracks, knows the shortcuts, and knows how to drift is at a massive advantage before the race even starts. The design team of Mario Kart 64 attempted to fix a problem with the original Super Mario Kart by designing an all new item. They failed. Later iterations of the series have continued to try and continued to fail to fix the Blue Shell, because this isn’t an item that can be fixed.

Why? Because there isn’t a problem that needs fixing. Throughout human history there has always been a last place. If you were last place in the Stone Age you were eaten. If you’re last place in Mario Kart, your character cries after crossing the finish line. For as much as Nintendo would like everyone to get first, it’s just not how a racing game works. Future Mario Kart games have plenty of design space for new items. I’d love to see first place have a little more variety than just bananas and coins and the occasional Horn, and I’d really love to see last place get some cool items that give them serious comeback potential. The Blue Shell was an attempt to equalize the playing field; this is not an achievable goal, and it’s long past time to retire the Blue Shell from the Mario Kart series.