Engaging Honestly

Or, Why Captain America: Civil War did not work and Rogue One did. Spoilers for both.

I did not like Civil War. There were enjoyable parts of it (Spiderman), but mostly I couldn’t stand it, and the thing that bugged me the most is that the script refused to engage honestly with the central problem: should superheroes have to be registered and overseen by some kind of representative government?

I only read some of the Civil War comics, since they are spread over almost every character in the pantheon, often imposed on the storyline in a way that feels inorganic, and tend to derail the arc of each character when it intersected with the Civil War story. And since the “event” was so clearly a ploy to try to get you to read other comic lines that you might not be in, it was annoying, as blatant cash-grabs often are.

But at least in the comics Tony/Iron Man has legitimate reasons to be in favor of superhero registration, versus Steve/Captain America, who is against it as registration as its enforcement becomes more and more draconian and fascist. Registration is anti-freedom, as far as he is concerned, more about who the superheroes are than what they do. Steve and Tony both come at a difficult question from different perspectives, and address it in ways that are more or less true to their characters.

In the Civil War movie, the conflict is much more one sided. After several horrific missteps and attempted genocides by people with superpowers, the government wants some oversight. After The Age of Ultron, in which several of the characters are walking weapons with nuclear-bomb-level destructive capacity, it seems like they should not simply be independent actors who get involved with global conflicts whenever they feel like it. And in the movie, Captain America is against having oversight because governments want to bring Bucky Barnes, who has murdered a lot of people, in for questioning.

Captain America is proved right through the laziest storytelling possible: the government is both corrupt and being suborned by this Zemo character, so it actually is better for the world, and more fair to Bucky, for Captain America to win. But he “wins” because the story entirely undercuts his character and the central conflict. It’s a narrative cheat. In an internally consistent world, with the conflicts set up by previous movies, some civilian, government-driven oversight of superpowered individuals would be highly preferable to superpowered vigilantes and terrorists who rarely think through the consequences of their actions, even if they intend good. Heck, maybe just coordinate with local medical facilities if you’re going to risk injuring people. Governments aren’t always right, but at least in theory, they represent the interests of the social contract and hopefully the majority of their citizens.

A more interesting conflict would have been if Tony wanted full out registration and control of superheroes, and Captain America wanted consequences only if superheroes violated laws. Perhaps control versus cooperation and guidance. Or a question of whether governments should care about who people are or what they do.

If you want to tell a story about corrupt governments, that’s fine, but that is not the story Civil War set up; the corruption was tacked on to stack the deck for Captain America’s side. Winter Soldier was a much better telling of basically the same story: the helicarriers’ mission was wrong because that much government intrusion and targeting people because of who they are or who they have the potential to be is inherently wrong–made worse when it’s controlled by Hydra, but wrong in and of itself.

Engaging honestly with a premise is one of the reasons that I thought Rogue One worked, even after with any number of storytelling missteps and missing scenes. Most of the characters were paper thin and hard to connect with, but the movie engaged honestly with both the idea of war and what it requires of individuals, as well as the consequences of going up against a bigger and stronger foe.

The reason people are saying that it’s the first Star Wars story that felt like a war story is because it is the first one that acknowledged that even if you’re on the moral side of a war, it will still exact a terrible price from you. Cassian Andor has murdered for the Rebellion and hates himself for it. The Rebellion may be right, but his actions eat away at him. He is the cost and consequence of war writ small. (Saw Guerrera is possibly supposed to be another example of that, but he had way too little screen time.)

And the end, in which everyone dies, engages more honestly with the premise of the final act than I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster movie before. I was sure that at least Jyn and Cassian would be saved, but no. They went up against impossible odds and they died. We’re so used to seeing suicide missions where side characters die, maybe even beloved side characters, to make it feel “real”, but by the conventions of blockbuster storytelling, our heroes will never die. So endings lack punch and real stakes. Rogue One never pulled any narrative punches. People die in war; not just the plucky comic relief, or the guy who’s already lost his whole family so has nothing to lose. Many people die. Good and bad people. Doing the right thing is its own reward, not something that earns a happy ending with the romantic partner of the character’s choice. The fact that Rogue One killed off all of its main characters shows astonishing narrative honesty, and elevates this film far above any of its problems.

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Doctor Strange was pretty good!

(Mild spoilers herein, but no spoilers for the ending or major conflict.) As hard as it is to pay attention to anything but our new Russian overlords, I actually have done a few things besides fret about politics and bug my reps in the past week. Like hang out with my dad in Manhattan and watch the new Marvel movie Doctor Strange. The character of Doctor Strange was my first exposure to Marvel comics, and I still have a soft spot for him, and the latest movie was far more fun than I had any reason to expect.

I am still annoyed that Oded Fehr didn’t play Strange (a common fancasting on tumblr), and thought that maybe switching Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting would have made for a more interesting movie. I’m still not sure what to think about casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. The Ancient One in the comics is a bald-faced Asian stereotype–the inscrutable zen master–and it was pretty cool to have all the men in the movie looking up to a woman instead. On the other hand, the world does not need more white-washing.

I was also not thrilled about the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange because while I think he is both charming in interviews and a good actor with more comic chops than he’s usually allowed to show, he is a bit typecast as the arrogant jerk whose arrogant jerkiness is valorized because he’s good at his job (House, Sherlock in the new incarnations, a million cable news dramas), but the movie undermined that and taught him humility and how to be less of a jerk. Critics have said that Dr. Strange is a low rent Tony Stark, but I think this is a far different character and story than that. When has Tony Stark ever learned humility?

The movie has a low-grade humor that reminds me a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy, and a high-grade weirdness that reminded me of what Inception could have been, had it been more truly about dreams and less of a heist movie. The humor, though, really helped sell it for me. This movie has a goofy premise, and the humor keeps it from feeling too portentous. Perhaps the writers made it funny on purpose to avoid it being unintentionally funny–whatever the reason, it worked, and made this odd world seem more lived-in.

They also remade the character of Wong, another Asian stereotype (this time the pidgin-speaking, totally loyal servant) into a good character in his own right, who is in no way subservient, or even serving, Strange. Rachel McAdams was also wonderful as Strange’s former love interest. She evinces a lot more self-respect and understandable reactions than female love interests often do in Marvel movies. I love me some Pepper Potts, but in the first Iron Man movie, she’s fairly foolish about Tony, and Jane Foster in the Thor movies is cartoonishly silly sometimes. McAdams’s character gets hilarious reactions to the bonkers stuff going on around her that don’t diminish her in any way.

The weirdness in this movie is so great. Fairly early on, The Ancient One forcibly sends Strange on a vision tour that is incredibly trippy and unsettling. CGI often makes movies feel sterile to me; this used CGI to do things that are mind bending and impossible.

There is a fantastic fight scene between a powerful villain and Strange when he is still very much a beginning sorcerer that is so much better than, say, a fight between Iron Man and Captain America, for one because you are actually rooting for one of them, and, more importantly, because the character you’re rooting for is over-matched.

I liked how this movie provided a reason for a wise sage to want to train the arrogant former surgeon who barely believes in magic. It’s not out of the goodness of her heart. In too many stories, jerks find their teachers and their teachers mold them into better people out of the goodness of their hearts, or because, as we’re told but rarely shown, the jerk has a heart of gold somewhere under his prickly exterior. Instead, the Ancient One trains damaged people with nowhere else to turn, making them into her army that holds back chaos and destruction. She doesn’t save people because they deserve it, or save them at all. She takes people who have no other meaning, and gives them meaning so they will serve goodness.

The movie was not without its problems–some pacing issues, and some personal transformations that felt vague or un-earned. Still, it was better than it had any right to be, and I look forward to seeing what happens next for the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m hoping Doctor Doom vs. Doctor Strange: Triumph and Tragedy, one of my favorite super-hero comics of all time.


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Movie Rec: Spotlight

I just got back from a two week research trip to Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and I will have some posts to make about that, but I still need to gather my thoughts.

When I got back on Friday, I wasn’t that tired, but I wasn’t up to tackling my editing yet. I hadn’t really consumed much media for 2 weeks. We were living out of a tiny camper van, and it was cold enough in Iceland that I wanted to be out touring all day rather than sitting around a camp site reading and trying to stay warm.

When I got back, I decided to finally watch Spotlight, which won the best picture Oscar this past year. I often avoid prestige pictures because they can feel weighed down by their self-importance, but I was very curious about this one and it did not disappoint. Spotlight is the story of the Spotlight investigative reporting team at The Boston Globe, which investigated and then revealed the Catholic Church’s conspiracy of protecting and transferring abusive priests around parishes rather than keeping them from hurting any more children.

It’s a very businesslike movie in many ways. It revolves around our characters at work, and has few personal moments, or moments of overt drama. At one point, one of the key reporters played by Mark Ruffalo gets to make a passionate speech, but it does not have the effect he wants it to, at least not immediately. By being so relentlessly focused on the mechanics and legwork of bringing this story to the public, rather than hitting the usual narrative beats, the film feels fresh and interesting

One of the things that really elevated the film, I thought, was showing every character’s complicity in covering up the story, while making none of the on-screen players a real villain or a pure hero. Even a lawyer who seems to be profiting from helping the church settle and cover up these cases did try to get the press to investigate it, and another lawyer who helped cover it up eventually becomes a key player confirming the story. The film also illustrates how easy it is to go along to get along, even when that covers up something of this magnitude.

Another thing I really liked was how the film handled the testimony by the victims. It worked very hard to make the characters who do tell their stories into individuals, frustrated, angry and hurt, and show how the abuse affected them without being lurid about it. Sexual violence does not need to be shown on screen for viewers to feel its impact, and perhaps it’s better for films that want to engage with the issue honestly not to show it.

The Globe released a book that rounds up some of the 600 articles that they did on this subject, and I plan to read it after this. It’s hard not to want to delve deeper into some of the individual stories they only touch on.

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Why I Loved Villains in My 20s (And Don’t So Much Anymore)

Actually, it started earlier than my 20s. Darth Vader was the best. Of course, the Alliance had to win, and I would have been pissed if they didn’t, but Darth Vader’s redemption arc was the most interesting thing to me about the original Star Wars trilogy. (And let’s not talk about the other movies. I like to pretend they don’t exist.)

But I also thought the Empire had sharper uniforms, and much better ships, and the Imperial March is by far the cooler theme music.

I think when you’re a kid, or a young adult, and feeling fairly powerless, fictional villains can be very attractive. Villains don’t give a shit. Villains will use the force to choke you if you’re incompetent. Villains get the best outfits. Villains are pragmatic about getting what they want, and don’t care what other people think of their methods. Villains refer to themselves in the 3rd person. “Pain is a thing for lesser men. What is pain to Doom?”

Villains also have tragic back stories, usually, if they’re good fictional villains. Imagining one’s self as a villain leads to all kinds of enjoyable, self-pitying wallowing. If you feel misunderstood, imagine how misunderstood Dr. Doom must feel. But he has Doombots. He probably feels better when he can deploy those. Plus, the people of Latveria love him. Can I move to Latveria?

However, if you delve into the construction of stories with really great villains, you start to notice that the villains either get a redemption arc, or they are constantly defeated by the heroes. A villain is only as good as his enemies. Dr. Doom, no matter how much I love him (and I still do), has his stories hamstrung by some of the most irritating heroes in the Marvel universe. Ugh, The Fantastic 4. Especially Sue and Reed. Soooo boring. And the fact that Doom can never defeat them makes him a little boring too.

You also start to notice that the best villains are only sort of villainous, and mostly just have their own agenda. Doom, sometimes, Magneto, all the time.

And finally, you start to notice that real life villains are either really pathetic, evil in a totally unpleasant/deranged way, and/or privileged, careless people, people who were born on 3rd base and think they hit a triple. Which is to say, then the Bush administration happened. Darth Cheney is a funny joke, but in real life, he is a guy who loves power, and had a totally unrealistic view of how the world works, and forced a whole bunch of people to die for that power and those beliefs. There’s nothing interesting there. I don’t care why he is the way he is, I just don’t want him in charge of anything ever again.

You also might read things like Eichmann in Jerusalem

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