Kaiya McCullough has opinions - strong opinions - on the Percy Jackson movies, which were adapted from the book series of the same name.
“They were way too old in the movie,” she said immediately when asked what about the movies was such a letdown from the books. “The characters didn’t look like they should have. They forced the romance between Percy and Annabeth way too fast. That wasn’t until book three or four that they looked each other.”
She stopped herself at this point and summed it all up as the movies clearly being “made for the theaters.” But she definitely could have continued on in this vein for much, much longer.
McCullough is a mythology fan. And a magic fan. And a superpowers fan. She likes a lot of things off the field - just as there are fans of McCullough the pro athlete, McCullough has her own fandoms. There’s Percy Jackson of course (the books, not the movies), Harry Potter, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Disney, the Marvel cinematic universe...
McCullough mentioned most of this in the launch of her Youtube channel, filmed in a hotel room in Utah as the Washington Spirit were (at the time) playing in the Challenge Cup. Over the phone, she said she hopes to be able to keep up with posting and talk about all of her interests, which include her anti-racism work, getting her teammates to come on, and makeup tutorials.
Right now, McCullough is nearing completion of her Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch on Netflix. She admitted she hasn’t yet seen The Legend of Korra - the show came out at the same time that she was getting serious about soccer - although considering that show is now on NWSL streaming partner CBS All Access, perhaps she has an in to get a free account.
“I still take so many lessons from it as an adult,” she said. “I just love the concept of The Last Airbender and how it integrates so many different cultures into it. I think the story’s so good. And honestly I don’t laugh a lot with shows. I kind of will like laugh internally, like when I say ‘lmao’ or ‘lol’ I don’t actually laugh out loud. But with Avatar I genuinely laugh out loud at some of the stuff that happens in it and some of the lines. I think it’s so funny and so relatable. The character arcs in it are incredible.”
She has a fondness for Toph - who doesn’t. “Her parents try to control her whole life because they don’t think she’s able to do something and she’s one of the most powerful benders on the planet,” said McCullough.
But her favorite character arc is Prince Zuko’s. “You start off hating him but you understand where he’s coming from,” she said. “All he wants to do is prove his honor, restore his honor and please his dad, and probably a lot of us have gone through something similar. You want to prove people wrong. I think his arc is so cool because he’s saved from that line of thinking. I think he’s really redeemable, he’s very human.”
That’s a running theme with McCullough: she likes characters who are deeply human, with all their strengths and flaws, their sometimes superhuman abilities limited by their very human weaknesses. It’s why, she says, her favorite MCU character is Thor. The god of thunder is one of the most powerful in the MCU, and yet is also susceptible to his emotions like the rest of us. “I loved Thor in Endgame like when he got bigger and was a lot lazier and actually was super depressed and I thought wow, he’s really the god of thunder and here he is having very human problems because all his friends are dead,” she said. She reacted to the way that the character had internalized his guilt from Infinity War (as you’ll recall, he could have killed Thanos before he snapped but took too long actually killing him, nice one Thor). The jokes about Thor getting fat she could have left, she said; what actually resonated with her was his emotionally honest reaction to such a critical failure.
Black Panther was another highlight for her. “That was a really cool movie for me to watch as a young Black woman,” she said, adding Spiderman and Scarlet Witch to her list of favorites. “I legitimately love those movies and I think those characters are all so special too. I just love putting myself in their shoes. I wish I was a superhero. I’m not and that might be the saddest thing about my life.” The MCU is also a way for her to bond with her father, a massive comic book fan who she said could respond with an essay on any question. They’re both excited for Phase 4 and the exploration of the more celestial side of the Marvel universe.
But before Marvel, McCullough spent her formative years reading Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. Harry, Hermione, and Ron were a part of her life through middle school, as she and her friends all read the books together. You’d better believe there was a visit to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World - in Orlando, because though McCullough grew up in Mission Viejo, it hadn’t come to Hollywood yet. “I literally spent eight hours there to the point my family ditched me. I was like 12,” said McCullough. “They were like, we’re going to go do other things in the park.”
She quickly rattled off a list of all her favorite things at Wizarding World: seeing the wand ceremony at Ollivander’s (and the subsequent disappointment of not getting picked to be chosen by a wand in the show), riding the Forbidden Journey, walking down to Hogsmeade and Honeydukes and going in on every-flavor beans, chocolate frogs, and butterbeer. “I did have some money to spend, and spend it I did,” McCullough reminisced. She also got a wand.
Then there was time McCullough waited for an hour at her local library to get an autograph from Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson books. “They did an entire day where they decorated the entire plaza into Camp Halfblood, which is the camp in the movie,” McCullough said, immediately making sure I knew that Riordan had nothing to do with the movies.
But the books - as a self-professed mythology nerd, McCullough loves the books, and she’s excited for the recent announcement of a live-action series for Disney Plus. The show could be a chance to fix what was wrong with the movies, which McCullough thinks certainly did a much worse job of adapting from page to screen compared to Harry Potter. She’s gone fairly deep into the wizarding world, with some extended forays into Pottermore. She likes the worldbuilding details, but doesn’t like to focus on how some of them fall apart under too much scrutiny. “Sometimes when you think too hard about it, it kind of makes me anxious,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just kind of like it is what it is. That’s just how it was designed.” Got it - we won’t be arguing over things like the possibility of using the seemingly fixed exchange rate of galleons, sickles, and knuts to get rich buying and selling gold in the Muggle world and repeatedly converting between the two.
She was thoughtful when asked about J.K. Rowling’s blatant transphobia and if it had soured the fandom for her. “I totally get that feeling of like, well does this still apply to me or can I still enjoy this book? Cause it is frustrating. If she’s invalidating your existence as a person, yet the books meant so much to you growing up, I can see how that would be completely devastating,” she said. “I think there was some reconciliation within myself with that, but I think Harry Potter as a whole, the world, offers a lot of refuge for a lot of people in many different ways. Whether people were seeing themselves in a character, I don’t know. I hope that it continues to be a beacon of hope and strength for people.... I don’t think that the words of an author, though she wrote an amazing book series, I don’t think she should be hailed as god in this case.”
It comes back to that core of humanity that McCullough seems to appreciate in what she reads and watches. She enjoys stories about extraordinary people with human flaws, people who make mistakes, who can be annoying and fallible but do their best to make it right. “It’s very humbling,” McCullough said. Perhaps as someone in a profession where there’s often a strong expectation of heroic feats, it resonates with her to think about how everyone eventually stumbles and muddles their way through. Maybe she just likes fun adventures with cool people who have powers. Maybe it’s both; the beauty of fandom is that you can take what you need from it.
Perhaps McCullough herself will eventually lay it all out in a Youtube video; we went over on our originally-scheduled time slot, and she would have happily talked even more about all her fandom interests. Perhaps we’ll circle back around after the Percy Jackson TV show has aired; McCullough will definitely have more opinions then.