A Common Sense 5-point Movie Rating System

Media products can be rated a thousand different ways. Every entertainment outlet has their own system, but most are some form of 5-point system, letter grades, or percentages out of 100.

Assigning a number to a media product is all well and good: everything can be numerated in some way. However, many rating systems are quite opaque as far as what these numbers mean. On some level, they reduce art to a single number that, if you think too hard about, is near meaningless.

A few years ago I created my own 5-point rating system for movies and television shows, and whenever I finish watching something, I can easily fit the product into a system that makes sense to me.

I thought I’d share it because maybe you, too, will find it helpful.

The 5-point system

The system goes from 0-5 in 0.5 increments, resulting in 11 steps. There’s also a 12th step, number 6, which is used in one special case. Let me list the ratings, plus a brief descriptor, before explaining what the steps mean.

0: Unrated

0.5: Dangerous Content

1.0: Offensive Content

1.5: Bad Plot, Bad Production

2: Bad Plot, Decent Production

2.5: Catch on TV

3: Watch Once

3.5: Watch a Second Time with a Friend

4: Own

4.5: Near Perfect

5: Live Your Life By

6: Watch for the Rest of Your Life

2.5, 3, and 3.5 Ratings

Let’s start at the middle of the scale, work our way up, then work our way down.

Movies and shows with a rating of 3 are only worth watching one time. These might be shows you watch because you want to see what the hype is all about, or you are somewhat interested in the premise. I would put a lot of superhero movies in this category: The Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight Rises.

Once I’ve seen these movies, I really have no desire to see them again. They provide a couple hours of entertainment but don’t stick with me.

Shows rated 3.5 are those that you’d watch a second time, primarily with another person. For example, I’ve seen most of the Twilight movies (I also read all the books). They aren’t great movies, by any means. They were worth watching once. However, if I had a friend who really wanted to see them, or was really passionate about them, I could stomach watching them a second time.

Watching them with somebody is the crucial distinction between 3 and 3.5. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see 3.5 movies again: they essentially function as 3 movies. But I would watch them again with somebody, not because I care about the movie or show all that much, but because I care about the friend and would want to participate in something that makes them happy.

2.5 movies and shows are those that you’d watch if you were flipping through the TV and happened to catch a rebroadcast of them. Maybe you’re home sick, or you’re in the hospital, or you have half an hour to kill at the hotel before meeting up with friends. These are movies or shows that you watch here and there, but don’t actively seek them out.

For example, I’ve watched a fair amount of Teen Titans Go on Cartoon Network over the years. The show has its funny moments, but I’m not drawn into the concept enough to actually seek out broadcasts of new episodes, and it’s certainly not a show I would buy.

A lot of action movies work best as 2.5 movies. Do you have any movies in your life that you’ve seen bits and pieces of on cable over the years, but you’ve never actually seen the beginning? A lot of 80s action movies fit this categorization for me.

4, 4.5, and 5 Ratings

Movies and shows with a rating of 4 are worth owning. You buy the DVDs or Blu-Rays, and you watch them over and over. They are shows that you’d like to see again whether by yourself or with another person.

Shows rated 5 are those that you live your life by. In other words, these are shows that inspire you, that change who you are on the inside. They are the shows that fill your head at night, the shows with universes you want to live in.

When it comes to anime, I own a lot of 5 rated shows: Cowboy Bebop, Death Note, Fullmetal Alchemist, The Legend of Korra, ThunderCats (2011), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012), and so on. For movies, the series that have changed me are Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and the Matrix. I’ve very picky with what shows and movies I watch because ideally I only want to watch shows that I’d rate 5.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. That’s what the 4.5 rating is for. 4.5 shows are nearly perfect, you own them and rewatch them, and there are parts that influence your life. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (yes, even the third one!) fit this category for me, as do the Bourne movies. I can’t say these series are perfect, as they have some flaws, but these movies still inspire me.

0, 0.5, 1, 1.5, and 2 Ratings

So far, we’ve covered ratings for great movies and shows (4-5) and ratings for shows that are okay and watchable (2.5-3.5). The bottom 4 ratings (forgoing 0) are reserved for Bad shows.

A movie or show with a rating of 2 is one that you finish (or not) and have nothing really good to say about it. Generally these movies fail because of plot and lack of impact or emotional stakes. However, these movies are not necessarily technically bad.

For example, I rate the G.I.Joe reboot movies, and the Michael Bay Transformers movies, 2. They just aren’t good movies. Dull, forgettable, uninspired, insipid. They were, however, made competently: and lots of money went into the special effects. But all of those special effects can’t change the fact that the cores of these movies are forgettable.

1.5 movies and shows feature both bad plots and bad production. These are the kinds of movies that are painful to watch because there really is no redeeming quality to them. These are the type of shows that some people call “so bad they’re good,” or they are the kind of shows that people “hate-watch.” Frankly, I can’t stomach movies that are “so bad they’re good.” I understand the entertainment value only in a theoretical sense: actually trying to watch these movies is a mental chore that I cannot complete.

Movies and shows with a 1 rating are those that are worse than bad: they are offensive. Now, I’m not talking about movies with the occasional off-color joke, or a sitcom that uses racial humor a bit too much. An infrequent lapse of editorial judgment and discretion might knock a 3.5 movie down to a 3 or even 2.5 rating, but isn’t enough to doom a movie.

Rather, I’m talking about those movies and shows that are offensive throughout. The premise is offensive, and the movie or show makes you angry when you watch it. You could be offended for a variety of reasons: take your pick.

I have seen very few 1 rating shows over the years: these are the kind of shows I actively avoid. But sometimes I see one. I’m thinking of a movie like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US version). While many people believed that movie had something to say about violence against women, to me, the movie reveled in torture porn. All it did was point out that women experience sexual violence: no big headline there. The camera lingered on the violence for entertainment reasons, not for story reasons. And the turn in Lisbeth Salander to ruthless revenge wasn’t redeeming or cathartic; it was sad and misguided.

0.5 movies and shows, then, are those that go a bit beyond on the offensiveness scale. These are shows that are actually dangerous for people to watch because their messages are so toxic and vile that it makes you wonder why these shows got made in the first place. Not that everybody who sees such entertainment is going to turn into a deranged person. Rather, these are the kinds of shows that don’t do anything to better the lives of people who see them.

I’ve saved the 0 rating till now because it’s not really a rating: for me, 0 is equivalent to a non-rating. Shows that get 0 ratings are things like documentaries and the nightly news. It doesn’t make sense to rate them because you watch them for reasons other than entertainment.

The 6 Rating

I have one last rating, the 6. Originally when I created the 5 rating, I realized that I rate many shows and movies as 5: there’s just too much good stuff that’s inspired my life! However, if I had to select the cream of the crop, the absolute most influential show or movie, then I rate it a 6. There’s no 5.5: there’s a whole point difference between 5 and 6 to emphasize that a show rated a 6 is substantially better than anything rated 5.

I rate Avatar: The Last Airbender a 6. I fell in love with this show when I first saw it in 2009 and I’ve loved it ever since. If I could only watch one show or movie for the rest of my life, this would be it. This show is beyond perfect: it’s transcendent.

If you have a 6-rated show or movie, please share it with me! The 6 spot shouldn’t change frequently. 6-rated shows are those that are influential not only because of the plot, message, and so on, but it’s influential because of where you were at in your life when you first encountered the work. Many people have shows that they encountered at just the right time in their lives, shows that changed their destiny.

Avatar is that show for me.

That’s my rating system! It makes sense to me, and if it makes sense to you, all the better.

Best,
~Dennis

The problem with swords in children’s animation

Children’s animated programs, particularly action shows, often feature characters with swords. However, due to the inherently violent nature of swords, creators are hamstrung in portraying the accurate use of weaponry.

Fantasy action shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and ThunderCats feature a lot of fighting, but the violence is often sanitized since these shows are technically for children. In this post, I want to explore the use of swords in children’s animation. Many action heroes carry swords, as they seem—on the surface—less violent than guns. But any kid knows that swords are instruments of death.

Which is why creators of animated programs need to abstract how swords work, creating fantasy worlds were swords do not operate the way they should, or characters don’t use them the way they are intended. While these sanitations might fool some, I never bought them as a kid. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but I always felt that these shows were lying to me in how they depicted the use of swords.

I’ll show you why.

Using swords in combat

Swords are meant for cutting, slicing, and chopping, yet cartoon characters cannot hit each other with swords, as anybody knows that a sword will leave a mark. Ranged weapons are easily sanitized. Children’s shows typically use lasers in place of guns with bullets. A character can shoot a glowing pink or green projectile at another character, and the impact is usually shown. Laser guns don’t exist in real life, so there’s no harm in showing kids this form of violence.

Melee weapons are meant to hit a person, and in some ways, the close-quarter combat of melee weapons is a more primal, visceral experience than shooting guns.

The challenge for animators is: how to depict these weapons in shows targeted to kids?

Some shows, like Dungeons & Dragons (1983), limit the use of swords all together. The Barbarian, or fighter character, carries a club instead of a sword.

Barbarian in Dungeons & Dragons

The Cavalier, a Paladin scrubbed of religious overtones, carries a shield.

Cavalier in Dungeons & Dragons

And Diana, the Acrobat, carries a staff.

Acrobat in Dungeons & Dragons

These weapons are fine, of course (except for the shield. No kid role-plays as the guy with the shield), but swords are so much cooler!

Think of the Sword of Omens in ThunderCats (1985). It’s such a powerful weapon. Lion-O, however, chained by the constraints of 80s moral television, doesn’t use his sword to hit people.

In the following example, the Thunder Tank is stolen by Mumm-Ra’s henchmen. Lion-O attacks, not by cutting his enemies, but by slicing the barrels off the tank’s guns.

Lion-O attacks

Guns on Thunder Tank sliced off

He stands over his enemies, and instead of attacking them, let’s them run away.

Lion-O stands over henchmen

ThunderCats

How many of the ThunderCats’ problems would’ve been solved if Lion-O actually used his sword on his enemies? If he wants to live a life of peace and refrain from killing, then carry a stick, not a sword.

Cartoon characters often find ways of using swords in ways that defy logic, even to children.

The sword as a defensive weapon

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) is my favorite animated show of all time. The show has been praised for its accurate depiction of war, genocide, and child abuse. The show is meant for kids, and the creators are usually successful in not talking down to children, but in adapting these serious issues in ways that make sense to them.

However, even Avatar pulls its punches.

One of the main characters, Sokka, isn’t a bender. He cannot manipulate the elements of fire and earth and water like his friends. Instead, he uses melee weapons, like a sword and boomerang, in combat. However, he frequently uses these weapons for defense, rather than offense.

In one episode, he helps rescue his sister and the earthbenders from a Fire Nation prison. The guards attack the kids with spears, and Sokka uses his sharpened boomerang not to attack the soldiers, but to break their weapons. As he slices the heads off spears, he tosses them up to Aang’s flying lemur Momo.

Sokka slicing spear

Sokka slicing spear

Momo catches spear heads

In Season 3, Sokka is feeling sorry for himself because he can’t do cool things like all his bending friends. His friends suggest that he needs a master to teach him how to fight. He becomes the pupil of a Fire Nation sword master, and later crafts his own sword out of a meteorite. As I watched that episode for the first time, I got really excited. Sokka finally has an awesome sword! And he’s trained in using it!

Sokka's master

Unfortunately, the space sword merely becomes a stylized version of his boomerang. He uses it not for offense, but for defense. On the Day of Black Sun, when the resistance fighters invaded the Fire Nation, Sokka led the charge, once again resorting to disabling weapons.

Sokka on the Day of Black Sun

Sokka on the Day of Black Sun

What’s strange about swords in animation is that they are often shown to be more powerful than swords in real life. In many shows, they are simply lightsabers made metal, able to cut through anything. For example, in Samurai Jack (2001) Jack uses his sword to cut through robot after robot as if they were butter.

Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack

In the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012) Leonardo slices through the Kraang in much the same way. The Kraang are brain-like aliens that control powerful robots by residing in their stomach cavities. Leo has a remarkable ability to slice exactly through the center of the robot without somehow cutting the brain, as seen in the opening.

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

Holding back

Even though swords can’t really cut through metal, having the good guys cut through robots, cannons, and weapons with their swords is okay from time to time. Just because a hero uses violence to solve problems doesn’t mean they always have to kill.

That said, in some cases, it would make much more sense for the character to use the sword to at least injure or incapacitate their enemy.

Let me give you a couple more examples from TMNT.

The Kraang control these deadly robots, and while disabling the robots is sometimes part of Turtles’ mission, it doesn’t really solve their problem. The Kraang, the brains, are the problem. Destroying the robot only makes the problem go away temporarily.

In one of the early episodes of the 2012 series, the Turtles infiltrate a Kraang base. Leo slices through a Kraang droid, leaving the brain exposed.

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

The Kraang tries to run away, presumably to alert the other Kraang in the base that the Turtles are here. Even though Leo would be perfectly justified in killing the little brain (after all, the Kraang are trying to terraform planet Earth into a replacement Dimension X, a move that would likely kill all life on earth), Leo steps aside so Mikey can clobber the Kraang with his nunchuk.

Mikey hits a Kraang

Mikey hits a Kraang

Given the cartoony stars floating around the Kraang’s head, I’m guessing he won’t be out for very long.

In another episode, Donatello invents a robotic turtle, Metalhead, to do his fighting for him. Metalhead is a little slow and clunky, but has incredibly high-powered weapons. While initially devastating a squad of Kraang droids, one brave Kraang plugs himself into Metalhead, takes control, and starts attacking the Turtles!

Kraang on Metalhead

The Turtles expend a lot of effort attacking Metalhead the robot, even though their weapons are useless against him. Leo in particular swings his swords not at the Kraang placed conveniently on top of Metalhead like a cherry, but at Metalhead’s face.

Leo attacks Metalhead

Leo attacks Metalhead

Why, though? The problem is not with Metalhead, but with the Kraang on top of Metalhead!

One of the worst examples of holding back comes from Avatar, season 3. Sokka and Zuko break into a Fire Nation prison, the Boiling Rock, to save Sokka’s dad. As Team Avatar is escaping, Azula, the baddest princess around, confronts Sokka and Zuko atop a cable car.

Azula attacks Zuko and Sokka

Azula shoots fire at Zuko, which he blocks. Sokka, hiding in the wing, rushes ahead, sword pointed at Azula’s face.

Zuko blocks fire

Sokka attacks Azula

Azula

For a split second, Azula is actually terrified. Sokka points the sword inches from her face, and then mysteriously, pulls back so Zuko can attack Azula again!

Sokka attacks Azula

Zuko attacks Azula

Zuko attacks Azula

Sokka had the perfect opening: Azula so rarely lets her guard down. Every time I watch this scene, I cringe. What’s the point of Sokka having this awesome space sword if he can’t even use it?

Predictably, Azula flies away, escaping harm yet again.

Azula escapes

The loopholes

Children’s animators clearly feel pressure to restrict the use of swords, especially when it comes to harming other human characters. However, animators are clever at bending the unspoken rules of television to include more palatable forms of violence.

Samurai Jack, for example, predominantly fights robots. He frequently dismembers robots, and sometimes oil and sparks exit the robot’s wounds as if they were blood.

Samurai Jack attacks robot

Samurai Jack attacks robot

Attacking robots is fine, though it should be noted that children’s shows like Samurai Jack and TMNT often feature very lifelike and humanoid robots: it’s a way of having graphic violence without technically hurting anybody.

What bothers me most about swords in children’s animation is that they are frequently used to cut or kill other living, non-human creatures—monsters and fantasy beasts.

In one episode of the 2011 ThunderCats, an ocean’s water is stolen by a giant plant monster, turning the ocean into a desert. Lion-O gets sucked inside this monster, then slices it open from the inside, restoring the water.

Lion-O cuts plant monster

Lion-O comes out of plant monster along with water

Plant monster returns water to ocean

TMNT uses this same cop-out. The Turtles fought a giant plant creature with tentacles and claws called Snakeweed. Leo slices through one of the tentacles, spewing purple guts everywhere.

It’s okay to show this kind of violence, apparently, because Snakeweed is “not real” and it’s not really “blood” coming out of it.

Turtles fight creature

Leo cuts tentacles

I guess in the minds of the creators? the censors? the television execs? parents? violence against monsters is okay because MONSTERS ARE BAD and MONSTERS ARE NOT REAL and MONSTERS ARE NOT PEOPLE.

As a kid, though, I never made those distinctions. To me,monsters and mutants were just as human as the human characters. Mutants and monsters are living creatures with their own goals, intelligence, and spirit. Harming a mutant should be no different, in these fictional universes, than harming a human.

What’s interesting is that TMNT, in particular, often goes out of its way to show that the mutant enemies were in fact humans at one time. Snakeweed, moments before the fight with the Turtles, was a misguided gangbanger named Snake who teamed up with the Kraang. In the midst of the battle, a ton of mutagen, the substance that creates mutants, spilled on Snake the human. Look at the pure terror on his face as he transforms into a vile mutant.

Snake transforms into Snakeweed

Yes he’s a bad guy, but does that mean his humanity is stripped away simply because he becomes a mutant?

At the end of the episode, Leonardo burns Snakeweed up with a power core, leaving him for dead.

But remember, by the standards of children’s television, this is okay because Snakeweed is NOT A HUMAN.

Overcoming the problems of swords in children’s animation

One children’s show that pushed the graphic use of swords pretty far was ThunderCats 2011. From time to time, they actually showed Lion-O hitting enemies with his sword. True, he never sliced through the more human-like enemies, and there was never any blood, but at least there was an impact.

Lion-O attacks Lizards

Lion-O attacks Lizards

Lion-O attacks Lizards

While this is uncommon, it’s apparently okay by the censor’s standards as the lizards aren’t human. The world of the ThunderCats is populated entirely by anthropomorphized animals who are quite human in their emotions, rationality, and goals.

So how should swords be depicted in children’s animation?

One possibility is to get rid of them entirely, the same way realistic guns are largely absent from children’s animation. I’m not sure, though, that this solves anything. No matter what method of violence a character uses—lasers, fists, magic, throwing rocks—some amount of sanitation is usually applied.

If swords are left in, then they should be depicted somewhat realistically. If a character is going to flash a sword against another living creature, then they should use that sword on the creature. The gore can be sanitized a bit—I’m not advocating for Kill Bill levels of blood in children’s shows.

But children’s animation should show the consequences of violence, and show that swords and other weapons really do hurt people. I think kids can accept this even at an early age. Avatar: The Last Airbender is the gold standard when it comes to showing the consequences of war: if only they’d pushed the realism of violence a bit farther when it came to swords.

After the closing credits roll, kids will go into the backyard to reenact the shows they just saw. My brother, cousins, and friends did this all the time. We role-played as Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, soldiers, professional wrestlers, even Freddy and Jason from horror movie fame. We used sticks for swords and bananas for guns.

And we learned early on that if we got too rough, and somebody got hurt, then we needed to pull back.

Using swords to slice through robots and mutants and monsters is a distraction. These sanitations might make the violence acceptable to network execs, parents, and censors, but kids can see right through it.

Give kids more credit: they understand what swords are meant to do.

~Dennis

Everything I Read, Watched, or Played to Completion in 2013

A few years ago I started keeping track of my media consumption. I’m not sure why, but considering I research mass media, it only seemed natural that I should look upon my own media consumption habits.

How I keep track of my media has fluctuated over the years, but currently, I track every non-fiction and fiction book I read to completion, every graphic novel and comic book I read, every television season I finish, every movie I watch, and every video game I complete.

The list, though, is not perfect. I don’t keep track of television that I just watch here and there; only series that I intentionally watch from start to finish. So even though my list doesn’t include The Big Bang Theory, for instance, I doubtlessly watched many seasons this year on rerun.

I keep track of every video game I play from start to finish, but some games are never finished (and some can’t be finished, like Minecraft). I also don’t keep track of the time I spend watching other people play games, like my roommates.

While I keep track of the graphic novels and individual comic books I read, I don’t keep track of the web comics I read regularly (like Penny Arcade, the Trenches, and Camp Weedontwantcha).

And let’s not even get started on calculating how much time I spend on the computer and the Internet, whether for work, school, or pleasure.

The Completion List of 2013

  • Nonfiction books: 13
  • Textbooks: 2
  • Graphic Novels: 3
  • Comic Books: 6
  • Video Games: 29
  • TV Seasons: 24
  • Movies: 42
  • Total Media: 119

Interestingly, I completed no fiction books last year. In previous years, I read a lot more fiction AND non-fiction (in 2012 I read 7 fiction and 37 non-fiction; in 2011 I read 14 fiction and 29 non-fiction).

The six individual comic books comes from Free Comic Book Day.

I really stepped up my game playing this year. I replayed a lot of classic games, like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Donkey Kong 64, Star Fox 64, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Donkey Kong Country.

Last year I only completed 12 video games.

The Best and Worst of 2013

When it comes to television, I find a few shows that work and stick with them. I watched four seasons of X-Files, which I’ve never seen before. It’s a pretty good show, though a little long at times (I’m not even halfway through yet).

Avatar: The Last Airbender is easily my favorite show ever: I watched that series twice in 2013 (I’ve probably watched it 6 times total). I also watched the sequel, the Legend of Korra, seasons 1 and 2.

Cowboy Bebop is also on perpetual rotation; I usually watch it every summer at least, though I’m itching to watch it again. Bebop used to be my favorite show until Airbender topped it.

Notable video games include: Ocarina of Time, Tomb Raider (2013), The Walking Dead, Final Fantasy XIII (third playthrough), Portal 1 and 2, and Kingdom Hearts II.

I usually don’t play bad video games, but there were some games I never finished. Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 is one. I liked it as a kid but never completed it (I always got stuck on one particular boss toward the end). I tried playing it again, thinking I could finish it as an adult. I got halfway through and just got bored.

I’m a huge Final Fantasy fan and decided to replay FFXII for the PS2. I remember thinking the game was decent when it came out, and enough time had passed that I forgot the details of the story. I got about 20 hours into that game before calling it quiets. The story, cutscenes, dialogue, and characters are just so bad that I couldn’t stand it (and I’m not talking about the graphics, either; aged graphics from the PS2 era don’t bother me the way they bother some people).

Now that I think of it, I tried replaying Final Fantasy X-2 last summer but only got about 10 hours in.

When it comes to movies, it seems like I mostly watched bad movies or so-so movies last year. Movies I could do without seeing again: Star Trek: Generations, Watchmen, Quantum of Solace, Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, Fargo, Hellraiser, Hot Rod, and The Sword in the Stone.

Conclusions

I’m not sure what I accomplish by keeping track of my media consumption. Like I said in the beginning, the list isn’t perfect and leaves out a lot. And I have no idea how my consumption relates to others’ consumption. Watching 42 movies in the year seems like a lot, but that’s less than one a week. Watching 24 television seasons also seems like a lot, but then again, shows count seasons differently: they can range anywhere from 6-26 episodes depending on the show (and most of the shows I watch are half hour in nature, not an hour like live-action dramas).

I just find it interesting to keep track of this stuff. Looking over this list, I don’t have any goals or “improvements” to make in 2014, except maybe watch fewer bad movies.

~Dennis