MCU: The Millennialist Cinematic Universe

 

“Apocalyptic” or some variant is one of the words most commonly used to describe Avengers: Infinity War. (Go ahead and Google it.) But what do we mean when we talk about the movie as apocalyptic? Christian eschatologists who consider Christ’s Second Coming to be an actual future event have fallen into two broad camps. Postmillennialism is a brand of Christian eschatology which holds, in MLK’s formulation, that the arc of the universe, though long, bends toward justice, and the material realization of God’s kingdom is within the grasp of humankind; we can and will, in short, create heaven on earth. Premillennialists hold, by contrast, that the world is headed for an apocalyptic reckoning—a trial by fire—and that all we can do is prepare for that time of trial. There are other eschatological views, of course, and most are quite old, but this dichotomy has been active in American popular culture since about the late nineteenth century.

These two traditions represent different types of Christian temperament, if you’ll forgive both my reductionism and my broad generalizations. Postmillennialism makes heroes of builders, whereas premillennialists make heroes of martyrs. In postwar America, for instance, postmillennialists often were those who embraced the American Century and the exceptionalism of the United States, seeing the period of prosperity and world leadership as an opportunity to make the world a better, more just place. At the same time, premillennialists built themselves a cottage industry of prophesying social decline, reading the tea leaves of current events as signs of social collapse ending only in nuclear disaster. Taken to extremes, each temperament has a sort of dark side. Postmillennialists tend toward confidence but sometimes arrogance. Premillennialists tend toward wariness but sometimes hysteria. Both represent different ways to embody hope.

These eschatologies inflect pop cinema, too. I think it fair to say that certain kinds of entertainment embody certain forms of eschatology, especially those which traffic in romantic modes or motifs. Our genre films, in other words. One might regard horror films as premillennialist, since in such films that which you fear almost always turns out to be both real and worse than imagined. You could (and should) perhaps place Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978), for instance, the same continuum as Howard Beale and Jack van Impe.

By the same token—on that token’s flip side—a great many of our superhero films are essentially postmillennialist. Leaning heavily on mythic typologies, heroes make their world a better place, restoring justice and expanding its reach and scope. The protagonists who survive horror films aren’t usually those who are full of hope; it’s usually those who are prepared or willing to do what it necessary to survive. But the protagonists of superhero films exist to impart and embody hope itself. Crises in superhero films are usually resolved by a contest of might, but that’s because in superhero movies, as in popular mythology, right makes might. The recent Justice League film very explicitly invokes the trope that we now need again—and are indeed living in—a new golden age of heroes. These heroes heal the broken world as they heal themselves.

But the Marvel Cinematic Universe guys into this trope far more convincingly than does the DC Universe. How many times has Tony Stark learned to be a better man and as part of a process of self-reformation also saved the rest of us? What is Captain America other than a representation of the struggle to be righteous in a deeply unrighteous world? The bildungsroman—even one featuring middle-aged characters—has been wed to the hero of a thousand faces in nearly every MCU film to date to varying degrees of success. The structure of these movies forbids that they end in defeat for the heroes, because the defeat of the heroes would also cut short their moral development. It would deprive the audience of hope, and the world would be made manifestly uglier and more depraved. While a premillennialist might see this as a necessary and inevitable precondition for eventual redemption, postmillennialists see backsliding as unnecessary and avoidable. Premillennialists don’t create superheroes; they build fallout shelters. Postmillennialists fight for denuclearization and write stories about radioactive spiders turning neighborhood kids into good-natured crimefighters.

Again, I’m using these terms analogically, and very loosely at that. My more theologically-literate readers undoubtedly have pulled out so much hair at this point that they’ve practically scalped themselves. The point I wish to make is simply that apocalypse narratives are almost always about hope, but there are different ways to think about apocalypse, and they operate in very different ways. Not always mutually exclusively, natch, but as I said: this is more a matter of temperament and tone. And I don’t think we can understand the failure of Avengers: Infinity War without bearing this in mind.

Aaron Bady wrote one of more flaming hot takes on Infinity War. His most incisive observation is as follows:

 

There’s an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers “team up” movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it’s the “job creator.” But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the “team up” movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: “Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!” they say; “Look how it makes you feel!”

But it’s a bad movie. It’s a bad movie in the way extractive economies are bad stewards of their chains of production; it takes interesting, complex, and very delicate stories and it reduces them to extremely simple versions of themselves, massively degrading the underlying system. They are complex ecosystems, these stories, their development a function of careful nurturing and adept pruning. Infinity War looked at those stories and saw fields, turned the fields into grain, turned the grain into money, and then spent the money. Infinity War learned the lesson of Game of Thrones: people are so desperate to feel something that they will mistake narrative sadism for powerful storytelling.

And it works, the way a strip-mine “works.” Spider-Man: Homecoming did interesting stuff with youth and with a youth’s relationship to a figure like Tony Stark—and with Tony Stark’s burgeoning feelings about playing a “parent” role—and so Infinity War brings that to a climax by making Tony Stark watch a terrified young man die in his arms. Black Panther came out of nowhere to be the biggest movie in the franchise, by far, a character whose narrative was rather uniquely tied to actual world history—and uniquely detached from Marvel’s historical timelines—and so Infinity War put him in his place by making his death meaningless, random, and utterly disconnected from everything that his story had been. Gamora’s relationship with her father was a mix of complicity, love, and hate, all forced on her against her will as a child; her death was her (inadvertent) assistance to his plan where he kills his darling. And Loki is a character who has died many times and always come back; when Thanos kills him, it means something that he declares, “No resurrections!”

So on and so on: if we feel things with these deaths, it’s because they are climaxes to stories that other movies have carefully developed. But only as end-points, only as final withdrawals. Infinity War has nothing to add to what those previous movies say about youth or about complex feelings about parents or about the African diaspora; moreover, because all of its deaths are transparently going to be taken back, it has nothing to say about the finite nature of life. Indeed, even though Thanos’s pseudo-Malthusian motivations would seem to be related, on some level, to Tony Stark’s discovery of a perpetual energy source in the first MCU movie—and his decision to make it into a weapon, instead—it doesn’t develop the problem of societal limit points that it might otherwise seem to be thinking through; other than linking the two characters in their final battle, the fact that Thanos can only understand power in terms of the power to destroy is a fitting climax to Iron Man’s story without doing anything interesting to develop it.

Bady leads himself into several tangents in the course of his essay, and I don’t endorse all of them wholeheartedly, but the quoted observations above do speak to my own experience of watching Avengers: Infinity War.

Extractive economies as a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Infinity War wouldn’t be my first choice, though I think Bady’s use of extractive economies would apply just about as well to what I’m about to say. The reason mainstream superhero comics don’t work for me is that they are deliberately, calculatedly inconsequential. The big companies maintain the illusion—or, for fans who lack any semblance of self-awareness, perhaps a mass delusion—of continuity of each character’s own history as well as the continuity of the history of each one’s shared universe. Couple the impossibility of doing this over the course of decades (with anything less than a Jaques Tati-level control over the sheer number of moving parts and revolving door of creative teams for each title) with the marketing imperative of grand events every few years: narrative stunts that utterly upset everything we thought we knew about the status quo. These stunts are always resets or reboots. They themselves are also inevitably reset or rebooted.

 

I’m old enough to remember the death of Superman. It made front-page headlines. DC even experimented, for a while, with the novel idea that Superman would be replaced—not with Clark Kent, but with one of four potential heirs to his title. This, of course, could not stand. Clark Kent was eventually reborn. He took his title back. And after some fiddling with his costume and hairstyle, he was plain ol’ Superman again, back to doing Superman-y things. And out of the event, DC gained a new villain for its writers to play around with: Doomsday, who peaked a bit early, it must be said. They also gained the characters of the two surviving heirs, one of whom was unfortunate enough to be played by Shaquille O’Neal in a film adaptation. But none of it really mattered in a macro sense. The nature of the DC universe wasn’t really altered. The most interesting storyline in modern comics—“A World Without Superman”—did not become the new reality. After a requisite mourning period, the hundreds of characters who comprise the DC universe woke up on day and, market imperatives be praised, no longer had to grapple with the reality of Superman being gone. They could just go back to the way things were.

When I raised this point with a friend of mine recently, he pointed out that continuity and consequence aren’t really the point of such events. He pointed out that Peter Parker dying in Tony Stark’s arms at the end of Infinity War is a genuinely tragic moment for both characters, and that it’s a moment which builds on the established relationship from Civil War and Homecoming. Which is to say, it doesn’t matter if Peter’s death is undone in the end: what matters is how emotionally traumatic the moment is for Tony and Peter, who must have felt that moment so keenly. A corollary point could be raised for the death of Superman: even though Superman came back from the dead, it doesn’t erase the emotional response of the DC universe to his death, especially for characters like Lois Lane or, indeed, Lex Luthor. The point is that Superman was always going to come back; the point is that when he died, everyone else felt it, and that made it meaningful.

All stories—whether in comic books or not—build relationships, and when a character dies, it is always in some ways about the surviving characters. The audience is meant to process the death of a character not only via the audience’s relationship to that character, but also through the responses of the other characters in a text. From that perspective, my friend is right. Peter Parker’s death is incredibly meaningful for Tony, and we are meant to feel that loss through Tony. The fact that Tony is there for Peter is incredibly meaningful for Peter, and we’re meant to feel the poignance through Peter.

But my spirits weren’t crushed like Tony’s are, and I’m not sure that Peter will even remember that moment once the great retconning of the finale-to-come takes place. That’s because I know that this is only the midpoint of the story. I know that the MCU is a world of heroes who save the world. Everything done can be undone. Instead of feeling Tony’s loss in the moment, I can only objectively perceive that he’s feeling loss. What I actually feel is the supreme confidence that this, too, shall pass, and thus that it is but another obstacle, no different narratively from any other.

The arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is long, but it bends toward justice, in other words. This particular arc is substantially longer, and happens to be separated into two films, but it’s no different from the arcs in any of the standalone films. So while other fans and critics were totally gobsmacked or heart-wrenched or infuriated by the ending of Infinity War, I found myself simply floating along in a cocoon of postmillennialist complacency. But the death of half the sentient beings in the universe should be narratively different from every other obstacle. The fact that it won’t be highlights the shallow postmillennialism of the Avengers series.

Imagine, if you will, a MCU that had the guts to kill off all the characters that are erased at the end of Infinity War. No resurrections (as Thanos declares, improbably, of Loki), no takebacks, no loopholes. Can you imagine a MCU like that? In a universe where literally half the major characters are simply wiped out in the span of five minutes, such a travesty would be genuinely unjust. It would feel like a violation. That is, it would feel utterly wrong—but only if all the films leading up to it failed to build a universe in which things like this happen. Of the Marvel movies so far, really only Thor: Ragnarok actually countenanced the failure of its heroes to save the day. But because the film takes a humorous and callous attitude toward the destruction of Asgard, the ending still feels like a victory. 

Some narrative choices might lead you to think that it’s a victory that comes with a cost, but the film doesn’t really delve that deeply into what otherwise would be a series of personal cataclysms for the film’s hero. Thor’s allies from the first two films are killed without any emotional register, and he loses no one else besides Odin, who dies on his own terms anyway. All the Asgardians who die are part of the faceless crowd. (Except Skurge, I guess? Anyway, the film plays his death as a meaningful sacrifice.) And Thor: Ragnarok takes no time to mourn the passing of so many people. Infinity War picks up right from that moment, and utterly obliterates any chance that the MCU will reckon with the death of Asgard or most of its diaspora. It’s gutless and cheap, and nobody seems to care except Thor, who is utterly traumatized. 

Now: can you imagine a MCU where every major character who survives the finger-snap of doom will have to live the rest of their lives sharing a trauma like Thor’s?

The answer is no. It’s obviously no. Because a MCU that would force the original Avengers to live out their lives with that level of psychological damage would be a MCU that would force its audience, too, to live out its life (or at least however long it took until the next reboot) with the permanent and fundamentally unjust deaths of Peter, Bucky, Wanda, T’Challa, Strange, all the Guardians save Rocky, and more. Such a move would surreptitiously end a third of its money-making franchises. Such a move would enrage not just the un-satisfiable nerd demographic (which will hate everything you do no matter what anyway, unless it unrestrainedly loves you for utterly fathomless reasons) but also the general audience whose only investment in Marvel is through the MCU. Ignore, if you can, the corporate suicide of trying to move merchandise over the next decade which is based on characters who died so ignominiously. Think, if nothing else, of the parents who have taken their kids to these movies over the years. Think of the kids who have grown up with these characters. Think of the people for whom the MCU is, as many claim, the equivalent of a modern mythology. Everything about the narrative and market logic of the MCU militates against Infinity War, by itself, being consequential.

If the ending of Infinity War were to matter, it would require the decision-makers at Marvel Studios to commit to the consequences of such a catastrophe. They can’t. They won’t. Nobody who understands anything about storytelling or marketing would expect them to. The MCU is a fundamentally postmillennialist franchise. The tragedies are always little tragedies—or, at least, the big tragedies are held in narrative abeyance. The real tragedy might be seen, it might even be felt, but it holds no power. Everything comes right in the end. Infinity War is not the end, it’s a midpoint. A relative hiccup. Even if you don’t believe that, never fear: your faith (or lack thereof) still will be rewarded.

Avengers: Infinity War feels wrong—or refreshing, I guess, depending on how you felt about it—because its structure violates the narrative logic of the MCU. In one very important way, this is what makes Thanos a great villain: perhaps the greatest of the MCU so far. He’s a villain whose very presence perverts the narrative logic of the entire franchise. But only for a moment. There is simply no way that the MCU can retain its branding and grapple adequately with the horror of what Thanos has done. Of course, Thanos did what he did to give the MCU’s creative team a reason to break its first Avengers trilogy into two films. The choice before Marvel Studios is thus, abstractly, fairly simple. It can embrace the radical upending of its entire brand posited by Infinity War, or it can turn Infinity War’s sequel into just another story where the heroes save the day. 

There’s no way that it won’t be the latter. But that makes Infinity War itself a failure as a standalone film. And as an event that purportedly ties together a dozen-plus other storylines, it will inevitably turn out to be even more inconsequential. This is what makes it a failure as a nexus point or even as the first of a two-parter. Unless Marvel Studios wants to commit to having every MCU film from here on grapple meaningfully with the finger-snap of doom (which, again, it can’t and won’t), this cliffhanger is utterly meaningless. The narrative logic of the MCU will erase it with its own snap of the fingers. Temperamentally and tonally, Infinity War is out of phase with the MCU, even though it pretends to be the MCU’s lodestone.

There’s nothing wrong with a film being postmillennialist, but there’s everything wrong with a film not comprehending that it’s fundamentally postmillennialist. Avengers: Infinity War does not embrace that it is part of a postmillennialist franchise, hence its arrogance in thinking that the finger-snap of doom is consequential. A good postmillennialist story could still grapple meaningfully with loss and violence and seemingly senseless destruction. Black Panther practically nails the perplexities of utopian process. Think of Yondu’s sacrifice at the end of Guardians Vol. 2, for instance. Or Pietro Maximoff in Age of Ultron. The tragic fate of Tony’s parents and Cap’s desire to undo the tragic fate of Bucky—whom he’d thought lost over 60 years ago—give emotional and psychological structure to Civil War. And when beloved dead characters come back—such as Phil Coulson or Groot—even that can be handled well. Groot didn’t magically get to come back as his old self; he grows up a new creature into an expanded family. And that moment when Nick Fury explains to Coulson that he warranted the unprecedented experimental procedure because he, too, was an Avenger—it was a moving recognition. These resurrections are fitting and just, and they are earned by the embedded postmillennial narrative logic.

Is there any way, really, to earn in a narratively satisfying way the return of a dozen dead characters in one film? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent a whole season unpacking Coulson’s resurrection. Groot has (re)grown up before our eyes. Bucky has been redeemed over the course of three films. Each of these characters got a narrative arc of his own over the course of multiple films. Can you imagine that most of the characters wiped out in Infinity War will get similar treatment in their standalone films? Are the sequels to Black Panther or Spider-Man really going to take the time to process this catastrophe? Or will the finger-snap of doom be relegated in those sequels to the same kind of trivial function that “The Incident” (read: the climax of the first Avengers) serves in Netflix’s Marvel series? Forget their standalone films. I certainly can’t imagine that the finger-snapees will return before the midway point of the next Avengers film’s running time. Maybe not even until the climax itself, 3/4 of the way through. Maybe Marvel Studios will surprise me. But I’ve been around comics for a lot longer than the MCU has been around, and there’s not much it could do that would.

Moments like the apocalyptic finale of Infinity War are only meaningful when supported by the logic of the entire narrative. They need set-up and follow-through. Even if you think there was meaningful set-up for the semi-genocide at the end of the film, there will be no follow-through. There can’t be. Bady notes—correctly, I think—that Infinity War’s logic is extractive, not postmillennial. At best, it’s premillennialist, but not consciously; not artfully. Which means that the entire Infinity War saga is just some random thing that happened: a cosmic burp that momentarily interrupted these characters’ lives and left a lingering acidic aftertaste. And if faith in justice and the triumph of hope is rendered inconsequential in what is supposed to be the most consequential event in the MCU, what does that tell you about the MCU’s commitment to the temperament that has made it the premier pop canon of the dawning millennium? ☕︎

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Ready Player One ☕︎ d. Steven Spielberg, 2018

Some observations about Ready Player One, a film I more or less enjoyed. Contest these as you please.

1.) It’s a surprisingly ugly film. And I don’t mean in the sense that the Oasis—the MMO where basically everybody in the future spends every last available scrap of their dismal lives—looks like every trashtopia dreamed up in the eighties smushed together. (It is that, too. The color palette alone is off-putting. But there are some moments of beauty strewn throughout.) I mean the cinematography looks too crisp, and that means the lighting lacks the texture I’ve come to expect from Janusz Kaminski. Sets feels like sets. Lighting effects feel like lighting effects. I dig that expert directors like Spielberg are experimenting with hi-def digital photography, but man, this film did not look good. Maybe I’ll change my mind about this upon a re-watch.

2.) And that ultra-crispness in the photography only makes the CG scenes look worse. Yeah, Ready Player One is a sprint through the uncanny valley of death. One thing that I’ve been puzzling over is whether Spielberg meant the uncanny valley effect to bleed into the scenes set in the real world. Nothing in the film looks or feels real, even though it’s shot in the most high-quality way available. Again, a re-watch may change my mind.

3.) The video-gaminess of the Oasis is itself simultaneously well-captured and off-putting. From the incessant camera movements to the way nobody and nothing in it moves quite right to the stylized character designs and mannerisms, Ready Player One feels like one neverending cutscene. I’m ambivalent about that.

4.) Both in and out of game, there is always too much to see. One of the film’s greatest accomplishments—again, I admit I’m ambivalent—is that it’s genuinely overwhelming. Appropriately enough, viewers could likely spend a lifetime picking out every easter egg in the film. But would the volume of accreted details actually enhance the film or make it more meaningful? Or are they just… more? This is a question that probably depends very much on what each viewer brings to the film, and in its own way, it comprises a kind of game for the right kind of viewer. Ready Player One: pop cinema as a cascading series of Where’s Waldo? checklists.

5.) I’m not even going to bother talking about whether the film is postmodern or what that might mean.

6.) I’m more interested in the realization of Ready Player One as a decadent feast. As a piece of escapism, it’s… well, mileage may vary and all that. The basic appeal seems to be that it’s a chance to vicariously enter into the artifacts of nostalgia. The most fun I had watching the film wasn’t even the chase scenes or the final battle. Two scenes stood out to me. The first was the recreation of The Shining as a place, rather than a narrative. No longer simply an artifact, the film itself is something the players can jump into and walk around in, and many shots in that sequence were simply stunning, even when the waltzing ghosts of Disney’s Haunted Mansion were grafted into it. The narrative of The Shining no longer matters: only the love of particular moments and places within it. Then there’s the climax where Wade Watts, the hero played by Tye Sheridan, gets to talk to his god, the designer of the Oasis. James Halliday (Mark Rylance) takes Wade into his childhood memory, where they walk around young James’s bedroom: a sanctuary, an oasis, utterly cluttered with pop culture bric-a-brac. It’s a very Brian Wilson moment. That scene in the bedroom is also quietly moving.

7.) I said that the Shining set piece transforms a narrative into a place, and I think there’s something interesting going on with Ready Player One that is all about space and narrative. More specifically, it’s about memories and how they are used to construct narratives. But the narrative of Ready Player One is that Halliday has essentially turned the Oasis into his autobiography, and the player that is able to find the keys he’s hidden throughout it will experience the narrative of his life and come to really understand who he is. And who he is, it turns out, is the Oasis: a place. Wade gleans most of his clues in his easter egg hunt from a gallery of tableaux that showcase various moments in Halliday’s life. Here, too, memory is presented in terms of space, and with the ability to rewind, fast-forward, pause, etc., those memories are not intrinsically temporal. They’re only temporal when viewed and made part of the narrative of the player’s life.

8.) Much video game criticism for the last 20-odd years has focused on the form of video games as distinct from narrative. There are couple big through-lines Ready Player One engages. The first is that one about space. In video games, you explore and traverse space in a participatory way that is unique to them. But that space, its representation, and its interface with the user are all governed by algorithms. Which are fancy, exceedingly complex, semi-autonomous sets of rules. Games are rules. So it’s really, really weird how one of Halliday’s main themes is his hatred of rules. I’m not sure that this movie really does enough with that subtheme. One of the pleasures of a good game is the ludic freedom of playing within constraints, but seeing how far you can bend them to your advantage or the skill with which you can manipulate them. Yet Ready Player One spends a lot of time contrasting Halliday’s purity with the neo-feudalist corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), which only wants to use the OASIS to further its control over the populace. The fact that Halliday is an obsessive with a god complex is muted by the enthusiasm the heroes have for his creation and the fact that it is pretty cool and all.

9.) Like all of Spielberg’s attempts to critique corporate capitalism, this one, too, feels vacuous. While it feels prescient enough, it’s genuinely weird that the film ends with a small group of gamers taking control of the Oasis and imposing their will on it as if that’s not a wee bit authoritarian. The main difference between them and the evil corporate goons is that they won’t profit from… oh, wait, no, that’s not it. Hm… Unlike the corporate goons, they don’t arbitrarily make rules about… er… Well, they don’t enslave people through indentured servitude. Which is good.

10.) What really makes the bad guy bad in this film is that he doesn’t have fun with the game. Well, that and he commits murder. But he commits murder because he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t relish gaming for its own sake. Which, again, is a wicked insight, because Halliday is the one who established the framework for winning the easter egg hunt. The prize is a controlling share in the wealthiest and most powerful corporation in the world. It’s a competition with no rules that prohibit abusive capitalist practices and with a prize that absolutely incentivizes them. So what if nobody has fun playing the game anymore? The point is not to have fun; the point is to win, because the stakes for winning are as high as they get. Halliday is deluded if he doesn’t get that. Maybe that’s part of the point. But Halliday, in the end, doesn’t feel like the subject of critique; he feels like so many other Spielbergian dreamers, a misunderstood soul whose inability to grow up is what grants him some sort of moral authority.

11.) Like many of Spielberg’s attempts at political provocation, Ready Player One fumbles a lot of the nuances, but it posits a lot of great problems. At its root, Ready Player One is about commercializing the subjectivity of escapism. Spielberg (and presumably Ernest Cline, who co-adapted the script from his own novel) celebrate the subjective agency of escapism. The free play of imagination is a touchstone in Spielberg’s body of work, and though he often tempers his embrace of its transformative power (Hook is a perfect example), he does seem to think it a good thing. But Spielberg has always been discomfited with commercializing the fruits of imagination, even though a case could be made that nobody of his generation except, perhaps, George Lucas, is better at doing that very thing. In short, there is no escaping the commercialization of escapism in a Spielberg film. To Spielberg’s credit, the contamination of imagination by commercial reality is always something he wrestles with, but there’s no getting around the fact that he has—very lucratively—benefitted creatively and monetarily from that intersection for going on fifty years.

12.) An perhaps unexamined problem in celebrating the subjective agency of escapism is the way Spielberg embraces subjectivity itself. Spielberg’s fantasy heroes are often very self-centered in their embrace of imagination, which is to say, there’s a sort of self-therapy streak to it all. Roy Neary, for instance, embraces the wonder of his close encounter; it earns him a ticket off this rock, but it destroys his family in the process. Even when other-directed, the self-actualization of Spielberg’s heroes tends to be tribal.  In Ready Player One, Wade wins Halliday’s game, but instead of democratizing corporate decisions, giving all players a share, or finding other ways to subvert the system, he decides to run the world with his “clan.” So he finds community, but his tribe remains at the pinnacle of society’s hierarchy. This is a kind of escapism, certainly; it’s the escapism of the one percent, which has liberated itself—perhaps even, as in Wade’s case, through hard work, skill, help, and a bit of luck—from the problems of being one of the other ninety-nine. As long as they can have their fun, everything must be hunky-dory. Rather than shatter the subjective navel-gazing that structures Halliday’s game—and the lives of our heroes—Spielberg seems to arrive at at place where his heroes can be in the one percent but not of it, which is apparently a win in his book.☕︎


Aestheticized politics in the age of digital retweetability.

 

Hitler also maintained a keen interest in the weekly newsreels or Wochenschau throughout the war period, at least up until 1944. No newsreel could be released without having been viewed and, if necessary, altered by Hitler. A copy of the Wochenschau, with a typescript of the text that was to serve as voiceover, was sent regularly to Hitler’s Adjutants Office. Frustratingly, next to no record survives of what he changed, or added. One thing is clear: Hitler’s scrutiny of the newsreels and military documentaries, as well as his earlier commissioning of Riefenstahl’s Nuremberg rally films, reflect a preoccupation with the representation of his image. Hitler was strongly media-conscious, powerfully aware of the capacity of film and newsreel to project his chosen view of reality and of himself. It is well known that, as the war wore on, Hitler’s public appearances became rarer and rarer. Just as significant was his withdrawal from the newsreels. His physical debility, probably brought on by Parkinson’s disease, was now hard to conceal. Equally hard to deny was the likely outcome of the war. Given that he could no longer be represented as he wanted to be, he opted not to be represented much at all. Goebbels tried desperately to persuade Hitler to show himself more often, in public and in the newsreels. Hitler largely refused, feeding rumours about his ill health. In a sense, that Hitler absented himself from the newsreels was already a concession that the war was lost.

–Bill Niven, “Adolf Hitler, Film Fanatic”

This article in History Today reminded me of an article my friend Kevin had written more than a decade ago for a little magazine published by some fellow classmates of ours. His argument, if I recall correctly, had been that Hitler was, in essence, perhaps the most significant filmmaker of the twentieth century. His attention to detail, the singularity of his vision, and his commitment to marshaling the resources of the German state to realize it all contributed to his oeuvre being one of the most efficacious in the history of cinema. Which is to say, it mobilized political evil on a scale that was and remains, I suspect, unprecedented. Put another way: the compelling horror of the Nazi regime would be unimaginable without cinema. And I would argue that that is true both of the propaganda ministry and of our historical memory of the regime’s atrocities.

This was something Walter Benjamin tried to get at in his classic essay, “Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility.” And I think these lessons are as relevant as ever in an age where flash mobs of protesters are organized, convened, and filmed with dissemination in mind. Not to mention that the president of the United States cares more about himself and his image than he does anything else in the world.

Kevin’s argument (again, if I recall correctly) was essentially auteurist. Though Hitler as artist displaced directors, producers, and scriptwriters — typically the ones ascribed signatory stature in auteurist theory — I think found the argument to be more or less persuasive. Something I’ve been thinking about is whether anything other than a Marxist theory of film can account for authorship in a networked society. What I mean is this: let’s say that there’s a Trumpist kind of media representation. Donald Trump is actually pretty good at managing his image, loathsome though it is to many of us. But he’s not, properly speaking, a filmmaker. Not even in the stretched-thin way that Kevin applied it to Hitler. He’s not hands-on with all the representation the way Hitler was. But he is currently the focal point of a whole mode of representing social reality that is common parlance to the Trumpist conservative movement. Dinesh D’Souza keeps making movies, but he’s just one part of this. There’s also Fox News. There’s the legion of Internet trolls. And then there are the friendly media outlets — such as those owned by Sinclair — which also push a pro-Trump line.

(Mind you, I’m using Trumpism as an example because it’s easy-to-hand. Feel free to supply your own counter-examples as ballast if you feel the need. Whatever it is I’m fumbling toward is not, in my mind, an explicitly partisan thing.)

The most important thing, I think, is to bear in mind the dialectical relationship between Trump, the institutional media, and social media. (I guess a better term might be “trialectical,” but not in the way Lefebvre meant.) To reiterate, there’s no centralized coordination going on here. Not that I’m aware of, anyway. What does it mean to aestheticize politics in this era, where art’s mechanical reproducibility is effectively democratized? I don’t really know, and I don’t have the energy to speculate further on that now. But I’m going to keep thinking about these questions: without a central figure, does aestheticized politics lose its efficacy? And is the state any longer necessary as a controlling structure for focusing such efforts? Does the wide availability of digital film equipment and social media comprise a pendulum swing toward politicized aesthetics — and if so, has it turned out better or worse than Benjamin could possibly have imagined?


Black Panther ☕ d. Ryan Coogler, 2018

Here are some things I liked about Black Panther, the deservedly successful movie about T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), an African king who gets super-strength from a local herb and near-invulnerability from a suit of armor. Spoilers follow.

Production Design. Everything about Wakanda looks awesomely Afrofuturistic. There are obviously problems in this place, but one of the big things at stake in the film is whether utopia can still be utopia while building a bridge with the outside world. The production design sells that idea of vibrant harmony in ways that the dialogue just doesn’t have room to do. Meanwhile, Busan is a 1980s neon dreamscape: exactly the kind of place where a breathless chase with a remote-controlled car and a spear-wielding valkyrie would make total sense.

That Car Chase. Speaking of which, it’s one of the highlights of the many set pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let alone this film.

General Okoye. Can we just take a second to talk about what an incredible badass Danai Gurira gets to be in this movie? She does everything T’Challa does, except backwards and in high heels without superpowers and in an evening gown. More than that, Gurira instills a sense of hard-won righteousness in a character legitimately torn about her duty. Never once does Okoye make a decision that is not driven by her loyalty to Wakanda and its traditions, and none of her decisions are easy. I mean, the entire cast is great, and Boseman is a terrific lead (and Letitia Wright is his great little sister). But honestly, the person this movie made me really root for was Okoye, and I hope to see much more of Gurira in starring roles in the future.

Killmonger. Marvel movies often suffer from lackluster villains. A great villain needs to be grounded in comprehensible motives while also being larger-enough-than-life to present a catastrophic threat. Andy Serkis is delightfully flamboyant and transparently evil, but doesn’t play a proper Big Bad. Michael B. Jordan is both grounded and larger-than-life, and his terrifying, nihilistic anger is fueled by a laundry list of legitimate grievances. Few villains these days are persuasively tragic without neutering their evil aura. Jordan’s Killmonger is tightly written and superbly acted, and he walks that tightrope with grace.

Thorny Politics. The main arc of the story and of Killmonger’s origin is rooted in a Shakespearean family feud, but as in Shakespeare, the royal drama is an entryway into a nexus of thorny political issues ranging from the legacy of Europe’s colonial conquests to American slavery and institutional racism, even touching on global migration. I don’t think the film adequately sorts through those issues. It can’t. I think one of the takeaways from Black Panther is that systemic problems cannot be solved by a single hero, a single nation, or even the work of a single lifetime. That’s tough to say, and it’s tough to hear. Much hay will likely be made for several years over the film’s inadequate sensitivities or nuance toward decolonization and race, and I’m certain that many will simply remain staunchly skeptical that any product put out by Disney/Marvel could possibly be taken seriously as a work of political art. That’s fine. I think it’s simply worth noting that our film’s hero never contradicts the villain’s allegations against the colonial world, including America. He simply won’t permit apocalyptic revolution to be the way forward, and he’s willing to risk trying to solve these problems in the second-worst way possible: through diplomacy. I dig that Boseman has acknowledged that T’Challa is not optimally placed to take that stand..

That Ending. The final scene of the movie is darn near perfect. Marvel finally made its mothership connection.

A Few Gripes. There were things that didn’t do as much for me. Some of the CG was dodgy, and the supporting cast was perhaps a bit overstuffed. (I love Martin Freeman, but his character seriously did not need to be in this movie.) Coogler’s handling of the action sequences was sometimes choppy. On whole, though, I dug way more than I didn’t about Black Panther, and it is one of Marvel’s best movies so far.

In Relation to the MCU. One of the secrets of its success, I think, is that it is so little dependent on the Infinity War plotline. Though perhaps a bit bloated in terms of its runtime, I think Coogler and his editors cut the film very efficiently, and the focus never strayed from what this film is about. When compared with, say, Doctor Strange (another Marvel film I actually rather loved), it’s revealing to consider how much of that film was spent delivering expository dialogue. All stories need exposition, but Black Panther delivers so much of it with careful attention to costuming, staging, music, etc. (in short, through good filmmaking) that the dialogue can focus on the big character beats and let viewers absorb the rest through osmosis. If an Infinity Stone was dropped into the middle of it, that balance would be thrown off even more.

Much as I look forward to Avengers: Infinity War, a movie like Black Panther simply makes me excited to see more Marvel movies spotlighting particular heroes, especially if Marvel continues to give each filmmaker just enough latitude to make each movie individually meaningful while still participating in the same universe.☕


2016-2017: A Books Review

As in my last year-end book recap, this post will cover books that have enriched me in some profound-yet-vaguely-defined way. Two key differences, though: 1.) I’m reviewing two years’ worth of reading at once, and 2.) I’m including both fiction and nonfiction. In truth, I haven’t read nearly as much fiction as I have in previous years, which is mostly due to my dissertation research. Apart from prose style, I still generally feel that ranking fiction and nonfiction against each other is a bit like comparing apples and teakettles. But there’s no version of an account of the books I’ve read in the last two years which doesn’t reckon with the huge swath of nonfiction that has imprinted its contours on my spirit. So I’m not ranking anything strictly, but the following is more or less in descending order.

I must also admit that there wasn’t much fiction in my life within these last two years that gave me such a high as the first three books on my last list. Much was enjoyable, but little really felt like a revelation. By contrast, there were quite a few nonfiction works whose clarity, force, or style really swelled my sails.

As a bonus, I’m going to recommend complementary pairings for several of these books. In the case of some of them, I think that the dialectic forged between certain authors in my reader brain has been more potent than any text alone. All of these (with exceptions noted) are books that I read in 2016 and 2017, and I’m grateful to have done so.

Cornel West.

Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity by Cornel West (1982). A relatively simple contention: we can’t find a workable solution to any political problem in the U.S. without taking to heart the historical experience of African-American Christians. Having grappled with a long chain of promises made and thwarted, black American churches have had to develop spiritual and cultural resources that are necessarily political, and especially well-suited to an era defined by unequal power relations among people, states, and the tectonic flows of global capital. So says West, whose politics are, of course, radical. He’s also a rare visionary stylist who can graft together the patois of continental poststructural philosophy, Marxism, race theory, and American pragmatism and not only make it intelligible, but often lyrical.

Pairs well with: The City on the Hill from Below: The Crisis of Black Prophetic Politics (2011) by Stephen Marshall or The Prophetic Imagination (1978) by Walter Brueggemann. Marshall comes at the African-American political tradition from a historiographical standpoint and affirms the power of black prophetic critique going back to David Walker’s Appeal while also being critical of its patriarchal bias. Brueggemann’s book is justly a classic appeal to Christian theologians and pastors to take much more seriously the Jewish and Christian prophetic traditions as challenges to established hierarchies, especially within the church—and not just for social justice, but for the renewal of commitment to the Gospel.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935). The first time I read this was in the late summer of 2016, in the parlous moment when half the country wrung its hands over the bizarre rise of Donald Trump while still serenely self-assured that Hillary Clinton would, in the end, triumph over the vulgar authoritarian. The second time I read this was in the fall of 2017, not long after President Trump failed to slam-dunk a generic condemnation of violent Nazis in Charlottesville. Looking back at American history, it seems to me that Lewis’s satire is relevant in pretty much any period, let alone the present. That’s because Lewis observed the simple fact that democratic tradition itself is no inoculation against tyranny. All you need is a large enough number of people who desire tyranny (with its deceptive promises of restorative greatness) and are willing to install it in government. Though I don’t think Donald Trump is a fascist per se, he is an authoritarian, a bully, and a hateful human being, and my fear is that his electoral success presages a future in which authoritarianism becomes an appealing option for voters across the political spectrum. Which means that It Can’t Happen Here will continue to be perennially relevant. Sad!

Pairs well with: The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans (2003) or The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton (2004). Frankly, these two books pair nicely with each other, too. Once you read the historical particulars of European fascism, it’s amazing how dead-on Lewis was in nailing the structure of their ideology and political life cycles; it’s even more amazing how well Lewis translated fascism into the all-American tropes which are now standard operating procedure at FOX News and its kissing cousins.

Soulless by Gail Carriger (2009). It’s a steampunk adventure! It’s a Harlequin romance! It’s an effortlessly witty British comedy of manners! For all that, it’s essentially Underworld (the Kate Beckinsdale series, not the DeLillo novel) served as afternoon tea. I’ve read the next two books in the series, and I have enjoyed them, but the first book is free of the burden of developing a saga—it’s just a colorful, sexy, immensely entertaining romp. It’s also one of the relatively few novels I’ve read which made me laugh out loud quite a few times, and the central romance is laser-calibrated to fan the flames of shipper hearts everywhere.

Pairs well with: whatever’s in the current news cycle. Because when you’re in the depths of despair, it helps to read a book about a sardonic woman who tames vampires with her umbrella, werewolves with her force of personality, and her appetite not at all—because there’s nothing not to love about a heroine who loves a good meal while she peruses the latest scientific literature.

Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu (2001-2010). Though I read the first few volumes in 2015, I finished the series in 2016, thanks to our local library’s shockingly well-stocked comics collection. To date, I have seen precisely one episode of FMA: Brotherhood (after having finished the manga), and I rather enjoyed the experience of reading this without feeling compelled to compare it to its anime adaptations. At heart, it’s a variation on Frankenstein, but it’s one that surveys the wreckage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which rapidly adopted poor Victor’s ideology and embedded them in the global cultural and institutional framework. Arakawa is wise enough both to seek empathy with her villains but also to recognize political evil for what it is.

Pairs well with: Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook (2015-present). I read the first six volumes of this series. I guess it’s considered horror, but it’s much more of a folk tale. This is another story of gods, men, and ghosts and the trouble that brews when powerful people categorically confuse the distinctions between them. Bunn has a storyteller’s sense of evoking resonance with cadence and simplicity, and Crook’s art is almost unbelievably atmospheric.

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790). The 2002 critical edition I read was edited and very helpfully annotated by J.C.D. Clark. In previous posts here on Catecinem, I wrote a bit about why I can no longer identify as conservative. Actually reading Burke, at long last, was instrumental in that. My suspicion is that Russell Kirk might have understood what he was doing when he elevated Burke into a conservative icon and helped a generation of American conservatives enshrine Reflections as a canonical text for their movement. But those who have imbibed Burke second- or third-hand don’t really grok how historically and culturally contingent Reflections is. Nor would they recognize that conservatism post-Goldwater is basically a kind of fundamentalism—a radicalism that is temperamentally incompatible with Burke’s in this tract. Burke damn well knew, far as I can tell, the difference between taking the historical longview and mythologizing his nation’s past as a model Golden Age for political reform. His very pragmatic point is that sometimes we need to treat the status quo with respect in order to keep fundamentalism at bay. For all his outmoded (even in his day) blindnesses and biases, Burke’s Reflections does not read to me as “conservative” in the narrow ideological sense. It reads, if I were to inadvisedly abstract it into a manifesto (which it is not), as a well-considered warning against revolutionary radicalism. The very idea that shutting down the government, gutting decades-established programs, or blowing up the deficit because free markets will magically solve every program—this is all revolutionary radicalism. And any appeal to the founding fathers, the pre-New Deal status quo, or the genius of Abraham Lincoln as support for such measures is an ahistorical, asinine delusion. If nothing else, what I learned from reading Burke is that people who treat their revolutionary politics as history’s redeeming grace are to be feared.

Pairs well with: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 by Jackson Lears (2009) or Marxian Socialism in the United States by Daniel Bell (1967). Lears makes a strong argument that the re-alignment of national identity along corporate capitalist lines in the late nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries was guided by a revamped masculinist ideology that continues to shape America’s sense of self and its role in the world. Though it echoes with Lefty Bush-era exigencies, I think it’s still relevant. Bell’s classic essay argues that socialism failed to take root in the U.S. in large part because it fell victim to quasi-religious sectarianism. Besides being a sterling historical argument (not without persuasive detractors, but still a lodestone), Bell’s prose is lively and laced with sardonic humor. It was, strange as it may seem based on the title, a genuine pleasure to read.

My Monster Secret (Actually, I Am…) by Masuda Eiji (2013-2017). I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for harem comedies. I’m not ignorant of the many problems inherent in a mostly exploitative genre. I think the best harem comedies function as romantic comedies, as opposed to unreconstructed adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies. Of course, harem comedies really just inherited the problems of the romantic comedy and amplified them, but… I also have a soft spot for romantic comedies. C’est la vie. As someone who has spent large swaths of my life feeling intolerably lonely, I’m inclined to forgive anyone for responding instinctually to a story in which stifling, bumbling awkwardness is the primary obstacle to two people recognizing in each other the love of one’s life. Actually, I Am… gets that, I think, on a primal level. The characters are all given some dimension, the gags and timing are hilarious, and the art is simply stunning. I’ve only read the first seven volumes so far; this series is sweet and endearing and it’s smart enough to laugh at how absurd its unnecessary complications are.

Pairs well with: A sunny, cold afternoon when your highest ambition is to drink hot cocoa and snuggle under a homemade quilt.

Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements (2013). Physically, it appears to be a coffee table book, but it’s a nuanced, accessible, and (as far as I can tell) scrupulously well-researched history of the anime industry. Clements broadens his contextual focus from key artists and titles to account for how economic trends, technological advances, and institutional gambits work as an ecosystem to produce Japanese animation and its aesthetics. In sum, it’s fascinating, concise, authoritative, and written in a lively prose style. My favorite anecdote from the book, by the by, concerns the role that prints of Princess Iron Fan and Fantasia confiscated during WWII played in the development of Japan’s wartime (and thus postwar) animation.

Pairs well with: The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts (2006). Roberts argues that we can best understand science fiction as a mode of artistic creation by tracing its contours as a dialectic between Enlightenment rationalism and the premodern religious worldview. I find his case to be very persuasive, although I admit I may be more bowled over by his audacity and encyclopedic knowledge of the literature than I am convinced by a thorough examination of his interpretation of the evidence. It’s a great critical performance, at any rate. One of the major shifts he charts in sf, especially moving into the twentieth century, is that sf became primarily visual in its mode of expression. Clements is often at pains to emphasize that all anime is not giant robots, magical girls, and high school tournament epics. But the explosion of anime in the international video market in the 1980s was very much tied to sf aesthetics. Further, I suspect that scholars could do a lot more to work though the marketing and fan reception of anime in Western countries in conjunction with Roberts’s thesis. Roberts’s thesis, in turn, could benefit from deeper engagement with historians of the impact on sf tropes in the public imagination worldwide.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962). Easily one of the great alternate history stories, but, like most everything else PKD wrote, its premise doesn’t quite capture how trippy the novel is. A 1960s North America governed by the Japanese empire in the west and the Third Reich in the east might seem like a nightmarish fantasy far removed from the postwar America people knew. In Dick’s view, life under the Japanese isn’t functionally that different from the real world, with its racial hierarchies, authoritarian police, almighty corporate culture, and uneasy Cold War detente with a more aggressive totalitarian superpower. There’s more to it than that, because PKD. Man in the High Castle may be the best novel of his that I’ve read so far, if not his most characteristic.

Pairs well with: Astro City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross (1995-present). Though I’ve been reading this series for a long time, there was a long dry spell where I didn’t keep up. In the last few years, I finally devoured volumes six through ten, including the excellent Dark Age arc. As you probably know, Astro City takes place in the titular metropolis where the superpowered heroes, villains, and regular folk are all given roughly equal due, and the series really shines in its vignettes. At first, Astro City came across to me like a more character-driven riff on our favorite superhero icons as well as a love letter to the Golden Age. It is that, but it’s more. The creators have apparently worked out an incredible continuity for their series (no major reboots or crossovers yet!), and it only now occurred to me that they’re not just telling the metastory of superhero comics of the twentieth century. They’re telling the story of America in the guise of an alternate history, and the major movements and tropes of the various comic trends form the periodization. It’s spectacular and stunning and, as the vignettes collage together, it’s breathtaking.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian America by Rod Dreher (2017). Yes, this is that book by the American Conservative blogger who thinks Obergefell is the court case that tipped America over the precipice into moral chaos. Unless and until you read it, though, you’ll miss that it’s an essentially utopian jeremiad. The wrack and ruin at the heart of American communities is a symptom of the self-imposed degradation of Church culture, which hollowed Christian identity out from the center of American culture, or so Dreher contends. His critique of the Enlightenment’s legacy and its effect on Christian praxis is not so far flung from the diatribes of the Frankfurt School, save for the fact that he thinks rebuilding the church from the inside out is the most important task for saving the human spirit (as opposed to socialist revolution). This is not a book advocating total separation of Christians from secular culture; it is also not a book attempting to impose draconian rules on who gets to be in a Christian church and who doesn’t. (Surprise: in his own way, Dreher tries to make room for LGBTQ Christians in the BenOp!) It’s a book about the fact that the Church has sold Christian orthodoxy down the river for the comforting illusion of cultural relevance and the power that comes with being capitalism’s handmaiden. Thus the Church has hollowed out its internal resources for resisting the relentless advance of a social hierarchy that values only efficiency, exploitation, and the genuflection of the atomized individual before the almighty dollar. I don’t accept every claim Dreher makes, nor do I subscribe to his brand of small-o orthodoxy (my church ordains LGBTQ+ clergy, soooo…), but I think his diagnosis and his prescription are worth pondering. A challenge he struggles with is how to integrate his Benedict Option into liberal churches. He makes the claim that liberal churches can and should do so, but he never really articulates how that would work. I think that those of us who belong to churches with more progressive tendencies should take up that challenge in good faith, even if it’s only a starting point for constructive dialogue.

Pairs well with: News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890). While it’s a failure as a novel (as many nineteenth-century utopian novels tend to be), and thus a bit of a chore, I found Morris’s retrograde, pastoral utopia to be a welcome challenge to Edward Bellamy’s industrialized corporate vision of command and control. While Dreher tends to reject the label of “utopia” for his own project, I think he and Morris are actually kindred spirits in significant ways. Not least is the fact that Morris insists much more persuasively than Bellamy on the importance and sustainability of community—one that is organized around duty and pleasure, not ease and competition for status. One significant feature that serves as a complement to Dreher’s call for pastoral monasticism is Morris’s focus on crafts and beauty. Dreher knows we need those things, but his book wasn’t the place to address it satisfactorily; Morris shows in a more dramatic fashion how the building of community and the production of culture in a localist framework might actually work.

My Hero Academia by Hirokoshi Kohei (2014-present). About as winsome and exciting as high school manga get, this series is also a wonderful homage to superhero stories and why they matter. The art is jaw-dropping, and the character designs are distinctive and quirky. (Pun intended.) I’ve read the first ten volumes, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. If you like superhero comics and you’re not reading this, get thee to a biblioteca!

Pairs well with: Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, et al. (2014-present). Wilson is crackerjack at dialogue and characterization. Takeshi Miyazawa, artist of the last couple volumes I read, draws dynamic panels with evocative facial expressions. But Adrian Alphona’s art in the first couple arcs is truly amazing. Besides being dynamic and expressive, Alphona also squirreled away tons and tons of details that made studying each panel a real delight. The quirkiness of his art paired well with Wilson’s writing, and I don’t think the series ever quite matched that high afterward. Ms. Marvel’s rogue’s gallery doesn’t have as many villains of archnemesis quality in it (yet), but Kamala Khan and her friends are a wonderful cast of characters, and Wilson works hard (sometimes not quite effortlessly) to write a comic written for teens that offers hope untainted by saccharine falsity. As a Christian, I found it refreshing that the main heroine is a person of faith—a Muslim—and that the creators don’t seem to think it’s their sacred duty to lead her to reject her faith or angst about the seeming rigidity of her family’s or community’s religious practices. Her faith is, in fact, instrumental in leading her to want to use her powers to help people. I feel like artists of faith in any media could learn from this example.*

Log Horizon by Touno Mamare (2011-present). I’ve only read the first two volumes of this light novel series, but it’s a captivating pastiche of fantasy adventure, political social novel, and science fiction mystery. In a post-Sword Art Online fanscape, the premise of MMORPG players trapped in their favorite fantasy realm might smell like a clone. It’s not. This is a utopian story through and through, and it is far more about the difficulty of creating and sustaining community. In almost Asimovian fashion, a great deal of the series so far consists of Touno establishing rules for this world, then having his main protagonist work out ways around those rules. Weirdly, the author (real name: Umezu Daisuke) was charged with income tax evasion. Upon discovering that, my only real reaction was a gripping terror that he’d never finish Log Horizon or that the publisher would stop translating it.

Pairs well with: Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (1970). From the author’s introduction: “This is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the two greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris. Two comrades to the death and black comedians for all eternity, lusty, brawling, wine-bibbing, imaginative, romantic, earthy, thievish, sardonic, humorous, forever seeking adventure across the wide world, fated forever to encounter the most deadly of enemies, the most fell of foes, the most delectable of girls, and the most dire of sorcerers and supernatural beasts and other personages.” How could you not want to read this? It’s one of the ur-texts that the RPGs (and later digital versions) drew on to make stories like Log Horizon possible.

When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis (1981). Had I the time, I’d re-read this for Black History Month. Most reputable editors will include representatives of the Harlem Renaissance in American Literature anthologies; hence your familiarity with (even in passing) such writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Perhaps you are more familiar with legendary jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington or Fats Waller. Besides being an exciting, nimble account of the dozens of luminaries for whom Harlem became something of a Mecca, Lewis manages a tricky feat: he shows how foundational the ferment of the Renaissance was to the formation of American culture from the mid-twenties onward while never losing sight of the specific people, place, and time of his story. I remain scandalized by how little I knew of the Harlem Renaissance, even with my years of English education, and humbled by how much I have yet to learn. This is simply an outstanding intellectual and cultural history, perhaps more urgently needed now than at the time of its original publication.

Pairs well with: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy (1999) and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W. E. B. Du Bois (1920). Of Kennedy’s magisterial volume, there’s little to be said: it’s simply a great overview of a period of American history that has attained mythic status. And it’s an incredibly helpful survey of the context of the Harlem Renaissance and its artists. I think he does justice to it without letting myth overtake good history. Du Bois, by contrast, was a mythopoet of the first order, but only part of the time. A scrupulous sociologist and debunker by training, a polemicist and muckraker by profession, and prophet by disposition, Darkwater is one of Du Bois’s counter-myths of pan-African history. Brilliantly composed, Du Bois places black Americans at the forefront of history in a series of essays, poems, and stories that comprise a ferocious and poignant mosaic. For those looking for more on Du Bois’s life and times, Lewis has written an authoritative two-volume biography.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). The occasion for reading this was my wife’s Engaging Books Challenge, but it’s a book I should’ve read long ago. Far from being an anti-religious screed, it’s a testimony to the ways that oppression and violence are woven into our culture and institutionalized beyond reckoning. If anything, Atwood takes pains to emphasize how cynically the guise of religion is abused by the men and women in power in her futuristic dystopia. Nothing about the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is plausible in the strictest sense of being an extrapolation of how current trends could fall together. That is to say, I don’t think the world of Handmaid’s Tale could exist in the form in which it’s presented. The tensions between the conflicting desires, ideological mystifications, and historical memories could not be sustained in this particular thought variant. Then again, it often strikes me that our current, real-world conflicts of desire, ideological mystifications, and historical memories are mindbendingly unsustainable and implausible. It violates plausibility that the hot mess of American civilization has not flown apart in centrifugal rage—not really—since the 1860s. That’s why I think The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately feels real, even if it doesn’t feel strictly plausible. It doesn’t seem possible that the endless flow of women stepping forth to testify about the horrific systemic abuse they’ve suffered could have gone on so long unchecked. It doesn’t seem possible that people could, even now, ignore and deny the sheer flood of plausible allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, or—in grotesquely comic fashion—tacitly acknowledge the truth of these testimonies and simply keep on keeping on without doing a damn thing about them. When the world as it exists feels unreal, that’s when we most need science-fictional narratives to make sense of it all. Offred’s story isn’t realistic because the world could become Gilead; it’s true because the horrors of Gilead already surround us in all their numbing complexity.

Pairs well with: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). I confess: I’m cheating a bit. I first read this in 2015 and didn’t include it on that list. In retrospect, the prophetic value of this novel has only been amplified. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I don’t think it’s the holistic assemblage of specifics that are likely to come to pass. Instead, I think Atwood’s parable accurately captures the essence of a certain amoral emptiness at the heart of how we deal with the problems of power. Oryx and Crake is a North America plagued with industrialized excess, pornography, corporatized inequality, and engineers and technocrats who, thanks to gene-editing technologies, have the power to be like gods. The emergence of a Crake, in whose nihilistic narcissism someone like Snowman finds direction and purpose, well… Does it sound paranoid to say that this is not merely inevitable, but that it’s the current state of the world? How many Crakes do you know? How many Oryxes and Jimmies? How badly have we underestimated the implications of remaking our reality at the genetic level? How badly have we failed to grasp how unready we are—as a society, as a species—to be our own gods? The men in Handmaid’s Tale have a taste of that power, but Gilead is, strictly speaking, only a corner of North America. The Crakers inherit the Earth.☕

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  • Quick nerdrant: At its most frustrating, Ms. Marvel is a perfect example of why I’ve generally always loathed mainstream superhero comics. Picking up any mainstream superhero title is sort of like randomly starting to watch a long-running soap opera, but worse. I mean, there’s probably forty years of history you don’t know about, with all sorts of characters and setting details that are totally obscure unless you’ve been reading the whole time. So the buy-in is pretty steep to start with, and the publisher just tilts it further. Story arcs are interrupted for major, universe-changing events which are given zero context; characters from other titles are randomly shoehorned in, because oh my lord we absolutely must have Wolverine fanservice in every freaking single Marvel property ever. Without being a total poop about it, I get why Marvel (and the other major publishers) pull these stunts. They help drive sales. Sure. Except readers like me have not time nor money nor interest in reading thirteen other titles just to get the big picture. If it weren’t for the fact that most of the references from Ms. Marvel are echoed in Marvel’s film and TV franchises, I’d have been totally lost. It’s a serious drawback in a title that is otherwise delightful. The idea that Kamala’s story cannot be decoupled from the rest of the Marvel Comics Universe has some appeal; in theory, it gives dimension and weight to living in a particular place and time, with the decisions and actions of mighty powers far away having major impacts on others who don’t have that kind of power. Handled right, that could be poignant and meaningful. The way it’s actually handled feels cheap and random. Rather than feeling connected to the “Marvel Universe,” Ms. Marvel often simply feels chained to the exigencies of Marvel’s marketing division, which is less interested in telling meaningful stories than larding comic book stores with a neverending succession of crossover EVENTS that always ultimately cancel each other out. One thing you can say for soap operas is that at least their stars grow old and die. I sometimes feel like being a Marvel or DC superhero with the self-knowledge of my role in the comics universe would be the greatest existential nightmare: I exist, I have no agency, my creator-gods themselves manipulate me at the discretion of senseless forces beyond even their control, my actions have no meaningful consequences whatsoever, and my torment will never end.

D&Determined to prove a villain?

“To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/ I am determined to become a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

Since I started Dungeon Mastering D&D, a few people have asked me on separate occasions why I don’t permit evil-aligned characters in my games. Initially, it was out of reflexive distaste. When I first started playing D&D, whenever my fellow party members did something evil or evil-adjacent, it frankly made the game less fun for me. I made the game less fun for myself on occasion by making evil choices that were, in retrospect, outside of my character’s alignment.

Until I started DMing, I’d sort of assumed that most players, at worst, played fantasy world Jack Bauers. You know, people who did bad things, but who were basically committed to a kind of code that nudged them toward heroism. Later on, I discovered the legendary player archetype of the murderhobo—easily one of the most felicitous coinages in the English language. From my first session as a player, I knew I wanted to be a DM, but I also knew that I didn’t want to run a murderhobo campaign.

One time, when we were scouting out a goblin stronghold, I cast charm person on a goblin, and after we got the information out of him, another player and I simply beat the confused sod to death while making wisecracks. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, but in retrospect, I was really ashamed of myself. Partly, I was upset that I wasn’t true to my character—which is apt to happen when non-thespians engage in sustained improv sessions—but I was also a bit disgusted by the glee with which I’d made my character murder someone with no capacity to fight back. My wife and I also had a bad experience playing an evil one-shot at a con, which sort of cemented my prejudice against that kind of game. That prejudice has begun to crumble a bit, but it’s taken a while.

In the past few years, I’ve reflected quite a bit on why I don’t want to run that kind of campaign. My instinctive distaste for evil roleplay as I experienced it has underlay the justifications I’ve conjured, but the following reasons are the result of introspection and observation.

There are two pretty pragmatic reasons I don’t permit evil characters. Extrapolating from my own feelings as I participated in situations with evil RP, I figured that there must be other players who also would find their game to be less fun in a party with evil characters. While I think people who enjoy playing evil characters can have fun playing good or neutral characters, the reverse is not necessarily true: some players simply wouldn’t have fun playing evil characters. Therefore, I don’t feel like I’m boxing out the people who would enjoy evil characters. Good characters won’t ruin the game for someone running an evil character, but one evil character could bring the game down for other folks. For the sake of maximum fun for everyone at the table, it’s simply easier to proscribe evil characters.

The other practical reason is a corollary to that. Evil characters are more likely to drive internal tension in the party, especially if there’s a lawful or chaotic good character committed to high ideals. Players who aren’t thoughtful about their choices could very easily torpedo a campaign without attention to common goals and intra-party politics. And that’s just if their evil actions are outwardly-directed. Stories abound of evil characters murdering their own party members or getting their party killed, and that can be a social disaster for a lot of groups.

My other reasons for proscribing evil characters are a bit more abstract. The most kneejerk reason for not permitting evil characters makes me sound like a fusty old marm—“there’s enough evil in the real world, why recreate it in the game?!” I’ve repeated some variation of that numerous times, but even I don’t find it all that convincing, for reasons I’ll get to later. It took me a while of running Dungeons & Dragons to realize the major reason why I don’t want evil characters in my game, and it’s one that is unique to being a DM. Running a game is not about what you don’t permit at your table; it’s about your vision of what you want to create with other people. That is, I think a good DM isn’t there simply to place negative boundaries, but to use boundaries to give positive shape to a particular kind of storytelling experience.

He almost deserved it.

I couldn’t articulate it at first, but the game I was interested in running was an epic heroic adventure. Whatever pretensions I have, at heart I’m a kid who grew up reading the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time. To me, fantasy stories are about people who save the world because they succeed in the struggle to become better versions of themselves.

Great fantasy is about the forging of heroes, and great fantasy heroes like Bilbo Baggins or the Pevensie children inspire us because they show us how hard it is to be worthy in a world that too often fosters or celebrates unworthiness. And great fantasy storytellers understand that we need to see heroes fail as well as succeed, or else they are not convincing. Because we can relate to failure and human flaws, we can therefore also relate to our heroes when they overcome those failures and flaws to become superheroes. Overcoming obstacles does not just make fantasy heroes better people, it serves as a way of redeeming their worlds—and by virtue of their inspiration in readers’ lives, our own.

This is not the only kind of fantasy, nor is it the only way to write great fantasy. But it’s the conception of fantasy coded into my DNA. As a DM, I need to love my players’ characters. I need to root for them. They can and should fail sometimes; my players should absolutely roleplay their characters’ flaws. But I can root for inept, wayward, misguided, unlucky, or otherwise maladapted heroes. In fact, heroes like that are perhaps more endearing by virtue of their flaws—I’m even more invested in them succeeding. By contrast, an evil character’s chief flaw is also his ideal. If an evil character succeeds, then that’s the opposite of heroism. Then she hasn’t become a better version of herself—she’s only become more crafty, underhanded, or powerful.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not interested in running a Forgotten Realms variant of Natural Born Killers or Goodfellas. These happen to be films that I personally despise, despite the fact that they are made by master filmmakers working at the top of their game. I’m mature enough to concede that these are masterpieces, in the sense that they make maximal use of film form to tell truthful stories about indelible characters. They are also the kind of stories that I don’t think I could tell truthfully, nor would I want to. Telling these stories wouldn’t be true to who I am or to the kinds of stories I most deeply value.

Which is not to say that I don’t want to be capable of telling those stories some day. As I’ve grown more comfortable with the role of DM, I find that my ambitions grow accordingly. Recently, I’ve been watching High Rollers: Dead Reckoning, and it seems to me to be a classic model of how to run an antiheroic campaign.

From session zero through the campaign proper, Dead Reckoning shows a D&D group in total control of their characters, their setting, and tone. The characters are antiheroes, but the players find ways to give dimension to them, embracing what makes them disturbing without losing sight of what gives them humanity. It’s also a game where internal party tension is part of the point of the campaign, keeping with the tradition of Dirty Dozen-style suicide squad missions. Mark Hulmes, the DM, has a knack for balancing mordant humor with a pervasively dangerous situation that compels the group to work together to survive, even as the moral complications of that situation threaten to pull the group apart. It’s a campaign that thrives on roleplay, and for the experienced, imaginative players in the High Rollers cast, it certainly seems to be thrilling drama.

I’m not there yet. But my kneejerk aversion to evil characters in my stories contradicts one of the main reasons I love D&D in the first place: the immersion in the experience of an imaginary world where your choices define the story. Good stories need to be real, and some players might feel that me placing evil characters off-limits makes their agency less real.

Placing that kind of limit also implies that I don’t fully trust my players to play certain types of characters. As DM, I play evil characters all the time, and I don’t think anyone would argue that there isn’t a difference between a DM running evil characters and players doing so. But just as players enjoy tangling with a complicated evil NPC with morally-ambiguous goals, I think some players would enjoy that kind of dramatic tension within the party. RP-oriented players especially could generate productive drama from that kind of tension, and they would probably appreciate having the freedom to explore that.

I can’t imagine throwing an evil PC into a campaign without having a conversation ahead of time with everyone in the group about it. First, to make sure that every single player is on board with this—if anyone had any reservations at all about being in a party with an evil PC, that would be a no-go. Second, to make sure I understood what makes that character tick, and what the appeal would be in playing that character. Maybe a question as simple as, “What does playing an evil character add to this campaign?” would be sufficient. And if nobody found the answer persuasive enough, that would be that.

Joe Manganiello joins Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffee, and Marisha Ray on Critical Role.

Joe Manganiello is a good example of a player who knows how to align his evil character’s goals with the party in a non-game-breaking way. In Critical Role and Force Grey: The Lost City of Omu, he plays Arkhan the Cruel, a paladin of Tiamat, the major villain of D&D Fifth Edition’s first major storyline—an evil dragon goddess. Besides just being great at calibrating his role-play presence to the groups he’s in, Manganiello makes a point of clarifying his character’s motives. I loved how, in Force Grey, when he’d use his paladin powers to restore other party members’ hit points, he’d say, “A gift from my queen.” It was creepy and funny—here’s this giant evil red dragonborn proselytizing with that classic apostle’s gambit, the healing miracle. It gave the party reason to trust him, and while Arkhan clearly saw most of them as useful pawns, it was still a comprehensible, recognizably human dynamic. And in a deadly campaign where everyone needed to rely on each other in order to survive each encounter, it at least established that Arkhan wasn’t the kind of character who would needlessly waste their lives. After all, if they proved really useful and felt a lasting bond with him, he could exploit that later.

Another way of approaching the problem would be to abandon alignment as part of character creation altogether. Satine Phoenix and Jason Charles Miller talked about this in GM Tips. Unlike Phoenix, I do think that good and evil are generally useful categories. But it might (might) be more useful to have players simply focus on nailing down their characters’ traits, goals, ideals, and flaws in more depth rather than leaning on alignment as a definitive category. During gameplay, players would be free to form their own judgments about each character’s morality, and the customs and other social pressures of the setting would also play a part.

The risk is that I’d end up running a misbegotten bastard variant of Blood Meridian. The potential reward is that players would have a bit more freedom to find their own redemptive arcs, and I’d have more freedom in emphasizing the complicated nature of justice in a fallen world. I have that freedom now, but my players might feel like they don’t. Maybe dispensing with labels can let us address certain ideas and situations with more clarity. One of my favorite moments in Dead Reckoning came after one of the party members straight-up murdered a NPC as a sort of misguided mercy killing, and another rebuked her in no uncertain terms: “That was wrong.” Instead of having the DM rule out that kind of behavior at the outset, it might (might) be more meaningful for players to face the truth squarely on their own terms: right and wrong are made tangible by when you can make your choices and act accordingly.

One of the things I never fully appreciated about D&D before I started running it is how risky a venture it is. Things can go off the rails pretty quickly, and a bad call as DM can destroy a player’s entire experience of the campaign. Then again, things can go off the rails in a good way. In the first campaign I ever ran (and it’s still going!), I presented the party with an artifact that would turn the bearer chaotic evil as long as it was on their person. I did this after we’d been playing for a year, and I felt like the group could handle it. I even had a shortlist of those I expected to be the one to pick it up. The player who picked it up rolled with the temporary alignment shift brilliantly. For the next four or five-ish sessions, the party was never far from the precipice of disaster, but there were tons of memorable scenes and creative role-play. It’s one of the high points of my short career so far as DM, and all I really did was present my player with a different set of choices and let her rip.

That kind of calculated risk is one I may run again at some point, but it will depend greatly on the player, the group, and the campaign itself. At the end of the day, as most GMs say, it’s all about whether the group has fun. If I ever get to the point where everyone at my table thinks it would be fun to party up with a villain, I guess we’ll see what happens. This is not a personal goal, but it is a possibility about which I’ve very slowly begun to shift my stance from resistant to ambivalent. ☕

Mark Hulmes (DM), Chris Trott, Katie Morrison, Tom Hazell, and Kim Richards on Rogues One: A High Rollers Story.


Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Today, all readers of science fiction have occasion to celebrate the life’s work of Ursula K. Le Guin. We too often celebrate the life of people when they’re gone, but the passing of Le Guin feels less like a loss than it probably should. In large part, that’s because her stories celebrate the cycle of life and the search for harmony, of which death and life both play their parts. It’s also because Le Guin attained a cultural status almost commensurate to her accomplishments.

I’ve rambled about the canon quite a bit on this blog, not always coherently or with well-justified arguments. I don’t know if Le Guin will be mandatory reading one or two hundred years from now. But as many of the obituaries have noted, she earned pretty much every meaningful award in her field and several outside of it. Her books are widely read by adults and children, especially the Earthsea series. Her two most famous science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), are taught in high schools and universities, and literature students of any level often cut their critical teeth on her work. There is no question in my mind that at some point in the not-distant future, some ambitious TV producer will adapt one of her stories into a popular and critically-acclaimed series. At that point, Le Guin’s transition into the cultural mainstream will be complete. Mainstream acceptance isn’t a prerequisite for canonicity, but it helps.

When I say that Le Guin’s current cultural cachet is almost commensurate to her accomplishments, it’s not to downplay the accolades mentioned above. It’s to acknowledge that the effort Le Guin expended to pull herself—and by proxy, science fiction as a literary category—will likely never be recognized outside of fandom or scholarly circles. Vociferous and prolific, Le Guin was one of sf’s leading apologists and theorists: the sheer number of speeches, essays, and interviews she’s done, in which she always made a shrewd observation, uttered a provocation, or simply told the truth in a colorful way, are also a part of her legacy. That kind of labor requires diligence, ingenuity, a certain restlessness, and courage. It’s a labor that demands recognition not for its own sake. It’s never enough to be a great artist. Great artists require great apologists, and nobody was a better advocate of her work than Ursula K. Le Guin.

And she certainly is a great novelist. I find that I don’t ever appreciate her work the first time I read it. I always feel underwhelmed. Then I find that her stories and ideas become essential to my own way of thinking about and expressing things. It’s a process that takes years, a sedimentation. Which is to say that if I call Le Guin’s work foundational to my own approaches to culture and literature, I mean that it forms geological strata in my consciousness.

Like all great stories, Le Guin’s writing helps make sense of the world and our place in it. And like all great stories, her work always contains a moral framework. No great story is intelligible without a moral framework. One of the great fables of her career is The Lathe of Heaven (1971), in which a man whose dreams can literally remake reality must refuse to allow a utopian psychologist to use him to improve the world. It’s a very Taoist fable, in which the exercise of individual agency to remake the world in one man’s image leads ultimately to disharmony. It’s also a piercing feminist critique of the patriarchal hierarchies built into therapeutic discourse. More fundamentally, it recognizes that using power to reconstruct the lives of others is not always the right thing to do, even if it does improve security, stability, and happiness. Totalitarianism and the erasure of people and their history are utopian projects, but in the negative sense where the search for perfection really is the enemy of the good.

Much as I’ll miss Le Guin as an active commentator and personality, I won’t miss her presence. She’s right there in her writing, and we’ll hear her voice every time we read her words. Her voice has been echoing in my head for years already, and she’s been very companionable indeed. If our kids and their kids are lucky, they’ll hear her voice echoing far into the future.


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