Category Archives: Cinema, Etc. (Reviews)

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.☕︎


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.☕

Stranger Things ☕ Season One, 2016

I’d have to say that my favorite single character scene in the series involves the boy’s science teacher, Mr. Clarke. As boys are bombarding him with questions concerning parallel universes (it all makes sense in the end), they throw out an obscure Dungeons & Dragons reference and he knows exactly what they’re talking about. It’s little moments like this one where Stranger Things feels authentic — where the nerdy references and pop culture homages become more than the sum of their parts because of the delightful, sympathetic characters making them.

Jason Morehead nails the appeal of Stranger Things pretty generally in his review, but that paragraph clinches it. If you haven’t already binged on it, Netflix’s latest nerd-friendly show is possibly the best Stephen King adaptation never made. Without spoiling anything, it’s about a kid vanishing under mysterious circumstances and the encounters those searching for him have with weird things involved in his disappearance. Beyond the main title font and a few explicit nods to King’s work (like the guard reading Cujo in the morgue), Matt and Ross Duffer’s story takes advantage of the Netflix format to indulge a sprawling story peopled with a fairly large cast of small-town characters. Like Derry, ME, Hawkins, IN, is a fully-realized community. Unless you’re talking about Tolkein or perhaps Austin T. Wright, fiction is rarely able to give you a firm sense of topography; texture comes primarily through characterization or other tools of world-building: the accumulation of details often overlooked in real life, but which make all the difference in grounding audiences in other worlds. Detail is especially key to historical fiction, and critics have already spilled plenty of ink (physical and digital) over Stranger Things’s recreation of the early 1980s. But it’s really the characters that make it feel real, because they arise from real historical possibility, as Georg Lukacs might have put it.

While I’m not Stephen King’s biggest fan (to put it mildly), the standout trait of all his work that I’ve read is the amount of time he lavishes on his characters. His worlds feel real because of the often complicated (or overwrought; perhaps overdetermined or unnecessary) networks of characters that comprise his stories. King’s work often doesn’t focus on a single central protagonist. His heroes are often groups: motley assemblages of stereotypes tweaked by his eye for psychological detail into three-dimensionality. Obviously, this is not always the case, but even in stories focusing on a scant few individuals, they are always rooted in relationships with others, perhaps even people you never meet within the pages of the story proper. This is King’s greatest asset as a storyteller, even as his predilection for overstuffing his stories with subplots—sometimes stemming from an overabundance of characters—is also one of his greatest weaknesses.

At a relatively trim eight episodes, Stranger Things doesn’t tend to fall prey to King’s excesses in this regard. Joyce’s relationship with her no-good ex, Lonnie, for instance, might seem to go nowhere. He’s not a fully-realized character by any stretch, but the framework is there for him to become one. More importantly, Joyce’s hysterical personality comes into focus a bit when you finally meet him. A lot of folks haven’t dug Winona Ryder’s performance; I did. You get the distinct impression, seeing how Lonnie interacts with Joyce and Jonathan, that this guy is a master of playing his loved ones’ insecurities off each other. It’s easy to see how Joyce might have been “high strung” in her youth and how Lonnie pushed her relentlessly into something short of a basket case. Then, of course, there’s Barb, bookish and loyal to a fault. Her relationship to Nancy makes total sense, as does Nancy’s increasingly thoughtless behavior toward her friend. To put it bluntly, supporting characters are props. They need to be plausible; they need to have some dimension. But they are, in some ways, terrain, and the protagonists are the ones who traverse it. The role of the terrain is to give better shape, definition, and psychological dimension to the heroes; in turn, if the protagonists are well-crafted, the terrain itself becomes more real, better-defined. A world apart. We love supporting characters like we love gravity and breathable air. They’re necessary for life.

Which brings me back to Mr. Clarke. He’s pretty much the greatest teacher ever. He’s also very much of his time and place. Lots of middle school teachers, I’m sure, go above and beyond to help their students. But in 2016, teachers have to wary of boundaries. Mr. Clarke is both teacher and buddy (sort of) to the boys in Stranger Things. He’s a mentor in an era when institutional structures didn’t make the kind of relationship he has with the boys totally weird. One of the other great scenes in the film is when the boys phone him at home while he’s on a date with questions on how to build a sensory-deprivation tank. Randall P. Havens is pretty great throughout, but if the scene where he explains string theory with D&D references is the most charming, this one offers the greatest insight into how far away 1983 really is. Not only do the boys interrupt his date by calling him at home on the weekend, but Havens plays Mr. Clarke as savvy enough to know that the boys are Up To Something, yet, because they’re so invested in scientific geekery, he can’t help but give them the information they need to really get in trouble. In 2016, when your adolescent students call you at home to ask you how to build a DIY sensory-deprivation tank, you hang up and send an email to someone in the administration. In Stranger Things, Mr. Clarke’s bond with and trust in his students is what helps them save their friend.

He’s a minor character, of course. Someone that my friend, Scott, calls “Mr. Plot,” a supporting cast member whose main function is to deliver exposition. Yet he feels real because his function in the story makes the main characters more grounded. He adds to the world. Another great minor character is Chris Sullivan’s short order cook. Because Stranger Things sets up a world in which a sprawling cast of characters can be supported, his scenes early in the series with Millie Bobby Brown are both tense and heartfelt, suggesting layers in his own personality and the potential of their own developing relationship. He functions mainly to give you a sense of the kind of town Hawkins is and the stakes of Eleven’s plight, but Stranger Things can spend time on his scenes with Eleven that a feature film would condense quite a bit more.

Netflix originals have been criticized in the past for not really understanding how to make the most of their medium. Jessica Jones, for instance, was critiqued for its pacing, as have other Netflix series. Making shows for a binging audience is a new thing. It’ll take time to crack that code on a consistent basis. I think the Duffers have taken us a good deal further toward that goal. Whereas time spent on supporting characters in a superhero show might feel like “filler” (though I’m not sure I totally agree with that assessment), for a show like Stranger Things, the little scenes spent with tertiary characters are utterly necessary to the show’s raison d’être. This is world-building, not padding. Even if those scenes don’t have a payoff in terms of plot mechanics, I can’t think of a scene from Stranger Things, off the top of my head, that isn’t in some way necessary to capturing the messy, sprawling reality of interpersonal relationships in a small town. Sometimes resolution is itself a bit of a cheat. Unlike a lot of the adaptations of Stephen King’s actual work, few of the “dead end” subplots in Stranger Things subtract from the overall experience. If there is to be a second season set in Hawkins, these things are utterly necessary for establishing a solid foundation for future chapters. Even if the first season of Stranger Things were to stand alone (and I think it certainly does), there’s almost nothing about it that feels totally wasted—if you consider replicating King’s dense texturing of community to be a paramount aesthetic goal.

Especially when you consider how important redemption is to the thematic arcs of so many characters, this becomes more important. It’s often easy to think of personal redemption in terms of individual achievement. Even when presented as something sought within a particular context, or something achieved with the help of others, stories of redemption often have a very individualist ethos to them. King’s stories often emphasize that doing the right thing is made more challenging by those in your own corner; those you love and rely on don’t make your life easier. They’re not supposed to, even when you’re doing all in your power to save yourself and them. Adversity creates fault lines as often as it cleaves people more strongly together, and even as a series like Stranger Things builds toward the main characters finally (finally!) pooling their knowledge and resources, it has to set the stage for fallout. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and no action provokes anything less than an equal and opposite reaction. You don’t just get scars from fighting monsters; you get them from friends and family, too. The best of us impose our flaws on the undeserving. That’s human nature. Without a capacious cast of characters and the little moments of grace and light that comes with them—like the boys’ interactions with Mr. Clarke—the dark lattice of shadows all people cast would not stand out so starkly in relief. Like all good tales of terror, Stranger Things knows that we are all made of light and shadow. Meaningful sacrifices aren’t made for one person, but for a world. Without a world of people—all fallen, all too human—you’ve come to know and care about, what difference would even one sacrifice make?☕

Ghostbusters ☕ d. Paul Feig, 2016

A modest prediction: like the original, 2016’s Ghostbusters will age well. Everyone knows that there are many New York Cities. There’s the real, actual NYC. There’s the NYC that each New Yorker lives in his or her own little world. Tourists, of course, have their own NYC. Then there’s the New York we see in movies: the violent dystopia, the romantic urbs bucolica, yesteryear’s city of tomorrow, etc. To paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes. The best movies set in New York City can only be set in New York City. Woody Allen doesn’t film, for the most part, in Boston, and despite what the Academy says, I don’t think it was such a hot idea for Martin Scorsese, either. By the same token, it’s impossible to think of the Ackroyd/Ramis/Reitman version of Ghostbusters taking place in Chicago, L. A., or New Orleans. “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.” Right? It’s gotta be set in New York, or it doesn’t quite work.

Or maybe it’s just that NYC as a milieu works so well as a catalyst for galvanizing types of humor honed elsewhere. After all, the original Ghostbusters cast was a mix of Canadians and Midwesterners, all connected with Second City and/or Saturday Night Live. The discipline of comedy tours and weekly television are rather like classical training for American comedians, who must adapt their routines and sketches to the demands of one of the most diverse audiences in the world. Live comedy demands an often tricky mix of topicality and timelessness—great jokes have to plugged into the here and now, but you can’t assume that everybody in the audiences is as plugged in as they should be. Film comedy is a different kind of tricky. Again, sharp humor always feels contemporary—but sharp humor always feels contemporary. The characters of Manhattan are as pathetic and funny in 2016 as they were in 1979; Peter Venkman’s narcissistic assholery and Ray Stanz’s blue collar geekery translated across state lines in 1984 as well as they translate across the three decades since they first appeared.

There’s little topical humor specific to 2016 in the new Ghostbusters, few allusions outside the franchise. Characters reference classic films like The Exorcist, but only to elements already deeply soaked into the pop culture consciousness. For instance, Andy Garcia plays the mayor of New York (because of course he does), and he deeply resents Kristin Wiig’s desperate scientist begging him not to be like the mayor from Jaws. Melissa McCarthy spends the whole film trying to get a decent bucket of wanton soup from her favorite Chinese restaurant—a running gag that works even better because only in (movie) New York City would someone stubbornly keep ordering the same disappointing soup from the same take-out joint and berate the delivery driver for it. Instead of “We’re ready to believe you!” or “Who you gonna call?,” the first slogan these Ghostbusters come up with is, “If you see something, say something,” only realizing after the flyers are already printed that someone is already using that one. In fact, that might be the most specifically New York joke of the film, and its topicality is restricted only in the sense that you have to know that the film takes place post-9/11.

In fact, that reference is probably the single strongest signal of the film’s temporal setting. There’s one instance of a smartphone video uploaded to YouTube costing a character a job, but apart from that, there’s little reference to the latest communication technologies, which probably comprise the single most conspicuous trait of our historical period. The (fictional, s’far’s I can tell) Mercado Hotel replaces 44 Central Part West as the site of the the climactic battle, and its art deco lobby is vintage (movie) New York City: it’s exactly the kind of perfectly preserved building you would expect to sit atop ancient ley lines, in addition to being an architectural expression of yesteryear’s cutting edge. It’s nebulously nostalgic, and while art deco might look simply dated elsewhere, it feels strangely a part of contemporary life in (movie) New York.

The Mercado Hotel climax is symbolic of what’s great about the film as well as what’s not so great. While it evokes that wonderful movie-NYC contemporary-nostalgia, it also evokes some of the most memorable scenes from the original Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, 2016’s Ghostbusters does entirely too much of that, and not cleverly enough. One callback that works well is the way this film brings in the classic logo, here spray-painted into a subway as a bit of mockery by a graffito. Another classy nod is the bronze bust of Harold Ramis glimpsed early in the film, gracing the hallowed halls of Columbia University. Cameos by other original cast members range from nice to outright distracting. Annie Potts essentially plays Janine, except here she’s the desk clerk in the Mercado. It works in part because her shtick is still funny, and because it’s a brief beat in the narrative flow. The single worst cameo is, unsurprisingly, Bill Murray’s. It’s not so much Murray’s performance as a paranormal debunker that clunks, but the fact that the film builds an entire sequence around him. While I think Paul Feig and Katie Dippold wanted him to be this version’s Walter Peck, it doesn’t really work out that way. For one, his cameo is too brief and poorly structured into the narrative to serve the catastrophic purpose of Peck in the original. For another, even if Murray’s performance is fine, he’s just too much Murray. Maybe other fans of the original will really dig him here. For me, the entire sequence screamed, “OMG you guys we got Murray for a day we gotta DO STUFF WITH HIM!!”

There’s really no way Feig et al. could win. Remaking a beloved film like Ghostbusters entails its own challenges that have little to do with the mechanics of storytelling and everything to do with fan service. Apart from the clunkiness of Murray’s extended cameo, he shows up at almost exactly the wrong time, a little more or less than halfway through the film. Until his appearance, the film had done deft work in metatextual commentary, sprinkling allusions to the earlier films into its original material in ways that were pleasing without interrupting the flow. In fact, the first 45 minutes or so of 2016’s Ghostbusters is borderline magnificent. It sets up a distinct cast, a different kind of villain, and it does all this with the workmanlike professionalism that makes for durable Hollywood cinema. The thematic arc is even distinct from the original. Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters were underdogs who got to prove their worth to a city famed for its facility with dream-crushing, and Peter Venkman learns to be a little less of a selfish asshole. Feig’s Ghostbusters are still underdogs who get to prove themselves, but this movie is really about what a difference friendship makes to said underdogs. The difference between the good guys and the bad guy here is that human connection. In a culture that frankly still often celebrates bullies and narcissists, the outcasts who save the city in the new film are honored for their personal strengths in ways that are subtext (if that) in the original Ghostbusters.

The cast makes that work. And as someone who is a big unplugged from pop culture, this was my first time really seeing Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones as performers. SNL fans know them, but I don’t think I’ve watched SNL since about 2001 or 2002. They are simply terrific, as is McCarthy, whom I know going back to Gilmore Girls. The dialogue in this movie is good, and the special effects are okay; this is a movie you kind of have to see for the actors, though. Besides the great chemistry shared by the principle leads, they also spark with pretty much everyone else who shows up. I recognized Charles Dance, Ed Begley, Jr., Matt Walsh, Michael K. Williams, and Michael McDonald, of course; Cecily Strong, Neil Casey, and Steve Higgins are (apparently) SNL alumni as well. This isn’t quite an Ocean’s Eleven-level Who’s Who, but there are no wasted scenes with any of these performers. It’s all good stuff. Oh, and, yeah—Chris Hemsworth: delightful.

I’m interested to see how this movie plays over the long haul. Unlike a lot of my contemporaries, I didn’t see 1984’s Ghostbusters (or its sequel) until I was in my teens. So the nostalgia factor is a bit blunted, but I have watched the first film at least a dozen times. It’s impossible for me to watch 2016’s Ghostbusters and not be at least a little distracted by all the callbacks and cameos. Will younger audiences, those less attached to the original movies, feel the same way? What about viewers my age or older, who simply enjoy the cameos for what they are? I don’t typically see the point in doing a remake/reboot unless the filmmakers can find a reason to justify doing something new and different. Most of the new film hits the sweet spot between honoring the structure and vibe of the old one while still infusing it with the unique sensibility of its (re)makers. The very presence of the old cast (awesome though they are as individual performers) and some of the callbacks simply feels like an unwelcome intrusion, sort of like the VIPs that you’re obliged to put on the guest list even though the party will be super-unhip if they actually show up.

On the whole, though, it’s an enjoyable and—dare I say—necessary extension of the Ghostbusters franchise into the 21st century. The weird mix of welcome and unwelcome nostalgia is likely an unavoidable cost of that labor. All the same, what I kind of dig conceptually about the new film is that it formalizes the Ghostbusters not just as a viable franchise, but as a cultural institution, one that’s multigenerational in a meaningful, active sense. What would America be without its institutions—and what would (movie) New York be without its Ghostbusters? ☕

How does Marvel’s culture industry manage to keep hope alive?

Like most folks who saw it, I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. It was inferior to the previous two Captain America films, in my estimation, but it was better than Age of Ultron. Much can and has been written about the drawbacks of the Marvel/Disney entertainment monolith, and I’ve been ruminating on the film since I saw it. Chuck Bowen recently used Civil War as the occasion to reflect on the State of Summer Cinema. Allow me to use Bowen as the occasion to reflect on everything that Marvel has done right so far. This will get a little dialectical. Bear with me.

Contrary to a cliche that dogs film critics, I don’t enjoy disliking nearly every movie that earns a significant amount of money. My words are carefully chosen. “Disliking” rather than “hating”, because to inspire such a passionate response as hate would require more than a preordained blockbuster usually offers. Works of art are like people: to hate either, one must be accorded a glimpse of their personality first, and a failure to exhibit personality provokes a muffled, low-risk indifference. But try telling people this sort of thing about a Marvel production and you’re a snob.

Of all people, I can empathize with Bowen’s gripe about his own audience’s bad-faith reception. The fact that one may simply not like a film (as opposed to hating, disliking, or any other strongly-agential gerund you please) does not compute for most people. When you’ve seen enough movies, the most common reaction, sadly, is non-reaction. Movies that most folks “love” or “hate” or think of as “just okay” or (God help me) “interesting” are, to the jaded cinephile, just sort of there. It’s almost a mercy when I actively hate a film, because I’m relieved to have my emotions excited by the experience. So what I’m saying is that I totally get what Bowen’s saying here. He’s got some other pity observations, such as when he compares blockbusters to the cautious personality of job interviewees, or that, given the choice simply to skip the requisite blockbusters, “Unending exclusion is dull and estranging,” so it’s probably better to be in the loop than out.

People have short cultural memories, but blockbusters used to occasionally be enjoyable. Even weird. Their plots might have been recycled and disposable, but they had plots, and some of them had ineffably powerful images. Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the most influential of all blockbusters, is almost quaint now in its fealty to the idea of one hero, one villain, a heroine, a few colorful supporting characters, a MacGuffin, and a story that tied all these elements together with pleasurable simplicity. And while its protagonist, Indiana Jones, was an indestructible superman, he also has discernible human characteristics. For one, he clearly liked sex.

Whuh? Not quite sure how Indiana Jones is an “indestructible superman” (fridge-nuking notwithstanding), because the first and third films end with literal di ex machina that emphasize the hero’s relative powerlessness. Also, what the hell does it mean that “he clearly liked sex”? is that the most readily identifiable human characteristic—liking sex? Unlike Tony Stark, for instance?

I’m also unsure how the Thor movies or the first Captain America weren’t pleasurable in their simplicity: one hero, one villain, a heroine, a few colorful supporting characters, a MacGuffin, and a story that tied these elements together. Guardians of the Galaxy had multiple heroes, but it stands as this decade’s superlative example of exactly the kind of film Bowen is complaining that the blockbuster machine doesn’t produce. I haven’t seen some of the other films he name-drops, but if some ivory-tower-bound neckbeard like myself, who sees maybe ten new movies a year anymore, can think of several counterexamples out of hand—taken from the very franchise he’s arguing about—one might get the sense that Bowen’s punching a bit above his weight class. Or simply being obtuse. To wit:

“On a scene-by-scene basis, this new Marvel uber-movie makes almost no sense, hopscotching across dozens of cities and a couple of different timelines, plugging new superheroes such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Spider-Man (Tom Holland), while dropping cute little in-jokes designed to pressure audiences into catching up with past Marvel installments that they may have missed. This is the most irritating component of the new corporate blockbuster: it’s always heckling you to buy more, without ever giving you what you already paid for. It may be called Captain America, and more or less be a sequel to the vastly superior The Winter Soldier, but it offers a buffet of superheroes designed to abound in so much as to offer each audience member enough of what they individually like, so that they can each retrospectively assemble a different, more focused movie in their minds.”

This paragraph foreshadows how Bowen misunderstands Marvel’s project in some very fundamental ways. First, I’m not sure how the film makes no sense on a scene-by-scene basis. It doesn’t really hopscotch different timelines so much as parallel storylines. Most of these scenes are united by the MacGuffin (that’s right, folks—there is one!) of the Sokovia Accords, a multinational agreement among the world’s nations that superheroes require some sort of civilian oversight. Coming on the heels of Ultron’s robot uprising and Hydra’s hijacking of the U. S. military-industrial complex (not to mention the emergence of the Inhumans, if one still considers Marvel’s TV franchises to be part of the same universe), one can understand that non-superheroes might want a say in how the Avengers conduct their affairs.

Civil War is a sequel to Winter Soldier, but it’s more properly a sequel to every Marvel movie to date. Unlike virtually every major franchise produced by Hollywood, Marvel has made a point of making sequels that actually push their characters forward. It’s TV-style serialization—which, in turn, was influenced by early film serialization, so I guess the blockbuster has essentially come full circle. Unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark, which borrowed liberally from the early serials’ tropes, the MCU has borrowed from their episodic structure. More accurately, it uses the serial structure that has been the backbone of superhero comics for going on a century. While it’s fair to say that there are not really any long-term consequences in serialized comics (the medium that gave us the term “retcon”), there are often short- to medium-term consequences. Superman today is (sorta-kinda-pretty-much) the Superman of the 1940s, plus or minus a few powers. But there’s a gravitational power exerted by the shared universes of the two major comics publishers that basically requires their worlds to maintain a certain status quo. Mostly for business reasons: after all, it makes it easier for new readers to jump into a series when the basic premise and stakes are never-changing. There’s also a storytelling exigency, though: long-running series change creative teams from time to time, and it’s easier to do new(ish) things within an established paradigm if you’re not hamstrung by a never-ending series of paradigm shifts introduced by each previous team. It’s more about finding interesting new facets of a superhero (and that hero’s mythos) to explore, rather than totally reinventing the superhero from scratch. The Marvel movies do this better, in my opinion, than the Marvel comics.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe simply has exigencies that the comics do not, and that makes them more appealing to a certain kind of audience. The primary reason why I never got into superhero comics when I was collecting them is that I didn’t have the money or patience to go read everything I needed to know in order to fully appreciate the context of a current story arc. Storytelling in mainstream superhero comics is intransigently incestuous. After all, the whole point of having a shared universe is to do crossovers. That’s great when there’s only, like, a dozen titles in a given universe. It’s enough to induce a panic attack when dozens of titles and hundreds of characters are in play over the course of decades.

What’s worse is that so much of the pathos from these titles comes from the assumption that readers are at least somewhat familiar with the histories of these characters. Imagine watching Star Trek: Generations without ever having seen any TOS episodes or movies and maybe only a handful of TNG. It’s not a great film anyway, but watching Captain Kirk die for real and for good is kind of a kick in the gut if you’re a Trekker in any sense of the word. If you only have the vaguest idea who he is, due mainly to pop culture osmosis, maybe the moment works, but mostly not, I’d wager. The entire film hinges upon two legendary Enterprise captains meeting for the first time for the last time and the torch being officially passed from one generation of the franchise to The Next. If you haven’t been watching Star Trek, there’s no legend. No impact.

For me, reading virtually any major superhero book was like jumping straight into the final season of Lost. There were a few exceptions, as there always are. (I loved Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil, for instance, but then, I’d already read most of Miller’s run and most of Bendis’s thanks to my local library’s shockingly capacious graphic novel collection.) On the whole, though, it simply never mattered to me. Any of it. Or most of it, rather.

However much the Chuck Bowens of the world complain about each installment in MCU being a product placement for other installments, the product line is comparatively sparse if you put it alongside the comics. You want to get caught up before Civil War? ‘Kay. Rent Iron Man (just the first one), the two Avengers movies, and the first two Captain Americas. You don’t need any Hulk, Thor, or Guardians. You don’t need the TV shows. You don’t need the films produced by 20th Century Fox. Will you miss a few inside jokes? Sure. Are you on the hook for 10+ hours of entertainment. Yep.

Know what you’re not on the hook for? Approximately 82,946 comic books, including back issues and current releases, because you happened to pick up the latest X-Men and you don’t know who the hell any of the characters are or why the one guy you do recognize is now a gay psychopath who’s also apparently the clone half-brother of some other character who’s Professor X’s great-granddaughter from an alternate future who is responsible for the sixth (or seventh?) time Wolverine got amnesia and had to go work as a short-order cook in Laos, where he eventually teamed up with the Punisher to take out the assassin/warlord who will (tune in next month! Excelsior!) be responsible for murdering Matt Murdoch’s latest doomed girlfriend, which will somehow precipitate the third superhero Civil War.

Part of me appreciates the operatic plot lunacy and behind-the-scenes organization it takes to pull of stuff like that even halfway successfully. It’s the same part of me that, in the abstract, thinks that soap operas and pro wrestling are kind of cool, in theory. The other part of me looks at my wallet and my time commitments and goes, “Yeah, I can check out the latest Marvel flick every eight months. That’s way more doable.”

It’s doable for movie audiences because the kind of money and organization required for large-scale blockbuster film production can only make movies like this happen every eight months or so. The most marketable part of these movies, apart from the franchise branding, is the truly impressive roster of performers Marvel has assembled. You only get RDJ or Chris Evans for so many movies, so you better spread ‘em out and make ‘em really count. Similarly, Marvel’s scored big with some of its behind-the-scenes hires. Joss Whedon, obviously. James Gunn, though, was a stroke of genius. Guardians of the Galaxy is the single best film in the Marvel MCU, and apart from the first Iron Man, it is the least dependent on the films’ shared mythos.

What will be even more interesting to see is whether Marvel has the ambition and vision to continue the current MCU well past the tenure of its founding players. Chris Evans will be done with Steve Rogers after the Avengers two-parter. Downey, Jr. is likely to bow out sooner than later. Marvel can always recast or reboot, but the cool thing about movies like Ant-Man or Guardians is that they do well without necessarily being based on known quantities. I get that making a movie about Marvel’s first black superhero is a big deal (and more than a little overdue), but seriously: did anybody outside of the comics nerd-o-sphere know who Black Panther was until Marvel stuck him in Civil War?[1] Would Ta-Nahisi Coates have gotten a shot at writing the comic right now without Marvel deciding to branch Panther off into his own film? Would they have chosen to do so if they couldn’t have spliced him into a strong, stable franchise like Captain America first? Things like this are part of the upside of the entertainment-industrial complex. Money + hype = willing viable franchises into existence. (Not always, but you have to admit that momentum is on Marvel’s side at present.) Unlike the comics publishing arm, it’s quite possible that MCU can survive the retirement of its initial flagship characters if there are folks like Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland waiting in the wings. (Or, for heaven’s sake, Scarlett freaking Johansson, who has already appeared in more Marvel movies than everyone but Downey and Evans.) Put another way, it’s possible for MCU to evolve in ways that the Marvel comics universe simply can’t, because we’re talking about two different markets and two different media, one of which depends on real, flesh-and-blood people to play the characters.

Not likely, I admit. Just possible.

I like the idea of the MCU growing and evolving, as it were, in real time. One of the distinct pleasures of watching the Marvel movies since Iron Man has been watching talented stars and writers collaborating to find interesting things to do within the constraints of the franchise. They age. They mature. Downey is a better Tony Stark now than he was in 2008. Chris Evans is a better Steve Rogers. Most movie actors get one film in which to get to know their characters. Downey and Evans have gotten six and five, respectively. To me, their performances reflect that process. And that’s tied to the thing that Bowens gets so, so wrong in his reflection Civil War. It is, in fact, the thing that he misses the most completely.

Would it kill the film-makers to offer just one memorable bit of dialogue? Every spoken line in Civil War serves an expository purpose. Or how about just one image that strives for poetry? Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? Or crying? Or changing allegiances? Or having money problems? Or loving, in a visceral, personal way, rather than in the usual platitudinous fashion that testifies to the needs of teaming up yet again to mount yet another adventure?

Watching Captain America: Civil War, in which positively nothing is at stake, I checked my watch 25 minutes into the film, sighing at the realization that there were nearly two hours remaining. How can audiences stand this? By submitting to the anesthesia of the loudness, I suspect, by comforting themselves with the knowledge that they are, at this moment, doing what culture expects of them. Seeing the “big” thing, the Super Bowl of yearly adventure epics.

The whole point of Bowen’s piece is (I think) to chastise audiences for letting Hollywood get away with selling them all of these films that are structurally the same, but he displays no grasp whatsoever of what has changed from film to film. So doing, he cannot understand why audiences keep showing up.

We’ll set aside haggling over what counts as a memorable line or a poetic image, or even what counts as “loving, in a visceral, personal way,” because I would argue that Civil War utterly hinges on what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls homosociality, and even tweaks it a bit with the role that Black Widow plays in the character dynamics.[2] Let’s focus on three questions. “Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? Or crying? Or changing allegiances?” Let’s take these one at a time. The correct answers (phrased in the form of questions) are, in order:

Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? What, you mean like Peggy Carter? Title character of the Marvel Television Universe’s best series? The love of Steve’s life who kicked ass with him in the first film and died and was buried in Civil War?

Or crying? What, you mean like Wanda, after she blames herself for killing those civilians in the first scene? Or Tony, expressing a mix of sorrow and rage after Rhoadie gets shot down in the climactic fight at the airport? I’m sorry, does a character have to bawl uncontrollably—cry on cue, as it were—in order to count as “crying”?

Or changing allegiances? What, you mean like THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THIS MOVIE? Like how the first Avenger, Captain America (remember the first film’s title?), breaks his allegiance with the Avengers as a matter of conscience, and spends the whole film fighting with his former teammates as a result? Or how Black Widow totally confounds the entire idea of allegiance by trying to remain loyal to both of her friends and teammates, and also has to leave the Avengers as a result? Or how Black Panther goes from trying to murder Bucky to apprehending the real killer when he realizes he’s been duped? I’m actually thoroughly confused by this question. Just so I don’t cause any confusion, this question is not rhetorical: Chuck, did you actually watch Captain America: Civil War?

The purpose of Bowen’s series of facetious queries, of course, is to buttress the claim that “positively nothing is at stake” in Civil War. Again, this would be a totally baffling claim, even if we took Civil War as a case by itself. In the context of the MCU, it is about as objectively wrong as you can get. That is, if context and character development matter to any criticism based on a method of close textual analysis. (Hint: they really do!)

As others have already noted, both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have actually had quite distinctive character arcs across the films in which they’ve appeared. Stark starts out as the reprobate Ayn Randian hero who worships at his own altar and must continually learn and re-learn the principle of self-sacrifice for the greater good. As the films progress, his sense of responsibility becomes less personal (due in large part to the lessons learned from the consequences of his own arrogance) and more based on principle, more directed toward the global community. In the Iron Man films, Tony repeatedly is forced to pay for his mistakes or the mistakes of his family or his corporate empire. Avengers is the first instance we get of Stark sacrificing himself genuinely selflessly. He invents Ultron partly as a psychological defense against his own perceive weakness, but also because he wants to protect Earth proactively from global threats. It is his greatest failure, the culmination of the arrogance displayed in each of his standalone films, and it is what leads this individualist bad boy to push for the institutional restraint of the Sokovia Accords. He knows that he cannot be trusted to hold himself accountable, so he welcomes the prospect of oversight. As the final confrontation with Cap at the end of the film shows, he knows himself quite well—he is unable to stop himself from trying to exact revenge for his parents’ murder. But the Tony Stark of Civil War is one making a conscious effort to restrain his arrogance; only someone with such a fatal flaw could recognize it manifesting in someone else: Steve Rogers.

A paragon of the Greatest Generation, he becomes a superhero principally out of a willingness to put himself at the service of the government to fight evil. Not just for his own sake; because he believes the world to be at stake. When Nick Fury taps him for the Avengers, it’s not much of an issue for him. It is, in fact, Tony’s innate resistance to institutional trust that persuades Cap to question Fury and discover the weapons program that provoked the alien invasion in the first place. He tries to carry on in Winter Soldier, but finds that the institution to which he has devoted his life is utterly infested with the evil he sacrificed himself (in the first film) to wipe out for good. Skepticism toward technocratic solutions to world piece underwrites his hostility to Ultron in Avengers 2, after which it is Tony who is forced to agree. By the end of that film, Steve takes over the Avengers because there is no institution left on earth that he can trust. That need for moral independence is what informs his rebellion against the Sokovia Accords in Civil War. His blind loyalty to Bucky is not merely personal affection and perhaps guilt over what happened to his oldest friend; Steve’s experience in each film has led him to value loyalty among comrades in arms above all else. External constraints, such as SHIELD or Ultron, have only compiled evil upon evil. In his arrogance, Steve believes that he can trust only his own moral compass, so he defies international law, deceives Tony about his parents’ death, and ends the film by founding his own rogue group of vigilantes. The consummate team player has become the ultimate loose cannon.

In short, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’s character arcs have had an inverse trajectory that has been developed carefully and (shockingly) subtly over the course of the last decade, and what is at stake in Civil War is both thematic and personal. Thematically, the film presents two paradigms of the ethical use of force. Iron Man is a good guy, but he requires institutional constraints to use his power ethically, because he fears being a loose cannon. Captain America is a good guy, but he’s a loose cannon, because he fears that institutions will use his power unethically. Personally, Iron Man once again finds that his family’s tragic history traps him in an apparently unending cycle of retribution. Captain America is offered a final chance to save his oldest friend. Iron Man is spends most of the film seeking justice, only to have it turn into vengeance. Captain America is trying to redeem one friend by—to put it bluntly—screwing over another.

There be stakes all over the place. And that’s just for the two lead characters.[3]

More significantly, the stakes really only come into focus if you have, as Bowen says, done what culture expects of you: always checking out the Next Big Thing. Marvel counted on viewers having already invested their time and emotional energy into Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Without that investment, there’s no payoff in Civil War. Just a bunch of latter-day demigods punching each other into buildings and making wisecracks. With that investment, the payoff is witnessing the tragedy of a broken friendship, of an already-broken man being denied justice for his parents, of a once-upright man turning lawless because the lawful institutions have, one by one, betrayed him for half a century. Amid all this tragedy remains hope, of course. That hope is stipulated by the money machine at the heart of MCU. Steve and Tony will reunite in Avengers: Infinity War because they have to. That doesn’t erase the manifold tragedy in Civil War, but it does structurally affirm that, despite the heartbreak and tragedy, heroes will ultimately do what they must simply because they’re heroes.


[1] If Civil War succeeded in nothing else, it made me terrifically excited for the Black Panther and Spider-Man movies. Boseman will be a great leading man, and there are a ton of exciting possibilities for T’Challa in the MCU. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was both the best and most extraneous part of Civil War. In an already overstuffed film, his was the only new character who didn’t really serve a plot function. The scene where Tony recruits him, however superfluous, at least felt fleshed-out on a character level. In a story that leans so heavily on Tony’s troubled relationship to his dead dad, we get to see Tony get paternal with a kid who has so much in common with him. Peter and Tony both lost their father-figures (Uncle Ben and Howard Stark, respectively), both are nerds, both have taken it on themselves to be heroes outside the law. It’s a rather sweet scene. Also chilling. Just like Howard, Tony places unreasonably high expectations on Peter to manipulate him. The line between Tony turning Peter into his weapon and Tony relating to Peter paternally is blurry here, but that makes it all the more real and resonant, given how the film ends. Still sort of unnecessary, all things considered, but if the writers were going to shoehorn Peter Parker into the film, at least they did their best to make it make sense that Tony would recruit him. Holland and Tomei are sort of perfect as Peter and May, and the airport scene, in retrospect, feels mostly like a proof of concept for the kind of awesomeness (stunning high-flying acrobatics and nerd-witty banter: check!) we can expect from the next Spidey solo film. Sign me up.

[2] And by the way, I get that Bowens is trying to be cheeky when he asks rhetorically, “Wouldn’t Captain America: Civil War be a more interesting movie if Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) fought over, say, the affections of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose approval they are both clearly jockeying for anyway?” Yes, what a Paulette you are, Chuck, ever-so-subtly and perhaps-(perhaps-not!)-unironically insinuating that Natasha character would be far more effectively deployed as the object of affection in a male rivalry love triangle. Or, wait. No. Actually, I think that makes you a sexist jerk. My mistake.

[3] Civil War’s villain is also tragic. He is a direct product of the last Avengers film. Zemo has no superpowers, no great resources. Just a keen intellect and the drive to exact revenge. Like Steve, he’s a former soldier whose institutions failed him and those he cared about. Like Tony, he is a genius operating without restraint. Zemo is who Tony Stark might be if left to his own devices, but he justifies his villainy according to Steve Rogers’s ethos. If he’s the dark mirror to each of this film’s heroes, it reflects rather badly on their inability to resolve their differences.

Is it Thursday yet?

Last month, my wife and I finally stopped being outlaws. We had been watching Critical Role on YouTube for several months. Not on Geek and Sundry’s official channel mind you. Nope. Some user had thoughtfully put together his own playlist, updating it each Monday with the latest episode. I fully realize that this is the 21st century, and that a vast majority of people don’t care if they’re illegally pirating stuff. Screw those people. My wife and I spend precious little enough of our money on entertainment, but we figured that if Critical Role had given us nearly 150 hours of joy over the course of the last year, the least we could do is support it in the only way that matters in a marketplace. So we bought a Geek and Sundry Twitch subscription.

Geek and Sundry, of course, is the web-based entertainment company founded by Felicia Day. Capitalizing on the cachet Day earned with The Guild, G&S is home to nerdy shows like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and Co-Optitude, which Day hosts with her brother, Ryon. (Wife and I are fans of those, too.) G&S is a multiplatform presence, streaming videos from its official website as well as YouTube. Twitch bills itself as “social video for gamers,” which is apt enough. The platform includes live video streaming and chat functions, so you can watch your buddies play Halo or Hearthstone and comment on the game with other users besides the gamer in real time. Most of the popular channels are devoted to video gaming. G&S offers a variety of shows that are primarily oriented toward tabletop gaming.

What makes G&S’s Twitch experiment so intriguing is that it’s live. It seems, in other words, that broadcast media has come full circle. People from my generation and those even younger probably only know about old-time radio from movies like Woody Allen’s Radio Days (from what you might call his “peak Farrow” period), or perhaps they listen to shows like WPR’s “Old Time Radio Drama” (or whatever else is locally available outside of Wisconsin). While Twitch does allow its users to archive livestreams on their channel pages, the real draw is watching shows that are devised with the affordances and limitations of a live broadcast in mind.

Subscribers from around the world participate in the chat, peppering the hosts with questions, unsolicited advice, and solicited recommendations. While there are some shows designed around the chat function (like the recent trial of The Scavenger), most simply feature a confab of young, charismatic nerds playing games like Rock Band or HeroClix. The genius of Day and Wheaton is that they figured out that there was a fairly sizable niche audience of folks who would enjoy watching young, charismatic nerds play tabletop games. TableTop itself is almost paradigmatic in this regard. Each episode features Wheaton and four celebrity guests playing a different tabletop game, cracking wise about the diegetic absurdities of the games and sublimating their own cutthroat competitiveness into self-reflexive jibes. (Not to mention erecting a mythology around Wheaton’s own incredibly bad luck throughout most of the first two seasons. For instance, you now say, “I just Wheatoned,” when you roll really badly with your dice.) Unlike TableTop, the games on the Twitch channel unfold in real time, so many (though not all) hosts come from an improv background, flexing those theater muscles to carry two- to three-hour games with breezy insouciance.

That’s part of what makes Critical Role so special. As the host and Dungeon Master Matt Mercer opens every episode: “Hello! And welcome to Critical Role, the game where a bunch of us nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons!” That’s pretty much it, but it explains very little about the show’s core appeal. What the description misses is just how gifted these actors are and how expertly they deploy their improv skills to flesh out and inhabit their characters. Some, like Sam Riegel and Marisha Ray, use something very close to their own accent and timbre as they play (respectively) Scanlon, the gnome bard, and Keyleth, the half-elf druid. Others, like Travis Willingham and Orion Acaba, demonstrate their professional range to give an Anglicized working-class growl to (again, respectively) Grog, the goliath barbarian, and upper-class twit brogue to Tiberius, the dragonborn sorcerer. The use of accents and different timbre is a helpful marker in the cast’s code-switching, as they flip merrily between their in-game characters and real-life personalities.

That, too, is part of the charm. Like any great improv troupe, the cast revels in surprising each other with totally in-character moments of ribaldry or pathos. One of Willingham’s greatest moments in the show, for instance, is when Grog locks himself in an outhouse to have a conversation with his cursed, sentient sword, Cravenedge. Though utterly hilarious, it carries some emotional weight, as one of the other party members, Percy (played with devilish calculation by Taliesin Jaffe), had just recently been delivered from bondage to his own cursed weapon. While Grog doesn’t want to pose a danger to his own group, he relishes the power given to him by the sword, and he’s no more inclined to sacrifice that power than Percy was, even with his growing suspicions. Similarly, Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey play twins, Vax and Vex (respectively), whose comic bickering rings solidly true, but whose co-dependence delivers some of the biggest emotional impact in the series, especially when one or the other flutters over death’s threshold, instilling the other with uncontrollable panic. All of the characters often make very bad decisions for reasons that make total sense, and it then becomes the job of Vox Machina, their party, to pull their reckless butts out of the fire.

The commitment to character consistency has intersected with the challenges of live broadcast in some interesting ways. Perhaps the most controversial moment in the show’s run so far has been the departure of Orion Acaba after episode 27. Independent of the real life drama surrounding the event, the sudden departure was not entirely out of character for the flighty sorcerer, and his official farewell (performed by Mercer) in episode 37 was a somber highlight in the epilogue to the party’s first full arc without Tiberius. Another long-running challenge for Critical Role has been the incorporation of its gnomish cleric, Pike. Because Pike’s player, Ashley Johnson, pursues a live-action career that calls her away from Los Angeles, where the rest of the cast is based, she’s been missing for huge swaths of the show, not least including its initial few episodes. While she worked on Blindspot in New York City, Johnson telecommuted via Skype for several episodes. The distance and technical difficulties for Johnson meant that Pike was forced into a much more reactive role within the party, but her sporadic appearances also had the effect of reminding the cast and their characters how vital she is to the dynamic of Vox Machina. Indeed, one of the finest moments in the show was Johnson’s surprise appearance on-set for Episode 22, during a shooting break for Blindspot. The delight of the cast members to be reunited with Johnson was perfectly intertwined with the delight of their characters, who had not been together for four weeks. The necessity of having the players actually be present together physically in one place is something that can be dealt with in a live format, but it’s not something that can be “shot around.”

When technical difficulties occur in real time for us, the audience, it’s also about a thousand times more frustrating than a jam-up on YouTube. After all, when we were watching Critical Role on YouTube, we might have to abandon the video if YouTube was being stupid and come back to it later. That sucked. Then again, we rarely watched an entire episode all at once anyway. Critical Role episodes average three hours, and some have stretched past four. Given our schedules, my wife and I don’t usually get home until after 8:30 pm, and we’re usually asleep by 11. So while we were watching on YouTube, it became our custom to watch CR in one-hour blocks or so, breaking each episode into three nights’ entertainment. Besides prolonging the pleasure of each episode, finishing one also meant that we only had to wait four or five days until the next one.

Now that we try to watch Critical Role on Thursdays, when it airs (7 pm Pacific Time for its cast/crew, 9 pm here in the Midwest), that rhythm is severely disrupted. While it’s unusual for us to manage to stay awake until midnight on Thursdays, we usually watch at least two- to two-and-a-half hours as it streams live. That is, unless Twitch poops out on us. Or we poop out from fatigue. Neither of which is the worst thing in the world. And full episodes are uploaded by the next day, so we can pick up where we left off pretty quickly. But Twitch is, in our experience, still rather buggy. And since Critical Role is literally the first regularly-scheduled program that we have made a point to watch at its regularly-scheduled time since we got married,[1] not being able to watch it at that time is so much worse.

Worse, because we usually finish watching each episode on Friday nights. That’s awesome, in the sense that we get to finish the latest episode almost immediately afterward, and on our own schedule. But it also means that we have to wait until next week Thursday to see the new episode, and a less-than-perfect experience makes us all the hungrier for a better experience the next time. Which is usually no less than six days away, as opposed to the four or five it normally was when we watched episodes on YouTube.

There’s a bigger reason why it’s worse, though. After being spoiled for years by services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll, which are at their best when you get to marathon episodes in large gulps, waiting for Critical Role each week is practically an exercise in discipline. There’s a reason why the fan-sourced tagline for Critical Role, “Is it Thursday yet?” is how Mercer closes each episode. The hunger for each episode is not felt by each fan alone; we feel it together. That time slot on Thursday is special because that particular time slot really means something. It’s the only time when all of us—the fans, the film crew, and the cast—get together for the Critical Role experience live. In real time. It happens first and for real only on Thursday. Everything afterward, while still thoroughly enjoyable, is not unique. It’s reproduced. That doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the episode, but it also cannot replicate the sense of live connections being forged in the moment.

Fans of Critical Role are called “Critters,” and both the fans and players commonly refer to the “Critter community.” My wife and I don’t participate in the chat (which goes way too fast), the Reddit threads, or on Twitter, where the cast interacts with Critters on a regular basis. Yet I believe we do feel at least tangentially connected to the Critter community. In old message board parlance, we’re lurkers. But that sense of participation is something that we’re enabled to feel each Thursday night by virtue of the fact that we watch the show live, as it is streamed. The story itself is improvised with each breath and dice roll; the players are putting on a show for us, but they are also putting it on for each other. We, the audience, are simply invited. That invitation to the event itself, though, is always and only for Thursday at 1900 Pacific Time. It is the only time when none of us, collectively, knows what will happen next, and it is the only time when all of us, collectively, get to see what happens next. It is the only time when fear that something could go critically wrong is held perfectly in tension with the sincere hope that everything turns out all right. We, the viewers and players, are bound together in time to each moment.

There is something utopian,[2] I think, in the voluntary discipline of this ritual. Ritual discipline is something I don’t think I have appreciated enough in my life. It is, to be sure, qualitatively different from weekly worship services. It is also qualitatively different from live broadcasts of sports competitions, like football games. While I appreciate worship services far more deeply than sports competitions, I do acknowledge that, much like live artistic performances, there is something necessary to the human experience for events that technically only occur once—here, now, for those of us present—but which are ritually repeated at set times. These things give meaningful shape to our experience of time and space, and the most meaningful of these rituals take narrative form.

One of the great lies told about worship services is that it’s the same old crap every Sunday. In one sense, that’s true. Liturgies are cyclical, and they draw upon the same source material week after week, year after year, century after century. Yet. With each week, year, century, millennium, this circumscribed time with its own circumscribed set of conventions is made new by the fact that those present—here, now—are never the same. We are always older. Always slightly different. Always experiencing this same time in a new way, filtered by our passage through time. We die. Others take our place. They are not us, but we are them. We are made new by our participation in the ritual, by experiencing collectively a totally unique event that nevertheless replicates a set structure at periodic intervals throughout our lives. The narrative structure of these rituals is what gives narrative structure to our own lives.

Like any conventions, though, the governance of our life-narrative is not totally beholden to dogmatic minutiae. There is room for improvisation and surprise. These are also necessary. There is a certain delight, or perhaps catharsis, that can only be had by bonding together with others in the surprises that unfold themselves within the conventions of ritual. That’s why it’s healthy when someone farts loudly in church. That’s why it’s shocking when a pro ballplayer suffers a career-ending injury on the field. That’s why we know when stand-up comic tells us the truth. Are these things always delightful? Cathartic? Perhaps there are better words. Joy and awe. Rituals are not meant to be dry, empty obligations, but celebrations of being alive, and they are meant to inspire gratitude that we are alive to recognize meaning in this moment: here, now, together.

Rituals build communities, and communities thrive on ritual. That is true for individuals, families, villages, nations. It’s true that my wife and I simply don’t have the wherewithal at present to be active in the online Critter community. For now, though, we have made a commitment of time and treasure to experience Critical Role as it streams each week. It is something we cannot pilfer or reproduce and retain quite the same meaning. In finally subscribing to one of our favorite shows, we have finally begun to participate, however marginally, in a ritual that makes the lives of thousands, una communitas sine finibus, just that much more vibrant.☕


[1] I don’t count Doctor Who, which we typically get from Amazon the day after each episode airs. That’s pretty close, but not really the same thing as watching it as it’s broadcast.

[2] I’ve written very critically about utopia in the past. I’ve changed my previous position on utopianism about 165 degrees. Someday, perhaps, I may elaborate. Suffice it to say that I think utopian hope and utopian process are necessary components of any thriving community. I agree with Ernst Bloch that anti-utopianism tends to stifle positive social change; I disagree with any utopian theorist who views the shoring up of inherited traditions as inherently regressive, weak utopianism or as anti-utopian.

Five films: a Spring Break roundup

For the last few years, I have found less and less of the emotional energy I need to concentrate on a proper film, so I don’t watch many movies these days. I’m far more likely to binge TV shows or watch one piecemeal over the course of the week, as time permits. That said, this last week was spring break for me, and these are five films I took the time to watch.


John Wick (d. Chad Stahelski, 2014)

For purity of tone and generic convention, this one reminded me of Payback and A Bittersweet Life. As straightforward of an underworld revenge flick as you can get, John Wick relies almost entirely on nailing the atmosphere and cadence of the alternate reality inhabited solely by hitmen, crime bosses, and femme fatales, who seem to spend most of their time partying in neon-hued cellar nightclubs, perpetually renovated old cathedrals, and posh estates in the hills with lots of windows and austere, minimalist decor. Directors like Stahelski and Nicolas Winding Refn seem to be the heirs to Michael Mann, populating their films with who’s-who faces and cleanly-shot scenes of violence. Keanu Reeves is wonderful in this film, channeling his charisma into a subdued smolder for most of the film and explosive, calculated lethality in some really stellar action sequences. The karmic themes are perhaps a bit thin, and the climax feels a bit tacked-on after a sustained, single-minded drive toward one bloody goal, but it’s a great film for fans like me of noir pastiche actioners.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (d. Matthew Vaughn, 2014)

I’d forgotten that Vaughn had directed Kick-Ass until I saw that this was based on a comic written by Mark Millar, who can be incisive and tasteless, but never incisively tasteless or tastelessly incisive (if that makes sense). Among the things that work in this film are Vaughn’s feel for kinetic, deft action sequences and a marvelous eye for production design. Colin Firth is his typical amazing self, and I always like Samuel L. Jackson when he does over-the-top villains. Among the things that don’t work are the structure of Kingsman as an origin story; we’re in Joseph Campbell territory here, so fans of Star Wars and Fellowship of the Ring won’t be terribly surprised (or terribly emotionally moved, I suspect) by a moment in the film’s midpoint that I’m sure Millar thought would be “shocking” or “unconventional.” (Even as he probably thought it was “mythical” or somesuch thing.) Watching Taron Egerton come of age as a superspy is fun, but Egerton doesn’t have Firth’s charisma, though he might get there in ten or fifteen years. Then there’s the fact that the cultural politics of this film are weirdly ambivalent. The aesthetics of a scene where Firth kicks the crud out of some bullies near the beginning of the film are identical to a scene where he massacres a churchful of American bigots. There’s a sense in which each group “gets what’s coming to them” that, to viewers of one stripe, might seem “anarchically subversive.” For viewers of another stripe (and you don’t need to look too closely to see these stripes peeking above my collar), the revelry in this violence (set to “Freebird,” as such things are) seems genuinely gleeful, and therefore genuinely gratuitous. It’s tough not to conjoin the revelry in gratuitous violence with the validation of juvenile androcentrism at the film’s end, when our young hero slays the (metaphorical) dragon, then goes to fuck a princess in the ass. (This is not metaphorical.) So there’s fun to be had with this movie, but it’s a sleazy fun. It dredges all the innuendo and sanitized brutality that lurks barely beneath the surface of of the James Bond franchise, then dives into it headfirst, like a Hustler centerfold doing graceful backstrokes through a wake of chum.

Hotel Transylvania (d. Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012)

Honestly, this movie was delightful. The A-plot was a funny, sweet story about an overprotective father learning to let his little girl grow up and bring a strange boy into the family. The B-story (allow me to read a bit much into the subtext here) is about how a group of bad boy outsiders (literalized here as monsters) grew up to become the establishment. It’s hard not to see the cast of monsters voiced by Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, and Steve Buscemi (though I’ll admit I’ve no idea who CeeLo Green is) as a metaphor for their place in the Hollywood ecosystem: a group of former enfants terribles who are now among the elder statesmen of popular entertainment. Again, I admit that I’m perhaps reading a bit much into it. At any rate, I laughed a great deal with Hotel Transylvania, and I look forward to seeing the sequels (someday).

The Last Witch Hunter (d. Breck Eisner, 2015)

The best thing about this film was watching Vin Diesel as a relatively chillaxed seeker of vengeance. Playing an immortal can go any number of ways, but the mixture of amiable, aloof, and ruthless Diesel cooked up for Kaulder, the title character, went a long way toward lugging this B-film across the finish line. As a mid-budget tentpole flick, it’s very slick, moderately-paced, perhaps boasting a bit too much grayscale production design for its own good (although I credit Eisner with not shooting the whole thing through those damnable blue/gray/brown color filters that directors seem to have loved so much for the last decade or so), but definitively unambitious. For urban fantasy junkies, this’ll scratch an itch, but it won’t quench your thirst.

The BoxTrolls (d. Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, 2014)

Laika does pretty amazing things with stop-motion animation; ParaNorman is easily a high point in mainstream use of that technique. BoxTrolls is charming; it tries to balance the truly horrific implications of its cosmos (where genocide, fatal political malpractice, torture, and sadism, are narrative engines, just to name a few lovely aspects) with heartfelt relationships and positive messages about choosing one’s own path/identity and whatnot. It is one of the few children’s films that I’ve felt was appropriately cynical about the world. Yet it ultimately manages to resolve the major plot points without long-term negative consequences, and given the darkness this movie treats with, it felt like a bit of a cheat. If this film is a disappointment overall, it should be restated that Laika set the bar pretty high for itself with Coraline and ParaNorman. While I did totally buy into the relationships that Eggs, the boy hero, cultivates with Fish, his Boxtroll foster-father, and Winnifred, the girl who becomes his partner in heroism, the character dynamics of the bad guys worked especially well. Mr. Gristle is a chilling parody of unfettered cruelty, and Archibald Snatcher is the kind of main villain who is better precisely because his ambition and evil are so thoroughly human (and thus more monstrous); Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles are the evil henchmen with enough of a glimmer of self-awareness to recognize at the vital moment in the narrative that they’re not on the side of the angels. This rogue’s gallery gives you a pretty good snapshot of the spectrum of human frailty, and it is they who emerge as the most compelling figures in the ensemble. ☕

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