How It Should Have Been: X-Men: Apocalypse

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is not a bad movie. While it is definitely weaker than its predecessor, “Days of Future Past” there are still a number of compelling scenes, arcs and sequences. However, the greatest problem is not that something was missing from the film, but that there was too much in it.

So much have could have gone, a little bit could have been added, and it could have been a really engaging film. So below, how “X-Men: Apocalypse” should have been.

  1. Focus on the Main Arc

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What is the main arc of the narrative? Is it Magneto overcoming loss and realizing Xavier’s way of peace may be right? Is it Mystique’s acceptance of her importance to Charles’ students? Is it Xavier learning the importance of his team? Is it Apocalypse’s story of trying to take over the world?

You can make a diverse cast of characters and incorporate many narratives into your film, but they all need to be tied together towards some specific goal. In addition to the stories above, there are also arcs for Storm, Archangel, Cyclops, Jean, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Stryker and Moira MacTaggert. There is simply too much going on and the multiple storylines muddle the emotional impact of the film.

The film should focus squarely on the villain Apocalypse and stopping him. All plot lines should tie into that goal in some way. An example is evident in the previous X-Men film, “Days of Future Past.” Though you have sentinels and Weapon X and time travel and assassination and Mystique and addiction and Magneto and Quicksilver, it all boils down to one spine: stop Mystique from killing a man. Everything else just adds to the story.

So in focusing on Apocalypse, what does he represent to the X-Men? How can his story contribute to the X-Men universe and create an interesting and moving narrative?

Looking at the character, his goals contrast sharply with Xavier’s. Where Xavier preaches peace, Apocalypse preaches violence. Where Xavier welcomes discourse, Apocalypse cripples dissent. There is a wide breadth of ideological difference between them, one that could be more fully explored throughout the course of the story. The followers of both characters could reflect some aspect of that dichotomy. They both seek out lost souls, trapped in a world that is persecuting mutants and with nuclear missiles pointed everywhere.

The first two X-Men films explored racism and hate and “Days of Future Past” was a meditation on violence. In that vein, “Apocalypse” could be a tale about duty and revolution. How do we remake the world? What is the ideal society? What role do we have in the world to improve it? Both Xavier and Apocalypse would draw upon the different backgrounds of their pupils to aspire them towards their goals: one, to destroy the world, the other, to save it.

Perhaps Cyclops is unsure about risking his life to save others and tries to run away before the big fight. Jean is frightened of her powers and worries about hurting others. On the other side, maybe Storm is reluctant to hurt others at the orders of Apocalypse and Psylocke is too blood thirsty for her own good, Apocalypse needing to channel her anger towards a common purpose.

This is hinted at in the film, but because there is so much going on it does not have much impact and is never given a real chance to develop. We barely have any time with a character before we are sent halfway around the world for another plotline.

The film should be simple: Two teachers, preaching different dogmas, and their students trying to figure their paths in the world.

Wolverine does not need to be in the film, nor does Stryker. Mystique has a very limited role that either needs to be beefed up or eliminated. Magneto has a large role, but it could be shortened and still maintain its effectiveness. There is too much time given to him and not enough to establish new characters like Psyclocke and Archangel.

Simply put, the plot needs to be simpler.

2. Character Growth

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A film has to mean something. The journey you take over its telling must educate the main characters in some way: through love, through trial, through adventure, through trauma. They should emerge transformed, for better or worse.

There is no such evolution over the course of “Apocalypse.” Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, Beast are all pretty much the same at the film’s conclusion. Cyclops and some of the younger X-Men, sure, they have grown up, but they are hardly the protagonists (though perhaps they should have been).

“Apocalypse” feels less important (especially in regards to “Days of Future Past”) because of this lack of transformation. If a clearly defined protagonist, such as Mystique, were the heart of the film, we could follow emotionally through the story.

What about something like this: After saving the president in “Days of Future Past”, Raven has been wandering the world. Her exploits have garnered her fame as mutants have come out of the shadows. The world is just starting to learn about mutants and the movement is seeking voices of guidance. They look up to her, but she doesn’t view herself as a hero. She is afraid of standing up to the prejudice of the world, simply saving mutants when she can. She is haunted by memories of the attacks from mankind over the past few years, attacks which forced her to abandon her young son (building on a theme of parenthood with Magneto’s family dying, Xavier looking over his students/adopted children and Apocalypse gathering his followers). After years of wandering, she hears whispers of a powerful deity in the Middle East, a mutant rising up, someone who could guide her. She goes to investigate and discover En Sabah Nur, a powerful being who has been recruiting horsemen for the apocalypse. Horrified, Mystique runs to report to Xavier.

From there, Xavier and Mystique could team up to defeat this threat. He could help her find Nightcrawler, her son, through Cerebro, and she learns the value of protecting those you love. When Xavier is taken by the titular villain, she is forced to lead the X-Men even though it is her greatest fear. She must fully embrace Xavier’s view of active peace and fight against the prejudice that has haunted her life and become the leader she has resisted, even if it means sacrificing herself.

This is just one example, but you must have your protagonist grow and change over the course of the story. I’m not even sure who the protagonist of “Apocalypse” is: Xavier? Magneto? Mystique? Apocalypse himself? It is muddled. The point is, it could be any of them as long as the story focuses on them and the change they undergo.

3. Originality

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This is the ninth X-Men film so another natural problem that has emerged is that of a lack of originality. We have seen the world-is-ending plot again and again. We have had Xavier and Magneto disagreeing again and again. We have had young mutants not able to control their powers again and again.

There simply comes a point where you need to mess with the formula and try something new when you are this far into a series. The tone and the stakes have gotten stale. One of the reasons “Deadpool” performed so well is not only because of its main character, but because it did things superhero films hadn’t done yet: more violence, more crassness, a revenge plot, non-linear storytelling. It was different. “Apocalypse” is just more of the same.

Maybe you have a dystopia theme (such as the Age of Apocalypse storyline) where Apocalypse has already conquered the world and each of his four horsemen has a corner of the globe to his or herself. Elements of the X-Men rise up in different corners of the world (Nightcrawler in Germany, Storm in Egypt, Cyclops in America, Colossus in Russia), join together, and stop the madman.

Or perhaps you focus on the Archangel storyline where Apocalypse takes in a broken winged man, gives him new wings and then uses him as his horseman of death until Archangel realizes what’s become of him and works to stop Apocalypse. Or perhaps Cable’s storyline, where he fights Apocalypse a thousand years in the future.

There are any number of possibilities for where a story could go, but it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers decided to stick with the same plot as their previous films.

Conclusion:

“X-Men: Apocalypse” could have been so much more. It could have been a heartfelt, concluding chapter to the formation of the modern X-Men, juggling issues of childhood, courage and sacrifice. Instead, you have a jumble of too many storylines, a lack of a cohesive vision and the same plot we’ve seen again.

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There are many ways an Apocalypse story could have been handled, but just for fun, here’s mine below:

The first mutant, the all-powerful En Sabah Nur, is betrayed and buried in the earth by his Egyptian slaves after decades of sustained rule. The centuries pass to the 1980s, where he is awakened by Angel, a mutant who had his wings broken by an anti-mutant mob, a common occurrence in the years since mutants became widely known. Hearing of the tales of the first mutant with the ability to heal him, Angel helps the followers of En Sabah Nur find his body and perform the ceremony to bring him back to life.

Meanwhile, after saving the president’s life ten years earlier, Mystique remains in hiding. No one has been able to find her and to the people of the world today, human and mutant alike, she has become a legend, a modern Butch Cassidy or John Dillinger, an outlaw with a heart of gold who the police can’t catch. To humans, she is someone to fear, someone who at any moment could impersonate the president and order a missile strike, a person the federal government has labeled a terrorist and fabricates lies and stories about. To mutants, she is a hero, someone to look up to, someone who saved the president for the good of all.

She has teamed up with Psylocke, also an outcast, to find and rescue mutants in harm’s way. Together, they rescue Cyclops from a mob of his classmates after his powers first start to show themselves. They drop him off at Xavier’s Mansion. Mystique can’t bring herself to go back inside, and she and Psylocke dash away.

They talk about their hunt for Mystique’s son, and we flash back to Mystique in Austria, hunted by a mob after being discovered. She is forced to abandon him in order to save them both.

They meet up with one of their informants who tells them of whispers of a powerful mutant in the east, someone who is rumored to be the savior of mutantkind. Psylocke thinks it’s hogwash, but Mystique is determined to figure it out for herself. They depart for Egypt.

Archangel flies over the skies of Egypt, looking below him. He scouts for recruits and comes upon Storm, a young thief, struggling to get by. He appeals to her with a promise that he can make her a goddess, something beyond her wildest dreams.

Xavier takes Cyclops in and shows him the mansion, introducing him to the teachers and students. He meets Jubilee and Quicksilver and Jean, who he initially dislikes because she peers into his head without asking. Xavier explains what he is trying to accomplish, that this is a school, a place of peace and a haven from the cruelty of the world. Cyclops questions why Xavier can’t do more to help mutants out there, but Xavier is afraid that the X-Men may do more harm than good. They aren’t ready for the world yet, he states. The world is too hostile.

In Egypt, Mystique and Psylocke track down the temple of En Sabah Nur. Still gathering his strength, he appeals to their desire to make a better world. He can sense the state of the world, the instability, the hate, the fear. He reveals his plan for creating a better planet, one devoted to the strong, one that recognizes mutants as the heirs of the world. There is no god, he states, other than he. He is their salvation.

Mystique is terrified of his vision of destruction, but Psylocke, after years on the road, trying to find justice in a world of hate, agrees to be one of his horsemen. Mystique escapes from the clutches of Archangel and Storm and retreats to Charles.

En Sabah Nur asks Psylocke for her help in recruiting one more follower, the most powerful mutant she knows.

Magneto, after being foiled by Xavier and Mystique ten years ago, has floundered, the world caving in on him. Much like the film, he has tried to let go of the pain in his heart and start a family, but the hatred of mankind results in him losing everything. Left with nowhere to turn, Psylocke propositions him to join En Sabah Nur’s cause. Together, they vow to reshape the world for the better.

Mystique alerts Xavier to the threat looming in Egypt, and Xavier tries to use Cerebro to find him, but he can’t. Apocalypse hides from Cerebro using his power, but is tipped off to the threat of Xavier.

Xavier and Mystique fight about her responsibility, their connection, her lost dedication to his cause. The students look up to her, but she refuses to accept her hero mantle. Beast tries to talk to her, still carrying feelings for her after all these years.

Xavier tells her that he found her son not that long ago and brought him to the school. Mystique goes to meet him, but Nightcrawler is resentful of being abandoned and does not want to speak to her.

Apocalypse, sensing the power of Xavier, attacks the mansion. Magneto, Storm, Psylocke and Archangel carry out a siege, abducting students. Quicksilver works to save as many as he can, including Mystique, Cyclops, Jean and Nightcrawler, but he is overpowered by Apocalypse himself, who fully basks in his renewed powers and demolishes the building. He buries Xavier under the rubble of his home, the world believing that he is dead. He then declares to the world that he is their Apocalypse.

With a whole new set of pupils at his disposal, En Sabah Nur preaches his doctrine of strength and that he will guide them to promise and salvation. Using his powers, he unleashes the nuclear weapons of the world on its citizens, laying waste to all the power centers of the globe. The world is now his.

As the world descends into chaos, Mystique salvages what is left of Xavier’s students. With no one else to turn to, she is forced into being the new X-Men’s unofficial leader. She takes Cyclops, Jean, Jubilee and Nightcrawler under her wing as they try to evade Apocalypse’s forces, out searching for them in this new world order.

What is left of humanity and mutantkind has either fallen into line with Apocalypse or is hunted down. Xavier’s students are trained to be assassins loyal to him or put into gladiatorial arenas where they must fight for other’s amusement until they reconsider. Beast is one of these mutants, needing to keep his pupils strong despite the torment.

The world is divided under control of the four horsemen, each gaining a different region. At long last, Magneto seeks to establish his view of mutant leadership in his own domain, controlling North America. Storm rules over Africa as a goddess. Psylocke unleashes all her hate and aggression in her domain of Europe and Archangel builds a new empire in Asia. Apocalypse rules over all, accumulating power.

With no real hope, Mystique concocts a plan. During her hunt for mutants, she had heard of one mutant with the ability to warp space and time. She knows where he is, and he may be the only hope to stop Apocalypse.

On their journey to find him, conflicts arise between her and Nightcrawler, between Jean and Scott. They must overcome them in order for the mission to succeed, becoming friends. As they continue on, Mystique’s fame as the person who saved the president helps her grow allies and strikes up rebellions across the world.

To counter the rebellion, Apocalypse engages in a plan to alter the earth’s core, destroying all life and rebuilding the planet exactly in his image.

Nigthcrawler has a conversation with his mother along the way about God and how he found Him when he was alone. They talk about faith and the power of good over evil. Mystique explains that she never believed in a higher power, but Nightcrawler points to what they have been able to accomplish and that maybe this is God’s work.

Beast is able to escape the hellish pits and returns to the mansion hoping to find some wreckage that could prove useful to the fight. He discovers Xavier, buried underneath the rubble, still alive. He nurses him back to health.

Within Apocalypse’s inner circle, bickering ensues. Magneto does not appreciate Archangel wandering into his territory. Storm is trying to feed her people and requires more assistance. Apocalypse cares about none of it, dismissing them.

Storm, considering the suffering of her people, feeling the burden of leadership for the first time in her life, breaks from Apocalypse’s ranks and forces his troops out of her kingdom. She contacts Mystique and pledges to help.

Mystique contacts Magneto, getting a meeting with him behind Apocalypse’s back. She talks to him about the futility of his dream in conjunction with Apocalypse’s rule. Magneto does not want to give up on his last chance to create a mutant society, brushing her off, but doubt infects his mind.

Mystique finally finds the mutant with the ability to morph time and space, a young girl, scared of her own shadow, unaware of her power. But at that moment, Apocalypse finally catches up with them and brings his remaining three horsemen to confront the X-Men. A battle ensues between Psylocke and Mystique, Cyclops and Jean and Archangel and Nightcrawler and Magneto. Storm joins in the fight with the X-Men, squaring off against Magneto.

Mystique pleads with Psylocke once more to think about what she is doing, but Psylocke is dead set on changing the world. Mystique is able to knock her out. Cyclops and Jean beat Archangel, but Magneto prevails against Storm and Nightcrawler. He captures the young mutant girl, but at that moment, Beast emerges with a renewed Professor X. He shows Magneto the suffering that has endured during his watch and reminds him of how he suffered similarly in his past and that it needn’t be this way to save mankind. Magneto turns against Apocalypse.

Apocalypse then reveals his plan to destroy all life on earth and create a new world order, but all of the X-Men fight against him, stopping him in his tracks, draining him of his power and rendering him a weak, old creature.

Xavier speaks with the young girl, telling her what she must do, referencing how the world is meant for the betterment of all, that we all must work to make life better. We all have a part to play in the structure of the world, and he believes that hers is to bring balance back to what once was. She returns the world to a normal state and Storm and Archangel join the X-Men. Magneto agrees to help Xavier with his students, and Mystique takes her rightful place in the X-Men’s lives.

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Analyzing the Red Wings Roster Post Playoffs, Pre-Draft

Another early exit from the NHL playoffs has many Red Wings fans justifiably upset. The Wings have not been perceived as contenders for a few years now and unless drastic changes are made, it doesn’t appear next season will be that different. Without accounting for a dynamite draft pick breaking into the lineup or a game-breaking free agent coming, the current Wings roster is just not good enough to make a deep run in the postseason.

Looking at the current roster, several things are clear:

Forwards

The Wings scoring prowess seems to diminish with each passing year. Zetterberg and Datsyuk, if he stays, are too old in their careers to reliably be the team’s go-to players. Nyquist and Tatar were supposed to be the next crop of Wings scorers, but their play dipped this season and now both could be viewed as trade bait. Larkin, Mantha and Athanasiou are the next wave of stars for the team hopefully, but they are all still very young and need a bit more seasoning before taking that next step.

So the problem is you have no prime-age scorers, just past age scorers and up-and-coming scorers. Zetterberg should now be a second or third-line center, playing lesser minutes against lesser competition. With his smarts and two-way ability, he would thrive in that role. Sheahan could grow into an effective second-line center and Larkin is primed to take the first-line spot some day. He should start to transition to that role now.

Abdelkader provides some good size on the wings, but the team has never recovered from Franzen’s career-ending head injury. They lack that Shanahan/power forward type player who gives players like Nyquist and Tatar some room. Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi may fill that role one day, but that element is missing and hurts the makeup of the team. Free agents this summer like Milan Lucic and David Backes may help in that regard if they were to sign.

With their disappointing seasons, Tatar and Nyquist may be traded also for that kind of player or some help on defense. Both provide a very similar element so losing one in exchange for some sandpaper may work.

Luke Glendening anchors the fourth line and serves well as an agitator and shut down center. Drew Miller barely played the season due to injury, but if brought back, also works well as a penalty killer and grinder. Darren Helm may be back depending on his salary wants, but if not, Athanasiou appears ready to take his place.

Tomas Jurco has never really established himself and may best be suited towards a trade. Pulkinnen similarly has never been able to grab a permanent lineup spot, but his upside is still high and coach Jeff Blashill should give him every chance to earn that spot.

Brad Richards fit into the locker room, but not so much on the ice and won’t be back.

Datsyuk appears to have made up his mind that he will return to Russia. His absence will be substantial, but there is little the Wings can do to replace him. Many will want to sign free agent Steven Stamkos to alleviate the loss, but the cost will be high and will probably hurt the team in the long run as players such as Larkin seek pay raises. The best answer is probably to add from within; draft, develop and give young players a chance to succeed.

Defense

The team has never been able to fully replace Nick Lidstrom. No one could, but there are no number one defensemen in the pipeline to lead the team.

Niklas Kronwall was a suitable stopgap for a few years, but he is better suited as a number 2 or 3 and with his past injury history, maybe not that anymore.

Danny DeKeyser is an excellent shutdown player with untapped offensive potential. He is a building block moving forward.

Jonathan Ericsson has suffered a horrible year and seems to be trending downwards. He is turnover prone, slower and has never used his size effectively. With his contract, he is not going anywhere, but unless something changes, he appears to be an albatross in the top six.

Mike Green performed okay in his first year, but more offense was needed from him. Part of that may be acclimating to a new system, part may be poor coaching. His second year with the team should be better.

Kyle Quincey was an effective shut down defenseman, but may leave in free agency. Alexey Marchenko, who suited himself well this season, seems like an adequate replacement.

There are not a lot of free agent options this summer to dramatically upgrade the defense. Youngster Xavier Oullet should be with the team full-time, but he is hardly a game-changer. Perhaps some form of trade (Tomas Tatar and a 1st round pick) can land a top four option to help Kronwall, DeKeyser, Marchenko and Green out.

Goaltending

Jimmy Howard is officially on the trading block. With Petr Mrazek showing he is the Wings’ goaltender of the future, there is no room for a $5 million backup, especially with Datsyuk’s dead salary on the books. A team like Calgary may utilize his services.

Mrazek has now been through two full-season campaigns and though he slowed down during the second half of the season, looks like a money goalie in the playoffs where he has excelled despite not getting to the second round. A veteran backup would help ease some of his burden during the season, but when Mrazek is on his game, he can single-handedly win contests.

Coaching

Jeff Blashill and company started the season well, but ended very poorly. His personnel decisions (scratching Brendan Smith and Kyle Quincey instead of Jonathan Ericsson, keeping Nyquist on the right side during the powerplay, Athanasiou’s low ice time) were baffling. His constant switching of the lineup made him seem constantly unsure of himself. And his changes to the powerplay doomed the Wings to mediocrity.

Perhaps with one season behind him as the man, Blashill will be more prepared to handle the rigors of being an NHL coach.

Conclusion

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Many suggest that the Wings need to tank for a bit and build up high draft picks. They claim that this is the way the NHL works nowadays and point to teams such as Chicago and Pittsburgh, teams that stockloaded high draft picks for years by being terrible, as examples. But for every Chicago and Pittsburgh that spent a decade being terrible, there’s also an Edmonton and Columbus who have spent years gathering high draft picks and remaining terrible.

Blowing off the playoff streak will garner zero positive results unless the Wings unexpectedly win the draft lottery (and they are not Toronto-level terrible enough to do so). The best thing that can happen is for Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Petr Mrazek and Xavier Oullet to get as much experience playing as the team is transitioned to them, including time in the playoffs. Nobody should tank a season to achieve positive results. It rarely works.

The Red Wings simply need to continue on their current course. What the past season has taught us is that Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall can not carry the team anymore as they have in year’s past. The next generation needs to lead, perhaps earlier than expected. They will make mistakes, and there will be growing pains, but that is part of the maturation process. Blashill’s job is to help them get through those tough times.

The team will not be a Stanley Cup contender next season and many will pick against them making the playoffs, but depending on free agency, the draft and trades, that may change.

 

Could it Have Been Saved?- Man of Steel and Batman V Superman

Goodness gracious, where to begin? The tone is stone-cold dread, the characters are uninteresting and the camerawork and action are shoddy and incoherent. But this is Batman and Superman. The material is there for something great.

Looking at the implications of a standalone modern Superman film and a Batman versus Superman film, some fans will say that DC is rushing the story, and while that may be true, it does not mean two strong films could not have been made from their concepts. So how could Man of Steel and Batman V Superman have been saved? Let’s start with Man of Steel:

Man of Steel

  1. Make Clark Kent the central protagonist with real stakes and with deliberate choices in the film

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This is screenwriting 101, but was sorely lacking in the film. Basically, Clark Kent has too little to do with the actual narrative of the film. The events of the plot are initiated by his father, his adopted father, Lois Lane and Zod, leaving Clark pretty much as a puppet.

Taking away all the clutter, the narrative should focus on him, his character and his choices and should simply be this: Unsure of who he is, young Clark Kent, brimming with powers beyond his comprehension, wanders the world, searching for purpose, until he discovers a clue to his past that leads him to discover that he is the last descendant of an alien race. Listening to the guidance of the hologram of his father, Clark witnesses for himself firsthand the suffering of man and the need for a savior. He takes it upon himself to serve his adopted homeworld as a symbol of hope against evil.

Many complain about the tone being too dark in the film, and granted, that may indeed be a detriment, but it is not a film-killer. You can have a dark Superman film and have it be good, but you have to handle it well. What Snyder gave us in Man of Steel was simply darkness; you also need the light. You need ying to balance out yang in order to feel anything. Clark should see a world devastated by war and conflict, see people losing hope, and that could inspire him to give his very soul and identity towards a higher goal. That is a powerful sacrifice that should be examined, and it should start with Clark being the center of attention, driving the action and choosing his own destiny.

2. Themes: Establish the Idea of Gods and Make the Villain Essential to the Story

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The theme of Man of Steel is a little murky. Is it that mankind needs a protector (the destruction of Metropolis and Superman stopping Zod)? Is it that violent measures are sometimes necessary in a dangerous world (Superman killing Zod)? Is it that people are wary of a superpowered individual (arresting Superman and gaining the people’s trust)? What is the point of it all?

The focus should be on Superman and his relationship to Earth. Since it is established early on that Clark is an outcast looking to find his way, his quest should be fulfillment, finding a purpose. Everything that influences the plot should reflect that goal of his. For an example, look to the plot of the animated Hercules.

The theme would then be accepting the potential power of yourself to make your world better despite the road that got you there.

In act one, we would meet a young Clark Kent, raised by his parents in Smallville. He begins to show powers beyond what others believe possible, and he feels shunned. His father and mother tell him the truth: they discovered him in a strange ship no one has ever seen before.

At the beginning of act two, we find Clark traveling the world, from Kansas to Brazil to India to Russia, trying to find his place. Every now and then, he is forced to do something extraordinary, such as saving a family from a falling building, but in so doing, he has to keep moving because of other’s fear of him. His exploits draw the attention of a reporter, Lois Lane, who chronicles this “man of steel.” This is pretty similar to the film.

Also on his journey, he learns of the cruelty of man, meeting warlords and terrorists, stopping them when he can. Clark eventually discovers a clue to the Fortress of Solitude where he learns about his true nature and consults the hologram of his father. He wrestles with the realization that he will always be different from everyone else and the loneliness that comes with it, unsure of what to do.

In the background, sinister forces are at work, perhaps led by Lex Luthor with his own subplot. He is representative of the evil that man has in its midst.

At the midpoint, Clark finally meets and falls in love with Lois Lane, never letting on that he is the subject of her journalism piece. When he is forced to save her from something (a drug cartel, terrorists, etc.), he understands his purpose. Even though he is not of man, he is bound to them and will sacrifice his life for them if need be. He dons the cape and becomes Superman.

There are pieces of this sprinkled throughout Man of Steel, but they feel rushed so that the big fight at the end can occur or the excruciatingly long introductory Krypton sequence (all of which can simply go- it is not important to Clark’s journey). The importance is Superman’s journey into discovering his purpose and why he chooses to be that hero.

Once the world discovers him, people may fear him and his powers, unsure what to make of him. Luthor’s scheme of some kind of dastardliness gives Superman the chance to save the day, giving mankind a savior they have not seen in a millenia (there are plenty of Jesus references in the film and that is fine, but they can be less overt).

The biggest problem with Man of Steel is Zod and his entire storyline. Man of Steel never needed huge action set pieces and gigantic space battles. Zod hijacks the story away from Superman and his journey. Clark is trying to find himself, someone so different, the last of his kind, and at the end of the film, he has found himself. Zod as a villain is too complicated, attention-diverting and not a proper villain for an introduction to Superman. Luthor may not even need to be in there as he is also capable of stealing Superman’s thunder. Imagine if Superman simply tried to save the world we have now. Imagine if he tried to defeat terrorists or warlords and tried to give hope in a global sense.

From then, his entrance onto the world stage could invite all sorts of other super-powered individuals such as Wonder Woman, Darkseid and Aquaman. Perhaps Superman’s entrance changes the global dynamics of world power, elevating other superheroes who had been hiding out into the open.

I think Warner Bros. was confused as to how to make a Superman film that would appeal to modern audiences, much more jaded today than they were in the Christopher Reeves-era. They decided to go gritty and edgy and darker. Again, that does not equate a bad film, but they forgot or neglected to include the core of what has made Superman special for over 70 years: as spectators, we marvel at his powers as Superman, but as Clark Kent, we empathize with his inner loneliness. That dichotomy between man of steel and man of fears is endlessly fascinating, how one man so powerful could feel so weak. Man of Steel never attempted to go that deep, substituting action for heart. A laugh in a superhero movie never hurt anyone.

3. Make Everything Coherent and Build to Finale

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One last rebuke of Man of Steel that has somewhat been mentioned is its insistence on grandiose explosions and destruction. Zack Snyder seems to have an explosion fetish of some kind for the last 45 minutes of the film are non-stop action and devastation.

It is unfortunate that action is used to replace drama and heart. The greatest action battles and fight scenes are all pretty meaningless unless they are accompanied by real stakes in the character’s life. When Batman tries to save Gotham at the end of Batman Begins, he is not just trying to save a city, he is staking his ideal of the world, a world that can still be saved, against that of a militant organization. The fact that he was once a member of the same League of Shadows and allowed them to rise up again fuels the rage that drives him to stop Ra’s al Ghul. And the fight at the end lasts at most ten minutes, delivering just what is needed for the emotional punch to land.

Man of Steel on the other hand features Superman trying to save the world against a villain he has never really met. To top it off, he never actually saves any people other than Lois Lane, and their relationship is underdeveloped. To top it off, the battle lasts so long that it is the equivalent of a short bald man driving a fancy car as if to reassure himself that he’s something special, even though just about everyone can see that he’s lacking self-esteem. It’s not the length nor the intensity of fighting and explosions that creates audience empathy but the character’s journey to that point and his or her emotional stakes in the action. Man of Steel flashes brilliant nothingness at us for an obscene amount of time.

The climax should be heartfelt, with Superman’s quest of discovery in the balance, his need to be mankind’s savior the emotional crux. This moment should be built up to to achieve full dramatic value and should only last as long as it needs to.

Really, I could go on and on about everything wrong with Man of Steel because the list is nearly limitless. It is almost a perfect representation of everything wrong with the modern blockbuster. But let’s move on to another mess, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (right from the title, you knew something was wrong).

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

  1. Establish the Protagonist and Whose Story You Want to Tell

batman-v-superman-trailer

Even buddy cop movies have a leading man. There is always a protagonist unless your film is a true-team movie (i.e. “The Battleship Potemkin”, “The Avengers”- though an argument can be made that Tony Stark is still the protagonist of a “The Avengers”). So it is that BvS needs a main character. The question the film never answers is; is it Batman or Superman?

The answer doesn’t come down to screentime or how many fight scenes there are, but to who drives the action of the story and who undergoes the emotional change through the course of the telling. Two characters can have journeys over the course of one story, but one should be the audience’s heart along the way.

But much like Man of Steel, we are left with nothing to really care for during the film. Neither Batman nor Superman is relatable. Neither of them has a true emotional arc. For all the fighting, talking of gods and whatnot, you still need the basic heart of a hero somewhere in here.

I would think that the protagonist would be Batman. Ben Affleck does a fine role as Bruce Wayne (though I can’t look at the screen and see ‘Bruce Wayne’, I see ‘Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne’) and he seems actively concerned about the power of Superman. His desire to keep power in check is admirable and the fact that he is a little crazy (as Batman is) works. So the story should focus on him.

Superman can still be in it, but he should serve as a secondary character, an antagonist to Batman’s goals. Especially with the Man of Steel already having his own film, he could play second-fiddle in the narrative to Bruce Wayne. Bruce would then go through the emotional journey of not trusting Superman, to trusting him to perhaps saving his life at the near-expense of his own at the end. Their relationship can build. The climax should not be Batman V Superman, but it should be the act two climax. The confrontation could leave them both broken in some form (Superman by kryptonite, perhaps Bruce’s suit out of juice and stuck in it). This would then give them the opportunity to bond before saving the world from some other catastrophe (i.e. not Doomsday- that’s a whole other storyline for an entirely different film).

The execution of the relationship between the two characters in the film is pathetic. There needs to be development, they need to go from hating to liking back to hating etc. A good example of how something like this is done would be Toy Story. The foundation between Woody and Buzz starts off rocky, they are forced together towards a common goal, drift apart again and finally gain true friendship. They need to save each other, learn a bit about each other, stick up for one another. It’s development that Batman V Superman is missing, and it should be the heart of the film.

2. Stop With the Sequel-Bait

Aquaman-in-Batman-vs-Superman-e1441680433269

Wonder Woman is here. So is Aquaman for a second. Flash? Green Lantern? They might appear at some point. It’s hard to keep track anymore with all the sequel-bait.

It’s become an epidemic in the Hollywood blockbuster. One film is never enough anymore. Each film is a prelude to another film which is a prelude to ten other films. The result are mediocre films bogged down by less dramatic plot points and subplots that do not serve the main story other than to advance a future film down the line (“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is very guilty of this).

Wonder Woman does not need to be in this movie. Nor really does Lex Luthor. Nor any of those other cameos. The story should only have as many characters as necessary to its plot. The Dark Knight Rises has many characters, but they all solve a purpose (mostly). X-Men Origins: Wolverine has many characters, but almost none of them serve a purpose. Batman V Superman has many characters, and most of them serve a purpose, but many don’t, and the film feels less because of it. It’s less impactful because it is cluttered in purpose. Batman should have a storyline. Superman should have a storyline. Characters that contribute to each of their storylines should be included. Anyone else should be excluded.

3. Focus on a Simple Story

batman-v-superman-final-trailer

So now that we’ve cut away all the unnecessary bits and pieces and added an emotional arc between Batman and Superman, all you need now is a simple story to tie them together. It has to be more than Batman hates Superman because he’s dangerous. One of them actually has to be at fault for something so that that person can learn something over the course of the story.

If Batman is your protagonist, perhaps he views Superman as a dangerous weapon, tries to reason with him to no avail, has kryptonite developed just in case, but after repeated efforts, feels he has to take Superman down for the good of the planet. He has to view the situation as any of us would. We would try to handle the situation peacefully, try harder when that doesn’t work and then work towards drastic measures.

Perhaps Superman is recruited by the US government as a pawn to destroy rival governments (as in the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and this would also carry over themes from Man of Steel) and Batman hates that Superman can be used as a weapon of corrupt government officials. As he himself tries to clean up Gotham using whatever means necessary, it is rumored that the mayor of Gotham may call in Superman to deal with the bat menace. The two heroes can meet and have that pivotal conversation where they let each other know they won’t stop their duty. Perhaps Superman is plagued by self-doubt about confronting his friend Batman. Perhaps Batman feels the same way.

There needs to be something internal between the two characters that makes their choices have greater meaning. Two friends, pitted against each other, against the theme of devotion to the greater cause and godhood in the modern world. If only more of that was imbued into the narrative.

Summary

In conclusion, it’s hard to overstate just how much is wrong with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. Character over action, internal growth, a commitment to story principles and climaxing drama… All of these things are necessary to create an engaging story. Zack Snyder’s films are superficial, uninteresting and nauseating. Warner Bros. is going down a poor road to generate profit and has sacrificed a great story.

superman-crying-like-a-bitch-131964

 

Predicting the First Round of the NHL Playoffs 2016

Last September, I listed my predictions for the upcoming NHL season. Below are the results:

Atlantic

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Detroit Red Wings
  3. Florida Panthers
  4. Montreal Canadiens
  5. Boston Bruins
  6. Ottawa Senators
  7. Buffalo Sabres
  8. Toronto Maple Leafs

Metropolitan

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins
  3. New York Rangers
  4. Columbus Blue Jackets
  5. Philadelphia Flyers
  6. New York Islanders
  7. New Jersey Devils
  8. Carolina Hurricanes

Central

  1. St. Louis Blues
  2. Nashville Predators
  3. Minnesota Wild
  4. Dallas Stars
  5. Chicago Blackhawks
  6. Winnipeg Jets
  7. Colorado Avalanche

Pacific

  1. Anaheim Ducks
  2. Los Angeles Kings
  3. San Jose Sharks
  4. Calgary Flames
  5. Vancouver Canucks
  6. Edmonton Oilers
  7. Arizona Coyotes

*Correctly Predicted In/Out of Playoffs; Incorrect Placement

*Correctly Predicted In/Out of Playoffs; Correct Placement

*Incorrectly Predicted In/Out of Playoffs

So in summary, I predicted 14 of the 16 playoff teams and 8 out of 30 in the correct place in their division. Not great, not terrible. So it goes with predicting the unpredictable.

Which brings us to the first round of the NHL playoffs, beginning Wednesday night. In examining the 8 playoff rounds, the competition between teams is closer than ever. Even a supposed sure thing (Washington vs. Philadelphia) can easily be an upset without much great surprise. Some are pretty much just a flip of a coin (Chicago vs. St Louis). So here it goes:

Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild

The Stars have coasted through the regular season with the best offense in the league while the Wild have sputtered with winning streaks followed by losing streaks. I think Dallas’ offense pushes against the Wild’s inconsistency.

  • Dallas in 5

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The defending Cup champs against a team that must make some noise in the postseason or else risk a break up. This has all the makings of a long, hard-fought series. St. Louis needs to prove that they are a contending team while Chicago will be looking to stake a claim as a modern-day dynasty with their fourth championship in 7 years. It’ll be close, but the Blackhawks want to win, the Blues have to win.

  • St. Louis in 7

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators

The Ducks started the season terribly, but rebounded in the second half as one of the hottest teams. The Predators counter with one of the best defenses in the league and an improved offense with the addition of Ryan Johansen. The Ducks are favored, but the Predators have it all right now and may frustrate the Ducks.

  • Nashville in 7

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

A re-match of the 2014 opening round series (aka the San Jose Sharks epic fail), this series should be full of punishment and intensity. The Sharks will be trying to avenge their loss from two years when they blew a 3-0 series lead and the Kings will be trying to prove that they are the preeminent franchise in the league today. I’d love to pick the Sharks, but the Kings are too deep.

  • Los Angeles in 6

Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers

The Capitals are the President’s Trophy winners, the best team in the league, led by 50-goal scorer Alex Ovechkin, all-time single season wins holder (tied with Martin Brodeur) Brayden Holtby and a smart, active defense. The Flyers are one of the hottest teams entering the playoffs, but this may be the Capitals year.

  • Washington in 6

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers

The Pittsburgh Penguins were the hottest team at the end of the season while the Rangers stumbled into the playoffs with some injuries. It’ll come down to the Penguin’s offense versus the Ranger’s defense. Goaltender Henrk Lundqvist might be the difference-maker.

  • New York in 7

Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders

The Panthers are one of the more interesting teams in the league, led by 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr and supported by a bunch of kids. The Islanders counter with star captain John Tavares and a cast that has been through a couple of playoff battles. Look for Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo to backstop the Panthers to the next round.

  • Florida in 6

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

The Lightning are decimated by injuries. The Red Wings are maddeningly inconsistent. A re-match of last year’s first round series promises to be an interesting affair. Look for Detroit’s inability to score goals to be their downfall.

  • Tampa Bay in 6

 

After filling in the NHL playoffs bracket, I am amending my pre-season projection and predicting a final between the Washington Capitals and the St. Louis Blues, with the Capitals prevailing in 6 games.

Will that happen? Probably not. We will find out in June.

 

 

 

 

“The Force Awakens” solid, if familiar

For storytelling purposes, the “Star Wars” saga should be over. It should have ended with “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. That was a natural conclusion to the story with the destruction of evil, the redemption of a fallen character and the ascension of the hero. There really was no need for additional films.

But “Star Wars” is the most successful film franchise of all-time so the story will not end despite how natural its conclusion may be. There will be more and more. It’s a shame, but audiences are insatiable when it comes to this galaxy far, far away.

First came the prequels. They were awful. They contained everything that is wrong in today’s Hollywood: an overuse of CGI special effects, a lack of storytelling and character development, an assembly-line production that never hints at any goal other than profit.

But fans still went to see them in record droves which only meant that there would be more films. “Star Wars” may have lost its magic in the digital age, but it has not lost its money-making power.

So it is that we receive Episode VII: “The Force Awakens.” Expectations were sky high (which they should not have been after the disaster of the prequels). George Lucas had sidestepped his throne to the next generation, starting with J.J. Abrams, one of the fanboys who fell in love with the original films.

And amazingly the film delivers. Despite the fact that it is not necessary, that expectations are too high, that it is still purely a money-making machine rather than a storytelling experience, the film is an exciting adventure that utilizes character, reverence and nostalgia (though perhaps too much).

Needless to say, there will be more Star Wars films, there will be more toys and promotions and products, there will be more everything. But if the films can continue to reach this level of semi-competence, this level of pop art, it won’t be the end of the world.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-Rey

SPOILERS

“The Force Awakens” takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” Luke Skywalker is missing and the shards of the old rebellion and the old empire are fighting once again (now called the First Order and the Resistance). It is somewhat confusing who is in charge of what and where everyone is, but that is beside the point. They are fighting, one is evil, one is good, move on.

There is a map to Luke stored on the drive to a BB-8 droid who is left on the planet Jakku after his master Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith, and the First Order. The droid befriends young Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger, and they join up with Finn (John Boyega), an ex-stormtrooper. Together, they go to deliver the map to Luke to the Resistance.

While the prequels are stale and unfeeling, this film is nothing if not packed with emotion. Abrams and everyone in crew obviously love “Star Wars” and have created a film imbued with that love.  There is great attention to detail with many of the side characters, locations and gadgets having complexity and realness beyond the modern movie spectacle. It is a joy to see such adoration in every frame of the film.

However, the story suffers as it is a direct copy of Episode IV: “A New Hope.” Both films follow a young individual on a desert planet who befriends an R2 droid with secret information that needs to be returned to the good guys while the bad guys chase them. They both meet a potential love interest and are chased off the desert planet. They both befriend a scruffy, old, wise mentor from the previous saga (Obi-Wan/Han Solo) who ends up dying at the end of the film at the hand of his former pupil/son over a ravine while the heroes overlook the situation and shoot at the perpetrator. There’s a cantina scene in each where a character looks for a pilot. There’s a menacing creature that the heroes need to escape from (trash compactor creature/ranthars). There’s a confrontation involving X-Wings sent to destroy an evil space station that has already destroyed a planet. There in fact seems to be very little that’s new in the film at all.

Granted, there can be some allusions to the plot of the franchise’s first film to tie everything together, but at a certain point, the repetition gets to be a little too much, especially in regards to the Death Star-esque weapon and confrontation at the film’s conclusion. It would be nice if Episode VIII left the nostalgia at the door and presented a unique, new story, devoid of similar plot references. Otherwise it will feel like just another cashgrab based on nostalgia and sentimentality.

And personally, it would have been nice for few if any of the original characters to make an appearance as Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher all seem a little long in the tooth for this type of movie. Perhaps just the character of Luke Skywalker was all that was needed to tie in this saga with the previous as Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren are all engaging, interesting characters who could have carried the film themselves. All that needed to be mentioned about Han or Leia or R2-D2 is that they lived happily ever after or died in some explosion or something that ended their story so that a new cast of characters could get their narrative without being bogged down by the previous trilogy’s characters.

star-wars-force-awakens-han-solo-leia-images

So there will be more “Star Wars” films. One every year for the foreseeable future in fact. There will be product tie-ins, film spin-offs, excessive merchandising and a gluttony of fan tributes and speculation. It is the greatest film juggernaut of all-time, seemingly a religion for some people, and though “The Force Awakens” plays it a little too safe, it is fun, it is adventuresome, it avoids so many of the problems that plagued the prequels, and it is far better than many other blockbusters released over the last few years.

If the films can continue to be this engaging, the marketing will be easier to stomach.

Crimson Peak beautiful, predictable, fun

Oftentimes, one’s enjoyment of a film is based on their expectations. If you are expecting greatness, it is hard to reach that mark. If you are expecting slop, even a bit of pleasure can elevate your enjoyment of an otherwise dull film. So it is that Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak will either leave you hot or cold depending on your view going into it.

At times, the film feels strictly like an homage to Gothic romanticism and that it is not meant to be taken seriously. If everything is tongue in cheek and you enter the theater expecting an appreciation of the genre, you are liable to have a good time. If you are looking for an original film that adds something new to horror and generally frightens you, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Our protagonist is Edith (Mia Wasikowska). Edith’s mother dies when she is young, but returns to her as a ghost one night, telling her to beware of Crimson Peak. An aspiring author as she grows up, she meets a young, British businessman, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), looking for financial backing from her father, and she falls for him. After her father’s mysterious death, Edith goes with Thomas to England with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). But the spirits of the mansion do not sleep well and soon begin calling to Edith. That’s when she learns what it is nicknamed: Crimson Peak, for the red clay that the factory underneath it produces.

First off, it is important to commend del Toro and his cinematographer, Dan Laustsen for their beautiful film. Every frame looks like a painting, the colors vibrant and the hues of every shot warm and deep. It really transports you into the world of the story.

Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak
Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak

del Toro’s love of his macabre subject is also evident. The romanticism, the attention to detail, the layering of moodiness and the time given to set up the story show his dedication and appreciation. It is something that draws fans of his work back time and again; he loves what he does and it shows on the screen.

The problem with the film lies in its story. With such high profile talent behind the camera and in front of it (all the actors work very well in their roles), it is a shame that the narrative is rather trite and predictable. Part of that may simply be the joke of the film, that the plot does not really matter and should be treated lightly, but the lack of original narrative, compounded by the fact that it is easy to guess the plot points before they happen, dampens the enjoyment. A script that contained more narrative originality with unpredictable plot points and revelations and more mystery, with the already impressive cast and gorgeous cinematography, would have made Crimson Peak a real winner, but it must settle for just being entertaining.

Yet having said that, the story serves its purpose if only just. The film is fun and engaging, not really a horror film (there are few scares) but more of a romance. The connection between Thomas and Edith and their journey is sweet in that macabre sense and, dare I say, a tad moving at the film’s conclusion. It is a fitting film for a genre that has been so neglected recently, and it may not particularly have an audience, but for those who appreciate dark romanticism, it is worth a viewing.

Many will be confused as to what Crimson Peak actually is: a misplaced horror movie that doesn’t quite deliver or an inside joke that plays on the plot conventions and bursts with admiration for the genre? It is hard to discern the answer and it may entirely depend on the person, but at least it generates some thinking for the viewer, something most modern horror movies refuse to do.

Predicting the NHL Standings

A lot of reporters will be coming out with predictions of the final NHL standings. They will often write things with such confidence. This team will succeed. This one will fail. None of them will be exactly right.

There are always surprise teams for good (Calgary and Ottawa last season) and bad (San Jose and Boston) reasons. A division winner from the season before may struggle to make the playoffs (Pittsburgh). A lottery team may rise to the occasion (Winnipeg). A team that won the Stanley Cup can miss the dance altogether (LA). Teams are so evenly matched nowadays that predicting who will rise and fall is increasingly difficult. Injuries, momentum, team issues and simple bad luck can make or break a season. Even advanced stats are no harbinger of success (Calgary made the playoffs last season with terrible possession numbers while LA with the best did not).

So they are all educated guesses. And they should be. What fun would an NHL season be if there weren’t a few surprises along the way (as long as the good luck goes with your favorite team). So here are my predictions per division for the upcoming season:

Atlantic Division

Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning
  1. Tampa Bay Lightning*
    • The defending Eastern Conference champions should be well motivated to return to the Stanley Cup final. Depending on the contract status of Steven Stamkos, the team is stocked at all areas. With Stamkos, Valterri Filppula, Alex Killorn, the Triplets line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Drouin, goals shouldn’t be a problem. The defense is anchored by stud Victor Hedman and goaltender Ben Bishop is one of the best. You can pencil them in, barring a major meltdown, for the playoffs right now.
  2. Detroit Red Wings*
    • Mike Babcock has left for big bucks in Toronto. That may actually be a good thing when all is said and done. After ten years, it may have been time for a new voice behind the bench, and Jeff Blashill has an impressive resume. With Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall still leading the way and youngsters Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Teemu Pulkinnen upcoming, the dropoff for the Wings will still be a long time away.
  3. Florida Panthers*
    • This is my surprise pick. The team has struggled for years now and for that, they have built up a formidable prospect system. Perhaps this is the season it all comes together. With young stars like Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Erik Gudbranson complemented by veterans Brian Campbell, Roberto Luongo and Jaromir Jagr, this has all the makings of a dangerous team, one that nearly made the playoffs last season. Or they can be their usual non-intimidating self again.
  4. Montreal Canadiens*
    • A team that struggles to score can’t always rely on an all-world goaltender to bail them out again and again. For the Canadiens, it worked last season, but Carey Price may be bound to regress. He can still carry this team to the playoffs, but he will not be as dominant as last season.
  5. Boston Bruins
    • The Bruins suffered from cap mismanagement and spent the summer getting worse which, for a non-playoff team, is not good. Gone are Milan Lucic, Dougie Hamilton and Reilly Smith, in are Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. They still have supreme forward Patrice Bergeron, pest Brad Marchand, Vezina winner  Tuuka Rask, Norris winner Zdeno Chara and center David Krejci, so the team has the tools to make the playoffs, but an injury to any of them or another down year productively sends the entire team in a tailspin.
  6. Ottawa Senators
    • One of the NHL’s darling teams as they went on a torrid run down the stretch to make the playoffs under goaltender Andrew ‘Hamburglar’ Hammond, the team is bound to take a step back this season. They still have Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson and a forward core that includes Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris and Mike Hoffman plus Hammond and Craig Andersson in goal, so they could be competitive, but my money is on other teams in their division.
  7. Buffalo Sabres
    • Are they better? Yes. Are they that much better? No. New faces Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Cody Franson, Jack Eichel, Robin Lehner and coach Dan Bylsma will certainly help the franchise achieve some form of respectability, but it will still be years before the Sabres are able to contend.
  8. Toronto Maple Leafs
    • New coach Mike Babcock promised there’d be pain. Boy, will there ever be. After trading away sniper Phil Kessel, the team is sorely lacking in all areas of the ice. The Leafs are starting from the ground up, and right now, they’re below sea level.

Metropolitan Division

Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals
  1. Washington Capitals*
    • A team that already had Alex Ovechkin, Nik Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and Brayden Holtby adds T. J. Oshie and Justin Williams. With another year behind Barry Trotz, the Caps are primed to make a run if they can.
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins*
    • The addition of Phil Kessel makes the Penguin’s offense one of the best in the league. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang driving the bus and another strong season from Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins could make some noise if their defense holds up and they have luck with injuries.
  3. New York Rangers*
    • There’s a lot of wear and tear on the Rangers after consecutive deep playoff runs. This group still has Henrik Lundqvist, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash and Marc Staal, but fatigue and expectations will hamper them during the regular season. If they make it to the big dance, they can always do damage.
  4. Columbus Blue Jackets*
    • The Blue Jackets were decimated by injuries last season and barring that, look to be a playoff team. With Jack Johnson, Ryan Johansen, Ryan Murray, Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell joined by newcomer Brandon Saad and Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes, the team is formidable.
  5. Philadelphia Flyers
    • Claude Giroux, Jakub Vorachek, Steve Mason and Wayne Simmonds are all still good hockey players, but until the Flyers muster up a stronger defense, making the playoffs will prove difficult. Maybe they bounce back and string a run together, but I’m not sure.
  6. New York Islanders
    • I just got a feeling about the Islanders. You can’t really explain gut feelings and most are considering them a shoo-in for a playoff spot and a team with John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Johnny Boychuk, Jaroslav Halak and Travis Hamonic should make the playofss. But some good teams have to be on the outside, and I’m picking the Islanders to fall back.
  7. New Jersey Devils
    • Another team that needs to start at the bottom in order to build relevance again, the Devils are sorely devoid of high-talent prospects. Patrick Elias, Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson and goaltender Cory Schneider can only handle so much of the load and depth and youth need to be built over the next few years.
  8. Carolina Hurricanes
    • The team situation is muddled with owner Peter Karmanos trying to sell off a portion of ownership while still maintaining control. Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner continue to be the source of trade rumors and the rest of the roster is not much to write home about. Perhaps Jordan Staal, Eddie Lack, Elias Lindholm and Justin Faulk have career years, but Carolina seems to be a team in search of the draft lottery.

Central Division

St. Louis Blues
St. Louis Blues
  1. St. Louis Blues*
    • The Blues dominate the regular season, but come up empty in the playoffs. That’s what they’ve always done, that’s what they’ll do again. With a lineup that still includes David Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko, Brian Elliot, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Paul Stastny, the Blues are deep, dangerous and dominant when on their game. Then the postseason comes around.
  2. Nashville Predators*
    • The Predators are one of the best defensive teams in the league with Pekka Rinne in goal and Shea Weber, Seth Jones and Roman Josi on defense. But can they score? Mike Ribeiro had a career year last year and will need to do so again. Filip Forsberg and James Neal are also dangerous, but the Predators will only go as far as Rinne and Weber and their defensive acumen take them.
  3. Minnesota Wild*
    • The Wild survived after a horrendous start to their season on the back of castoff goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Expectations will be sky high for him this season, and it will be a tough test to determine if he is more than just a flash in the pan. With a forward corps of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville and a defense anchored by Ryan Suter, the time for a championship is now in Minnesota.
  4. Dallas Stars*
    • The additions of Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya to a lineup that already includes Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn, star center Tyler Seguin and playmaker Jason Spezza makes the club an early favorite. Whether the defense and goaltending holds up is the question. GM Jim Nill has radically altered the roster he inherited and now it stands a chance of finally flexing its muscles.
  5. Chicago Blackhawks*
    • The mighty will fall. With the gutting of the roster (Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards, Johnny Oduya and Brandon Saad all gone) and the distraction of the Patrick Kane rape case, the Blackhawks will struggle to string together wins. They may still be one of the best put together teams in the league with Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford and Marian Hossa, but the amount of hockey they’ve played over the past three years and Kane’s situation will leave them scrambling to make the playoffs. I think they’ll make it, but it won’t be pretty.
  6. Winnipeg Jets
    • A surprise playoff berth last season may not be a harbinger of things to come. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec had an outstanding year, but that is more than likely an anomaly rather than the new norm. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and Tyler Myers give the Jets good players, but they play in the league’s toughest division and someone is doomed to fall back.
  7. Colorado Avalanche
    • Once the cream of the crop two years ago, the Avalanche fell behind the ball early last season and never recovered. They’ve done little to address their deficiencies on defense (the Francois Beauchemin signing is terrible) and are just hoping on continued improvement from young stars Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon and another career year from goaltender Semyon Varlamov. That isn’t likely to happen and head coach Patrick Roy will be left blowing his gasket.

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks
Anaheim Ducks
  1. Anaheim Ducks*
    • The team came within one win of a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and will be one of the favorites to get there this season. With Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Carl Hagelin up front, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm on defense and the one-two punch of Frederik Anderson and Anton Khudobin in goal, the Ducks window to win is now.
  2. Los Angeles Kings*
    • After facing the indignity of missing the playoffs one year after winning the Stanley Cup, expect the Kings to be well-rested and prepared to make amends. A lineup that still includes Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick won’t be so easy to quell again.
  3. San Jose Sharks*
    • Another team that missed the playoffs last season and will be looking for retribution, the Sharks added veterans Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Martin Jones to a roster that still includes Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns. After the internal turmoil of last season and in a weaker division, the Sharks are primed to make it back into the playoffs.
  4. Calgary Flames
    • The Flames surprised many with their determination and strength against advanced analytics. They won’t creep up on anybody this season, but a roster that still boasts Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano and T. J. Brodie, plus newly acquired potential star defenseman Dougie Hamilton has the potential to do some damage. The playoffs may not happen this year, but the Flames are heading in the right direction.
  5. Vancouver Canucks
    • The Canucks went sideways over the summer, losing some okay players and adding some okay players. With the Sedin twins getting older, the window for the Canucks to make any sort of noise may have already closed. Still, the lineup has been through the rigors of the NHL playoffs before so there’s always the chance they surprise some people.
  6. Edmonton Oilers
    • The Oilers made great strides during the off-season, adding new GM Peter Chiarelli, new coach Todd McClellan and next phenom Connor McDavid. They have all the parts necessary to rebuild the organization after years of futility. I just think it’s going to take another year or two before everything comes together for them.
  7. Phoenix Coyotes
    • The Coyotes are in complete rebuild mode. They have some intriguing prospects in Dylan Strome, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair and a goaltender in Mike Smith who, if he regains his form, can carry a team for several wins. But the teams lacks stars, depth and experience. The pieces are there for a turnaround, but there will be pain first.

Who do I see coming out on top? After completing my own bracket based on the above predictions, I predict a Final Four of Tampa Bay, Washington, Anaheim and St. Louis with the Capitals and Ducks making it to the Final. I have the Capitals winning in 7.

Will that come to pass? Maybe. Probably not. It’s all up in the air right now. That’s the joy of wondering about a season that hasn’t happened yet.

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