A Matt Walsh Fisk On Superheroes

At present the distinction [between highbrow and lowbrow books] is certainly used to allow us the satisfaction of despising certain authors and readers without imposing on us the labour of showing that they are bad.
— C. S. Lewis, High and Low Brows.

Matt Walsh is one of my favorite commentators. There are few people who have a stronger grasp of social and moral matters in contemporary America, or who are more direct at getting to the heart of them.

Unfortunately, he has a blindspot: whenever he talks on entertainment or pop culture issues, he’s awful. Because when it comes to those topics he not only does not know what he is talking about, but very clearly has zero respect for them. Now, there’d be nothing really wrong with that, except that he sometimes tries to write about them. And when he does the same boldness that serves him so well on subjects he knows causes him to make an absolute fool himself when it comes to subjects he doesn’t.

I noticed this first in an extremely ignorant essay linking violent video games with mass shootings. Now, you can make that connection, but the trouble is that Mr. Walsh very clearly knows nothing about video games apart from what he’s read on news websites and filled it with broadsides against the medium itself. It was followed by an embarrassing ‘clarification’ in which he attempted to claim nuance that he may have intended, but which had certainly not made it into the original article (e.g. he claimed he distinguished between ‘violence’ and ‘gratuitous violence,’ when he qualified violence twice with simple adjectives and never made any such distinction).

Now he makes an entirely unnecessary attack on superhero films, which is one of the worst things I’ve ever read from him. So, because I expect better of him, and because I think it illustrates a mistake that’s easy to fall into, I’m giving it the fisk treatment. His comments are in italics, mind in bold.

Almost Every Superhero Movie Is Terrible And It’s Time For Moviegoers To Awaken to This Fact

            That’s, shall we say, a bold statement, one that would be very hard to back up. Saying “it’s time for moviegoers to awaken to this fact” sets an unnecessarily aggressive (not to say arrogant) tone, while also raising the question of why, exactly, granting the premise that most superhero movies are terrible, it is so important for moviegoers to ‘awaken’ to this ‘fact’.

            But I don’t want to harp on this too much, knowing from experience that writers don’t always pick their titles.

“Aquaman” will be in theaters in two weeks. This is very fortunate because it has been almost 30 seconds since the last superhero movie was released. We cannot be expected to wait so long. The American people have, apparently, an unquenchable thirst for superhero movies, despite the fact that they are all exactly the same and they primarily exist to sell merchandise. These films are basically 95 minute Mattel commercials, only with less plot and worse acting.

 Okay, first point is a sarcastic hyperbole of how many superhero films there seem to be these days, and an accurate comment that there is a very clear market for these kinds of films. An interesting piece might be written on this; what is it about this particular genre that would so appeal to people in today’s day and age, why do other genres seem to be floundering, and how does this relate to the history of the industry and people’s changing tastes (and it should be noted that superhero films are far from the first genre to experience a glut of popularity like this).

But rather than dealing with any of that, he immediately launches into an attack, saying “they are all exactly the same and primarily exist to sell merchandise.”

Regarding the latter point, the merchandise; it’s a cheap shot that requires backing up, akin to calling something ‘racist.’ All films are made in the hopes that they will make money; many films also have merchandising tie-ins these days. This, in itself, has zero bearing on their quality. In order to make this into a meaningful criticism you would have to show that the film is structured in such a way that merchandising was very clearly placed before story.

An example of that would be the porgs in The Last Jedi. They serve no purpose in the plot, and their antics are often tonally at odds with the surrounding scene, yet they continue to show up at regular intervals long past the point where even their tenuous justification has ceased. This is not the case in the majority of superhero films.

As for saying they are all the same, that is a common complaint of the Marvel films, and to a lesser extent the DCEU, though I think it is overblown. Yes, there is commonality of tone and style across the films, which is exactly what you would expect from a single franchise, and yes some within the framework are very similar, arguably too similar. But Ant-Man is not the same film as Captain America: Civil War, which is not the same film as Guardians of the Galaxy. Even going back to the initial few films, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were all distinct in tone and style.

The thing is, all genres and subgenres have common elements, and, if you wanted, you could describe them as being “all the same.” All westerns are the same, all musicals are the same, all war movies are the same, all detective novels are the same, and so on. But this doesn’t actually tell you anything about the genre; it’s just a stock insult applied by people who do not enjoy or respect the form.

Also, ‘worse acting?’ In what universe is, say, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Civil War or Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight considered bad acting? What about Josh Brolin in Infinity War, or Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming? See, this is part of the problem: he does not know what he is talking about, but he is throwing insults based purely on his assumptions.

We’re going to come back to this.

I am being generous by saying “less plot,” because that implies the basic existence of plot. Superhero movies in the 90’s were merely light on plot. Superhero movies these days are entirely plotless.

Again, simply not true, as he would know if he actually took the trouble to give a modicum of respect to his subject matter (also, what superhero films in the 1990s? There weren’t very many of them, and by and large – Steel, the Schumacher Batman films, etc. – they were objectively far worse than the ones we get now. The big superhero push didn’t really get started until Blade -1998 – and X-Men – 2000. Again, he shows that he is talking at random about something he does not have any real knowledge of).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines plot as: “The main events of a play, novel, film, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.” Thus, the plot of The Lord of the Rings would be “Frodo the Hobbit attempts to destroy the Ring of Power before the Dark Lord Sauron can recover it.” The plot of The Odyssey would be “Odysseus and his men attempt to return home following the Trojan War, while the angry god Poseidon seeks to prevent it.”

Clearly, most superhero films do in fact have a plot: the plot of Ant-Man and the Wasp would be, “Doctor Pym tries to use technology accessing the Quantum Realm to save his long-lost wife while keeping it out of the hands of his enemies.” The plot of Avengers: Infinity War would be, “The fanatic Thanos attempts to recover the six Infinity Stones in order to reduce the universe’s population by half while the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy attempt to stop him.”

The point is that it is simply inaccurate to say that superhero films are plotless, and again an act of complete dismissal. He is entitled to dislike the genre himself, but I have to wonder why he felt the need to announce his dismissal to the world, since we are not even two paragraphs in and he’s already shown both complete ignorance of and complete contempt for his subject. 

The advent of franchise filmmaking and “world building” has turned every movie into a set-up for the next movie, which itself is a set-up for the next one, on and on into the infinite abyss. Nothing can ever really happen. There can be no substantial progress, no final resolution, no real triumph or defeat. You may as well pay 18 dollars to watch Iron Man play solitaire for two hours. It’s the same thing in the end.

 The point about each film being merely a set-up for the next is a potentially accurate criticism of the ‘shared universe’ model of popular entertainment. But he has not demonstrated this by fact or example, nor will he. I won’t even go into pointing out how wrong he is in fact, nor the question of what would qualify for “nothing ever really happens,” except that his point is particularly galling considering that this is the genre that just produced Infinity War.

Ten thousand years from now, as the next installment of the Avengers saga is released to the screens we will all have permanently implanted in our eyeballs, philosophers will be debating whether these superhero franchises even had a beginning at all. They may well conclude that there was no prime mover, no first cause, in the Marvel and DC universe. These movies have always existed, telling the exact same stories, with the exact same actors, since before the beginning of time itself.

             Here he makes a sarcastic joke, which again is undermined by his complete ignorance of his subject and repeating the nonsense of ‘the exact same stories,’ only now with ‘the exact same actors,’ which is just strange: does he expect the same character the be played by a different actor in subsequent films?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate superheros. I have nothing against a fanciful tale about a man in a rubber suit fighting bad guys who, through approximately 20 million story arcs, still have not thought to simply walk up to their nemesis and shoot him directly in the face.

           He says he doesn’t hate superheroes, then gives a completely dismissive summation of the genre. This is what we call ‘immediate self contradiction.’

 I’m no expert on Marvel or DC mythology but I’m pretty sure a bullet to the face would dispatch almost all of the heroes in either universe. Except Superman, of course, who is essentially just a deus ex machina with a cape.

             I believe the audience has already figured out he’s ‘no expert.’ When he admits he’s own ignorance then says he’s “pretty sure” that there’s this one gapping plot hole in all superhero stories, it again makes me wonder why he thought writing this essay was in any way a good idea.

            And again, I’m not going to point out how wrong this assertion is, because my point is less about why superhero films are good than about why this essay is bad.

In any case, as I said, I don’t hate these movies. I just realize that they are bland and empty and stupid, and I don’t need them injected directly into my veins. 

            Again the immediate self-contradiction: you might as well say “I don’t hate professional sports, I just realize that they’re empty, pointless, and stupid and don’t need to waste my time watching someone else play a game.”

            Also, note that he says “I realize,” as if it’s an established fact, when he’s not come within a country mile of anything that could be considered a fact about these movies.

One of the things that gall me is that I know that if he found someone directing this level of ‘criticism’ against something he cared about, he would tear them to shreds. 

 It seems I was born without a superhero-sized hole in my soul that can only be filled with a never ending onslaught of comic book films. Perhaps I had such a hole when I was 12, but it has since been closed. 

            More contempt, now mixed with implied insults to those who enjoy these films.

If I have an insatiable appetite for any kind of movie in my old age, it would be that particular genre where Liam Neeson is a grizzled ex-FBI agent/assassin who has to recover/avenge a kidnaped/murdered family member.

Incidentally, there’s a movie coming out soon called “Cold Pursuit” where Neeson portrays a vengeful snowplow driver who “transforms from an ordinary man into a skilled killer as he sets out to dismantle the cartel” that killed his son (yes, I’m serious). I will be there on opening day. Am I a hypocrite because I criticize comic book movies even while waiting with breathless anticipation to watch Liam Neeson kill drug lords with a snowplow? No, I don’t think so. As Scripture says: when I became a man, I put away childish things and replaced them with Liam Neeson revenge movies.

Okay, this is simply nonsense. I think he’s trying to defuse some of the bad feeling he’s unnecessarily dredged up by humorously citing how he has his own taste in frothy entertainment. That’s nice, but it does nothing to counteract the arrogance and ignorance he’s already shown and will continue showing, especially since it all builds up to another ‘superhero movies are childish’ jab.

Wherever you stand on this topic, even if you run out to see each new comic book film in the desperate hope that something new will eventually happen in one of them, can you not at least agree that the studios have now officially exhausted the supply of interesting or credible superheroes? Would you not concede that it’s time for Hollywood to stop mining for new characters and perhaps even cut down (drastically) on the number of films featuring the already established ones? Would you not even admit that there should be a moratorium on all superhero movies for the next decade while Hollywood explores the possibility that it might actually be possible to tell a story that doesn’t involve costumed crime fighters? 

            I assume this is the whole point of the essay; that he’s sick of hearing about new superhero films coming out and wants to call a ‘moratorium’ on them. The trouble is, he’s already shown that he has absolutely no credibility on this topic, so his pleas are simply noise.

            Honestly, I also wish Hollywood would get off the remakes-adaptations kick and start making more original content, but then that’s pretty far down the list of problems in modern Hollywood. Again, that’s a legitimate perspective that absolutely could serve as the subject of a good essay, but he buries it under a ton of smug nonsense.

            The really strange thing, that he seems not to notice (probably because of the aforementioned contempt) is that superhero films are among the most morally positive movies that are being released these days. The last couple Marvel films were, respectively, about fathers being there for their daughters and the evils of sacrificing innocent lives for the sake of an ideology. There are very few positive places in popular fiction left, and superhero films are (by and large, and for the present) the most notable of these. And he’s arguing that Hollywood should stop making them because he’s sick of hearing about them. It’s not just that this is a highly dubious position, it’s that if anything it’s contrary to his own ideas. He knows how immoral and toxic most of Hollywood is, yet he’s spending time attacking some of its least toxic products.  

If that time will ever come, we are here. In the mad dash to make movies out of every superhero ever to grace the pages of a child’s comic book, Hollywood has officially hit rock bottom. Worse than rock bottom. It has plunged below sea level, which brings us to Aquaman. They actually made a full length movie about a guy called Aquaman. He lives in the ocean, wears a suit of fish scales, rides around on a dolphin (I assume), and carries a magical trident. He is exactly the kind of character an eight year old boy might invent in his head during math class and then doodle in the margins of his text book.

Again, he knows nothing of the character, nothing of why people like the character enough that he’s been around for nearly eighty years, he’s basing his criticism solely on the name of the character, and one or two things he’s gleaned from the trailers or from online. This is a textbook example of ‘judging a book by its cover.’  

He’s not as dumb as Superman, but he holds his own in the race. Batman isn’t exactly a work of genius but at least he has pathos. Not coincidentally, he’s also the centerpiece of the only interesting superhero movies ever made. Aquaman on the other hand, despite the rave reviews of critics who are always absurdly generous in their appraisals of comic book films, is destined to be a pointless, lifeless, silly-but-not-in-a-charming-way, cash grab by studio executives who I’m certain never bothered to read the script, because, really, how good does a movie about muscular fish-man living in SpongeBob’s pineapple under the sea need to be? It is a thing made simply to exploit a market. And it is a market that, I submit, should finally become a bit more discerning. Movie tickets are expensive, after all. And superhero movies have finally jumped the shark. Pun very much intended.

 This is ridiculous. He acknowledges that the initial reviews are positive, but still dismisses the film with a string of insults based on nothing. Then based on that (i.e. his own prejudice) he proclaims that “superhero movies have finally jumped the shark” and the market should become a bit more discerning. 

I’m sure you can see now why I opened with the quote from Prof. Lewis.

            I hate to say it about someone whose work I usually admire, but this essay was horrendous; waste paper. It’s as bad as any I’ve seen from CNN or Salon, and I can’t say worse than that.

To put the best possible light on it, I am assuming he tossed this one off quickly, more or less as a joke. The trouble is that it’s not a very good joke both because of his ignorance of the subject and because of his needlessly insulting tone towards people who have done nothing worse than enjoy a film genre that he doesn’t. It’s like saying “all movies are stupid because they’re for people too lazy to read books.” There’s nothing clever or amusing about it; it’s just gratuitous nonsense with an edge of smug. No one will find this funny except for those who just want to point and laugh at people who enjoy superhero films, and that’s kind of sad, especially from someone who usually provides such substantive content.

            Nothing he said here had any substance to it; he doesn’t give specifics, he just says that “modern superhero films are completely plotless” (no examples of specific films where the plot is flimsy, confusing, or disjointed), that the acting is bad (no examples of specific performances), and that the films are “bland and empty and stupid” (no definition of terms, no examples of particularly bland or stupid moments, no counterexamples of something similar done well).

            To be fair, it’s a limited essay and he’s talking about dozens of different films, but he doesn’t even attempt to back up his points with examples. Now, if I wanted to call the Marvel films ‘plotless’, for instance, I would have cited Black Panther or Age of Ultron or Iron Man 2: films that legitimately have massive plot issues. That wouldn’t prove my point, but it would be something and would show that I at least had some knowledge of this topic.

            The impression he creates is that he doesn’t actually know any examples and doesn’t think he has to, because again, he treats this whole subject with absolute contempt. A subject that many, many people of all types have found value in and which, at least in the case of the MCU, represents an objectively massive achievement in filmmaking. Love the films or hate them, creating twenty-plus big-budget films over the course of ten years, all in continuity with each other, almost all with different directors, writers, and cast, and all financially successful is simply not something that you can dismiss as “95-minute Mattel commercials.”

But the problem, as I’ve said throughout, is not that he’s criticizing these films or this genre; it’s that he has nothing substantive to say about them, and what is more seems to think there is nothing to be said. He simply declares it to be stupid and childish and proceeds as if that were established beyond argument.

            In the essay quoted above, C.S. Lewis laid it down as a principle – and I think he was correct – that you ought not to criticize work in a genre that you personally do not enjoy. This is because you won’t be able to tell when the work is being done well or poorly according to the canon of its own art. He himself disliked detective novels and consequently didn’t bother trying to write essays on them.

When it comes to fiction, not every genre appeals to everyone (I’m pretty rare in that I can enjoy any genre that doesn’t morally repel me). It is not a matter of one being better or more ‘mature’ than another – the high-brow and low-brow fallacy – it’s simply a matter of how one’s personality is formed. If yours is so formed that a particular genre does not appeal to you, then you can have nothing worthwhile to say as to its flaws or merits, any more than a tone-deaf person could have anything worthwhile to say about Mozart. I For instance, I know little about music apart from a broad sense of what I do and do not like. If I tried to write a piece on why I think the Beatles are overrated, I would probably make a fool of myself, so I will never do that.

            It is, in fact, another application of Chesterton’s gate: if you don’t see the purpose of a thing, you cannot tell if that purpose is being achieved and hence you are in no position to judge whether the thing is doing it well or poorly.

The point is that there are legitimate criticisms to be made about any or all superhero films, and about the genre as a whole, and about the film industry’s approach to them. But to make them would take someone who is familiar with the subject, who pays it a basic respect, and who can derive the kind of pleasure from it that it is intended to produce. It is the same with every genre of fiction and every form of art.

Moreover (and this is a large part of why I took the trouble to make this fisk), in writing such utter nonsense so confidently, he actually undermines his own credibility. If he speaks so confidently and callously on something he evidently knows nothing about, and is so insulting to people he has no reason to quarrel with, then that rather raises the question of how much of his other work is based on sound evidence and reasoning rather than pure arrogance. Now, I’m a long-time reader of his and generally find his work to be very solid except for the few times he goes outside of his knowledge base, but for a less familiar or a less sympathetic reader, something like this could be devastating.

Matt Walsh doesn’t need advice from me; this is directed at my own readers (and myself, of course). Please do not try to write criticism on topics you have no knowledge or understanding of, do not treat your subject matter with contempt, and do not try to substitute an arrogant tone for knowledge. If there is a topic – say, a certain film genre or trend – that you simply do not understand, that means it is not for you to write about or commentate on.

In conclusion, I urge you not to judge Mr. Walsh’s output by this piece. His work on moral, social, and religious matters is very solid; some of the best. I just wish he had a better grasp of his own limitations.

 

 

Presenting my ‘Must See’ List for 2019

A whole lot of trailers dropped this week, but for my part, I only really cared about two.

First, obviously, is Avengers: Endgame

Yeah, this looks pretty fantastic. They’re not showing much yet; this trailer is mostly about letting the audience know that yes, the Avengers are going to keep fighting. Love the logo reassembling at the end. I’d also like to point out that the opening scene of the trailer to this movie, with Tony Stark recording a message for Pepper, is more honestly human than most films these days are in their entirety. Also, the fact that the big moment in the trailer involves Ant-Man just warms my heart. I really hope he gets to play a crucial role in this film.

As I was saying at a friend’s blog, the thing I most want from this movie is for Thanos to receive a ‘Nightmare-on-Elm-Street’-style comeuppance, where he gets to see his mad vision being undone and know that all his sacrifices and all his crimes were for nothing. If they get that right, I’ll allow almost anything else.

The other is the second Godzilla: King of the Monsters trailer.

Wow!

Lots more kaiju action, and it’s clear they’re still holding back most of it. We get clear views of all four monsters this time around, and a lot of King Ghidorah. I said last time that he was the one I was most hoping they’d get right, and from this it looks like they’re absolutely nailing it. I want a Ghidorah who can pound Godzilla into the dirt, and whom the three greatest monsters on Earth – Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan – will be hard pressed to bring down, and that’s pretty much what we seem to be getting. The two scenes of Godzilla and Ghidorah facing off are practically a dream come true (though I might wish they had been done in daylight).

Meanwhile, we get a full-view of Mothra this time. She’s definitely been given quite the makeover and resembles her ‘Mothra Leo’ form. I probably would have gone for more traditional designs, but that’s just me; they’re clearly keeping the important points. I like that they’re definitely playing her up as a heroic figure, which is proper.

Similarly, Rodan seems to be exactly in character as well; not strictly evil, but terrifyingly destructive and even more indifferent to mankind than Godzilla. We’re supposed to have a fight between Rodan and Godzilla at one point, but I’m also kind of hoping for one between Mothra and Rodan, since that’s something we’ve never seen before (Rodan and Mothra’s imago form have only shared one film – Final Wars – and they never interacted). Plus, if you have two flying kaiju, it only seems to make sense to make them fight.

I do have to wonder what’s with the scene of something bursting out of the ground. I presume it’s Godzilla, but why is he underground? I suppose we’ll find out (unless they just wanted to go above and beyond the call of duty by giving Anguirus or Baragon a cameo).

So, yeah, I think this looks fantastic. Again, there’s real respect being shown for these characters and this franchise, and in today’s world that’s something to be thankful for.

By the way, look closely at the clouds in the early scene of the devastated Washington.

(And I just found out; apparently, this film will feature Akira Ifukube’s immortal ‘Godzilla March’. Nothing else needs to be said.)

So, basically these two films are at the undisputed summit of my list of things to see next year.

 

On Moral Ambiguity

“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”

That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.

I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.

There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.

This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.

For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.

Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.

Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).

In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.

Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.

Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.

That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.

Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).

And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).

In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.

Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.

I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.

Things to Know Before Dating a Traditionalist:

After reading the staggeringly tone-deaf list of things to know before dating a feminist, I thought it might be useful to provide a list of what someone – a modern woman within what seem to me to be the typical range of socio-political views – ought to know before dating a Traditionalist (which is my present label for my own set of views), hopefully while avoiding the pitfalls of the other list.

  1. Just because he is not a feminist does not mean he doesn’t respect you. From his perspective, it is quite the reverse.
  2. He is going to pay for the meal, open the door, and walk you to your car or to your door. He is not going to ask to come up either on this date or any other. For goodness sakes, do not take offense at any of this.
  3. He will not swear in front of you and you shouldn’t swear in front of him
  4. He will not be offended if you question his beliefs. It will not be the first time.
  5. He is not necessarily going to ask that you share his views, only that you don’t call him a moron, bigot, or (God forbid) ‘Nazi’ for having them.
  6. You will never win a debate with him by using the word “racist,” “sexist,” or any similar term.
  7. Don’t expect much from the word “equality” either.
  8. Telling him how one of his favorite films / books is actually sexist is a good way to ensure there will not be a second date. This goes double if you haven’t actually seen / read it.
  9. Trying to justify the murder of children by appealing to ‘choice’ will end poorly.
  10. He will not find you more attractive the more skin you show or the tighter your clothes are.
  11. Just because he is polite and dresses well does not mean he is not dangerous. This is a good thing.
  12. His idea of ‘women’s history’ is “Theresa of Avilla and Maria Theresa.” Citing a suffragette or (God forbid) a politician as an example of a great woman will only tempt him to mockery.
  13. He does not want to talk about sex past, present, or future on a first date. Probably not on the second one either.
  14. There is about a 50/50 chance he will recite poetry during the evening. Remain calm and let it run its course.
  15. He expects you to be as rational as he is.

Dating a Feminist: A Fisk

I found a video mocking this list and I knew I had to have a go at it. The original is in italics and my comments are in bold.

14 Things You Should Know Before Dating a Feminist

She’s basically the most amazing person on the planet.

            Yes, that is the tagline. See for yourself. Needless to say, the article does not back this assertion up.

(by the way, Cosmo asked me to subscribe by swearing at me. Classy)

  1. You’d better be prepared to look at the world/movies/TV shows/everything more closely than you used to. There might be a movie that you really love that you never noticed was super-crazy sexist, and you need to at least be open to hearing her explain why it is and looking at it from another perspective. I dated a guy who hated when I would do this and you will never guess how quickly I dumped him because haha no.

            We’re off to a grand start: the very first thing you can expect when dating a feminist is that she’ll criticize you and/or something you love and you’d better not complain about it. Notice how she boasts of ‘dumping’ a guy who hated when she did this, as if it’s absolutely unreasonable to get irritated when your girlfriend keeps telling you that the things you like are ‘super-crazy sexist.’

            Note also that this is her idea of “looking more closely at the world:” searching for more reasons to be offended.  

2. If you don’t identify as a feminist already, you should figure out why that is before going for her. Do you think she should make less than you make for doing the exact same job? No? Then you’re a feminist. This is not difficult, Jeremy.

            This probably should have been number one, though perhaps she thought the first item was less ‘provocative.’ Or she just didn’t put any thought to logical progression. Probably that.

            Anyway, here she plays the trick of trying to force the other person to accept a certain identification, which she then can claim the right to define, effectively invalidating his right to argue with her. The game goes “do you believe this ostensibly reasonable thing? Then you’re a feminist. A feminist listens to women. Oh, you want to have your own opinion? I guess you don’t really listen to women, because if you did you’d think what I say you should. That means you really think women are inferior.”

            For what it’s worth, I’ve long since figured out why I’m not a feminist, and people like her are Exhibit A.

3. You’re not necessarily going to offend her because she’s a feminist and you paid for her tea. I had a guy buy me an iced tea once and he acted like he wasn’t sure whether to pat himself on the back for being such a good guy or apologize for acting like he owned me. My tea was $1.50, dude. Calm down. If you’re doing a nice thing because you want to do a nice thing, I will love that. Who wouldn’t?

            So, this is a woman who is so unpredictable and thin-skinned that a guy becomes nervous when he tries to practice basic politeness. She then makes fun of him for it. Notice how her reconstruction of his thought process is “am I a good guy, or did I act like I owned her?”

            A healthy person’s mind doesn’t even consider the possibility that, “he paid for my drink” could mean, “he thinks he owns me” (how on Earth would that even work?). Note the ‘not necessarily’ in the title and that her justification for not being offended being ‘it was cheap.’

4. Please at least know some basic women’s history. See: Leslie Knope being pissed Officer Dave didn’t know who Madeline Albright was or me being pissed that a guy doesn’t know what riot grrrl music is.

            Yeah…when she talks about knowing ‘women’s history’ and immediately cites a TV comedy referencing someone from the Clinton cabinet, that doesn’t really convince me she knows much history. This impression is reinforced by her other example being ‘riot grrrl music.’ That sure sounds like a turning point of history.

The thing is, this isn’t just a matter of making fun of these specific examples: it’s the question of why would she pick those? Even on her own standing, surely citing someone like Helen Keller or Susan B. Anthony would hold a heck of a lot more weight; instead her idea of history is…’riot grrrl music.’ It’s as if someone claimed to be a connoisseur of cinema, and as a proof said that her favorite movie is The Last Jedi.  

            As for basic ‘women’s history,’ do you mean people like Empress Maria Theresa, Queen Isabella of Spain, Princess Elizabeth of Hungary, Queen Christina of Sweden, Queen Victoria, Czarina Catherine, Abigail Adams, etc.? Or perhaps women like Theresa of Avilla, Hildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, Scholastica, Joan of Arc, Catherine of Sienna etc.? That is, any ‘women’s history’ that extends beyond the 20th century?

(Also, remember that back in number one she dumped a guy for being annoyed that she was trash talking the things he liked. Now she gets mad that someone simply isn’t familiar with her pet interests)

5. “So do you hate men?” is a “joke” she has heard about 5,000 times. And if you make it, I will think you are both uncreative and kind of a dick. Like, are you serious? It’s not 1962 (and let’s be honest, no one thought it was funny then either.)

Judging by this list, that isn’t a joke; it’s an entirely reasonable question. I also note that she doesn’t answer it. 

6. She thinks she’s just as entitled to an orgasm as you are, which will make sex really fun if you’re good in bed or very confusing if you’re not. One time I literally sat on a hookup’s bed after they’d had an orgasm and said, “I didn’t come. I’m not leaving this room until I do,” and I waited. Ohhhh, I waited

.            Uh…no comment.

7. It’s fine if you hold the door for herJust don’t act totally shocked when she’s equally as polite and holds it for you. 

            The fact that she feels the need to assure him that she will not be offended if he holds the door for her is telling. Also, note how she immediately undercuts it by insisting that it’s just as polite for a woman to hold the door for a man, showing that she’s unsurprisingly missed the point. 

And wouldn’t it have made more sense to put this one alongside the one assuring us she won’t freak out if we try to pay for her cheap tea? 

8. She will debate anyone she meets who says they aren’t a feminist or expresses anti-feminist sentiments. It might be your dumb-dumb friends, it might be a random guy who said something shitty at a bar we’re at, but it could happen. I never pick fights with anyone, but I’m also not afraid to calmly call someone out for saying something bigoted and frankly, you shouldn’t be either.

            Not putting money on her debating skills, especially given that she immediately assumes any non-feminist must be an idiot. Also, note: “I never pick fights with anyone, but I’ll insult and attack anyone who says something I don’t agree with, even if he’s a stranger.” And she expects you to do the same, or else she’ll think you’re a coward.

9. You’d better be aware of what male privilege is and that you have it. One time my guy friend said to me, “Oh man, male privilege sounds nice. Wish I had some of that. Haha,” and I almost threw him across the room. It’s real. If you’re a guy, you have it. Next topic.

            A summarized version of this and the previous entry are “you had better not challenge or question anything I believe, however asinine.”

            Notice how she boasts of being completely infuriated when a man dared to say that his own experience doesn’t match her pre-conceived beliefs. She then bluntly declares “all men have privilege” and moves on. This despite spending most of this article detailing how she doesn’t think men have the right to disagree with her on anything.  

10. Any lingering anti-feminist beliefs you may still have can and will be challenged. And rightfully so. Ideally, you’d just take an interest in feminism on your own because everyone should, but if you’re going to be dating me, I’m definitely going to call you on the bullshit you may knowingly or unknowingly still say from time to time. Thank her for this. She’s going to save you from making a horrible rape joke in public (aka making any rape joke in public.)

            So, she’s going to snap at you for saying something she doesn’t agree with, you are not allowed to answer back (see previous two entries), and you ought to thank her for that.

            Also, note the assumption that either you kow-tow to being corrected on every minor violation of feminist orthodoxy or you’ll “make a horrible rape joke in public.” There is nothing in between. 

11. She’s happy to teach you about feminism if you’re happy to learn. If you think Beyoncé can’t dance in a revealing outfit and call herself a feminist, you are wrong, but I’m happy to explain to you why that is if you actually want to know. Why? Because I like you.

            Again (this is about the third time the same point is made), “shut up, stop thinking, and swallow whatever nonsense I tell you and be grateful for it.” Note the patronizing and patently false “because I like you. You’re stupid and pliable and do what I say, so I like you.”

12. Never, ever, ever tell her about how men are discriminated against too. This isn’t a competition for which gender had been treated more unfairly, but if it were, women will win every time.

            Love that; “this isn’t a competition, so just admit you lose.” 

            Yet again, she’s insisting that you should never challenge her beliefs or point out any inconvenient facts or allow your own experiences to contradict her precious theory. She doesn’t even want to hear about anyone else’s challenges or hardships: just shut up and listen to her problems (or, more likely, the problems of other people that she’s read about and applied to herself). Yours don’t count.

           And as noted with number two, the logical progression in this list is terrible; she jumps all over the place. This should probably have gone right after the one about ‘privilege.’

13. If you seriously believe we’re all equal and feminism is unnecessary, keep walking. Also, what are you even doing with your life? Clearly it is not “reading literally any news website.”

            The really funny thing is that she thinks ‘not reading literally any news website’ is a reason to question what someone is doing with their life. There is nothing better in life than feminism (sounds like an exaggeration now, but just wait), and life has no meaning if you are not obsessing over it.

14. She really, truly believes in equality for all.Feminists are the most amazing people on the planet because we believe in equality for all genders, races, sexual orientations, you name it.

            (“What? No, unborn children don’t count. Why would you even ask that?”)

            Seriously, would you want to date someone who believed anything less? No? Then it’s good that you picked me.

             Let me just repeat that:

            “Feminists are the most amazing people on the planet because we believe in equality for all genders, races, sexual orientations, you name it.”

            Ah, so feminists are “the most amazing people on the planet” because of something they believe? All you have to do is to believe in the right things and that makes you better than everyone else?

            So, feminists who ‘believe’ in the correct things and write articles about it are more amazing than, say, Marines laying down their lives for people they don’t even know?

            More amazing than the Missionaries of Charity ministering to dying children in the poorest regions of the world?

            More amazing than scientists making biomechanical arms for amputees?

            I guess so. For the feminist it’s “I thank thee, myself, that I am not like other people. I believe in equality.”

            Hell, the Pharisee in the parable was more amazing than that. He at least had actual works to boast of.

           This reinforces the idea that Leftism is the true heir to Puritanism: same principles, just applied differently. What you believe, not what you do, determines what kind of person you are. Only in this case, rather than the glorious truth of the Gospel, the saving faith is the asinine speculations of self-righteous academics high on Marx.

            Also, note the claim of belief in equality for all, despite the fact that most of this list has been variations on telling men that they have no right to question feminism, cite their own experiences, or even get annoyed when feminists attack the things they care about. I wonder what this writer’s views on double standards might be?

            But the most disturbing thing about this whole essay is the fact that she evidently doesn’t realize just how unpleasant, arrogant, and self-righteous she comes across as. Several entries are dedicated to telling men that their own experiences and hardships do not matter to her mind, and that they need to shut up and be grateful when she ‘corrects’ them or tears down something they care about. And her entire justification for all of this, and why she evidently expects men to want to date her, is that she has the correct beliefs.

            This is why I would recommend men being very careful about dating self-described feminists. Not so much for the content of their beliefs (though the ‘my ability to compete in the workplace justifies killing my own children’ thing is, shall we say, a stumbling block) as for the way so many of them seem to think that their views give them the right to be as cruel, capricious, and rude as they like. So many feminists seem to think that men have no right whatever to so much as question their views or even to talk about their own hardships. Men have ‘privilege,’ you see, so their struggles, experiences, and observations do not count. But if you dispute anything the feminist says, that means you’re ‘dismissing the experience of women’ and ‘mansplaining.’ 

Basically, feminist ideology encourages women to be simultaneously hyper-focused on their own grievances while dismissive of any that the man might have, and to make utterly unreasonable claims regarding what the man can and cannot say or do. I don’t even have to cite examples, because this attitude is fully on display in the above list, not only undisguised but held up as something the writer is proud of. Whatever the justification behind it, and whether adopted by men or women, this kind of attitude is deadly to relationships.

           I don’t care about social structures or ingrained power systems: it is not unreasonable to ask that you act like a decent human being.

            I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if ‘equality’ means anything, it means the same rules of conduct apply to all. That means you don’t get to simply dismiss someone because you think he has ‘privilege,’ and that you don’t get to be rude because someone else who shares a chromosome with you was treated unfairly at some point (or even because you yourself were once treated unfairly. It’s called being human).

            It also means that when you write a repulsively self-righteous piece like this, you get called on it.

Trivia Break: Queen of the Monsters

I’d like to introduce you to actress Mie Hama. She’s a rather interesting person: born during World War II to blue collar parents, her home was destroyed in a bombing raid and she grew up poor. By the age of sixteen, she was working as a fare collector on the bus, and it was there that Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka found her and decided she might make a fine actress.

Mie Hama

Something must’ve caught his attention. Can’t quite put my finger on it…

Anyway, Miss Hama went on to become one of the most popular actresses of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, and even to have some success outside it (more on that later). But at the height of her career she quit acting to get married and start a family, wanting only a “normal life.” She had four children and later became a popular TV and radio host, authoress, and advocate for traditional Japanese farming.

Now, Miss Hama has a peculiar distinction in the film world. As far as I know (and all things considered, I think I would know), she is the only actress to date who has been menaced by both King Kong and Godzilla, AND romanced by James Bond.

How’s that for a resume?

(To be fair, Akiko Wakabayashi also co-starred in You Only Live Twice – and plays a rather larger role – as well as having a role in King Kong vs. Godzilla, but she never interacts with either of the monsters).

Akiko Wakabayashi. Seems only fair to put her photo up as well.

Miss Hama was one of the stars of 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, during the course of which the train she is riding is wrecked Godzilla, who then briefly (and presumably inadvertently) pursues her into a ravine, where she’s rescued by her boyfriend.

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Hama vs. Godzilla

Later, as she tries to evacuate Tokyo before the approaching King Kong, she boards another train, which unfortunately runs directly across the path of the giant ape, who does what he does. Somewhat fortunately for her, Kong notices her and takes a liking, meaning that she gets to serve as this film’s version of Fay Wray (Kong climbs the Diet Building in this one). Kong is then knocked out by gas bombs and she is rescued before the great ape is airlifted to his showdown with Godzilla.

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Hama vs. King Kong

Some five years after tangling with the two greatest monsters of cinema, Miss Hama was picked to co-star alongside Sean Connery (and fellow King Kong vs. Godzilla alum Akiko Wakabayashi) in You Only Live Twice, the fifth James Bond film. She plays the role of Kissy Suzuki, a Japanese agent assigned to pose as Bond’s wife while he’s undercover as a 6’2″ Japanese fisherman (granted, not the most convincing development in the history of the franchise). Kissy doesn’t really have a lot of screen time (she isn’t even introduced until an hour and a quarter into the two-hour film), but she manages to put what time she has to good use by steadfastly, and amusingly, resisting Bond’s attentions until the very end (“We’re supposed to be married!” “Think again, please; you gave false name to priest.”) and providing some solid back-up for Bond during their reconnaissance of Blofeld’s base. That, and spending about 90% of her time in a bikini.

Hama vs. Bond

Miss Hama later told stories of how difficult the experience of being a ‘Bond Girl’ was. Though she was a popular actress in Japan, she was still a fairly normal, down-to-earth person and so found herself overwhelmed by the publicity and pressure of the big Hollywood production. But, she said, Sean Connery – who also had a working class background – was very kind and chivalrous to her, constantly checking to make sure she was okay and looking out for her during the long shoot. Later she commented that her chief regret about the film was that she was too shy to try to get to know him better.

That same year, she tangled with Kong again as the villainous femme fatale Madam Piranha in the delightfully silly US-Japanese co-production King Kong Escapes (which is basically what happens when a King Kong film and a James Bond movie are put through the brundlefly machine together). This time around she’s a bad girl: a spy from an unknown foreign power in league with the villainous ‘Doctor Who,’ who intends to conquer the world with a mechanical copy of Kong (so, yes; it’s a pseudo-Bond film where King Kong battles Doctor Who, a Bond Girl, and MechaKong. Japan, ladies and gentlemen!).

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Be honest; would you accept a drink from this woman?

So, there you have it; the girl who tangled with King Kong, Godzilla, AND James Bond and lived to tell about it. Now that’s a strong woman!

No, this post was not just an excuse to share pictures of a beautiful woman. Not *just*…