Thursday, 26 October 2017

Mourning Mjolnir

History repeats ...tragedy... farce... something something. Yeah.

There's a bit at the beginning of the Force Awakens, where not-Leia gives the not-Death Star plans to not-R2D2, and then is immediately captured by not-Darth Vader. We've just seen a peaceful village massacred by stormtroopers, and a nice wise old man savagely chopped down by a scary powerful guy in a black mask, who has our brave not-Resistance fighter dragged before him. They look into each other's faces, the moment full of tension and danger, the audience already gripped by the compelling set-up and archetypal characters. That moment where they look at each other, the dark lord and his noble prisoner, the fires of the burning settlement reflecting off their faces/masks - it's grand, dark, in a word: epic. It's drawn out, the music builds.... And then our hero speaks:

"So who talks first? You talk first? I talk first?"

I don't even remember if anyone laughed when I saw it in the cinema. It's not that funny a line. But it is supposed to be a joke.

And suddenly, I thought: oh yeah, I'm watching a movie.

Honestly, why am I even writing this article? It's been said already by loads of people. Our glib approach to action and sci-fi movies is getting out of control. Wonder Woman was so great and refreshing for its sincerity and earnestness. Deadpool epitomises the nihilistic reddit obsession with picking apart and undermining every trope and genre. Pop culture has over-binged on bathos.

But I keep thinking about that line in the Force Awakens. Barely five minutes into the running time. And the pain on the face of one of the guys I watched it with, when we came out of the cinema. Star Wars should be protected, he said. Star Wars should be safe, off limits. Star Wars has to be real. If even Star Wars is reminding us that it is a movie, then where else do we have to truly escape? It was the pain of a child discovering Santa is your parents.

Thor: Ragnarok has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. So I thought now would be a good opportunity to do something I have never before done in my whole entire life: complain about a Marvel movie.

The first Thor was about as classic and archetypal an origin story as you can get, devoting everything to its main theme of proving oneself a worthy hero. Thor 2 (tragedy, eh - see?) had some story problems but it still focused on sincere ideas of family and commitment. And now Thor the third totally and utterly embraces the status of farce.

The first act is devoted not only to undermining every artifice and 4th wall of the film itself, but also of the first two movies. In the very first minute of the movie, Thor summarises his history in the style of a cynical art-house foreign cinema hipster - exhibiting a contempt for his own character that is only reinforced by the filmmakers when we cut to a comic reveal that he is merely talking to himself. We immediately move, with no context, to the most transparent parody of a villain monologue. Just out of the blue. Let's make fun of comic book villains for no reason - right off the bat, as a nice little opening set-piece. Then we get to Asgard, only to discover that the sinister reveal of Loki having usurped the throne (at the end of the previous movie) is nothing but a fun side-show that is immediately dealt with simply by Thor's arrival.

Again, we mock the villain - not some random villain this time, but Loki, one of the most tormented and psychotic in the Marvel canon, the guy who gave us all goosebumps with his terrifying sociopathy in Avengers 1... dismissed as a silly little narcissist whose schemes amount to nothing more than a statue to himself and a play about how great he is. Har har.

The question for me arises: Why even make this movie if you think so little of superhero stories?

Were we so moronic when we were awed by these characters in previous movies, or similar ones in sagas through the ages? Is it really so childish to fear the trickster who mistakes subservience for respect? Even when he has control of the nuclear codes Bifröst?

This movie feels like a personal middle finger to Hiddleston himself, forced to undermine the gravity of his past performances. To the rest of us it is a simple taunt: "You thought Loki was a serious evil guy for trying to rule earth! NERD!"

Here's the thing: I really like Thor: Ragnarok. It's a fun movie. In the second act, Thor's descent and return is as richly executed as can be hoped. It makes you care about the story while still leaving room for japes. It's a fresh change of tone. Goodness knows I've never been a fan of super-serious Hollywood blockbusters, and it's great that Marvel were bright enough to go somewhere very different for this instalment.

But.

This movie kills Thor. Thor is gone before the studio logo has time to fade. In place of a Norse god, we have a Chris. A modern action bro. Someone with cool repartee and "comedy chops". Can you imagine the Thor of Ragnarok commanding, as he does the last time we saw him in Age of Ultron, that "a victory should be honoured with revels", or asking the immortal question: "do I look to be in a gaming mood?" No, the Thor of Ragnarok would just say "are you kidding?" and pull a funny face. There is no Thor in Ragnarok. Just a Chris, a normal funny guy with big muscles who brings the thunder with a healthy side of banter. Switch him out with a Pine or a Pratt, you couldn't tell the difference. Everything distinctive is gone - the filmmakers didn't think it would add anything.

Thor, of course, is just the first casualty. We also lose evil Loki, as mentioned above, and then we proceed to quite literally lose Mjolnir, Odin, the Warriors Three (killed off with brutal disdain), and finally Asgard itself. We even lose the tantalising prospect of Neil Gaiman's awesome comic book anti-hero, Angela, the secret sister of Thor, since that role is simply handed for no particular reason to Hela, formerly Queen of Hel. (Did the studio chicken out of showing a non-Christian afterlife? Is that what happened here?)

Oh yeah, and Thor loses an eye without any story purpose whatsoever.

Am I a luddite for being concerned about this wanton devastation of the Thor universe, as if Marvel had unleashed a toddler into a lego model version? Am I the only one who finds it weird that Thor himself seems unaffected? Was I alone in my interest in a major Hollywood studio's decision to build a world out of ancient myths, and who is just a bit sad to see that experiment curtailed in favour of synthy neon sci-fi?

While I'm at it: am I the only one who is tired of bathos now? When Thor says "that's what heroes do", would it kill the movie to take that line seriously? It feels almost like a Pavlovian response at this point - any sincere message must be immediately undercut to reassure audiences that we're not really serious. It's ridiculously predictable at this point. Bruce was always going to fall flat on his face. Val was always going to stagger off her epic entrance platform. The result is that films like this don't have any message. They believe in nothing. They're all jest and no heart, as insubstantial as Loki's holograms.

Taika: there's a difference between fun and manic nihilism.

It's hard to complain when it's such a good movie. Marvel has made worse movies that I have defended. I just think there's so much more to be had from a Thor taken seriously. From a Thor who continues to smash his coffee mug when he wants a refill. If there's anything we should have learned from Roger Moore's Bond tenure, it's that you can make a good movie when you parody yourself, but rarely more than one. Something is lost along the way. A laugh fades, but a true hero that accepts her own corniness can become iconic. I don't know if I will remember this movie when I look back in ten years, whereas the image of a lost son trying to lift his hammer in the pouring rain will be an inspiration forever.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Great American Grid System

I recently had reason to walk up and down a lot of streets in America, with a list of addresses to knock on. Specifically, on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio. I found the experience kind of fascinating.

You know how when you hear American addresses they always have at least four digits in them? Like, say, 7606 Jefferson Avenue, or, you know, 1600 Pennsylvania. It's always bothered me - why do they have so many numbers? I mean, I know American streets are long but surely there's nowhere in the country with sixteen thousand separate addresses on the same street? Right?

Probably not. But what I learned in Cleveland is that there is in fact a wonderful genius to house number conventions in America.

In England, you start at one end of the street with house 1, and you keep going upwards to the end of the street - that's it. Most times the odd and even numbers are on separate sides of the street, but sometimes they're not - either way it's very easy to find where you're going.

In America this simply isn't good enough for them. Remember - streets stretch for many miles with hundreds of homes - if you were given an address in English format you could be driving up and down for a long time before you found your destination (longer if you're walking, which of course you're not, because America).

So to start with, American addresses are coded by block - this is the first two digits of the four-digit house number. Many US cities have street names that are literally numbers, but even where they aren't, each street is secretly coded a different number. So if you're cruising down Pennsylvania, you're meeting cross streets at the end of each block - when you cross 16th Street, all the houses suddenly start with 16 (in DC there's only one house on this block, but in other cities there might not be!).

Of course, it's complicated by the fact that many cross streets have names that aren't numbers - then the first two digits are less obvious, but they still go up by one at the end of each block. Plus, they may be coded differently according to which direction of the grid system they follow. In Cleveland, all streets going east-west have five digit addresses, like my office at 14600 Detroit Ave, while the north-south streets have regular four digit ones. The extra digit is simply a 1 at the beginning and only exists to tell you which direction the street is going.

Then there's another complication that the numbering convention also manages to account for: many streets never intersect with some of their cross streets. Certain blocks are much longer than others because a given cross street might dead-end somewhere and then restart further along the city, owing, I assume, to the vagaries of city planning. In these cases, at least in Cleveland, the house numbers will suddenly jump at the point in the street where you reach the phantom cross-street. So you will be going along from 3618, 3622, 3626 and suddenly you get 3700, 3704 and so on, seemingly for no reason. This filled me with great dismay for many days until I worked out that the sudden jumps corresponded exactly to the longitudinal or latitudinal degree along which 37th street lies (continuing this example) somewhere in the city - even though it doesn't actually intersect this street. This is super satisfying because it means that, theoretically, someone with perfect geographical omniscience could determine with horrifying accuracy the exact position of your house on the globe based solely on four digits and a street name.

You may have noticed in the above example that the house numbers along one side of the street go up in fours. Again - totally bizarre at first but there is in fact a brilliant method to the madness. In England they go up by twos because odds and evens face each other. And Cleveland is very strict about this rule as well. But in America there is a lot of space, and houses tend to be larger and detached - there are often luxurious lawns between them, even in impoverished neighbourhoods, and the houses themselves are so big that many sometimes get split into two flats.

So counting in fours is a precautionary measure. Often, extra addresses need to be inserted between two existing houses - either because one house has been split in two or because a new house has simply been built in the wide spaces between them. In these cases, a new address is needed, and the jumping by four allows for it - if you need to number a new house between 3618 and 3622, you can just call it 3620 and there is no need to resort to any of this 3618A letter nonsense you see in England.

A final point: American addresses are very good at being in the right place. If you're at number 3618, chances are the house directly across the street is 3617. If houses on one side space out or bunch up more than the other side, then certain numbers are omitted to make sure that everything stays in sync.

Who came up with this beautiful, if byzantine, set of rules and systems for house naming I do not know - it's like they speak directly to my obsessive compulsive soul. What it perhaps reflects is a deep rooted Protestant bureaucracy in the country's founding DNA, the same neurotic impulse that lies at the heart of, um, racism and discrimination, the need for all things to be in their right places. But I will note that while the system itself is rigid, it also offers opportunities for more creative expression: the actual numbers on the houses are displayed in a wide variety of forms and fonts, occasionally hinting at artistic yearnings begging to be let loose. In England, the printed numerals are all discrete and uniform, but the system as a whole wanders hopelessly without the slightest ambition towards science or precision.

So we have the great American Grid System, laid atop the atomic populace like a glass sheet over neat rows of lifeless - but glorious - butterflies, each entirely unique. And one more thing: everybody in Ohio has a dog. Everybody. If that's not a sign of a very serious maladjustment at the core of American society I don't know what is.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Understanding those who think differently to you is pointless

I'm always interested in internet cycles. Despite what the critics say, the genius of the internet is its scale, which coalesces into a kind of aggregator of public intercourse, so that the whole thing operates as a perpetual engine of trend-bucking vs trend-following, each provoking the other. (For a hyperactive example of this, see my 4-year-old analysis of Kony 2012).

Donald Trump, who for the last year and a half has operated as the internet's gravitational well du jour, has catalysed one such chain reaction. We all follow the trend of pointing out his flaws and ridiculing his supporters. And so, inevitably, we then all buck the trend by writing or sharing think pieces of various academic levels, which earnestly seek to explain why the Trump phenomenon has been able to materialise. Allow me to buck this trend.

The think pieces, which I am seeing everywhere now, tend to say the same thing: We urban elites may be basically right about everything, but folks in poor rural areas see things differently. They have been hurt by economic stuff, and the government has done nothing for them. They are ignored by the media (but also idolised by it, as this example contradicts itself). They see liberal progress as an affront to their time-honoured values. They feel minorities are getting special treatment while their own woes are dismissed simply because they're white. And so, you see, this is why they turn to an iconoclast like Trump.

All these articles do a weird thing: they seem to want to make you, the bemused liberal observer, feel guilty.

Many pieces single out the media, which being controlled by urban elites, is generating progress in culture but Republican backlash votes in politics. The implication is that if we made the media less progressive, it would be politically advantageous.

That's always the implication: if we were only achieving less in rights for women and minorities, the political right would be robbed of its riled-up base. If we weren't so gosh-darned vocal about black lives mattering, then Trump wouldn't stand a chance.

But it's never stated, only implied. Because, you see, these think pieces are written by progressive people. They seek to humanise the enemy with their cut-and-paste ethnographies, but they are impassive observers, merely reporting the facts in the interests of better Understanding. These authors can't bring themselves to actually say that we should dial back the phenomenal progressive achievements of the last decade; their job is merely to make us pause for thought long enough to hit share.

And shared these ideas are, because progressives love nothing more than self-flagellation and the public pledge to do better at understanding those we disagree with. It's always the urban elites who need to do this understanding, because we're the ones who are so prone to following the trend of mocking horrifying man-babies like Trump. Of course, the Trumpites themselves are incapable of even attempting to make the empathetic leap in the opposite direction because they have been so irreversibly shaped by our neglect, like elves tortured until they become orcs. As the good guys, it is our responsibility to do all of the understanding, and then formulate and adopt a (more moderate?) position that will transform the rural crazies into rational folk - without them noticing, as it were.

Clearly, if I were to confront one of the authors of the Understanding Think Pieces, they would say no, we shouldn't dial back the progressiveness; the purpose of the piece was merely to create, er, understanding.

To which I say: then it is a useless piece.

Why has not a single one of these articles suggested any concrete policy steps to take? Why have none of these brave, trend-bucking savants dared to dip the merest toe into the waters of Next Steps?

I believe it is because there are no reasonable next steps to take. What is being described in the UTPs is one particular front in the sprawling, never-ending culture war. This is a war waged across all parts of society and politics, and basically it is responsible for the much vaunted Polarisation that we hear about. Because it is a a very fundamental war, which forces everyone to become either the type of people who want change, or the type of people who desperately don't want change.

I submit that there is no realistic way to end the culture war without it turning into an actual war through violent suppression (and as a progressive, I don't want this). People can only do what they think is best. If you want change it is impossible to come to terms with those who don't want it. Either the change will happen or it will not; if democracy works perfectly then up to 49% of people may be on the losing side.

Rather than the worldview of the Trumpites, what may need to be Understood is the sheer irreconcilability of the situation. Rather than learning about the Other by observing them through a glass wall, what may really need to be Learned is the inarguable existence of the wall itself. Like God it simply is, and the only reasonable response is acceptance.

If the lesson is "Trump supporters have become super reactionary because we are too successfully progressive", then the only solution (if we want to "cure" Trump supporters) is to become less progressive. This is not an option, because we literally are progressive.

But if the lesson is "We are at war with the enemy, even though we pretend it is a civil debate," then the solution becomes: defeat the enemy. Instead of blaming ourselves for their existence and trying to force ourselves to believe that our worldviews are equally valid, which we can't do because we wouldn't hold our worldview unless we thought it was better, we should simply try to win elections so that it is our view that prevails.

Instead of using the UTPs to pay extra attention to bigots, we should ignore bigotry as we are taught to ignore a schoolyard bully. There is simply nothing to be achieved by engagement.

But the UTPs raise valid concerns, you cry. They point out how white rural people really are suffering economic hardship.

No. No such concerns are being raised: we already knew white rural people are suffering economic hardship. It's literally mentioned in every campaign speech Obama has made for 8 years. It's something progressives in politics have been trying (largely successfully) to address since WWII. It's something the current candidate for Good Guy President, Hillary Clinton, has also pledged to fight.

We are trying to help poor white rural people, and rightfully so, because that is part of progressive politics and always has been. It just so happens that - for a variety of reasons already rushed through - they are incapable of seeing it, and continue to vote for candidates who make things worse for them. But we will continue to try to help them.

But guess what? We're also going to keep working to try to make things fairer and better for women and minorities, because they're also suffering, and helping them is also what we believe as progressives. We sure as heck ain't going to stop making a big deal out of this, because we really strongly believe that the current situation is very unfair and totally unacceptable. We understand that others don't see it this way - without needing a UPT to tell us so - but their worldview can't hold us hostage because we don't share it.

Our only option, when confronted with Trumpites who would try and prevent us carrying out what we see as the right thing to do, is to culturally and politically stop them, and keep them away from power if we can. If there were another way, the UTPs would gleefully have told us so.

My recommendation is not to see this state of all-out war as a failure of human co-habitation. Rather, it is a rather unique specific political event that has arisen in the century in which we happen to live (1945-2045). A century in which a huge amount of social progress has occurred in a historically minuscule timespan, and unsurprisingly it has provoked a powerful counter-reaction from those who have the most to lose. This is simply something we have to deal with and, yes, defeat, in order to reach the end-point of this historical period (not in 5 years or 10, probably more like 50 or 100), where the forces of regression have been relegated to fringe inconsequence. (That sounds super teleological, which is not the intent - when we've defeated those standing against today's progress, there will be conservatives of the future who stand against new issues as yet unknown).

And frankly, if you think Trump is bad, you're deluding yourself. At least now we're in the majority, or close to it. In the 60s, progressive movements were fighting for their lives, and it was the calm establishment, not the shouty rabble, who was bigoted. Now it's reversed and our greatest problem is our own success; perhaps a little perspective would help alleviate all this modern liberal stress-guilt.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Dark and Full of Terrors

Let me tell you of the Night Tube.

The Night Tube is not like the regular tube. That would be like comparing the Sun to the Moon, or the Sun to the Sun on Sunday.

I rode the Night Tube, and I came out three inches taller, and with the ability to see in infra red and levitate slightly. Also, I now know the precise time and location where the apocalypse will begin.

When you arrive to take the Night Tube, the stations don't look like they do in the day. At 12:30am, the station manager presses a button, turning off the holographic projection that we are familiar with to reveal the station's true form, which looks roughly like the five dimensional tesseract that Matthew McConaughey discovers in the black hole at the end of Interstellar.

The regular tube employees end their shifts and are replaced by the Secret Order of the Custodians of the Night Tube, who wear black plate armour and wield plasma staffs. They stand perfectly still, with only a faint purple glow emanating from beneath their Dark Helms to suggest any sign of life.

The Night Tube trains appear similar to the regular tube trains, but their exterior is built of pure obsidian and there are no windows. Instead of arriving along the track, they materialise out of thin air at the platform edge.

When you get on the Night Tube, there are no seats. Instead, you are surrounded on all sides by the infinite void of space, and you find that you are completely weightless. Illumination is provided by the glow of countless spinning galaxies.

On the Night Tube, most people read a book or play games on their phone. No one talks to each other. The Night Tube is still in London.

The Night Tube remains motionless, and the destination comes to it.

Station stops on The Night Tube are announced by unknowable celestial beings, who connect briefly with the consciousness of each passenger. For some reason, their utterances are translated into human comprehension via the music of Hans Zimmer.

Sometimes the driver speaks over the intercom, reminding passengers that only the Central and Victoria lines are running.

The only interchange on the Night Tube is Oxford Circus. At night, the station is converted into a futuristic dive bar patronised by aliens of every description. Passengers can stop for a gargle blaster or two if they wish, or hear the latest tales from the never-ending war between the Shi'ar Imperium and the Scrulls. Occasionally fights break out between Starfleet personnel and mercenaries hired by the Ferengi.

When you arrive at your final stop, you cannot leave the Night Tube until you have passed the Trial of the Barriers. The first round is mortal combat against a champion chosen by the Night Queen. The second round is a series of riddles posed by the Dreaded Quinox. Finally you must look into the Heart of the Night itself and test your will against its. If you are found worthy, you may re-enter the world of men, but be warned: you will be changed forever. Many who have survived the Night Tube go to live as hermits in the wilderness, often around Surbiton for some reason.

The Night Tube has come, and the Dark comes with it.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

FILM CRIT HULK RESPONSE: THE TRUE MEANING OF A COMIC BOOK MOVIE

THE GREATEST CRITIC OF OUR TIME, FILM CRIT HULK TAUGHT ME PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT CINEMA AND - MORE IMPORTANTLY - THE CRAFT OF STORYTELLING. ONE OF THE MANY, MANY THINGS I APPRECIATE ABOUT HIS WORK, HOWEVER, IS THAT I ONLY AGREE WITH HIM ABOUT 90% OF THE TIME. THE THINGS THAT WE DISAGREE ABOUT ARE OFTEN PARTICULARLY REVEALING AND INTERESTING TO ME, FORCING INTROSPECTION AND ANALYSIS THAT I WOULDN'T OTHERWISE HAVE ATTEMPTED, ALWAYS RESULTING IN GREATER UNDERSTANDING OF THE ISSUES.

RECENTLY HULK POSTED ABOUT THE VITAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MAD MAX: FURY ROAD AND THE REVENANT, AND IT WAS... PERFECT. SIMPLY A JOY TO READ, EXPERTLY CAPTURING THE ELEMENTS OF THESE MOVIES THAT ILLUSTRATE HOW AND WHY WE MAKE COMPELLING STORIES. IT WAS POSSIBLY THE MOST INSIGHTFUL EXAMINATION OF MODERN CINEMA I HAVE EVER READ.

BUT THEN EVEN MORE RECENTLY HULK POSTED A PIECE THAT FITS INTO THE 10% OF DISAGREEMENT (HONESTLY IT MIGHT BE MORE LIKE 5 OR 3%). CIVIL WAR, SPIDER-MAN 2, And The Dangers Of Assumed Empathy. FOR ONCE I HAVE DECIDED TO GET OFF MY ASS AND HARNESS THE CREATIVITY THE HULK ALWAYS INSPIRES FOR ME. HERE I INTEND TO DO TWO THINGS: 1. ATTEMPT A DANGEROUS AND ILL-CONCEIVED HOMAGE TO THE STYLE AND THOUGHTFULNESS OF A FILM CRIT HULK "SMASH", AND 2. TRY TO RESPOND TO SOME OF THE THINGS I DID NOT AGREE WITH IN THE CIVIL WAR ARTICLE. I'M GOING TO ARROGANTLY ASSUME THE MANTLE OF RED FILM CRIT HULK BECAUSE A) RED HULK CAME AFTER, B) RED HULK WILL ALWAYS LOSE TO REAL HULK IN THE END AND C) RED HULK OWES EVERYTHING HE IS TO REAL HULK.

1. "PHASE TWO"

SO MUCH OF HULK'S CIVIL WAR ARTICLE WOULD BE FIXED - FOR RED HULK'S TASTES - IF HE SUBSTITUTED MOST INSTANCES OF THE PHRASE "PHASE TWO" FOR "AGE OF ULTRON AND CIVIL WAR".

HONESTLY, RED HULK WAS HORRIFIED BY THIS LINE:
THERE'S A REASON HULK CAN BARELY REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENS IN MOST OF THE PHASE TWO / THREE MOVIES AND HULK'S SEEN SOME OF THEM MULTIPLE TIMES.

HE CAN'T REMEMBER MOST OF THE PHASE TWO MOVIES?! THIS IS A COLLECTION THAT INCLUDES GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, PROBABLY THE MOST INNOVATIVE AND CLEARLY STORY-DRIVEN SUPERHERO MOVIE EVER. A MOVIE THAT MATCHES IF NOT SURPASSES THE AVENGERS IN MASTERFULLY CRAFTED AND WELL-EARNED "TEAMWORK!" MOMENTS - HULK HIMSELF ATTESTED AT LENGTH HOW WELL THE "DELIGHTFUL" ASPECTS OF THE COMEDY WORK SYMBIOTICALLY TO FURTHER THE DRAMA OF THE STORY.

AND DO NOT TELL RED HULK THAT GUARDIANS IS THE EXCEPTION. WITNESS IRON MAN 3, A MOVIE THAT COULD ALMOST HAVE BEEN MADE IN DIRECT RESPONSE TO THE CRITIQUE OF HULK'S CIVIL WAR COLUMN. IS IT DELIGHTFUL? YOU BET! DOES THE DELIGHTFULNESS EXIST ONLY ON THE SURFACE LEVEL, BELYING A VOID WHERE THE CORE OF THE STORY SHOULD BE? ABSOLUTELY NOT - THE FILM TAKES AN ESTABLISHED CHARACTER AND CONFRONTS HIM WITH THE DIRECT CONSEQUENCES OF HIS CHOICES. THE MOVIE IS ABOUT THE VERY ESSENCE OF DRAMA (AS HULK DEFINES IT) - CAUSES HAVE CLEAR AND HARD-HITTING EFFECTS. EVERYTHING IS AT STAKE, AT BOTH THE INTENSELY PERSONAL AND THE GRANDER "END OF THE WORLD" LEVELS. THE THEME OF PAYING FOR MISTAKES IS ARTICULATED THROUGH EVERY PART OF THE FILM'S STRUCTURE, FROM THE STRAW-MAN VILLAIN TO THE OPENING AND CLOSING VOICE-OVERS.

BUT THE REST OF PHASE TWO IS CRAP, RIGHT? WRONG. FOR ALL ITS FAULTS, THOR: THE DARK WORLD DOES MUCH OF THE STORYTELLING 101 STUFF ABSOLUTELY RIGHT: STAKES, URGENCY AND GOALS DRIVE THE THING FROM START TO FINISH. YES THE VILLAIN IS CRAP, BUT MANY OF THE OTHER CHARACTERS GET FASCINATING LITTLE ARCS OF THEIR OWN, WITHOUT GETTING IN-YOUR-FACE (IN FACT, THE MOMENT THAT WORKS LEAST WELL FOR RED HULK IS ACTUALLY A SIGNIFICANT CHARACTER'S DEATH - EXACTLY WHAT HULK CLAIMS THERE IS NOT ENOUGH OF).

THEN THERE IS THE WINTER SOLDIER. RED HULK IS SORRY, BUT THIS MOVIE IS A HUNDRED TIMES BETTER AT STORY THAN THE FIRST CAP MOVIE (RED HULK LIKES THE ORIGINAL, BUT DOES NOT THINK IT IS ANYWHERE NEAR AS STRONG AS REAL HULK DOES). WHERE CAP 1 SETS UP THE CHARACTER, CAP 2 REALLY GETS TO THE CORE OF WHO THIS GUY IS. WHAT HE IS WILLING TO DO FOR HIS IDEALS. WHAT HE IS WILLING TO SACRIFICE. THE EFFECT HE CAN HAVE ON HARDENED CHARACTERS LIKE FURY AND ROMANOFF. EVEN ON THE ULTRA-HARDENED WINTER SOLDIER HIMSELF (MORE ON BUCKY SOON). LET'S BE CLEAR: WHEN IT COMES TO CAPTAIN AMERICA MAKING CONSEQUENTIAL/DRAMATIC DECISIONS, HE'S ONLY EVER GOING TO DECIDE TO DO WHAT'S RIGHT. WHICH MEANS THAT DRAMA HAS TO COME FROM THE PRICE HE PAYS FOR THIS - AND THAT OTHERS COULD END UP PAYING TOO. SO THE WINTER SOLDIER TAKES EVERYTHING FROM CAP IN THE WORST WAY POSSIBLE - EVERYTHING HE BELIEVED IN WAS A SHAM. IN TERMS OF MAINSTREAM SUPERHERO MOVIES, IT'S UNPRECEDENTED AND IT WORKS.

FINALLY, WE HAVE ANT MAN. I'M NOT GOING TO SPEND LONG ON THIS, SUFFICE TO SAY THAT ANY PRAISE ONE MIGHT SING FOR CAP 1 CAN BE EQUALLY APPLIED TO ANT MAN - IT'S FUNCTIONAL. THE FINAL ACT IS A GREAT "THREATEN TO KILL THE PUPPY" PIECE THAT DOES WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN. NOT THE MOST BRILLIANT STORY EVER BUT CERTAINLY ENGAGING AND DEFINITELY OPERATING ON MORE THAN JUST THE SURFACE-LEVEL "BE DELIGHTFUL" STUFF HULK IS TALKING ABOUT.

PHASE TWO CONSISTS OF SIX MOVIES, ONE OF WHICH RED HULK WOULD CALL A STONE-COLD MASTERPIECE OF THE GENRE; THERE ARE FOUR OTHERS RANGING FROM "GOOD" TO "EXCELLENT", BUT ALL DEFINITELY MEMORABLE IN THEIR OWN RIGHT. AND THEN FINALLY THERE'S AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. HULK'S CIVIL WAR COLUMN IS A PERFECT TAKE-DOWN OF THIS LATTER MOVIE. WHAT'S UPSETTING IS THAT HE BLANKET-APPLIES THE SAME CRITIQUE TO ALL THE OTHERS AS IF THEY'RE THE SAME THING. FOR SOMEONE USUALLY SO NUANCED, THIS IS A BIZARRE AND COMPLETELY LEFT-FIELD MOVE THAT IS, RED HULK IS AFRAID, VERY MISLEADING.

RED HULK MIGHT ALSO AGREE THE COLUMN WORKS FOR CIVIL WAR ITSELF, WITH SOME IMPORTANT CAVEATS.

2. PEOPLE AND PROPS

RED HULK FINDS HULK'S INSISTENCE ON THE NEED FOR BETTER CHARACTERISATION OF BUCKY PUZZLING. YES, WE HAVE LITTLE REASON TO CARE ABOUT BUCKY HIMSELF, BEYOND THE NATURAL DESIRE TO SYMPATHISE WITH SOMEONE WHO'S BEEN FORCED TO DO EVIL AGAINST THEIR WILL. BUT THE CHARACTER IS SO PATENTLY NOT INTENDED TO BE CARED ABOUT. HE'S A PROP, BUT HE'S SUPPOSED TO BE A PROP. HE COULD BE REPLACED WITH, RED HULK DOESN'T KNOW, MAYBE CAP'S MOTHER'S PEARL NECKLACE?

NO EMPATHY IS ASSUMED FOR BUCKY. WE'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO CARE HE MIGHT DIE OR WHATEVER BAD THING MIGHT HAPPEN TO HIM. HE IS MERELY AN OBJECT THAT FACILITATES US CARING ABOUT OTHER CHARACTERS. WE CARE THAT TONY MIGHT BECOME A MURDERER BECAUSE OF BUCKY. IN THE CHASE SEQUENCE WITH BLACK PANTHER, TENSION DOESN'T COME FROM DANGER TO BUCKY, IT COMES FROM THE ENORMOUS CONSEQUENCES WE CAN SEE ARE ABOUT TO BEFALL CAP FOR HELPING HIM. IN THE APARTMENT, WHEN THE SWAT TEAM ARE MOVING INTO POSITION, THERE IS NO SENSE THAT EITHER CHARACTER COULD BE PHYSICALLY HURT - YET RED HULK WAS ON THE EDGE OF HIS SEAT, BEGGING FOR CAP TO GET OUT OF THERE, COS IF HE'S CAUGHT THEN HE IS, AS RHODEY SAYS, A CRIMINAL. AND THAT'S A GENUINELY WORRYING THOUGHT FOR A CHARACTER LIKE CAP, WHO DOES EVERYTHING TO UPHOLD WHAT'S GOOD. BUT NO - CAP MAKES A DECISION AND STICKS TO IT, AND THE HEART-WRENCHING CONSEQUENCES DO INDEED BEFALL HIM.

RED HULK BELIEVES THE RUSSO BROTHERS HAVE USED BUCKY MASTERFULLY. IN EVERY SCENE HE APPEARS, BUCKY SERVES CLEAR DRAMATIC PURPOSE. HE FORCES CHARACTERS TO MAKE TOUGH CHOICES. HE THEMATICALLY EMBODIES CAP'S WORST NIGHTMARE - THE CORRUPTION OF THE GOOD OLD DAYS. THE DIFFICULTY OF CONTINUING TO FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT IN THE FACE OF THIS. IN CARING ABOUT THIS LAST VESTIGE OF A LOST WORLD, CAP REVEALS HIS HEART. WHEN CAP SAYS "HE'S MY FRIEND" AND TONY RESPONDS "SO WAS I" - WE SEE THAT ALL OF CAP'S SPECIFIC BATTLES IN THE MODERN DAY ARE AS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT HE FEELS HE HAD ONCE UPON A TIME. HE WILL ALWAYS PICK BUCKY OVER HIS MODERN-DAY FRIENDS BECAUSE BUCKY IS CAP. GIVING BUCKY HIS OWN SEPARATE CHARACTER WOULD BE UTTERLY NON-SENSICAL.

IT SEEMS WEIRD TO HAVE TO SAY THIS: NOT EVERY HUMAN IN A MOVIE IS A CHARACTER. ARISTOTLE DEFINED CHARACTER AS "that which reveals decision" - IT'S NOT THE PERSON HERSELF WHO MATTERS, BUT HER DRAMATIC ESSENCE. THE CHANGING THROUGH CHOICES. AND CLEARLY IN ANY MOVIE THERE ARE ONLY SO MANY DRAMATICALLY ENGAGED INDIVIDUALS THAT CAN BE SUSTAINED. THERE ARE ALWAYS GOING TO BE MORE HUMANS THAN CHARACTERS. IT'S A FALLACY TO BELIEVE THAT EVERY FICTIONAL PERSON ON SCREEN NEEDS TO HAVE THEIR OWN DEVELOPMENT, THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS TO REALLY CARE ABOUT EACH AND EVERY PERSON. RED HULK DOESN'T BELIEVE HULK BELIEVES THIS HIMSELF. HECK, LOOK AT SPIDER-MAN 2, WHICH RED HULK COMPLETELY AGREES IS EXCELLENT. SEVERAL MAJOR CHARACTERS ARE SIMPLY PROPS - AUNT MAY, OCTAVIUS' WIFE, JONAH JAMESON, THE LANDLORD'S DAUGHTER, PROBABLY EVEN MARY JANE. MARY JANE DOES HAVE A LITTLE BIT OF DEVELOPMENT, BUT MOSTLY WE DON'T CARE ABOUT HER FOR HER OWN SAKE, WE CARE ABOUT PETER'S (NON-)RELATIONSHIP WITH HER.

THERE IS NO NEED FOR EVERY PERSON IN A FILM TO BE ROUNDED AND DEVELOPED. BUCKY WORKS MAGNIFICENTLY AS A PROP. TRYING TO GIVE HIM HIS OWN ARC WOULD ONLY DETRACT FROM THE REAL STORY.

3. THE STORY OF CIVIL WAR

IT FEELS LIKE TOTAL SACRILEGE TO SAY THIS, BUT RED HULK BELIEVES THAT REAL HULK IS FALLING FOR HIS OWN TANGIBLE DETAILS TRAP. PICKING OUT THINGS LIKE BUCKY BARNES, THE INFINITY STONES, AND ANT MAN'S INCLUSION AND SOMEHOW POINTING TO THEM AS EVIDENCE OF A FAILURE OF STORYTELLING. THAT'S A VERY RARE INSTANCE OF POOR CRITICISM ON HULKS PART. THESE ARE ALL THINGS THAT WOULD NOT BE PROBLEMATIC IN THE LEAST IF THE REAL STORY ISSUES WERE WORKING FINE.

THE TRUTH IS THAT WHEN IT CAME TO AGE OF ULTRON AND CIVIL WAR - HUGE ENSEMBLE PIECES BY RETURNING DIRECTORS - MARVEL WENT CONSERVATIVE, OPTING TO OVERRIDE CREATIVE INSTINCTS IN ORDER TO RETAIN THE SAFER "MAKE THE AUDIENCE FEEL GOOD" APPROACH THAT HULK OUTLINES. THIS IS THE REAL PROBLEM. BUT UNLIKE AGE OF ULTRON, WHICH MAINTAINS ONLY A VENEER OF FUNCTIONALITY, CIVIL WAR DOES ACTUALLY HAVE MANY MOVING PARTS THAT WORK.

MARVEL IS A FILM STUDIO THAT IS TRYING TO REPLICATE A STORYTELLING PROCESS DESIGNED FOR COMIC BOOKS. IT INTRODUCES CHARACTERS OVER TIME, BUILDING UP EMPATHY AND FAMILIARITY SO THAT THESE DO NOT HAVE BE CREATED FROM SCRATCH WITH EACH NEW INSTALMENT. WHILE IT IS POSSIBLE TO DO BIG DRAMA FOR A SPECIFIC CHARACTER WITH A MAJOR ARC, MOST OF THE STORYTELLING IN AN ENSEMBLE COMIC COMES AT A MUCH LESS "GRAND" SCALE. CHARACTERS CAN SEE IMPORTANT AND MOVING DEVELOPMENT OVER THE COURSE OF JUST A FEW PAGES, OR SOMETIMES PANELS. OFTEN, DOZENS OF DIFFERENT BALLS ARE BEING JUGGLED AS EACH CHARACTER'S MOTIVATION PLAYS OFF THAT OF ALL THE OTHERS. AND THESE SMALLER STORIES ARE THEN THEMATICALLY LINKED OR TIED TOGETHER IN A LARGER CONFLICT.

CIVIL WAR MAY NOT BE THE GREATEST EXAMPLE OF THIS KIND OF STORYTELLING, BUT IT'S NOT ENTIRELY A FAILURE EITHER. IT JUGGLES ALL ITS BALLS MUCH MORE ADEPTLY THAN AGE OF ULTRON, NATURALLY WEAVING STORIES RATHER THAN FORCING THEM INTO PLACES WHERE THERE IS NO DRAMATIC SUPPORT. CONSIDER THE CHARACTERS THAT HAVE A STORY IN THIS MOVIE: BLACK PANTHER AND SPIDER-MAN, AS HULK SAYS, GET EXCELLENT TREATMENT FOR THEIR INTRODUCTIONS. BLACK WIDOW FINALLY GETS SOME DIFFICULT CHOICES TO MAKE, CHANGING AS A CHARACTER AS A RESULT OF THE CONSEQUENCES SHE EXPERIENCES FROM THESE DECISIONS (SHE STARTS SEEKING STABILITY AND BY THE END HAS REALISED SHE IS WILLING PRIORITISE HER OWN TEAM EVEN IF IT MAKES THINGS DIFFICULT). SCARLET WITCH AND VISION ARE ACTUALLY WELL-ARTICULATED, RATHER THAN FORCED AS HULK CLAIMS. BOTH HAVE TO MAKE DECISIONS THAT DEFINE THE TYPE OF PERSON THEY WANT TO BE, AGAIN AT PERSONAL COST, AND COMPLICATED BY THEIR OBVIOUS MUTUAL AFFECTION. ANT MAN IS HARMLESS COMIC RELIEF. FALCON AND WAR MACHINE ARE ADMITTEDLY JUST WINDOW DRESSING, BUT LIKE BUCKY, THEIR LACK OF DEVELOPMENT IS NOT HARMFUL - IT WOULD HAVE BEEN FAR WORSE TO GIVE THEM SOME PERSONAL STORY THAT FEELS EMPTY OR FORCED.

HULK HAS ENTIRELY MISSED THE POINT OF THE AIRPORT FIGHT. FIRSTLY, RED HULK DOES NOT KNOW HOW, BUT HULK SEEMS TO HAVE COMPLETELY FAILED TO NOTICE THE URGENCY THAT IS PRESENT, AND CLEARLY SIGNPOSTED THROUGHOUT. CAP'S TEAM IS TRYING TO REACH THE QUINJET IN ORDER TO FIGHT THE REAL ENEMY - THE OTHER WINTER SOLDIERS. AT SEVERAL MOMENTS THE TIME-SENSITIVE NATURE OF THIS MISSION IS UNDERLINED, MEANING THAT THE OBSTACLE REPRESENTED BY TONY'S TEAM IS REALLY QUITE IMPACTFUL - AT LEAST THAT'S HOW RED HULK EXPERIENCED IT. RED HULK FELT A LOT OF TENSION IN THE NEED TO TIE UP THE FIGHT AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.

NOT ONLY IS THERE REAL URGENCY FOR THE OVERALL FIGHT, BUT EACH BEAT OF THE ACTION MASTERFULLY CREATES ITS OWN MICRO-STORIES. AGAIN, THE INFLUENCE OF COMIC BOOK ACTION STRUCTURES IS VERY CLEAR; YOU CAN ALMOST SEE THE PANELS. EACH PAIRING OF COMBATANTS TELLS ITS OWN MINI-DRAMA. EACH BEAT IS BASED ON ITS OWN "LITTLE STORY", AS HULK ONCE DESCRIBED THE TRAIN FIGHT IN CAP 1. SPIDEY WEBS UP FALCON; FALCON KNOCKS HIM OUT THE WINDOW WITH AN UNEXPECTED REDWING. OR: BLACK PANTHER TRIES TO GET PAST GIANT MAN; IS MET BY STAFF-WIELDING HAWKEYE WHO INTRODUCES HIMSELF. RESPONSE: "I DON'T CARE". RED HULK COULD BASICALLY LIST EVERY BEAT IN THE FIGHT AS AN INSTANCE OF PERFECT CHARACTERISATION AND DRAMATIC USE OF CAUSE AND EFFECT.

HULK CHALKS UP THESE MOMENTS AS BEING GREAT CHARACTER MOMENTS WITHOUT THE SUBSTANCE TO MAKE THEM GREAT STORY MOMENTS. RED HULK AGREES THAT THIS IS AN IMPORTANT DISTINCTION, AND THERE ARE MANY PLACES IN THE FILM (AND EVEN MORE IN AGE OF ULTRON) WHERE RED HULK BELIEVES IT'S A VALID POINT. BUT WHEN YOU HAVE A SET PIECE SECOND ACT FIGHT (WHICH IS GOING TO HAPPEN NO MATTER WHAT) THAT IS ALREADY SERVING ITS OWN LARGER STORY PURPOSES, THEN YOU HAVE TO CHOREOGRAPH THE VARIOUS ELEMENTS OF THAT FIGHT AS DRAMATICALLY AS POSSIBLE. AND RED HULK BELIEVES THAT INSTEAD OF COMPLAINING, WE SHOULD BE THANKING MARVEL FOR MOVING AWAY FROM THE MICHAEL BAY STYLE THAT WAS SO POPULAR IN EVERY ACTION MOVIE UNTIL RECENTLY, AND TOWARDS SOMETHING THAT ACTUALLY LOOKS A LOT MORE LIKE FURY ROAD - CLARITY AND PURPOSE IN EVERY BEAT. AS FAR AS RED HULK CAN SEE, THE ALTERNATIVE TO THESE GREAT CHARACTER MOMENTS IS SIMPLY THE UTTER BLANDNESS OF THE BATMAN VS SUPERMAN FINALE.

OF COURSE THAT DOESN'T MEAN THAT CONSTRUCTING A GOOD FIGHT CAN REPLACE THE NEED FOR A STRONG UNDERLYING STORY THAT MOTIVATES THE FIGHT IN THE FIRST PLACE. BUT THAT MOTIVATION DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THE MOST PROFOUND THING IN THE UNIVERSE - THERE MERELY NEEDS TO BE GOALS, URGENCY AND STAKES, SAME AS ALWAYS. HULK TREATS THE AIRPORT SCENE LIKE THE WHOLE MOVIE IS RESTING ON ITS ABILITY TO ARTICULATE THE TWO MAIN CHARACTERS' INNER STRUGGLE - WHEN IN FACT THE SCENE IS TRYING TO ACHIEVE NO SUCH THING. RATHER, IT'S DRAMATISING THE COMING-TO-A-HEAD OF VARIOUS STORY LINES WHILE PROPELLING THESE CONFLICTS TOWARDS A SHARED RESOLUTION. THAT'S WHAT A SECOND ACT SET-PIECE IS SUPPOSED TO DO, AND IT DOES.

RED HULK AGREES THAT THE RHODEY GETTING HURT THING IS ILL-JUDGED, BUT RED HULK BELIEVES IT IS A RED HERRING. THE SCENE WORKS WITHOUT IT.

WHAT RED HULK GETS EVEN LESS, HOWEVER, IS REAL HULK'S TAKE ON THE FINAL FIGHT. HE SAYS THE MOTIVATION HERE "FEELS UNSUBSTANTIATED ON A DRAMATIC LEVEL OTHER THAN BASIC FORESHADOWING". RED HULK DOES NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT MORE HULK COULD POSSIBLY WANT HERE. THERE IS AN ENTIRE FLASHBACK SCENE AT THE BEGINNING WITH TONY'S PARENTS WHERE IT'S MADE COMPLETELY CLEAR JUST HOW MUCH THEY MEANT TO HIM - HOW THEY REPRESENT ALL HIS DEEPEST INSECURITIES AND REGRETS. HOW MUCH HE STILL RAGES AGAINST THEIR LOSS. IT SEEMS SO WEIRD THAT HULK IS NOT SEEING THIS. RED HULK FELT MASSIVE EMPATHY FROM THE AUDIENCE RED HULKED WATCHED WITH. WHEN BUCKY WAS REVEALED TO HAVE KILLED THEM, RED HULK HEARD AN AUDIBLE GASP ACROSS THE THEATRE. IT'S IMMEDIATELY FELT BY EVERY VIEWER EXACTLY HOW POWERFUL A MOMENT THIS IS. AND YES, THE "HE KILLED MY MOM" LINE DOES DRIVE IT EVEN FURTHER HOME. IN RED HULK'S OPINION, ANY EXTRA "WHY DOES THIS MATTER" MATERIAL INCLUDED IN THE MOVIE WOULD HAVE BEEN POOR STORY ECONOMY - IT'S ALREADY DONE EVERYTHING THAT'S NEEDED. SIMILARLY, WHEN CAP HAMMERS HIS SHIELD INTO TONY'S ARMOUR, RED HULK DOES NOT SEE HOW THIS COULD BE ANY MORE DRAMATICALLY POWERFUL. IT'S NOT JUST EMPTY SYMBOLISM. THESE ARE TWO ALLIES, WHO WE HAVE SEEN FIGHT MANY BATTLES TOGETHER. AND ONE IS CLAWING OUT THE LIFE-FORCE OF THE OTHER. IT'S BRUTAL. AGAIN, AUDIENCE MEMBERS RED HULK HAS TALKED TO ALL SAID THE ENDING WAS INCREDIBLY DARK.

RED HULK IS NOT ARGUING THESE SCENES ARE FLAWLESS. RED HULK MERELY THINKS THAT HULK IS BEING WAY OVER-HARSH.

4. MOVIE AS COMIC BOOK.

AT THE VERY START OF HULK'S COLUMN WE READ:
NOW, IT'S NOT AS IF CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR ISN'T "TRYING," FOR IT'S OBVIOUSLY TRYING IN THE WAY THAT ALL BIG HOLLYWOOD MOVIES TRY.

RED HULK IMMEDIATELY FELT A DISSONANCE WHEN HE READ THIS. CIVIL WAR DIDN'T FEEL LIKE IT WAS "TRYING" TO RED HULK. RED HULK IS MUCH MORE INCLINED TO AGREE WITH OTHERS WHO HAVE SAID THAT THE MOVIE FELT SELF-ASSURED, BREEZILY CONFIDENT, COMPLETELY LACKING THE NERVOUS, SELF-CONSCIOUS ATTITUDE OF AGE OF ULTRON. IF ANYTHING, RED HULK FELT IT WASN'T TRYING ENOUGH, PRECISELY BECAUSE IT WAS TOO CONFIDENT IN ITS ABILITY TO PLEASE CROWDS IN ALL THE TROUBLING WAYS THAT HULK DESCRIBES.

AND IF IT ISN'T ALREADY CLEAR, RED HULK DOES CERTAINLY SEE A PROBLEM EMERGING IN MARVEL'S ATTITUDE TO ITS ENSEMBLE MOVIES. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN AND WILL REMAIN A MONEY-MAKING MACHINE, AND THE TEMPTATION TO MINIMISE RISK BY SACRIFICING STORY TO ENSURE GOOD FEELS WILL NOT GO AWAY. NEVERTHELESS, RED HULK ARDENTLY BELIEVES IT'S FOOLISH TO CONDEMN WHAT IT'S DONE SO FAR, AND EVEN MORE FOOLISH TO BELIEVE THAT HAS EMBARKED ON AN INEVITABLE DESCENT INTO THE STORY-LESS ABYSS.

THE CLAIM THAT "MARVEL PROCEEDED TO STOP TELLING STORIES" IS SIMPLY LAUGHABLE, WHEN YOU LOOK AT MOST OF THE PHASE TWO MOVIES.

IF CIVIL WAR HAD BEEN RELEASED FIVE YEARS AGO, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN HAILED AS THE GREATEST SUPERHERO STORY EVER TOLD. BEFORE THE AVENGERS, MOST - CERTAINLY RED HULK - CONSIDERED IT IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE A MOVIE WITH SUCH RIDICULOUS QUANTITY OF MAJOR CHARACTERS AND CROSSOVERS. THE FACT THAT IT'S NOT A TOTAL ANC COMPLETE DISASTER IS AN EXTRAORDINARY TESTAMENT TO MARVEL'S CREATIVE VISION (AND ALSO ITS CYBORG VISION....SORRY).

WE NEED TO ASK OURSELVES: WHY HAS MARVEL SUCCEEDED SO SPECTACULARLY WHERE EVERY OTHER STUDIO HAS FAILED OR NOT EVEN DARED TO TRY? JUST LOOK AT THE X-MEN FILMS. NOW THERE'S A FRANCHISE WHERE EMPATHY IS REALLY ASSUMED. AND YET IN THE COMICS, X-MEN WORK GREAT! MANY OF MARVEL'S GREATEST STORIES ARE TOLD WITH X-MEN CHARACTERS, WHILE FOX'S ARE TEPID AND VACUOUS.

MARVEL MOVIES ARE RUN BY KEVIN FEIGE AND HIS TEAM - THESE ARE PEOPLE WHO KNOW HOW TO PLEASE AUDIENCES, BUT THEY ARE ALSO COMIC NERDS. WHEREAS DC SOLD THEIR RIGHTS TO WARNER BROTHERS AND AS A CONSEQUENCE ITS UNIVERSE IS NOW BEING MANUFACTURED BY STUDIO EXECUTIVES WHO DON'T EVEN KNOW HOW TO MAKE A DECENT CAMEO SET-UP. FOX MANAGES X-MEN AS IF IT WERE FAST AND FURIOUS.

THE LESSON IS: CREATING A LONG-RUNNING FRANCHISE SET IN THE SAME UNIVERSE REQUIRES A DIFFERENT KIND OF STORYTELLING FROM A REGULAR MOVIE OR EVEN A SERIES OF MOVIE SEQUELS. YOU CAN'T SIMPLY FOLLOW A THREE ACT STRUCTURE AND HOPE FOR THE BEST. IF YOU'VE NEVER TOLD A COMIC BOOK STORY BEFORE, IT CAN TAKE SOME GETTING USED TO. THAT'S NOT TO SAY THAT THE PRINCIPLES OF STORYTELLING ARE FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT - THEY'RE NOT AT ALL. INDEED, THE VERY SUCCESS OF COMIC BOOKS, AND OF MARVEL MOVIES' CO-OPTING OF THEIR STYLE, IS PREMISED ON THE DEEP-ROOTED, INTUITIVE UNDERSTANDING OF HOW CHARACTERS AND CONFLICT FUNDAMENTALLY OPERATE. BUT THE WAY KEY DRAMAS, CHOICES AND ARCS ARE STRUCTURED IS OFTEN MUCH MORE INTRICATE OR AT LEAST MULTI-LAYERED IN SHARED-UNIVERSE COMICS THAN IN A CONVENTIONAL 100-PAGE SCREENPLAY. 

MARVEL UNDERSTANDS THIS. ITS PHASE ONE FILMS WERE FAIRLY STRAIGHT-FORWARD ACTION MOVIES BECAUSE THEY WERE MERELY DEALING WITH A SINGLE, SELF-CONTAINED CHARACTER. THE AVENGERS BROUGHT THEM ALL TOGETHER IN A TEAM-BUILDING MOVIE. BUT SINCE THEN, MARVEL HAS REALLY SOUGHT TO FLESH-OUT NOT JUST THE CHARACTERS BUT THE STORY-TELLING WORLD THEY LIVE IN. THEY INTENTIONALLY SET UP MAJOR CHOICES THE CONSEQUENCES OF WHICH SPAN MORE THAN ONE MOVIE. THEY INTRODUCE SMALLER CHARACTERS WITHIN BIGGER MOVIES. THEY HAVE SUBSIDIARY STORIES THAT INTERWEAVE WITH LARGER SAGAS. LET'S BE CLEAR: MARVEL DIDN'T HAVE TO DO THIS. IT COULD HAVE PRODUCED A SERIES OF NEW MOVIES THAT GO BACK TO SEPARATE, STAND-ALONE WORLDS WITH STANDARD MOVIE STRUCTURES. THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN SAFER, IF LESS CROWD-PLEASING. BUT INSTEAD, MARVEL HAS COMMITTED TO EMBRACING THE ART OF COMIC BOOK STORY STRUCTURES. AND FOR THE MOST PART, IT'S DONE SO SKILFULLY, THOUGH NATURALLY IT IS NOT IMMUNE TO MISSTEPS.

THE POINT IS, NOT ONLY IS MARVEL CONTINUING TO TELL STORIES, IT'S TELLING THEM IN A WAY HOLLYWOOD HAS NEVER ATTEMPTED BEFORE. IT'S GENUINELY EXCITING AND ORIGINAL. INSTEAD OF DECRYING THE BLUNDERS, WE SHOULD SEE THEM AS PART OF A LEARNING PROCESS. THE PROJECT AS A WHOLE IS LIKELY TO GET STRONGER FOR THEM. AND WE SHOULD LOOK TO THE FUTURE. WHAT FILM CRIT HULK FAILS TO MENTION IN HIS ENTIRE ARTICLE IS THAT MARVEL HAS A SLATE OF PHASE THREE MOVIES LINED UP THAT SEEM ALMOST TAILOR-MADE TO ADDRESS THE SHORTCOMINGS OF THE LAST COUPLE OF BIG FILMS. SOLO TITLES LIKE DOCTOR STRANGE, BLACK PANTHER, SPIDER-MAN AND CAPTAIN MARVEL WILL ALL INTRODUCE NEW THEMES AND STORY STRUCTURES TO THE MCU. THE NETFLIX SERIES HAVE ALREADY DONE EXACTLY THAT. THOR 3 LOOKS SET TO BE RELATIVELY INNOVATIVE, AND JAMES GUNN IS LIKELY TO STEER THE GUARDIANS ON A SOUND COURSE. THERE'S EVERY CHANCE THAT THE RETURN OF THE ENSEMBLE IN INFINITY WAR WILL REVERT BACK TO RISK-AVERSE CROWD-PLEASING, BUT THE STUDIO AS A WHOLE LOOKS LIKE IT WILL CONTINUE TO GROW ITS STORY-TELLING CAPABILITIES IN WAYS THAT REALLY ARE STAGGERING WHEN YOU CONSIDER HOW HOLLYWOOD IS SUPPOSED TO WORK.

SO WHILE MARVEL CAN CERTAINLY DO BETTER THAN CIVIL WAR, IT IS NOT YET TIME TO ISSUE BLANKET STATEMENTS OF DESPAIR. FEAR THEE NOT, FRIEND HULK! AND WELL MET!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

On consequence

I sense that there is a prevailing narrative that Trump represents the failure of American politics. This twitter essay seems to sum it up (you may have to press "show more" a few times). Trump has taken us by surprise by doing away with long-cherished political conventions, building success on a foundation of hatred and bullying, and general unacceptable behaviour. And so people say that American politics is in a terrible state, if someone like this can do so well, if we've let him get away with it.

This view couldn't be more wrong. *Leans back into armchair, resting comfortably on a cushion of no political degree or experience whatsoever.*

Trump represents the failure of conservatism in America. He represents the failure of the entire right half of American politics. He does not represent any failure in politics in general. Most of the country is still ticking along just fine. Let's review:

Trump has won about 30-40% of the vote in primaries so far. What does this mean? It means that a minority of people - out of a tiny subset (people who turn up to vote in primaries) of a tiny subset (people registered as Republicans) of a minority of the overall population (all Republicans) - support Trump. In Nevada for example, lauded as a great victory, the man actually received the votes of 1.8% of voting-age residents. And many analysts believe that's about his ceiling. Everyone who doesn't vote for him loathes him.

Yes, the media's obsession is undignified and embarrassing. But other than that - we should rejoice in Trump. He has essentially no support. Only the most rabid and depraved like him. And yet he's exposed the beating heart of the political right. Not only has he handed the Democrats an incredibly easy win in a year that could have been problematic, but he's destroyed the credibility of the GOP for a generation.

But most importantly, he's drawn up clear lines in the culture war that has been raging in comparative secrecy for decades. He's exposed this war for what it actually is. For years, the wealthy have kept themselves in power by stoking the worst impulses of America's socially regressive libertarianism. They've encouraged people to vote on issues like abortion, gay marriage, guns and of course, hatred of foreigners. But they've done it discreetly, attempting to hide behind a veneer of acceptability and "conservative values". It's largely worked.

And now they are reaping the consequences. The divide between the two halves of American society, previously growing slowly, is suddenly ripped wide open, with a great chasm yawning between them. We are concerned that not only is Trump getting votes, but also endorsements or at least silence from "serious" politicians. But this is only true of "conservatives" and otherwise right-wing folks. They have no choice. They've created a Frankenstein's monster of an electorate that now either votes for social progress or for pure, white-hot hatred. If they're not going to become Democrats, these guys no longer have any choice but to appeal to the bloodthirsty Trump hordes.

But on the left, the man is universally condemned. Because the left is still relatively normal, and clearly any sane person can see that Trump epitomises everything awful about our species. The left hasn't failed. The left is flourishing. The left is gloating, or it should be. We can pick Bernie if we want. Or Hillary. Who cares?! We've got an eternity to have as many presidents as we like!

And in the middle, there are the lonely, dwindling voices of the "moderates", still sincerely believing that calm, rational fiscal conservatism is a valid ideology, as if it ever would have got anywhere without the mass support of bigots. Their eyes brim with tears as they watch helplessly while Trump bulldozes everything they ever worked for. And - slowly, ever so slowly - they begin to wonder if maybe they should have questioned the company they kept before now.

Trump has accelerated the right's long death spiral. They nominate an extremist, they lose, they suffer under the yoke of a country slowly getting better, more diverse and more progressive for 8 more years. In reaction, with numbers deteriorating fast, they become even more extreme, rabid and desperate, and lose even worse.

Ultimately, it means that the culture war is in its final throes. It may feel like things have never been worse, if you look at the quantity of hatred in the news. But these are the lashings of a mortally wounded beast. The good guys have won. It's just a matter of time now until the crazy people slowly grow old and are forgotten. The rest of us should celebrate, but then get back to work. We've still got a massive reconstruction project to deal with, and there's a lot of damage to repair.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

A lack of negative publicity

The Wikipedia twitter account has started posting awesome niche articles, almost like they know I'm watching. I can't resist a quick post about one from today.

Behold: Crush, Texas.

This glorious Wes Anderson movie event took place in the middle of nowhere in 1896. The details are too perfect:

A railway baron who was literally called Crush decided to hold a jolly, educational display in which he would crash two trains into each other as fast as possible. In response to this promise of true art, 40,000 people trekked into the desert to bear witness. The trains were smashed together, and the resulting blast killed a number of onlookers and injured several more.

A parable of humanity. A manifestation of pure irony. A fascinating historical insight. Today we have Michael Bay, but in the old days they had to pay - in blood, dammit - for their big pointless explosions.

But as ever, it's not the story itself that's my favourite part. It's the Wikipedia article. For starters, the opening is a masterclass in understated, Game-of-Thrones-style lulling into a false sense of security. The small detail of the gory denouement is relegated to one short sentence in the introduction (prefaced by the wonderfully deadpan "unexpectedly..."), and another even shorter one lost in the body of the article. The rest of the content entirely relates to details other than the fact that people died after willingly attending a literal train wreck.

We learn, for example, that the stunt was so well attended that the site was considered a temporary "city" with the second greatest population in the state. We learn the colours and makes of the trains involved, and that their crews had to be on board at the start to get them going, before leaping from the moving engines. We learn how high the enormous chunks of cast iron debris were forced into the air by the explosion ("hundreds of feet"). We learn which episode of the History Channel covered this breathtaking chapter in the history of human folly. We learn quite a lot about Scott Joplin's composition that commemorated the event.

We even learn this magnificent tidbit, which I think shines a light on today's american politics:
Crush was immediately fired from the Katy railroad. In light of a lack of negative publicity, however, he was rehired the next day
But at no point does the article dwell on the thought processes or chain of decisions that lead to, and apologies if I'm repeating myself here, a huge number of people thinking it would be a good idea to crash two pressurised steam engines together at high speed in close proximity to spectators.

And no one lost their job.