May 2019 summer moviethon update

Since the semester’s end, I’ve been working on my summer goal (one of them) of getting back into movies. The following capsule reviews are more or less what the kids these days call “hot takes.”

Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2019)

With due modesty, I feel like I called it. Not only does this film ultimately negate Infinity War, but the unforgivably sloppy plotting also negates virtually every MCU film since the first Avengers. I’ll have more thoughts on this in due time, probably, but it’s the worst Avengers film by far, and that particularly sucks because there were some scenes and ideas in here that were wonderfully provocative. Despite the fact that 2012’s Avengers might be one of the best popcorn flicks of the decade, the Avengers movies illustrate for me the fact that not every franchise in the universe needs to be crossed over at the same time, because the end result all-but-inevitably ends up like this mess.

Bakemono no ko (The Boy and the Beast) (Mamoru Hosoda, 2015)

As one expects from Hosoda, a visually engrossing film, but one where the transitions between acts are a bit lurching. It detracts only a bit from the emotional through-line, which is all about parent-child relationships and how necessary they are to completing one’s personal development. Though I don’t think this one hits the same highs as films like Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Mirai, I’m certain I’ll watch it again at some point.

The Commuter (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018)

My favorite part of this Hitchcock dress rehearsal is the surprisingly poignant opening montage, in which a day in the life of Liam Neeson’s protagonist is every day. If only the rest of the film were as deft. Undemanding thrillers like this are good to watch while recovering from a nasty cold.

First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018)

This strikes me as an almost-great film, which really commits to what Schrader thinks of as transcendental style. The conceit that it’s Diary of a Country Priest as a tale of radicalization is kind of brilliant, but there are elements of it I’m not sure totally work. In part, I feel like the performances (which are great) are not mannered enough to match the style or the story beats. The “magical mystery tour” sequence also came across to me as a bit goofy—I totally dig that Schrader is swinging for the fences, but there was something very 80s-direct-to-video about it that undermines what I think he’s swinging for. That ending, though, is a tour-de-force of purposeful ambiguity.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Dean DeBlois, 2019)

A fine film. Entertaining enough. A decent trilogy capper whose diminished returns make me glad that the trilogy is now capped.

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars meets Apollo 13, right? Somebody has to have described this as such. To me, this was great fun, and a compelling exploration of the tensions between institutions, teamwork, and individual initiative. In short, it’s a utopian film that makes you wonder what would happen if people dealt responded like this to disasters all the time.

The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015)

Lyrical, bleak, nasty, brutish, and protracted, this is like a Cormac McCarthy remix of The Last of the Mohicans. We spend a lot of time watching Leonardo DiCaprio crawl on his belly through the wilderness, in and out of rivers, carcasses, and dirt, and it’s oddly watchable. I’m not entirely sure if this movie even tries for profundity, but it does play furiously on affect, which is probably just as difficult to do.

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018)

Palatable weirdness is a very narrow bandwidth to tap into, and Riley’s debut feature manages to groove in that zone with fair consistency. Satirical allegory often functions at the expense of characterization, and this film is no exception (I love Tessa Thompson, but please can someone just build a movie around her, rather than have her build a supporting part around a lead character?), yet there’s an abundance of humanity that Lakeith Stanfield brings to Cassius Green. Certain moments of this film really pop with blazing comic absurdity, and Stanfield somehow weights them with grounded pathos. The entire sequence where he’s offered a proposition by Armie Hammer’s corporate neo-slavelord is a set piece that could almost function as a standalone short film.

You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017)

This is actually the first time I’ve seen a Ramsay film, and it makes me curious about her earlier efforts—which seem to have been received with more widespread acclaim than You Were Never Really Here. At a blush, it seems to be a film that is about a man searching for a reason to live, and the world certainly does not seem to be giving him any good reasons whatsoever. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific, as ever, and it occurred to me that for as many plaudits as he has, he’s one of the handful of actors who almost always manage to calibrate their performances perfectly to the needs of the narrative, even as their very presence anchors the viewer in it. It’s a feat to disappear into a role while always rooting the audience’s attention in your performance.

There’s a certain level of ickiness which inheres in the conceit of a man finding redemption in the rescue of an underage blonde sex slave. The ending of the film attempts to thwart that trajectory a bit, but there’s no getting around the fact that—in terms of where the film’s focus is—her trauma kind of serves as the occasion for alleviating his trauma. To her credit, Ramsay really tries to deploy violence for maximum impact, using elliptical, propulsive editing to make the action sequences (if you can call them that) less about the spectacle of violence itself. Her erasure of that kind of spectacle in some of the set pieces suggests how unfulfilling and empty retributive violence is, even when it is what propels the plot and character. Instead, she reserves opulence for moments like a character’s attempt at suicide by drowning. Lots of reviews compare this movie to Taxi Driver, and there’s a lot of that DNA here. But it reminds me more of John Boorman’s Point Blank or how Steven Soderbergh often approaches genre films. It’s an effort to elevate a collection of shopworn tropes into a penetrating character study. The effort Ramsay expends is totally legible—you can hear some of the nuts and bolts popping and straining a bit—but she still succeeds anyway, kind of. ☕️

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Two Gene Wolfe tributes

Brian Phillips has written a very fine obituary for Gene Wolfe, sorting through the non-contradiction between the life and art of the author. In my last post, I said that I thought it was weird that nobody mentioned the coincidence of Wolfe passing on Palm Sunday. Jon Michaud foregrounds this detail in his touching tribute to Wolfe. Here’s an excerpt:

“In the autumn of 1984, I sent Wolfe a fan letter. My family had moved from Northern Ireland back to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where, after three years in Belfast, I had a hard time fitting in among the cliques of the public high school. I was miserable and contemplated suicide. Fortunately, there were a lot of Gene Wolfe books available at the local public library. […]

A week before Christmas, a padded envelope arrived in the mail for me. Inside, there was a book-shaped object in wrapping paper, with a label reading: DO NOT OPEN BEFORE CHRISTMAS OR YOU WILL BE CROTTLED BY GREEPS. FIAT! FIAT! FIAT! There could be only one person who would write such a label, but I obeyed the directive and didn’t open it until Christmas Day. Gene Wolfe had sent me a copy of Universe 7, an anthology featuring stories by Fritz Leiber, Brian W. Aldiss, and himself. On the title page of Wolfe’s story, “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton,” he had written in blue ink, “For Jon Michaud” and signed his name. It was the greatest gift of my short life. […]

When an English teacher at my high school refused to let me write a term paper about Wolfe’s books because he wasn’t “well known” enough, Wolfe sent the man a letter, listing his awards and prizes. “But judging a novelist by his credentials is like judging a racehorse by its bloodlines; performance is what matters,” he wrote. He included paperback copies of The Shadow of the Torturer and Peace for the teacher to read. By that time, though, I’d graduated from high school and was on my way back to Northern Ireland. Wolfe’s books and letters, his kindness, had carried me through a very difficult time in my life.

The only thing of Wolfe’s that I’ve read is The Book of the New Sun, which I first read back in 2013. Here’s what I said then:

Without a doubt, I will return to this one. As sure as I am that I’m missing significant depths of meaning, I was unmistakably astonished by the richness and complexity plainly evident on the surface. I’ve no doubt that it will reward further contemplation.

Such is the opinion of a reader who clearly has no idea what he thinks or why. I think I can do better.

This summer, I intend to reread The Book of the New Sun, and I intend to read it slowly, paying attention as I go. So I bought copies of the four books (the better to annotate!). However impressive the series may be, and however little I understand it, even on a second read-through, I will treasure Michaud’s story of Wolfe’s generosity of spirit, and remember that this is the kind of man who wrote this story.☕︎


An Easter update

A very happy Easter to all of you who celebrate Christ’s resurrection today! And a pre-emptive happy Easter to my Eastern Orthodox and Coptic brothers and sisters, who will celebrate next week!

Life has been difficult for my family and me of late. We’re muddling through, though! I wanted to drop a note about some random odds and ends for anyone who is still following this blog. It’s not dead yet!

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This spring, God willing and the crick don’t rise, I will finish my graduate program. My hope is that this will free up at least a little time to do more movie-watching and writing about film. Within the last few months, I’ve watched several films from last winter and this spring, including a few Oscar nominees. At some point I’ll do something of a catch-up on those. 

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Earlier this year, I also got my first smartphone. We can’t afford a data plan, so I don’t use a lot of apps, but I have taken advantage of the fact that I can download and listen to podcasts. Previously, I had just streamed them on my laptop while I did house chores, but being able to listen to them while walking or driving has been incredible. (Especially since our vehicle does not have a working radio.) Some podcasts that I have enjoyed so far: Welcome to Nightvale, Imaginary Worlds, The Black Tapes, Serial (season 1), American History Tellers, High Rollers: Aerois, Caliphate, Halloween Unmasked, and Not Another D&D Podcast.

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Sadly, Gene Wolfe passed away last week. The only thing of his that I’ve read is The Book of the New Sun, which was baffling but somehow still quite powerful. I’ve read half a dozen obituaries of Wolfe, and found it it somewhat odd that nobody mentioned the irony that he died on Palm Sunday. I think that I’ll have to carve out time to revisit Book of the New Sun this summer, or at least read something else of his. We’ll see.

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Also on my summer docket is Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography. The occasion is the fact that I finally (yes, finally) listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, and I was pleasantly surprised that it lived up to the hype.

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My old friend Alex emailed me about revisiting Jackie Chan’s filmography in a systematic way a few months back, but I just didn’t (and still don’t, for the moment) have the mental bandwidth for it. But it’s something I’d like to do, in part because I haven’t even seen his last several films, and it would be nice to watch them in the context of everything leading up to them. He’s still my favorite living actor, after all.

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It has also occurred to me that the last Sight & Sound poll was in 2012, which means the next one is coming in 2022. 2012 was the year I started actively working toward going back to school, and it’s the year when I basically ceased living like a cinephile. I have three years to watch or rewatch some of the classics I still haven’t seen. Looks like I’m going to be watching Jeanne Dielman…, Shoah, Satantango, and Histoire(s) du cinema sometime in the next couple years.

Having written that sentence, it occurs to me that what they all have in common is that they’re freaking long. So I might just watch one of those each year or something. Hm. Baby steps. Baby steps.

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Probably the best book I’ve read so far in 2019 is The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011) by Alan Jacobs. Among other provocations, Jacobs rallies to the defense of Whim—the sovereignty of reading what one chooses when one chooses it. For Jacobs, Whim is not simply picking up and abandoning books willy-nilly, but a principle of reading to edify oneself, and of actively seeking true edification in the reading experience. True edification cannot be separated from pleasure.

It occurs to me, looking back on everything I’ve written on this blog, that most of my best writing has been done in the spirit of following my Whim. Consequently, I have not been good as sustaining long-term projects on this blog. So I don’t want to overpromise on the things I’ve mentioned above: the Jackie Chan project, returning to Gene Wolfe, etc. Similarly, as a result of my life path, most of the writing I’ve done here in the last few years has not been about film or theorizing film from a Christian perspective. I’ve written a lot about books and reading, because that’s where my mind’s been at. So even though Catecinem started as “the place where Christianity and film meet for coffee,” I suspect that I’ll do plenty more writing about other media going forward.

Having just (very nearly) completed a long-term writing project, I know what it takes to bring something like that to conclusion. And while I have enjoyed it in most ways, I have missed some of the freedom that comes with following my writerly Whim. I’ve missed blogging in particular. Though I think blogging does support long-term projects pretty well—hyperlinks and keyword tags are incredibly useful tools—I think that, for me, blogging supports essay-writing. It also supports fragments and thoughts-in-process. There are no deadlines for an amateur blog, so I can write until I feel like I’ve developed my thoughts as far as they will go. At that point, I publish or I abandon the post. But I can trace the development of certain thoughts over time, in fragments, in throwaway thoughts, in mostly-polished essays.

In short, even if I follow my Whim, it’s not going to be disconnected from the continuity of my thinking over the course of years. And all of my best writing (or, at least, my writing which has been the most stimulating for me) has been edifying: pleasurable to write and to revisit. In other areas of my life, I find myself often writing for reasons other than edification or pleasure. Here, I’d like to reserve space for doing something pleasurable and nourishing.

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The last few months haven’t spared me the time or emotional capacity to play D&D as much as I’ve liked, but I hope to dive back in pell-mell once summer starts. By and large, I’ve refrained from posting my various thoughts on the game. I’m still relatively new to it; I’ve only played 5th edition; I’ve not played with many people. My experience, in short, is fairly limited. But I’m going to run Tomb of Horrors (from Tales from the Yawning Portal) as a Memorial Day event, and I might write about it.

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As a money-saving measure, we gave up our Netflix and Hulu subscriptions a few months ago. I really miss not being au courant, but it occurred to me that I never really was. Not in a meaningful sense. I had several subscription services, but I really only watched a few things on any of them. There’s simply too much to watch anymore. 

There always was, but I think the format of streaming services preserved the illusion that one could keep up on everything, simply because it was instantly accessible. Now that I don’t have access to those services, there’s a part of me that feels cut off from contemporary pop culture. But it’s not like I was able to keep up with all the shows and movies anyway. Some days it feels liberating to know that I’ve simply given up on even trying to keep up. Other days I actually feel the pang of loss, silly as that sounds. But the pop culture artifacts and trends I keep up with now feel more… vital, I guess? At least, I try to engage with them more deeply. Maybe I don’t. Maybe that’s the illusion I haven’t yet dispelled.

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If you’ve read this far, please take a moment to like this post or comment below! I’d like to hear from you, whether you’re a new visitor or an old friend. As ever: pull up a chair, pour a cuppa joe, and let me know what’s on your mind.


The Books of 2018

The number of books I read for pleasure plummeted again this year in direct proportion to the amount of reading I did for my graduate research. One of my least favorite things about research is the necessity of skimming or reading only pertinent parts of a longer work. The nature of modern research (i.e., take what you need and leave the rest, as Levon Helm once crooned), in my view, does violence to the author’s work and to my own capacity to grasp the nuances of it. There aren’t enough hours in a day, not enough days in the semester, and not enough semesters in a grad student’s life to give each text its proper due before I cite it in an article or dissertation chapter. To top it all, I find that I’ve become a much slower reader. Either my ability to absorb information quickly has simply declined with age or I’ve become far more cautious about believing I’ve grokked a text when I really haven’t, or both. The net result is that I completed far fewer books this year than in the past three years, so I feel a bit abashed.

All the same, I read some really good stuff. Everything below is a book I finished in 2018. The following books significantly expanded, enhanced, or otherwise altered my worldview.

By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1985) by Paul Boyer; Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009) by Jennifer Burns; The Culture of the Cold War, 2nd Edition (1996) by Stephen J. Whitfield; One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America (2015) by Kevin M. Kruse; The Irony of American History (1952) by Reinhold Niebuhr. 

There are wonderful things about literary research, among which is the excuse to read invariably fascinating historical accounts. Boyer, Burns, and Kruse in particular have a knack for crafting engaging narratives and fleshing out their historical figures as compelling characters. Though Whitfield rather annoyingly does not include end- or footnotes (the annoyance is borne more of my needs, not his fault), he moves confidently through his period and offers a persuasive account of the cultural discourse of the long 1950s. The Irony of American History has been on my to-read list for some time now, and I was glad to have read it after digesting the other books listed above. While I think Niebuhr is fairly accessible, his arguments felt much more immediate—and provocative in my own cultural context—thanks to thanks to the cursory familiarity with his own era, furnished to me by the above historians. 

Reading all of these texts more or less side by side also yielded a more robust picture of the era. The Eisenhower in Whitfield’s narrative, for instance, is essentially a well-liked buffoon, in contrast to Kruse’s shrewd navigator of pop discourse, who managed to forge a quasi-secular (and defensibly pluralist, within a limited scope) American exceptionalism from the religious anxieties of his time. And those religious anxieties are even given more shading and nuance by Boyer’s tale of apocalyptic ambivalence and Burns’s account of burgeoning libertarian rebellion against the religious cultural consensus. 

Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.

The strangest thing about teaching this book was that several students said they didn’t think it was relevant to their lives. In my view, nothing about this book isn’t relevant to American life in 2018 (or 2019). I hadn’t read BNW since my senior year of high school (a time gap that can almost be measured in decades), and I was delighted and surprised and dismayed and shocked at how well Huxley’s ambivalent satire comports with the present moment. Social media might be missing from the novel and overt eugenics might be missing from our mainstream policy discussions (although that may change a few months, weeks, or days from now), but I think the dialectic Huxley poses—humanity’s happiness versus humanity’s soul—is as relevant as it’s ever been. Moreover, the soft totalitarianism of Mustafa Mond and the rigid authoritarianism of John the savage both have the ring of truth to them. Rather, it rings true to me that neither side of the great political contests of our age actually desires measurable progress; both have different ideals of stasis, and each is willing to justify virtually any action on behalf of attaining it. What’s worse, those defending the soul of humanity (or the very notion that there is a soul of humanity, or even a soul) used to be the ones who could be broken by shame at their own hypocrisies. Now? I’m not sure either side has any shame. Written today, BNW would probably end with John deciding to run for president and, against all expectations, winning.

The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbury.

I’m not sure how many novels like this exist—works comprised of a patchwork of interrelated short tales and vignettes—that maintain the same consistency of tone and political perspective throughout. Moments of farce and horror-suspense occasionally punch through a vibrant fog of nostalgic melancholy. It’s a tale of settler colonialism in which the colonists succumb to their own foibles, and connections with the past and future are wired into deceptive strands of memory. In a short space, I don’t think I can adequately describe the experience of reading The Martian Chronicles, but I do think it is probably one of the most emblematic works of American fiction produced in the mid-twentieth century. 

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (2018) by Mike Mearls & Jeremy Crawford (lead designers), Adam Lee, Ben Petrisor, Robert J. Schwalb, Matt Sernett, Steve Winter, Kim Mohan, Christopher Perkins, Kate Welch, Nolan Whale.

I’ve been playing D&D only since summer 2015, and though I’m very much in love with fifth edition, I haven’t loved all 5e products equally. Each of the previous supplements— The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (2015), Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2016), and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (2017) — has been better than the last. MToF hits a kind of sweet spot in terms of its timing. I’ve been improvising a campaign since early 2018, mostly cobbling together one-shots and old Spelljammer material (and, boy, do I wish Wizards of the Coast would release an official 5e Spelljammer module!). A couple of those one-shots were published on DMs Guild using MToF to great effect, and one of them in particular—M.T. Black’s The Lich Queen’s Begotten—forms the basis of the most recent portion of the campaign. It was written with MToF as its inspiration, and the moment I read it, I knew which direction the campaign would take.

The writing in MToF is lively and engaging, making it a pleasure to read on its own merits. Furthermore, it develops existing races and monsters in nuanced, compelling ways—and it offers some cool mechanics for gameplay. The lore, the new race options, and the new monster stats are all incredibly well-balanced in presentation here, and though I think I’ve gotten the most use out of XGtE, the lore in MToF has already been integrated into several of the games I run.

On a more general note, MToF is superlative evidence that WotC knows exactly what it’s doing in terms of long-term franchise-building. Not only does it deliver a bunch of middle- to higher-tier monsters for players to use as their longer-running games hit these tiers of play, but the lore fleshes out and more firmly establishes a comprehensive mythos upon which future adventure modules can draw. Once WotC finally releases an official Spelljammer or Planescape module, the lore will have been layered in for years, and players (and DMs) won’t have to process a whole bunch of info-dumping at the last minute before diving in. Everything from race and class options to monster customization tools to tips for how to integrate lore and monsters into a campaign has been well-thought-out and well-packaged. 

As a player and DM who is still relatively new to D&D, I can say that my experience with WotC’s 5e products has been stimulating, rewarding, and fun; most importantly, perhaps, it’s been accessible. It’s clear that this entire edition has been designed from the ground up with an eye toward cultivating a new generation of TTRPG gamers, and it has been especially hospitable to ambitious wannabe DMs like me. Although I intend to play older editions of D&D just to experience them firsthand, and even if I end up liking one of them far more than 5e, I don’t ever want to forget just how impactful this edition has been in my life. When gaming pundits look back on this edition and debate its legacy, I know that I will always be willing to testify about the ways it changed my life for the better.

The Fire Next Time (1963) by James Baldwin.

Full of outrage and wisdom, Baldwin doesn’t offer much in the way of consolation here. It’s not that kind of book. This is an intergenerational jeremiad, one that is meant to kindle hope, but only hope that finds expression in meaningful political action rooted in proper historical and cultural perspective. It’s bracing, poetic, and engrossing, and likely something I should return to regularly.

The Patternist series (Patternmaster, 1976; Mind of My Mind, 1977; Survivor, 1978; Wild Seed, 1980; Clay’s Ark, 1984) and Bloodchild (1995) by Octavia E. Butler. 

I won’t say much about the stories in Bloodchild, which are not all masterpieces, though the title story and “Speech Sounds” clearly are. The biggest impact Butler had on me this year came as I read the Patternist books in order of publication. My intrepid sister scored a copy of Survivor at Half-Price Books a while back, then bought the Seed to Harvest collection, all of which she graciously loaned to me for an extended period. I must say that I was exceedingly glad to have read these books in publication order, as it enabled me to witness Butler’s mastery of her craft grow exponentially and visibly from book to book. 

Clay’s Ark is not a masterpiece, though it’s a fitting coda to the series, reinforcing the themes in the most ugly and brutal manner imaginable. In each of the first three books, you can see Butler working out her mythology at the same time as she is developing her command over characterization and voice. Though it’s last in terms of diegetic chronology, Patternmaster is easily the weakest of the books: ambitious, ferocious, and terribly imaginative, but a bit schematic and narrow in scope, and flaccid in terms of characterization. Whether somebody wants to chalk that up to authorial intent is debatable, I guess. Survivor is Butler’s first real success in matching a protagonist’s voice to the narrative and building pathos into her ambivalent politics of survivance. The masterpiece, though, and the culmination of the series’s power, is Wild Seed, which gains much of its power from the reader’s knowledge of the characters’ future. Rarely, I think, does a prequel do what Wild Seed does so successfully and with so little apparent effort. It lends gravitas to the mythos—filling in spaces, adding some dimension to it—without really upending anything or adding minutiae that totally reframe everything we already know. The reframing is more in the control Butler exerts over the themes, affirming what has already been established in such a way as to underline its tragic elements. Though I think one could read Wild Seed as a standalone novel, I do think it is far more powerful a work as the capstone of the series.  

My Hero Academia, vols. 10-16 (ongoing) by Horikoshi Kohei.

As I wrote in last year’s reflection on the books I’d read, My Hero Academia is both a refreshing contrast and homage to American superhero stories. As crazy as some of the powers and ideas in it may be, it strikes me as an essentially grounded series. It makes absolute sense that superheroism would be government-regulated—yet still very much capitalist!—in a society with so many superpowered people. And despite the perversity and deadliness of the various exams and tournaments to which our protagonists are subjected, these, too, have real-world analogues in Japanese education or in military or criminal justice training and evaluation. Most of all, I appreciate how the stakes in the series are complex but clear. 

*spoiler ahead*

All Might losing his powers in order to defeat All for One is meaningful on an individual level, but Horikoshi emphasizes what a devastating loss it is for the world. All Might is not dead, but he’s clearly not getting his powers back. Making himself—ultimately a man as mortal as any other—the “symbol of peace” for society worked while he was alive, but therefore it also means that the peace was always incredibly brittle. The ease with which victims and outsiders can fall through the cracks of the system—symbolized by superheroes—is terrifying, and while it makes the job of superheroes more meaningful, it also means that they’re not just defending society from the onslaught of villains; it means that they bear the psychological pressure of a maintaining the image of a functioning social order. It’s their job to preserve the illusion of utopian progress, and the villains—evil they may be—are ultimately committed to exposing society’s fallibility, revealing the ways in which a supposedly functioning social order lets down its own people time and again. Christopher Nolan explored this dynamic in The Dark Knight, but not quite as successfully—perhaps in part because American superheroes are simply too individualist by nature, too rooted in their own neuroses. Captain America: Civil War is the perfect illustration of that tendency. 

To be sure, Horikoshi is not attempting to mount an astute, erudite satire here. This is very much a shonen action-adventure. But the themes and the way he explores them, however subliminally, continues to strike me as essentially more on-the-mark than most American superhero stories with which I’m familiar.

Ancillary Justice (2013) by Ann Leckie. 

Justly praised when it came out, this is a book I’ve been wanting to get to for years. It didn’t disappoint, and the more I contemplate it, the better I like it. A lot of the discourse surrounding this book focuses on how it subverts or reimagines space opera tropes, focusing on identity and relationships in provocative ways. It does those things, of course. But it’s still a space opera, so the fate of the galaxy is still at stake, and the heroics of a single outlaw who’s good with a gun still ultimately determine the outcome of a civilizational crisis.

Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) by Poul Anderson. 

Honestly, though I thought this adventure was quite fun—both on its own merits and as a precursor to the tropes of D&D—it’s not quite a masterpiece. But I fondly remember this fantasy as one of two I brought to the hospital with me when my son was born. One day I will read it to him, and I will tell him that it is, in part, the story of the day he began his own heroic adventure.☕︎


The Beginning of the End

Yesterday afternoon, I finished reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to my son. He’s not yet one (just a little shy of it). I possess enough maturity to admit that I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia to him mainly for my own sake, because he’s too young to remember any of this, but I’m selfish enough to continue doing so all the same. It’s important for me to know that I read to my child from time to time, and as long as I’ve harbored the desire to be a father, I’ve wanted to read these books to my child.

In truth, they’re a really mixed bag. C. S. Lewis is one of my favorite writers, but I love the Narnia books more for nostalgia than for their literary accomplishments; it’s Lewis’s essays that I tend to admire much more unreservedly. The structure of his novels is usually awkward, and I don’t think his ear for characterization is always really finely tuned (Caspian, for instance, never really comes into focus for me). Part of the series’s charm is how willing Lewis is to commit to the logic of fairy tales for children, but it’s also a bit disjunctive as I read, say, the bit about Santa Claus visiting Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

And I found it increasingly off-putting that Lewis describes so many elements of fantastical Narnia in terms of the technologies of modern life. I’m not noting each instance as I read, but it seems to me that there are several instances of sudden silences being compared to radios being switched off, and Lewis resorts to train travel comparisons on a few occasions. Even Lucy’s observation of the Sea People kingdom near the end of Dawn Treader struck me as deliberately evoking the experience of airplane travel. (But maybe that’s me projecting that comparison onto Lewis’s novel way of presenting it. In which case, I’ve been conditioned by technological society to resort to such analogies or I was conditioned by Lewis’s repeated use of them or both.)

On the whole, I suspect that the problems I bring to my reading of Narnia are a result of how well (how poorly?) Lewis blends his aesthetic and religious sensibilities.

For instance, my perspective on Reepicheep the gallant mouse has shifted fundamentally since I first read this series as a child. I doubt that Lewis was blind to Reepicheep’s recklessness and parasuicidal commitment to chivalry; he finds plenty of places to poke fun at the mouse’s Quixotesque comportment. But Reepicheep is, fundamentally, heroic in that old-fashioned sense. Never mind that Reepicheep is exactly the kind of soldier that, in real life, likely would die young and horribly; or, if he managed to live long enough to gain command, hundreds of mothers and fathers would lose their draft-age children to his hawkish monomania. I dunno, maybe Reepicheep was more plausibly heroic in the age of Winston Churchill or something. He’s the embodiment of old saws like “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “Fortune favors the bold.” As I reread The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, though, I mostly found myself pondering how unfair it was that so many of the lords-in-exile met such horrible, lonely fates while Reepicheep got to go to Aslan’s country. Apparently Reepicheep was better than they were, at least in the moral schema of The Chronicles of Narnia.

Even with all of this, there are parts of the book that strike utterly true. Yesterday afternoon, reading the final pages of Dawn Treader brought me nearly to tears. It was most unexpected, and an incredibly rare instance of a book wringing a sob from me. The passage that did so is transcribed below. The children—Lucy and Edmund Pevensie, and their cousin, Eustace Scrubb—have just watched Reepicheep disappear over the Eastern wave in his coracle to the land beyond, which, the narrator believes, is Aslan’s country.

As the sun rose, the sight of those mountains outside the world faded away. The wave remained but there was only blue sky behind it.

The children got out of the boat and waded—not towards the wave but southward with the wall of water on their left. They could not have told you why they did this; it was their fate. And though they had felt—and been—very grown-up on the Dawn Treader, they now felt just the opposite and held hands as they waded through the lilies. They never felt tired. The water was warm and all the time it got shallower. At last they were on dry sand, and then on grass—a huge plain of very fine short grass, almost level with the Silver Sea and spreading in every direction without so much as a molehill.

And of course, as it always does in a perfectly flat place without trees, it looked as if the sky came down to meet the grass in front of them. But as they went on they got the strangest impression that here at last the sky did really come down and join the earth—a blue wall, very bright, but real and solid: more like glass than anything else. And soon they were quite sure of it. It was very near now.

But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles’ eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb.

“Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice.

Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.

“Please, Lamb,” said Lucy, “is this the way to Aslan’s country?”

“Not for you,” said the Lamb. “For you the door to Aslan’s country is from your own world.”

“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into Aslan’s country from our world too?”

“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said the Lamb; but as he spoke, his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?”

“I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder. And now come; I will open the door in the sky and send you to your own land.”

“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.”

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

“And is Eustace never to come back here either?” said Lucy.

“Child,” said Aslan, “do you really need to know that? Come, I am opening the door in the sky.” Then all in one moment there was a rending of the blue wall (like a curtain being torn) and a terrible white light from beyond the sky, and the feel of Aslan’s mane and a Lion’s kiss on their foreheads and then—the back bedroom in Aunt Alberta’s home in Cambridge.

Honestly, so much of this passage exemplifies the problems I bring to Narnia as I approach middle age. Aslan referring to himself as “the great Bridge Builder” feels unintentionally ironic, given the climax of Prince Caspian. The Christian symbolism also feels a bit overbearing: the parenthetical of the sky tearing like a curtain, for example, feels like a final, errant brick on a teetering Jenga tower. Why does a sky described previously as “more like glass than anything else” sound like a curtain when it’s torn open? And why would Lewis expect his readers—even ones who catch the allusion to Matthew 27:51—to know what a tearing curtain sounds like? And that description of the “terrible white light from beyond the sky” is almost too much whiteness, after using “white” or “whiteness” so many times to describe various aspects of the End of the World. It reminded me too much of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

But that’s also what sort of makes it work, because what Lewis is getting at here is the poignance of the Christian hope of death and resurrection. To get (almost) to Aslan’s country, the children and mouse travel through a sea of lilies. They are carried there inexorably by an ocean current. Reepicheep himself simply floats up, away, over the wall of water. The fish lunch evokes Jesus preparing breakfast for his disciples after the resurrection, just as the tearing of the temple curtain signals his death on the cross. I don’t believe Lewis was deliberately evoking Poe here, but I also don’t think it’s coincidental that both authors—romantics to the core—depicted the climax of their oceanic voyages in such complementary terms. Both are reaching for the sublime, but Lewis is the only one who approaches it with religious hope.

(I invite Poe and Lewis scholars to argue with me on this point!)

In any case, for all its didacticism—perhaps because of the sincerity of the didacticism—this scene underlined for me what makes Lewis work, even when what he’s doing borders on the risible. In this book, Lewis rehearses the bittersweetness of death for the practicing Christian, and it’s all the more poignant because the children don’t quite grasp that Aslan is telling them that they will only see him again when they’re dead. After they’ve had to struggle through the remainder of the adolescence and adulthood in a world where Aslan does not roam in the flesh, holding on to the memory of what it was like to feel the Lion’s kiss. That’s really tough stuff.

And because it’s Edmund and Lucy—the last of the original children from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the last of the High Kings and Queens, and the ones who first ushered readers into his magical, faraway land—who are being shut out of Narnia, it’s especially bittersweet. The connection is broken in some way. (Yes, Eustace is a cousin, and yes, he does return to Narnia, but it’s different. In a good way, I think. But that’s not something that this particular book ending is about, as Aslan flatly reminds us.) They’re being told, in essence, that their childhood is over. Peter and Susan were told the same thing at the end of Prince Caspian, but we still had the younger two siblings. And they were told they would return. Here? Aslan plays coy about Eustace, probably because Lucy is being petulant. But that petulance is the last we see of Lucy, and it’s a very human response to realizing that childhood is over. With the official growing up of the four Pevensie children, the reader’s extended childhood, too, is over. The child dies to the adult, and then the adult dies, too. Death is Aslan’s kiss, too. It’s too much to take in, which is part of why I started to cry.

But death is not the point of this encounter, even if it’s the motif. The line that set me off was, “‘Not for you,’ said the Lamb. ‘For you the door to Aslan’s country is from your own world.’”  The one that nearly did me in was, “‘You are too old, children,’ said Aslan, ‘and you must begin to come close to your own world now.’” But that’s also the line that pulled me back. That’s a weird phrase there, “you must begin to come close to your own world now.” It stopped me; it nearly made me burst into tears; it made me reread the line; it brought me up short; it made me reflect.

Here Aslan is reminding the children that, though Narnia is as real as our own world, it is not our own world. And Edmund and Lucy have have their most meaningful, their most formative experiences, in this place that is not their own. In order to get to Aslan’s country again, in order to form themselves properly for it, they need to return to their own world. Narnia is vitally important, but it’s not sufficient.

What I take Lewis to mean here is that we need Narnia—we need the stories, we need the experience of the divine in our dreams and fantasies—but we need to do something with our experience of Narnia. We can only do something with Narnia when we’re not in Narnia. The same goes for reading Scripture or going to church. We need the Word, and we need communion. But that’s not sufficient. The point of visiting Narnia is to prepare Lucy and Edmund for re-entering their world, because the real work Aslan needs them to do is to find him there. Narnia is the place where Aslan comes to them; our world is the place where they go to him.

Just as Reepicheep journeys beyond the End of the World in Narnia to reach Aslan’s country, the Pevensies must journey beyond our own world’s end. It’s hard work preparing to meet one’s maker, and our all too brief journeys through lands and seas and stars beyond imagination are there to guide us, to fortify us, to show us the way, like a rising sun, like a king’s feast, like a magician’s map, like a like a Lion’s kiss.

Here’s one last thing I know that probably took Lucy and Edmund a few years to realize. It’s something Lewis knew well, a wisdom he gifted to all of his readers, even if they found his Narnia itself not to their liking. I can return to Narnia any time I want. As long as we don’t misplace our favorite books, we all can.


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? ☕︎


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.☕︎


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