The Communist Manifesto: A Graphic Novel

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

Gord Doctorow reviews British graphic novelist Martin Rowson’s illustrated adaptation of The Communist Manifesto:

The preface describes how the middle-aged Rowson became smitten by Marx and Engels’ exciting prose when he was only 16. Aside from expressing his great admiration for Marx’s writing, as well as his own critical stance, he furnishes the reader with some historical backdrop to the completion of The Manifesto. Marx had been commissioned to write it by a socialist group in the summer of 1847, but, under pressure, succeeded in producing it at the beginning of 1848. Significantly, that was before the outbreak of revolutionary movements in Europe later on in 1848. Rowson goes on to explain that the initial publication failed to attract the attention of many people. Only after the events of the Paris Commune in 1871 did the pamphlet receive a wide audience and a publication renewal.

The illustrations create an atmospheric accompaniment to the Marx figures whose speaking balloons relay the text of The Manifesto. The graphics pair nicely with the text with dense images that impart the feeling of the clashes of historical forces (classes) or with the dramatic rendering of the first lines of The Manifesto in which a spectre appears, so Hamlet-like in two dark and foreboding images to haunt the reader’s mind. There is plenty of theatricality too: images of Marx interacting from a stage with a hostile audience (Rowson’s added flourishes added to enhance the exposition in a stimulating theatrical way).

The Communist Manifesto A Graphic Novel

As a literary work, the illustrations do justice to the marvelously compressed, yet sweeping, literary quality of Marx’s verbal imagery and present readers. Though I had read The Manifesto years ago, I found the adaptation to be both a refresher and newly insightful.

Quite… uncritical.

More Hobbit than Ranger

Monday, September 17th, 2018

Austin Gilkeson first read Tolkien in college, and it convinced him he was bound for great adventure:

I was a privileged college student with my whole life before me, and I imagined myself as Aragorn, ready to leave the comforts of the Last Homely House and strike out into strange-starred lands. But, as I soon discovered, I am more hobbit than Ranger.

After grad school, I taught English in Japan, which had the advantage of being both a far country and a comfortable one. There were ancient castle ruins in the forest and Frosted Flakes in the grocery store. The stars in the sky were the same as in America, but at night the squid boats from my town would go out to sea and light enormous bulbs to attract their catch. From the shore they looked like floating stars, or a fleet of Vingilots, Silmarils at their bows, sailing through the Door of Night.

In those moments, I did feel a bit like Aragorn on his journeys, but I had also realized I was no true wanderer. It wasn’t the shining squid boats or mist-covered mountains that I loved most — it was the comforting routines of teaching, playing with my students at recess, and chatting over drinks with friends at the local fishermen’s izakaya, a pub as lively and inviting as the hobbits’ beloved Green Dragon.

[...]

When I reread The Lord of the Rings last year, I wasn’t sitting on a folding chair in a haunted antebellum mansion as I had been the first time, but on the couch in my own house in the suburbs of Chicago. At night, after my son Liam had gone to sleep, and the cooking, dishes, laundry, and other chores were done, I’d park my tired body on the couch and read until I fell asleep — the book splayed across my chest, the living room lights still on. I thrilled at wandering again in Middle-earth, but this time I especially loved the quieter moments in seemingly peaceful countries — the cozy cheer of the Shire, the rustic bustle of Bree, the fragrant woods of Ithilien. The once-exciting battles were now the parts that often left me snoring on the couch. It seems I no longer fantasize about escaping a stifling job to go on dangerous quests in far-off lands; instead I fantasize about a comfy armchair by a roaring fire, book and beer at hand.

Now, when my wife Ayako wakes me on the couch after I’ve fallen asleep reading, my teeth ache from grinding and I grumble at myself for how much electricity I’ve wasted leaving the lights on. I go upstairs and try not to think about how few hours I have to sleep before I need to wake up, get my son ready for daycare, and head to work. If I once imagined myself a young Aragorn, now I identify with the elderly Bilbo when he describes feeling “sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

Translating the Red Book led to more than a few surprises

Sunday, September 16th, 2018

No one who gets a postgraduate degree in Hobbit Studies ever imagines they’ll be sued by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, Austin Gilkeson says:

I certainly didn’t expect to wind up in court against Christopher Tolkien and his lawyers, like Frodo Baggins facing down the Nazgûl on Weathertop. Little did I know I was heading into a legal and scholarly Midgewater when I wrote and published The Lord of the Rings: A New English Translation.

As anyone who’s read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings knows, both it and The Hobbit are Tolkien’s translations from the so-called “Red Book of Westmarch,” an ancient manuscript written in Late Vulgar Adûni. How Tolkien came to possess the Red Book is a mystery, and the Tolkien Estate has never allowed other scholars access to it.

Tolkien’s original translation is justly famous and beloved. He treeherds an unwieldy ancient text into lyrical modern English and captures the vast scope and romance of the epic.

It is also deeply flawed.

Tolkien refers to Quendi people as “elves,” a common term in his time, but considered highly offensive today. And while Tolkien was a great scholar of the Quenya and Sindarin languages, his command of Late Vulgar Adûni was rudimentary at best, and his translation of the Red Book suffers for it.

In the most infamous instance, Tolkien botched The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the first edition. He was so confused by the text’s use of pronomial prefixes in the subjunctive that he has Gollum leading Bilbo to safety in the goblin caves, rather than pursuing him with murderous malice. Tolkien corrected this blunder in later editions, but the damage was done. Similarly, he describes there being nine Nazgûl, when in fact there were only three.

Because Tolkien’s Estate didn’t let anyone else so much as peek at the Red Book, his The Lord of the Rings remained the only available version for half a century. Nobody even attempted a new translation until me.

When I entered the Hobbit Studies program at the University of Chicago in 2003, I wasn’t planning to write my own translation. Like most of my peers, I was content to lead a quiet scholarly life, writing my dissertation on Adûni phonology and having friendly debates over second brunch about whether or not Balrogs have wings (they don’t). The best I really hoped for professionally were a few publication credits and a full-time lecturer job at a small Franciscan college.

Then one day, in a back corner of the second sublevel of Regenstein Library, I stumbled across an unmarked file dropped by a twitchy-looking undergrad. After flipping through it for a few minutes, I realized it was an unauthorized manuscript copy of the Red Book of Westmarch.

[...]

Using my knowledge of Adûni, Quenya, and Sindarin, and the unauthorized copy of the Red Book, I undertook my translation. My goal was never to match Tolkien’s masterful prose, but to provide a more literal translation into English and fix Tolkien’s errors. I also wanted to restore the real names of the characters and settings, in place of Tolkien’s whimsical anglicizations. You won’t find Frodo Baggins or Samwise Gamgee of the Shire in my version of The Lord of the Rings. You’ll find Maura Labingi and Banazîr Galbasi of Sûzat.

Translating the Red Book led to more than a few surprises. I discovered that the Tom Bombadil chapters weren’t original to the text at all, but had been inserted by a different author at a later date. They’re written in the Adûni dialect of Bree, not Sûzat, and judging by the sloppy handwriting, whoever wrote them was almost certainly drunk, a child, or both.

Tolkien also excised a lengthy, in-depth description of hobbit sexual customs from the “Concerning Hobbits” prologue (an unfortunate omission, as it is here where we learn how Bullroarer Took earned his nickname). In fact, the famously conservative and Catholic Tolkien left out almost all of the Red Book’s ribald humor and attention to the body. Gone are the dwarves’ dirty songs, gone is Gandalf repeatedly referring to Pippin’s brain as “blunter than an orc’s dick,” gone is the Fellowship’s graphic struggle with dysentery in the Mines of Moria.

(Hat tip to Hans G. Schantz, author of The Hidden Truth, a science-fiction techno-thriller.)

Comic book art in the ukiyo-e style

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

Dakota Alexander produces comic book art in the ukiyo-e style of traditional Japanese woodblock painting that became popular during the Edo period:

Dakota Alexander Ukiyo-e Comic Book Art

A Golden Era of live-action sitcoms for six-year-olds

Monday, August 27th, 2018

If you are a mid-Baby Boomer born in the late 1950s, Steve Sailer suggests, you probably have a memory of the mid-1960s as a Golden Era of live-action sitcoms for six-year-olds, such as Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, Adams Family, Munsters, Green Acres, I Dream of Jeannie, and Bewitched:

It’s not clear if it really was a halcyon era or if all six-year-olds look back fondly on the TV shows when they were six. In the defense of the former view, I don’t recall that many animated shows from the same era. (I was a big fan of Johnny Quest, though.)

I think it’s plausible that a lot of money and talent poured into sitcoms in 1964-65, creating a brief period of shows that appealed both to grown-ups and kids. Bewitched, for instance, started out as a relatively straightforward study of the sociological stresses of a mixed marriage. (Marrying a shiksa was a huge theme looming just below the surface in 1960s TV, although in Bewitched the allegory is kept ambiguous. Elizabeth Montgomery, for example, was the daughter of Hollywood Republican stalwart Robert Montgomery.) But the network kept demanding more goofy magic For the Kids.

The latter two shows involved ladies in mixed (magical/human) relationships who use magic to get their housekeeping chores done (a concept that greatly appealed to my future wife at the time), while the man of the house disapproves of the woman taking unfair advantage of her powers to make his life better, but the woman knows best what he really needs.

Also, both magical ladies have relatives who disapprove of the man of the house, such as Darren’s mother-in-law Endora (Agnes Moorhead), brunette evil twin Serena (Elizabeth Montgomery in a dual role), and Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde — I was surprised to see the memorable Lynde only appeared in 10 of the 254 episodes).

If you’re a bit younger than Sailer, you probably remember all the shows from that Golden Era of live-action sitcoms for six-year-olds as childhood favorites, only in reruns.

Anyway, Sailer was spurred to write about this after reading about a potential Bewitched remake from Black-ish creator Kenya Barris:

In Bewitched, written by Barris and Taylor, Samantha, a hardworking black single mom who happens to be a witch, marries Darren, a white mortal who happens to be a bit of a slacker. They struggle to navigate their differences as she discovers that even when a black girl is literally magic, she’s still not as powerful as a decently tall white man with a full head of hair in America.

Sigh.

The historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth recently won the Prometheus Award (for best libertarian sci-fi novel of the year), and he penned this acceptance speech:

I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I live on a farm and it’s harvest season in the Granite State. Live free or die!

I first heard of the Prometheus Award a quarter century ago and put “writing a novel worthy of winning it” on my bucket list. It was an amazing honor to be nominated alongside so many other worthy authors, and I can still barely wrap my head around having won.

Eric S Raymond said it best: “Hard SF is the vital heart of the field”. The core of hard science fiction is libertarianism: “ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering”.

I agree; science fiction is best when it tells stories about free people using intelligence, skills and hard work to overcome challenges.

[...]

The Powers of the Earth is a novel about many things.

It’s a war story about ancaps, uplifted dogs, and AI fighting against government using combat robots, large guns, and kinetic energy weapons.

It’s an engineering story about space travel, open source software, tunnel boring machines, and fintech.

It’s a cyberpunk story about prediction markets, CNC guns, and illegal ROMs.

It’s a story about competent men who build machines, competent women who pilot spaceships, and competent dogs who write code.

It’s a novel that pays homage to Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which in turn pays homage to the American Revolution.

…But the historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution. It’s the founding of the Icelandic Free State almost a thousand years earlier. The difference is subtle, but important.

The American Revolution was an act of secession: one part of a government declaring itself independent and co-equal, and continuing to act as a government. The establishment of the Icelandic Free State is different in two important particulars. First, it did not consist of people challenging an existing government, but of people physically leaving a region governed by a tyrant. And second, the men and women who expatriated themselves from the reign of Harald Fairhair did not create a government — they wanted to flee authoritarianism, not establish their own branch of it!

(The Kindle edition is currently 99 cents.)

Self-consciously tall young men who went on to study at Cambridge

Saturday, August 18th, 2018

While listening to the audiobook version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I started thinking about the writing style, and I was immediately reminded of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

I did a little digging, and it turns out that Douglas Adams was a self-consciously tall young man who went on to study at Cambridge — just like John Cleese, whose autobiography, So, Anyway…, I very much enjoyed, especially as an audiobook, with Cleese himself narrating.

Adams went on to be discovered by Graham Chapman — tall, Cambridge grad — and co-wrote a Monty Python sketch with him:

Adams is one of only two people other than the original Python members to get a writing credit (the other being Neil Innes).

Adams had two brief appearances in the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. At the beginning of episode 42, “The Light Entertainment War”, Adams is in a surgeon’s mask (as Dr. Emile Koning, according to on-screen captions), pulling on gloves, while Michael Palin narrates a sketch that introduces one person after another but never gets started. At the beginning of episode 44, “Mr. Neutron”, Adams is dressed in a pepper-pot outfit and loads a missile onto a cart driven by Terry Jones, who is calling for scrap metal (“Any old iron…”). The two episodes were broadcast in November 1974.

Anyway, I found Adams’ style very, very English, and thus Stephen Fry‘s narration fit it very, very well. What’s that? Why, yes, Stephen Fry is conspicuously tall, isn’t he? I wonder where he went to… Oh! Cambridge! Fancy that.

It is their pleasure to open for you

Friday, August 17th, 2018

Netflix has a new animated animated show coming out, called Next Gen, which features lots of robots:

What caught my attention though was the self-satisfied door at the end of the trailer, since I had just listened to this passage, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“All the doors in this spaceship have a cheerful and sunny disposition. It is their pleasure to open for you, and their satisfaction to close again with the knowledge of a job well done.”

Removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

I still enjoy the Babel Fish segment from the old BBC version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

That last witty bit seems more darkly humorous than I remembered:

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

The newish Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie (which is on HBO Now through the end of the month) didn’t catch my fancy, but the audiobook (narrated by Stephen Fry) did, and this prescient passage caught my attention:

The President in particular is very much a figurehead — he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. On those criteria Zaphod Beeblebrox is one of the most successful Presidents the Galaxy has ever had — he has already spent two of his ten presidential years in prison for fraud.

What made Darth Vader such a visually iconic character?

Friday, August 3rd, 2018

Darth Vader was only on screen for 8 minutes in the original Star Wars movie and for 34 minutes in the whole original trilogy. What made Darth Vader such a visually iconic character?

It’s a party in the sky

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018

Turkish Airlines has a new safety video — starring characters from The LEGO Movie:

One streaming platform is prioritizing classic catalog titles

Sunday, July 29th, 2018

I’m not at all nostalgic for video-rental stores like Blockbuster, but they did have their advantages:

Over five billion rentals have come through 40,000 Redbox kiosks since the company’s launch in 2002 — they now control 51% of the physical rental market in the US. But even the biggest Redbox machine only holds around 600 discs, covering up to 200 titles — no match for even a tiny video store.

Since 2010, the total number of feature films available to stream on Netflix has dropped from 6,755 to 3,686 as of writing this — a loss of more than three thousand titles. There are far more television shows available on Netflix than in 2010 — up from 530 to 1,122 — but that doesn’t make up for the massive decline in streamable films.

And, as BGR notes, “Not only is Netflix primarily focused on generating original TV content, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos a few years ago said that 66% of all Netflix subscribers don’t even watch movies.”

In 2018, over 375 million people subscribe to Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Streaming has become the dominant way in which most of us consume media, but little consideration has been given to what we’ve lost in saying goodbye to the tactile, human experience of visiting a video store.

[...]

Netflix’s current streaming catalogue of 3,686 films seems paltry when compared to even the most average Blockbuster, which stocked in the neighborhood of 10,000 titles. Amazon Prime’s streaming library is three times the size of Netflix’s, with 14,214 films now streaming — Amazon also offers an additional 20,265 titles via their rental service for an additional fee. Hulu has less than half as many movies as Netflix with 1,448 titles now streaming. On HBO NOW, that number falls to only 727 films.

[...]

No streaming service has been able to match the breadth and depth of a decades-old video store — at least not yet. Netflix’s disc rental service included 93,000 titles as of 2015 — a comparable library to somewhere like Eddie Brandt’s. But, disc rental isn’t a priority for Netflix: in 2016, they spent almost $1 billion promoting their streaming platform, but the physical rental service “doesn’t even have a marketing budget,” reports AP News.

And, even with 125 million streaming subscribers, Netflix still relies on physical media more than one might assume. AP News notes that Netflix makes “an operating profit of roughly 50 percent on DVD subscriptions, after covering the expense of buying discs and postage to and from its distribution centers…DVD profits have helped subsidize Netflix’s streaming expansion outside the U.S., a push that has accumulated losses of nearly $1.5 billion during the past five years [2011–2016.] The DVD service has made $1.9 billion during the same period, enabling Netflix to remain profitable.”

Besides Netflix’s physical DVD and Blu Ray service, the best, more accessible option for physical media rental for most is one of the 40,000 Redbox kiosks currently operating in America. While Redbox does carry many new release titles long before they reach streaming, when I looked up the Redbox closest to me in Hollywood, I found that only 168 titles were available in the machine, most of them from the last three years — not exactly an extensive selection, nor one that appeals to viewers interested in film history beyond the last decade.

The dearth of classic films and focus on new content becomes more apparent when taking a closer look at what’s available by decade on each of the major streaming services. According to JustWatch, two titles made before 1930 are now streaming on Netflix — they offer only 15 films made before 1950, 26 made before 1970, and 98 made before 1990. By streaming fewer than one hundred films to cover the medium’s first one hundred years, Netflix is doing an egregious disservice to film’s first century.

With four times as many titles as Netflix overall, it’s not surprising that Amazon Prime offers far more classic titles as well — 77 films on the platform were made before 1930; 661 before 1950; 1,292 before 1970; and 3,048 before 1990. But Amazon is the exception among streaming platforms — Hulu offers 115 films made by 1990 or earlier, and on HBO NOW, there are only 55 films that meet that same criteria.

There’s simply no question that new and exclusive content is the priority for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. 3,155 of the 3,686 films now available to stream on Netflix are from the last ten years — 85% of their entire catalogue. On Hulu, 75% of all movies are from the last ten years too. And while Amazon Prime certainly bests all other major platforms when it comes to “old movies”, 59% of their currently streaming films are from the last ten years as well.

But, one streaming platform is prioritizing classic catalogue titles: FilmStruck, which launched in late 2016. FilmStruck self-describes as featuring “iconic films of all kinds from Hollywood classics to independent, foreign and cult cinema. As the exclusive streaming home of TCM Select and the Criterion Collection, FilmStruck is the world’s largest classic film vault.”

FilmStruck partnered with Warner Bros. to (eventually) bring films like CASABLANCA, CITIZEN KANE, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? to a streaming platform for the first very time. Including Criterion Collection titles (which are available for a small additional monthly fee) FilmStruck’s catalogue is still growing with 1,975 titles available. But more than 86% of their library is from 1990 or earlier, providing film fans with exclusive access to essential titles that are being overlooked and de-prioritized by other streaming services.

The idea that beloved, superlative films like CASABLANCA and CITIZEN KANE can only be accessed with a subscription to an arthouse/classic focused streaming service is quite frankly insane. THE GODFATHER trilogy is now available on Netflix, but that’s only been the case since January of 2018. Even something as ubiquitous as STAR WARS is only available in its first, unedited iteration as a VHS box set from 1995 — and the original trilogy isn’t currently streaming anywhere.

And of course, most major streaming platforms are deep into the original content game. Netflix has released 25 original films and added 7.4 million new subscribers thus far in 2018 — that’s as many releases as the six major studios combined. They plan to release 80 films by the end of the year. The focus on new content creation over the preservation of and access to catalogue titles for most streaming services is quite clear.

There are many hurdles to making the classic available:

The biggest hurdle affecting deep catalogue home video releases, going all the way back to the dawn of the format, has been music rights, since from EASY RIDER onward, when pop song recordings became common on film soundtracks. Contracts only covered theatrical and TV, and even after they started accounting for home video, they didn’t factor the invention of DVD. Some of the earliest home video releases are the rarest now because they were put out before the lawyers realized you needed to make a new deal for the new media.

Now that there are only three major labels, with the downturn of physical media and the slivers of pennies that come from streaming, they and the artists they control get significant money from licensing to TV, film, and commercials, so their incentive is to take the studios for all they’ve got, feeling they have them over a barrel, since many times the songs are often so embedded in the films, they can’t be replaced, or directors won’t approve of the change. But in turn, studios are loath to pay the inflated music fees because they feel the cost spent in clearing the songs will not be recouped by whatever sales a title may have, and it’s cheaper just to do nothing.

The second biggest problem keeping movies off of physical media is ancient, expired intellectual property rights, usually involving books or plays that were originally only cleared for so many years because back then, nobody thought about repertory demand years after the fact. Warner Bros. has had a big problem with this in particular, a lot of Golden Age classics that they own — BEYOND THE FOREST, LETTY LYNTON, CEILING ZERO — can’t be cleared for video because the estates of the authors of those original source materials can’t come to terms about relicensing the story rights. This is what held up NIGHTMARE ALLEY for years, and likely also what has kept one of the greatest comedies of all time, Olsen & Johnson’s HELLZAPOPPIN’, in limbo.

Since the rise of “secondary studios” from the ’70s onward, lots of movies that went out through the majors are now reverting to other companies that are only interested in them as properties to be developed rather than preserved. Bristol-Myers-Squibb owns the original THE HEARTBREAK KID, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and SLEUTH, and they’ve done nothing with them since the early noughts Anchor Bay releases, aside from sell remake rights. We’re beginning to see that on a larger scale with Morgan Creek, Regency, Revolution, and others — the old deals are expiring, what new deals are being made are just cherry-picking the hits and leaving the deep cuts behind.

Spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor

Friday, July 13th, 2018

I haven’t kept up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I found Aaron Bady’s analysis surprisingly deep:

The MCU cycle began when Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were created in 2008, in the last year of Bush’s presidency. They are set against the backdrop of wars—in Iraq, in Afghanistan—that never seemed to end, and as such, are fables about the military industrial complex, artifacts from an era when people were still talking about “blowback,” when we still remembered (or cared) that the CIA had helped to create the conditions for Al Qaeda, and when “end the war” was a thing people promised, said, and demanded. To watch them now is to remember a time when we could still remember a time before we were at war, forever, with terror.

And so, those very first movies gave us Iron Man’s discovery that he is his own worst enemy, that Bruce Banner’s experiments have created a monster: himself. They are stories that take the salience of these stories for granted. Like Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which came to us around the same time, they are stories that ask a single, basic question: what if we are the enemy we’ve been searching for?

Since the answer, unavoidably, is yes, the next phase gave us The Avengers: with Thor and Captain America in 2011—leading up to The Avengers in 2012—the movies started to tell a larger story, about building a team of super-heroes out of this disparate set of “special” individuals; as fucked up as they all were, separately, maybe, together, they could be something… more? These are still stories in which the enemy we are searching for might turn out to be us, of course; they are still movies where anxiety about the self gets exorcized by violent combat with a double, just as Iron Man fought an even more iron man and The Incredible Hulk fought a bigger, more incredible hulk. And they are right to be anxious! What is Nazi-fighter Captain America, after all, but a genetically-modified Aryan super soldier? What is Thor’s quest to be “worthy” if not a conquering despot’s desire to justify the unjustifiable, to insist that he rules for some reason other than force? On some level, these movies always know that their protagonists are hypocrites, that the things they are fighting are basically themselves. S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. H.Y.D.R.A… what really is the difference?

But they are also stories in which “we” comes to take an interesting centrality, where the individual might be saved by the group, by friends, by family, by work. What if—in the course of human events—we the people could come together and form a union of super-special people? What if together we can become more than the sum of our individuality?

Alas! It only lasts as long as the alien invasion, and by the time we eat the shawarma, there’s not much to talk about. In Iron Man 3 (2013), we learn that terrorism really is just the MIC tail wagging the democratic dog; in Thor: The Dark World (2013), we learn that the Asgardians really are just conquering bastards; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. actually are the same thing; in Age of Ultron (2015), we learn that keeping the peace with drone armies is a truly terrible idea, and it’s the only thing that Tony can think of; it’s the only thing ANYONE can think of. By the time of Civil War (2016), we’ve learned that “Us” is an unstable combination, that blowback is still real, and that no one really transcends their deep flaws. Even the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies tell a version of this story: if the first (2014) is about finding a new family, the second (2017) will be about remembering just how toxic family can be, and how long-lasting its wounds are.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, as the Avengers broke up and as the movies started to proliferate beyond narrative control—Ant-Man? Doctor Strange? Black Panther?—the people making them started to think about the next story they would tell. And so, it turned out that in the margins of these stories of American Empire—always the subtext for the original Avengers—they had begun planting the seeds for a different story, particularly in the post-credit sequences; there were hints and rumors and whispers of the larger story that was already taking place just off-screen, that had been from the beginning, a complex and nuanced and revelatory story—the very Grandest of Grand Narratives—about how a dude named Thanos was trying to acquire the six Infinity Stones so he could blow up the universe. This would be their big idea, their magnum opus, their greatest and most consequential story.

[...]

To pick a few random examples: Thor: Ragnarok was about emigrants fleeing a lost home, about how you carry home with you wherever you go. Spider-Man: Homecoming was about choosing not to be an Avenger, but simply to be a modest, humble, neighborhood hero (and also to be a kid). Black Panther was about blackness undefined by, conquered by, enslaved by, or beholden to whiteness. Guardians of the Galaxy is about finding a family among other people whose families hurt them.

Infinity War—as Gerry Canavan observed to me—destroys each of these stories completely. It does not develop them, build on them, or bring them to a climax; it simply eats them up. Thor: Ragnarok ended with the remnants of Asgard sailing bravely into the future in a kind of space ark; Infinity War begins with that space Ark having been blasted to hell (and though Thor later says something about how “half” his people were killed, come on). Peter Parker ended his movie by declining to join the Avengers; in this movie, he joins the Avengers almost immediately. Black Panther is about a place where everyone is black, the white guys are not that important, and Wakanda’s survival is the most important thing; Infinity War has T’Challa deciding to sacrifice Wakanda in battle without any trace of the prickly and regal insularity that has been the entirety of his character up to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy was about finding a family and staying together; in Infinity War, Thor arrives and they break up the group immediately.

My point is that there’s a conflict between the accumulative narrative impulse to see these movies as one continuous story and the sprawling impulse that lets them maintain different styles and themes and even narrative logics. If the MCU has been good because they let different voices tell different types of stories—and to the extent that it is good, it is because of that—Infinity War is bad because it smashes them all into indistinguishable paste. The Collector said that a powerful person “can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field”; this is a good description of how Infinity War relates to its constituent stories: it harvests them.

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

Protection in the Nuclear Age

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Jesse Walker of Reason mocks an old civil defense film that I think I remember:

If I said I was about to show you a government film about how to survive a nuclear war, you’d probably guess that it came from the 1950s, that golden age of absurdly optimistic civil defense films. But Protection in the Nuclear Age was released in 1978, and it was made with an aesthetic that those of us who were in school in that era will recognize quickly. Some moments in these animations of pre- and post-apocalyptic life aren’t that different, in form if not content, from a 1970s guidance counselor’s collection of posters about emotions.

Like that guidance counselor, the movie strains hard to stay positive. “Defense Department studies show that even under the heaviest possible attack, less than five percent of our entire land mass would be affected by blast and heat from nuclear weapons,” the narrator claims at one point. “Of course,” he adds mildly, “that five percent contains a large percentage of our population.” But those people just might have time to flee to the rest of the country, which “would escape untouched — except possibly by radioactive fallout.” Oh, you and your little caveats.

In the early 1980s, it was hip to be extremely pessimistic about these things.