inspiration, Musings on Fiction and Tropes

Responsibility for our Actions – Lessons from Captain America: Civil War

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I love action movies. Recently, though, I’ve really started noticing the destruction. I’ve started thinking about the impact on the rest of the people, wondering who gets to clean it up, who was in the car that flipped and spun into the oncoming truck. My mind tracks forward into the emergency rooms and onto the weeping families.  I’ve wondered if perhaps it hits home a bit more because after increased bombings in many countries and the global connectedness we now share, it is no longer destruction that is limited to the ‘other’, to war, or to fantasy.


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This is one of the reasons I love Captain America: Civil War. The whole movie, for me at least, focuses on choice and responsibility; whether to save the world you have to risk destroying it.


It begins with Wanda making a mistake that kills innocent civilians in Lagos in the fight to contain a biological weapon. This is closely followed by Tony Stark being confronted by the mother of a young man killed in the collateral damage of the fight against Ultron in Sokovia. This affects Tony greatly, leading him to tell the rest of the Avengers:


“he wanted to make a difference but we’ll never know because we dropped a building on him when we were kicking ass.”


He is not the only one to feel guilt. Wanda feels the responsibility of the deaths of innocents in Lagos deeply.  A line that really struck me was when Steve says to Wanda:


‘we have to find a way to live with it, or maybe next time no-one gets saved.” 


This brings up the idea of sacrifice – both in terms of collateral damage and sacrifice in terms of their peace of mind.


The movie then focuses on responsibility.  This is something that I don’t often see addressed in big action movies where the excitement is in the bangs and the chases. The Avengers are forced to consider signing the Sokovia Accords, which would put them under a centralised international control. The debate over this reveals some great perspectives on personal and collective responsibility.


Tony argues for a higher power to give them limits.


“If we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundary less. We’re no better than the bad guys.”


I think we need to see this in the context of the actions he’s taken since becoming Iron Man. He is a man who used to take no responsibility or thought to where the weapons his company made ended up. When he became Iron Man he changed –  He got rid of the arms manufacturing branch of the business, he was able to sacrifice himself for the good of the world, he saw the impact of his company’s actions in Avengers: Age of Ultron, while still going ahead and doing things without even the blessing of his team. He’s a complicated man and I think he knows that, for him, the security of someone else taking the responsibility by imposing limitations is welcome.


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Captain America’s response shows a very different interpretation of responsibility:


 “If someone dies on your watch you don’t give up. We are if we’re not taking responsibility for our actions. This document shifts the blame.”


He sees the Sokovia Accords as something that not only limits their actions but limits their responsibility. He’s happy with neither. This makes sense as he points out to Tony:


Steve: If i see a situation pointing south I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could

Tony: No you don’t.

Steve: No, I don’t.


This was seen before he even became Captain America when it was highlighted how he couldn’t let bullies continue without confronting them, even though he was tiny and weak and became their target.


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The recurring theme that if you CAN do something you MUST do something is echoed when Tony recruits Spiderman. Peter says:


‘when you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”



Jean Paul Sartre’s idea of absolute responsibility for one’s actions and how it relates to choice is something I have written about here.  He argued that we have a burden of responsibility for our lives because we have individual freedom of consciousness, meaning that we can choose the way we feel, the way we behave, the things we do, even within a restrictive social framework. When you choose to be a bystander, when you could have done something, the responsibility for that lies on you. When you choose to not step in when you are the only one who could have done something that responsibility levels up.


Having a choice, having a conscience, means we need to act when we can. It also means we need to take responsibility for our actions – both good and bad.

Musings on Fiction and Tropes

Faeries – Good Guys or Bad Guys?

“My mother said, I never should, play with the pixies in the wood”.*

Warnings are rife in Fairy Tales. At least, in the old ones. The ones with lots of blood in them.

Good and Bad are such concrete absolutes which, at the same time, are so hard to pin down. They depend on so many things. I was at a museum with my son once and we were in the WWII section. He turned to me and said “who were the goodies? were we the goodies?”.  I tried to give him an historian’s answer, full of complexity and grey areas. He was four. He didn’t quite follow. So I ended up by saying “Yes. Yes, we were the goodies.” as my historian soul cringed a little at the oversimplification.

Obviously we have the good, pretty, fairies who live in flowers, and the Fairy Godmothers, and they’re counteracted by the evil fairies like Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. Nice, clean, cookie cutter stereotypes. But I’m more interested in how and why fairies can be seen as benevolent or malevolent, and how we’ve changed to see them in much more complicated ways.

The Disney movie Maleficent is one of my favourites. It tells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the Evil Fairy who curses her. In this retelling, we understand what turned Maleficent so bitter. We see the trauma she went through and feel for her. We’re on her side. We see the tragedy of Aurora’s curse through the eyes of someone who regrets ever having cast it. In this story, Maleficent breaks out of the cookie cutter villain mould and becomes a real, authentic person. She is a complicated character who does evil things through pain but who, at heart, is good.  Once Upon a Time also has a story for their Maleficent which, while still keeping her as a villain, humanises her through creating empathy for her loss as a parent.  Who is good and who is bad gets a bit more grey.

Generally stories about fairies involve either humans being helped by them or hurt by them.

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But can we also take advantage of them?

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This gif, and how Peter Pan takes complete advantage of Tink but ignores her once Wendy comes along, made me think of Once Upon a Time and their take on Tinkerbell (played by Rose McIver who, incidentally, was a student at my school in my first year of teaching. I did the costumes for the school show she starred in – she was a great and courteous actress then and she still is now). {Caution – spoilers if you haven’t watched OUAT. And if you haven’t, you should!}

In OUAT, Tinkerbell was stripped of her wings by the Blue Fairy for breaking the rules in order to help the Evil Queen find true love.

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She then ended up in Neverland, run by the evil Peter Pan. We meet her here, disillusioned and cynical. Hook convinces her, despite her reluctance, to help them rescue Henry (a child) from Peter Pan

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She returns with them to Storybrooke and then, through bravery and courage, is awarded back her wings.

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Of course, the kicker is that she always had the power to have her wings back, she just needed to BELIEVE in herself again.

The reason I bring this story up is that for me, Tinkerbell gets a really bad deal the whole time. Had she succeeded in her mission to find True Love for the Evil Queen, the whole curse might have been averted. I know that’s looking back with hindsight, but the Blue Fairy should never have stripped her of her wings. And letting her think that she could never get them back all the while she had the power to do it herself? Nasty. I like this telling of Tinkerbell because I think it shows both the good and bad side of fairies, and also how a ‘good’ fairy (old Blue) behaves in a way that is actually fairly typical of a ‘bad’ fairy – punishing people who go against her will.

Fairies are powerful. They are transformative. That opens them up to the potential for great good or great evil. But I think the scariest fairies are the ones who are indifferent to humans. We are so below them that they don’t think twice about stealing our children, leaving changelings in their place.  Enchanting humans and keeping them in their fairy hills for hundreds of years is not an act of malice, necessarily, but rather like a human might keep a wild animal as a pet.

This kind of Fairy, or Faery, is how they are depicted in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson novels. Supremely powerful beings who are tricksy, cruel, but not necessarily evil. The first time I read this I was so enraptured because it changed the whole way I viewed the Fae. It seems to tap into the older, darker stories but with a more modern, urban edge. This was probably the biggest influence on how I portray them in my own writing.

I think that also taps into something deeper in the human psyche – for so much of history the vast majority of people have been under the power of a few. The rich and noble and royal who had absolute power, life and death. We see it in the rise of autocrats and dictators in the 20th Century. And today. Even with the rise of modern democracy in the Nineteenth Century, we still have little actual control over the decisions that shape our world. Faeries reflect that supreme power – they can be benevolent, dishing out rewards and wishes and hope, or they can be indifferent, doing what is in their best interests with little care for the desires of those who are beneath them, or they can be actively malevolent, seeking to control and destroy and to harm.  Perhaps that is why they are so prevalent in our stories, and why we now seek to understand them.

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* A note – although I grew up with the word ‘pixies’, the original is apparently Gypsies. Which makes it a very different and more problematic kind of song.

Musings on Fiction and Tropes

I need a hero

One of my favourite birthday presents ever – life size Han Solo cardboard cutout.


Heroes reflect back to us society’s values and aspirations. They help us see how we too can make a difference. And they’re pretty cool.


My youngest son was talking about Star Wars and how much he likes the character of Finn. He said: ‘everyone loves him. It’s because he’s brave and looks after his friends’. This is such a powerful message to kids. Finn isn’t the most competent or the most powerful hero, but he keeps doing things because he wants to help his friends. He’s actually like Ron Weasley from Harry Potter in many ways – sidekick to the powerful and the intelligent, hero in his own right, braver than he thinks he is, loyal to the bone. Not a surprise that the same son also loves Ron Weasley.


Heroes shouldn’t be perfect, because otherwise they are a) unbelievable and Continue reading “I need a hero”

Musings on Fiction and Tropes

I still choose the Chosen One

I’ve been watching Wynonna Earp and thinking about the whole Chosen One trope. I love it. I know it’s a bit problematic at times (what with it’s occasional overtones of privileged saviour and the tendency to jump over plot holes) and prone to cliche and suffering from a case of the Mary Sues, but it has always spoken to me.

It must speak to others too because there’s an abundance of examples to choose from. Films like The Matrix have their Neo, and Star Wars attempted to make Anakin a chosen one (I reserve a little judgement on that one). Harry Potter is all about the Chosen One, although it plays with it in various ways. Many of my favourite TV shows centre on a chosen one – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once Upon A Time, Merlin, and now Wynonna Earp.

As I prepared my lists of Chosen Ones, it struck me that they all, with the possible exception of Merlin and Arthur, and maybe Luke Skywalker, are reluctant saviours. At least at first. Usually they grow into their role. Emma Swan ends up merging who she is with her role as saviour, and Wynonna Earp gets antsy if she thinks she’s being left out of the action.  Once we’re made important it’s hard to back down from that. Especially once we accept that we’re actually doing some good too. Continue reading “I still choose the Chosen One”

Musings on Fiction and Tropes

Making the usual unusual – how I fell for Paranormal and Urban Fantasy

When I was young there wasn’t much urban fantasy to choose from. I remember the delight of Which Witch (a story I recently read to my own children), and a multitude of children’s stories about witch schools (all pre-Hogwarts and all of which I desperately wanted to visit). I was an avid reader of Maurice Gee and Margaret Mahy, and The Changeover and The Halfmen of O were perennial favourites. I’m not sure I would call The Halfmen of O urban fantasy so much because, like the Susan Cooper Dark is Rising sequence books and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, children leave the real world here and are whisked off to a magical realm. The magic happens elsewhere.


I loved magic. I so wanted it to be real. When we played witches at school I was always the witch. Except that one time they said someone else could be the witch. I wasn’t happy about that. #notstillbitter #okayjustalittle Continue reading “Making the usual unusual – how I fell for Paranormal and Urban Fantasy”