Tor.com content by

Leah Schnelbach

Definitively Ranking Every MST3K Short

Compared to most cult-inspiring TV shows, MST3K is a shambling beast. They’re all two hours long! And if you’re trying to watch with an opinionated group of viewers—say your family and friends at Thanksgiving—you have to navigate which host to go with, whether TV’s Frank is there, Corbett vs. Beaulieu vs. Yount… it gets complicated. The best way I’ve found to avoid all of those issues is to go with the shorts. They’re quick, the hosts don’t matter as much, and they’re so deeply weird that they make for a pure, concentrated does of MST3K. And so I present, this definitive wholly subjective ranking of almost every short!

My hope is that this list helps you, yes you, better enjoy—and maybe induct some new members into—the greatest pop cultural cult of all time.

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What If I Told You John Wick Was a Portal Fantasy

The first John Wick begins as a film we’ve seen many times before. A hitman has retired. He was drawn into “normal” life by love, and for a while he had a house in a suburb, drove his car at legal speeds, and went for romantic walks with his wife. The two of them probably had a takeout night, and a favorite Netflix series. But, as in all of these kinds of movies, the normal life is a short-lived idyll, violence begets violence, and the hitman is Pulled Back In.

The thing that makes Wick so beautiful is that what he gets Pulled Back Into is not the standard revenge fantasy. Instead being Pulled Back In means literally entering another world, hidden within pockets of our own. Because in addition to being a great action movie, John Wick is a portal fantasy.

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5 Heroes Who Use Non-Traditional “Weapons”

What could be more heroic than Luke Skywalker igniting a lightsaber, Aragorn charging the Black Gates with Andúril drawn and ready, or Iron Man blasting his way through the minions of the Ten Rings? What is more heart-stirring than watching Neo dodge bullets or Asuka kick the crap outta some Angels?

But what if you long for something else? Like a hero who eschews violence where possible—one who finds a way to save the day without fists or swords. I’ve gathered five heroes who may not always avoid a well-timed punch or kick, but tend to pick non-violent tools as their “weapon” of choice.

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8 of Our Favorite In-Universe Superfans

It’s safe to assume that if you’re here on this site you’re a huge fan of something. Maybe it’s Brandon Sanderson’s writing, or V.E. Schwab’s. Maybe it’s DC Comics, or Marvel’s Netflix shows. Maybe it’s all things Star Wars, or maybe it’s the sci-fi genre as a whole. Fandoms can be enriching, they can be found families, they can be outlets of boundless creativity. And one of of our very favorite things in modern pop culture is that after many years of fans being derided for being too nerdy or even creepy, many films and TV shows have started including characters that are themselves fans, to create a meta Greek chorus.

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The Unlikely Philosophy of Joe Versus the Volcano

At the dawn of the ’90s, a film was released that was so quirky, so weird, and so darkly philosophical that people who turned up expecting a typical romantic comedy were left confused and dismayed. That film was Joe Versus the Volcano, and it is a near-masterpiece of cinema.

There are a number of ways one could approach Joe Versus the Volcano. You could look at it in terms of writer and director John Patrick Shanley’s career, or Tom Hanks’. You could analyze the film’s recurring duck and lightning imagery. You could look at it as a self-help text, or apply Campbell’s Hero Arc to it. I’m going to try to look at it a little differently. JVtV is actually an examination of morality, death, and more particularly the preparation for death that most people in the West do their best to avoid. The film celebrates and then subverts movie clichés to create a pointed commentary on what people value, and what they choose to ignore. Plus it’s also really funny!

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Five Fictional Universes That Might as Well Be Fantasy Worlds

Here at Tor.com, we spend a lot of time thinking about fantasy, worldbuilding, sword lineages, how centaurs give birth—you know, the important stuff. But sometimes I just want to kick back with a movie or a TV show from a different genre. An action movie, maybe, or a comedy special. But then, before I realize what’s happening, I find myself analyzing the film or show before me as though it too, is speculative fiction. What are the rules of this “21st Century New York”? That dog the hero has just rescued, can it speak? Sure, right now this beefy man and his found family are planning an intricate heist in a modern South American city, but is it possible that by the end of this film they’ll all be…in space?

It’s possible that this job has colored my thinking in certain ways. But the more I ruminated, the more it made sense to me that several of my favorite pop cultural artifacts are actually operating as fantasy worlds, despite their alternate genre labels. I’d love to hear about your favorite fantasy-adjacent worlds in the comments!

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On the Significance of Harley Quinn’s Split Lip in Birds of Prey

One of the many fantastic things about Birds of Prey is the way it gleefully throws different visual languages and references into a movie blender and expects its audience to keep up. Characters and iconography from the DC Universe crash right into a neon ’80s aesthetic. Gotham sometimes seems like a real city, and sometimes seems more like a whimsical, Burton-esque fever dream. But right when we settled in to enjoy a fun rollercoaster of a movie, the film throws two very specific visual cues together and changes its whole tone.

One is common to musicals: the glitzy song-and-dance number that shows the audience a character’s inner life, as in the ballet at the end of An American in Paris, the Buffy episode “Once More with Feeling”, or Elisa’s dance scene in The Shape of Water. The other is common to, well a lot of movies: the moment when a vibrant, charismatic female character is somehow forced into submission by a male character.

These are not chocolate and peanut butter—these tropes do not play well together. And when Birds of Prey combines them the effect is chilling.

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Murderbot and Chill: TV Recommendations for Our Favorite Terrifying Murderbot

Have you read Murderbot? If you’ve read Murderbot then you know Murderbot is the BEST. Martha Wells’ series balances tense action with a delicate commentary on trauma, while a giant mystery slowly unfolds over the whole series, and she spikes each book with acidic bursts of sarcasm. When we meet Murderbot, it’s on a job at an archaeological dig, trying to keep its clients alive while hiding the fact that it’s hacked its governor module and has free will, and, thus, the ability to MURDER. It doesn’t want to murder, it just wants to hang out and watch all the serials it’s downloaded, but since the humans keep getting into all kinds of dumb-and-potentially-deadly situations, it has to keep hitting pause and going off on rescue missions.

This is the great innovation of Martha Wells’ series. Unlike Marvin or Data or any of the other depressed/tragic robots and androids and cyborgs we’ve met in media, Murderbot A) does NOT want to be human (it doesn’t even want to look human) and B) it just wants to be left alone to marathon-watch media.

Relatable Content.

So when we were thinking of ways to celebrate our favorite Murderbot, we decided that the thing it would love most was a list of stuff to watch, should it ever come through a wormhole that leads to Earth in 2020. Some of these are obvious choices; some of ‘em might need some explanation. We’d love it if you add your own thoughts below!

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The Magic of Steven Universe in 3 Episodes

Steven Universe comes to an end tonight. I had planned to undertake a massive Steven Universe rewatch to prep for the finale, and, of course, a GIANT ESSAY to go along with that rewatch, cause all I wanna write, and all I wanna type, is a GIANT ESSAY (GIANT ESSAY).

But all of my planning has gone the heck agley at this point, because I’ve ended up watching this show in lockdown, glued to Twitter and panicking over medical reports and hate crimes. Rather than just a fun rewatch, Steven Universe has become bright life saver. Maybe shaped like a donut? Here in my apartment, the Crystal Gems always save the day.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the Path of Resistance

It sometimes gets lost in discussion of Star Wars that the Empire and the First Order are, essentially, Space Nazis. Through all three Star Wars trilogies, the villains are members of an authoritarian regime that wants to conquer every world and culture in the galaxy, flatten any kind of rebellion or free thought, and crush individual liberty. Every other fandom argument aside, what the series is about is resistance to oppressive rule, sometimes through fighting and guerilla tactics, sometimes through non-violence.

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Punching a Timeless Clock: Temporary by Hilary Leichter

One of the joys of being a professional book critic: the moment when you hit a passage you absolutely know you’re going to painstakingly type into a browser and quote at length to show off an author’s style. One of the joys that comes less often but for that is all the more joyful: when you’re a third of the way into the book and you can’t decide which passage to quote because literally you could lift paragraphs out of this whole thing and each one would be as good as the previous. This happened while I read Hilary Leichter’s debut, Temporary, and I have quoted a lonnnng passage from this book toward the end of the review, which I chose after days of internal debate.

But before we get there, I need to ask you a few questions. Have you ever been mauled by the grinding cogs of a thankless job? Forced yourself to laugh along with a boss’s flirting? Spent days working on a project only to discover that the next project renders the first project irrelevant? Spent days waiting for a temp agency to find you something, anything, so you can make rent this month? Please? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you have been waiting for Hilary Leichter’s debut. If I had to sum it up in a non-spoiler way, I’d say it’s a surreal tale of a temp worker going from job to job with increasingly spec fic results.

But more than that, this book is taking a long hard look at work, the way a job can commodify us and strip us of our humanity, and it does it while being uproariously funny.

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The Quiet Hero’s Journey: Processing Trauma in Fantasy

In The Goblin Emperor an airship explodes, killing the emperor and his three eldest sons. We later learn that this was not an accident, but the work of assassins. Later still, we learn that those assassins have been apprehended. Why am I telling you all of this? Doesn’t this ruin the book?

Not remotely, because the book isn’t about any of that. All of those action scenes, the scenes that would be in the trailer for Goblin Emperor: The Movie, happen off-page. Rather than showing us action sequences we’ve seen a thousand times, the book spends its time dealing honestly with aftermaths. As I read it I was reminded of another book that, on the surface, is quite different: Jo Walton’s Hugo-winning Among Others.

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Revenge Comedy: And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks’s previous collection, The Unfinished World, was one of my favorites of 2016. (You can read my review of it here!) So naturally I was excited when her follow-up, And I Do Not Forgive You, landed on my desk. I’m happy to report that I was correct to be excited: this collection is wild ride through rage and gender upheaval and death and ghosts and fairy tale tropes that constantly slalomed around my expectations.

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The Fantabulous Birds of Prey is the Batman Returns Sequel We Need

I have waited many a year for a proper sequel to Batman Returns, and I’m happy to tell you that Birds of Prey is IT. It’s the first comics film that really captures the spirit of those first two Tim Burton Batman films—big and brash and cartoony but also gothy and noir. When it wants to be fun it’s the MOST fun, but when it wants to go dark and, especially, highlight the ways people who present as women, or who the characters and society within the film perceive as women, are crushed by society, the filmmakers are more than happy to make the audience sit with their discomfort. Birds of Prey gives us five antiheroic women who are worthy heirs to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selena Kyle.

Except there are mallets. And roller-derby. And a funhouse. And a hyena.

Go see it!

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23 Retellings of Classic Stories From Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors

We love a good retelling—whether it’s a favorite fairy tale, ancient myth, or epic tale, it’s always great to see old things made new. Part of the reason we love these stories is because they’re so malleable; with themes that span the breadth of the human experience, tales of love, revenge, and adventure can find a home in any place and time, with characters that feel both familiar and fresh at the same time.

As we started thinking about of favorite retellings of classic stories, so many brilliant adaptations, updates, and re-workings came to mind. Here are just a few that we adore! Please feel free to add your own in the comments.

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