Ambiguity at the Everyman

My latest piece is up at The Everyman discussing the common trick of arguing from ambiguity: you know, you say “a man isn’t a woman,” and they answer “who gets to decide the definition of ‘a woman’?” Turning obvious and object concepts into mush in order to win an argument:

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress where the hero has been imprisoned by a giant called the Spirit of the Age, whose glance turns everything transparent so that one can “see through” it. The jailor who works for the giant furthers this process by debunking ‘social constructs’ with graphically brutal descriptions of the food he provides to the prisoners. One day he offers the prisoners milk while making a sneering comment about how they might as well be drinking the cow’s “other excretions.”

At this point the hero exclaims “Thank goodness! Now I know you don’t really believe what you’re saying!” and then proceeds to point out that there is an obvious, objective difference between milk, which is given to feed the young, and, say, urine, which isn’t. It’s not a question of convention or habit or mythology or belief; it’s a question of what in fact happens.

Our own zeitgeist hasn’t lost the taste for this particular game, which indeed is a very old one. It might be called the argument from ambiguity, and how it works is that, rather than trying to establish a given position, one instead claims that the relative concepts and categories cannot be clearly defined and thus cannot be objectively applied. This often manifests in terms like “shades of grey” or “who’s to say?” or “spectrums,” and it has a superficial credibility in that hard cases can be found in most subjects, and bringing these up can lend the speaker an air of intellectual sophistication.  

Read the rest here.

Initial Thoughts on ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

So, just got back from seeing Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I’ve you’ve followed my blog, you probably know that I am a massive, life-long Godzilla fan, so I was eagerly looking forward to this long-awaited sequel to 2014’s Godzilla (which I liked quite a bit).

So, how’s this film stack up? Well, my immediate reaction is that I really, really liked it! I have a few reservations (which we’ll get to), but for the most part it’s pretty much just what I would want from a modern, big-budget version of the Godzilla mythos. It’s much faster and more action-packed than it’s predecessor, but without sacrificing the sense of awe and grandeur that ought to go along with Godzilla. There are plenty of moments where the characters just stand and stare (some of Mothra’s scenes are particularly good in this regard, and they really do capture the sense of otherworldly beauty that she ought to have).

Of course, one of the big things I wanted to see was how they would handle King Ghidorah, who has been oddly ill-served by most previous films. Well, they give him his due here; he’s not quite as overwhelmingly powerful and evil as I would have liked (e.g. if I were writing the film, Godzilla would have gotten absolutely run into the ground in their first fight), but he’s able to match and even outmatch the Big G while credibly posing an existential threat to the planet, which is as it should be. Don’t really like him walking on his wing tips, but that’s really my only criticism about the design (and they do establish that he’s “not from around here”).

Mothra is also very well played; I like how they present her as having a symbiotic relationship with Godzilla (though one character seems to take their ‘relationship’ as something else), so that she never falls under Ghidorah’s sway, which would have been all kinds of wrong. I wish she had gotten more screen time and more chance to really show what she can do, but she was almost spot on, and hearing an orchestral version of the Mothra Song from theater speakers was fantastic.

Rodan I actually think got a bit of a short shrift, character wise. I always conceive of him as a fiercely independent creature, to the point of being more antagonistic and uncontrollable than Godzilla himself: he can be mind controlled, like most monsters, but I don’t really like the idea of him as a follower. In terms of his presentation, however, he is very impressive; they make good use of his sheer speed and agility in the air, as well as his raw strength.

As for the human plot, it was actually pretty good; the characters divide into three camps. There are the villains who are ecoterrorists intending to use the monsters to wipe out humanity so that the earth can be restored to a more ‘natural’ state, the people who want the monsters to all be destroyed lest they kill more people, and the ‘Monarch’ organization in between, which argues for balance and co-existence. I appreciate that, despite the film’s strong environmentalist message, it actually takes the approach that the Earth is more self-correcting than we give it credit for, and that those who would see humanity removed from the equation not only are monstrous in their ideology, but don’t actually understand the environment they think they’re saving and will only make things worse.

All this is very fitting material for a Godzilla film, which have always been about man’s interactions with nature and the unexpected consequences of violating the natural order. Likewise, things like the hollow Earth myth and ancient lost cities, as well and linking the monsters to the creatures of mythology fit perfectly. The filmmakers very clearly know the Godzilla franchise and love it; there are many, many little nods and allusions, as well as plot points taken directly from the earlier films, and even non-film sources like the Marc Ceresini books. Rodan being found in a volcano and Ghidorah being initially dubbed ‘Monster Zero’ are only a couple examples (some others I can’t go into without spoilers).

The film also continues the strong theme of family from the last film: the characters trying to rebuild the family unit that was destroyed, in this case, by Godzilla himself. Though in this case, it might be beyond saving. There was actually a bit of genuine wisdom in the film, where Dr. Serizawa tells one of the leads that we don’t always understand why something bad happens, and that if we accept that we can grow stronger from adversity, rather than being torn apart (I don’t recall the exact wording, but it struck me as very Job-like).

The matter-of-fact religiosity of the previous film, alas, is mostly gone, though there are one or two nice little moments, mostly amounting to presenting Ghidorah is a demonic light, such as when one of the bad guys, seeing King Ghidorah exclaims “Mother of God!” to which the answer comes “She had nothing to do with this.” There’s also a striking image of Ghidorah, amid the flames of a volcano, being set against a cross, as though he’s challenging Christ Himself. On the other hand, frequent allusions to the idea that the monsters were the ‘original gods’ of mankind are rather ridiculous (there is a qualitative difference between a simply dangerous or powerful creature, however massive, and a creature regarded with numinous awe). Likewise, the attempts to emphasize the animality of the monsters doesn’t really work for me; I prefer it when there is a strange ambivalence about just what they are in the hierarchy of creation.

On that note, one thing I miss in these latter films was the supernatural element in the earlier Godzilla films. The classic movies thought nothing of including fairies, magic, and mystic energy side-by-side with science-fiction concepts, which both gave them a very distinctive flavor and fit in with the underlying idea that humanity really doesn’t know very much about the world and violates ancient taboos at its peril. Also, the ‘alpha signal’ device, and the idea that Ghidorah can command creatures all around the planet is highly dubious, especially since so much of the film rests on it. I can go with it, but it’s questionable at best.

Then there’s the Oxygen Destroyer, which was, frankly, a disappointment. See, the Oxygen Destroyer is a huge deal in the original films; it appears precisely twice over the whole history of the franchise, and both times it’s a major, major issue; the one weapon that can certainly kill Godzilla, but which also threatens to be far worse than he is. The questions it raises, and the horrific nature of the weapon itself, are big parts of the story and philosophy of the films. Here, it is introduced and set off within the space of maybe two minutes and is never brought up again except in passing. That’s a big waste.

Finally, there’s a matter of Godzilla himself. Now, overall he’s portrayed very well; I completely buy that this is Godzilla, and his power and ferocity are on full display. But the thing is (and this applies to the first film as well), I think that by playing him so overtly heroic, they’ve lost something. One of the things that makes the original series so compelling to me is that Godzilla starts off as a villainous, or at least antagonistic figure. He hates humanity for what they’ve done and continue to do to him. Yet he is ultimately a noble creature, and his arc comes when that nobility leads him to protect the very people he so hates, in the process gradually softening and becoming more heroic as the two sides come to terms with each other. It’s a fairly unique storyline, which appears to have grown up more or less by accident, and I think it’s a fascinating drama. But that isn’t what we have with these new films. Here, Godzilla is characterized much more like Gamera, which isn’t unacceptable, but it is a little disappointing for me (it also means that bringing Gamera into this series would basically be redundant, as the contrast between their characters has been removed).

Those caveats really don’t take away from my sheer enjoyment of this film; they throw so much at us, and the action scenes are so big and so spectacular, and the monsters themselves so well-realized that I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end, not to mention the sheer joy of hearing Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla Theme in all its glory accompanying the action. I’m definitely looking forward to what they’ll do in the next one. Long live the King indeed!

Giving to the Poor in Spirit at ‘The Everyman’

Today at ‘The Everyman,’ I talk about the issue of beauty, modern churches, and who these hideous, spare edifices are actually built for:

The beatitude runs “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” But one of the marks of the poor and meek is that they love wealth and glamor. The very celebrity gossip magazines and reality TV shows understand this. The quality of beauty, glamor, and majesty is that they inspire admiration and can only be enjoyed from a position of comparative inferiority, or at least self-forgetfulness, which is why the poor in spirit (those who don’t put on airs or try to see through the world to prove how clever they are) love these things. There is no merit in enjoying a beautiful painting or a beautiful church, which is precisely the point—there shouldn’t be. It’s a pleasure not designed for those who think overmuch of their own merits.

And this, at bottom, is the practical principle of what modernism actually does; take from the poor to feed the rich. When art becomes more about the glory of the artist than the enjoyment of the audience, then it loses all appeal to the humble. ‘Avant-garde’ means, in the end, ‘for the rich and rich at heart.’ When a large part of the population can say, “I don’t get art,” or poetry or literature, that means that these things have been stolen from them.

Read the rest here.

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Conclusion

My Ranking of the Films (Note: the position of ‘Endgame’ is tentative at this point, as I still need to examine it more fully):

  1. Captain America: Civil War
  2. Avengers: Infinity War
  3. The Avengers
  4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Iron Man
  7. Ant-Man
  8. Ant-Man and the Wasp
  9. Avengers: Endgame
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
  11. Thor
  12. Doctor Strange
  13. Captain America: The First Avenger
  14. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  15. Thor: The Dark World
  16. The Incredible Hulk
  17. Thor: Ragnarok
  18. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  19. Iron Man 2
  20. Black Panther
  21. Iron Man 3
  22. Captain Marvel

So, we have reached the end of the journey at last. What are we left with?

First and most obvious is simply the achievement. Twenty-two films in eleven years, telling more or less a single, gigantic story. Though the quality of those films jumps all over the place from sublime to terrible (with, admittedly, much more good than bad), nevertheless the sheer scope of the accomplishment is something to be commended, particularly now that the story is complete and we can see how every piece fit (or doesn’t fit). They basically did a monster-sized serial or television show with multi-million dollar blockbuster movies. No one has ever done that before, and I honestly doubt anyone will do it again, at least not to this scale. Certainly the DCEU and the ‘Dark Universe’ attempts have shown just how badly this sort of thing can go wrong, and we’re still waiting on the ‘Monsterverse’ (which, I must say, looks very promising).

About the only other company I can conceivably see pulling off something like this in the future would be Nintendo, if they decided to break into the film business, given both their large stable of franchises and consistent devotion to quality (also their thus-far adamant refusal to be intimidated by social justice thugs).

Simply as an achievement in filmmaking, this franchise deserves to be studied and cherished.

However, there’s more to it than that.

We live in frightening times, one way or another, and not least of which is the way more and more classic franchises and iconic heroes are being stripped away, destroyed, and ‘deconstructed.’ It’s been a long time sine the last straight Superman film, for instance. Robin Hood hasn’t really had a solid, straight adaptation since Errol Flynn (or perhaps the Disney version). ‘Star Wars’ has been destroyed. Disney is grown corrupt. Meanwhile, more and more creators are turning on their audiences with stunning savagery; greeting criticisms with insults and accusations, and acting as though, when the audience rejects something it never asked for, it’s the audience who has the problem.

In this world, the MCU has been a fortress of solid storytelling and iconic heroism in mainstream entertainment. With a few exceptions, they have been tales of people striving to do the right thing despite the obstacles and despite their flaws, while the fantasy elements magnify and illuminate their characters. That is, they serve the same function as classical mythology, or fairy tales; passing on timeless truths via tales of wonder and excitement.

Once upon a time there were many films like this; westerns, Disney cartoons, Harryhausen adventures, the films of Frank Capra, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, and on and on. Now there are only a few, and getting fewer every day. The MCU was, more often than not, a shining beacon of hope amid an ever deteriorating fictional landscape, with the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Black Widow standing out as true icons and examples to follow, almost a call to arms. Ant-Man was about what a father will do for his child. The Avengers declared that old-school heroism is as real and important now as ever. Civil War urged us to stand up for what is right, whatever the cost.

Looking back, I recall so many great scenes that stand as images of goodness and the defiance of evil. Iron Man slamming terrorists about to defend poor villagers. Captain America piloting the plane into the ice. The Hulk cutting off Loki’s speech by slamming him into the ground. The Guardians of the Galaxy taking each others’ hands, bearing each other’s pain. The Avengers defending a church from Ultron. Ant-Man going subatomic and risking a fate worse than death to save his daughter. Black Widow turning on her own team to do what is right. Cap fighting to the end to stop one friend from killing another. Doctor Strange embracing death again and again to save the innocent. Iron Man throwing everything he has against Thanos. And Captain America, alone and wounded, standing up to face Thanos and his army, hopeless, but unbowed. And on and on.

These are moments that inspire, that remind us of what we are supposed to be, rendered colorfully and fantastically so as to make them easier to understand and to imitate. That, in the end, is what this twenty-film, ten-year journey has meant: genuine, mythic heroism at the movies once again. Despite the flaws, it was and is truly inspiring.

But it isn’t just the grandiose and the mythic scenes either: there are the small-scale, human scenes as well. Tony and Yinsen discussing life in a cave. Thor telling Jane about Yggdrasil. Black Widow comforting Hawkeye after his mind-control episode. Loki learning of his mother’s death. Quill showing Gamora how to dance. Cap sharing a moment of recognition with a young fan in the museum. Hawkeye giving Wanda a pep talk during the battle with Ultron. Scott going to see his daughter before the life-or-death heist. T’Challa recounting his culture’s view of the afterlife. Drax reminiscing over his wife and daughter with Mantis. Rocket taking the time to check on Thor. Scott reassuring Hope that her mother will never have forgotten her.  It was the moments like these, the warm, heartfelt, character-driven scenes that made these characters seem so human and made us want to follow them through so many adventures.

I am glad I got to see it. I am also glad that it’s over. The rot that infects so much of the entertainment world was beginning to set in towards the end, with ill-conceived entries like Homecoming, Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, but the epic series reached its conclusion before it became fatally stricken, leaving us with a completed story to cherish and appreciate. For eleven years it has been the one great beacon of goodness and heroism in Hollywood. Now it’s time for that mantle to be passed and for someone else to pick up the shield and fight the good fight.

Excelsior.

Brief Thoughts on ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thor: Ragnarok

Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War

Ant-Man and the Wasp
Captain Marvel

This is not going to be a full review, as the others in the series, but only a brief and unfocused lay out of my thoughts on ‘Endgame’ after having just seen in. I’ll try to avoid any spoilers.

The short version is that I thought it was really, really good and an extremely satisfying finale to a twenty-two film franchise. The climactic battle is pretty much perfection itself, and the epilogue wraps up the main storylines in an almost exactly perfect manner. The strong writing from the earlier film carries over for the most part, though I’ll have to spend more time on it to work out the full picture (and Infinity War is definitely the better film of the two).

The main flaws of the film are primarily due to baggage from certain earlier films (though fortunately, Captain Boring isn’t in it very much and is mildly less obnoxious while she’s there), though there are a few moments that raise questions and sometimes big ones. The plot involves messing with time and reality, so questions are all-but inevitable. One major bit of character development takes place off-screen during a time-skip, and though I can understand if they didn’t have time, it’s still a little disappointing. Another character, alas, is horribly ill-served and, despite some nice moments, gets a very disappointing conclusion (though that is, again, partially the fault of earlier films, making me dislike a certain movie even more than I already did). I also think they way undersold just what the impact of Thanos’s snap would have been in terms of social and civil breakdown, though it could be argued they wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and make the point that, whatever the consequences, it was a monstrous act that needs to be undone. Also, the Progressive ideologies that are increasingly taking over at Disney and Marvel have begun to seep in, though it mostly comes down to one or two scenes and doesn’t harm the overall story.

Revisiting past films and locations was a risky move, though for the most part it pays off, playing like a retrospective on the franchise. There are a lot of great scenes and call-backs, as well as old villains showing up again one way or another. We also get a wonderful moment giving closure to Tony’s complicated relationship with his father, among many, many other great scenes.

The best part is that it really *does* end up looking like the culmination of everything that’s gone before; every film and every storyline forms part of the conclusion. The ‘Ant-Man’ films in particular, which had been largely a side-show, here take center stage (and you know how much I love the Ant-Man films). Most of the major characters get respectful and appropriate sendoffs or conclusions (with the aforementioned one being the main exception), and they once more take the chance to develop meaty, but lesser-used characters like Hawkeye and Nebula (the latter of whom gets a surprisingly large and affecting role: she’s come a long way from being merely a supporting villain, and Karen Gillan really shows off her acting chops here). Equally appropriately, the writers keep thin or poorly-conceived characters (Danvers, Nakia, etc.) largely offscreen or unmentioned rather than wasting time trying to build them up from scratch.

Most importantly, our two protagonists, Cap and Iron Man, are center stage throughout, finally reconciling before being given satisfying and character-appropriate exits from the franchise, concluding the arcs begun back in each of their first films. Both of them also get some of their all-time best moments here, which I won’t dare spoil, except to say that that line, the one we’ve been waiting all this time to hear Cap say, is finally used, and if you’re only going to say it once, this was the best possible time to do it. And I think the final gambit, what ultimately ends the story, was just about perfect, bringing the whole long, complicated story of the MCU to exactly the right conclusion.

And with that, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is over.

Oh, there will be more films, we know, but as a single, coherent story, it’s done. I don’t plan on following it very closely from now on; I’ll probably see the third Guardians film (as there’s some story that needs wrapping up with them), and maybe the next Doctor Strange or Ant-Man, but the days of catching each film as it comes out, of each movie being a part of a larger whole, are done. Endgame signals this by not having any end-credits scenes. All that is over now. They brought it in and stuck the landing, imperfectly, and not without a stumble or two, but satisfactorily, creating a single, glorious tale told over the course of over twenty films. Whatever happens from now on, whatever future films may bring, we at least have this.