Equality at the Everyman

At the Everyman today, I discuss why holding ‘equality’ up as an ideal is a terrible, terrible idea:

Which raises a more fundamental issue. Before you can say any two things are equal, you first have to have a common and objective standard of measurement between them. I can say that two people are of equal height because ‘height’ is an empirical measurement. But honesty, virtue, intelligence, wisdom, kindness, talent, beauty, and all the other factors by which we judge men are not empirically measurable (an IQ score is not an objective measure of intelligence, so that a man with an IQ of 100 is exactly twenty points smarter than a man with 80. It only serves, at best, to give a general idea of relative intelligence).

Thus, ‘equality’ cannot really apply to human beings in any meaningful sense. You cannot measure, say, wisdom and create a scale by which one man can be compared to another. We can identify these things to a greater or lesser degree, but we cannot empirically measure them. Moreover, these qualities are incommensurable: they cannot be compared one to another (how does talent measure up against wisdom? how many ‘units’ of beauty are equal to a single unit of virtue?). Moreover, even if we could, anyone can see that we would not, in fact, find ‘equality’ even between any two given individuals, let alone across the entire human race.

What this all amounts to is that ‘equality’ is simply meaningless when applied to human beings. Law is ‘equal’ in the sense of applying indiscriminately among the population (‘indiscriminate’ would probably would be a better term in the first place), but to say that all men are ‘equal’ in any other sense is simply a misuse of language, like saying that painting is on a level with music. The point is that there is no ‘level’ by which the two can be compared.

Read the rest here.

New Aleteia Post

I sent this in about three or four months ago; kind of expected it to have been dropped, but it’s up after all! On Aleteia today, In Defense of Grumpy Christians.

For such people there’s often a bit of a quandary: They know that, as Christians, they ought to love their neighbor and be good to others, but they can find being in the company of others to be emotionally draining and often irritating. They may, in fact, frequently feel like they’re being bad Christians — edged on, it must be said, by people who seem to equate “Christian love” with “being nice.” So, if you’re one of these “mean” Christians, or you know of them, here are some things to keep in mind …

How you relate to God is the main thing

If you’re the kind of person I’m describing, most likely you will alienate or offend other people at some point in your life. You’re not the sort who naturally inspires popularity, and this can be difficult. You will likely feel that it’s your fault and that it’s because you’re fundamentally flawed.

Remember that all people have flaws, however, and that God knows your struggles. Focus on pleasing Him, not on pleasing others. This way, not only will you be more likely to succeed, but you’ll probably find that you get along better with other people as well. Sincerity and good will are very attractive qualities, even when coupled with irritability, and if you cultivate these, people will recognize and value them.  

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

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

Thus far, the post-Avengers MCU wasn’t looking very impressive. We first had the disastrous Iron Man 3, then the underwhelming Thor: the Dark World. The real question was whether the solo films could really do anything interesting or new after the huge team-up.

Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Oh, boy; they knocked it out of the park with this one!

We find Steve Rogers still adjusting to life in the modern world, running covert operations for SHIELD. But he finds himself increasingly frustrated by the evasion and deceit in the intelligence business and uncertain about the role he is actually supposed to play in this new world, which seems to have deteriorated so much from the one he knew.

“All my life I’ve wanted to do the right thing,” he tells a now-old and ailing Peggy Carter. “I’m just not sure what that is anymore.”

Meanwhile, Nick Fury and his old friend, Alexander Pierce, are preparing to take SHIELD to the next level with a new fleet of advanced Helicarriers that can eliminate threats from the upper atmosphere with precision guns without even having to put boots on the ground. Fury, however, notices some inconsistencies in the program and tries to put it on hold until he figures them out. This results in him being attacked on the streets of Washington, first by men disguised as police officers and then by a formidable masked figure with a metal arm called ‘the Winter Soldier.’

It soon becomes clear that SHIELD has been compromised and bigger plans are afoot, and it’s up to Captain America to untangle the conspiracy while figuring out whom he can trust.

This is a fantastic premise for a Captain America film; Steve Rogers tackles Deep State conspiracies in the nation’s capital. Along the way he also struggles to come to terms with the way the world has changed and, significantly, whether sincere patriotism, honor, and heroism have any place in this cynical new world.

Again and again, especially in the early phases of the film, we’re reminded of how society has deteriorated since Cap’s day. Nick Fury tells a story of how his grandfather – an elevator operator in Harlem – went from greeting people on his way to and from work to brandishing a gun at them. Peggy Carter laments that, though Steve saved the world, “we rather mucked it up.” Steve himself rejects Fury’s attempt to draw a moral equivalence between SHIELD’s shady dealings and what he and other soldiers did during World War II, saying that, whatever they did in the context of a war, they did so that people could be free. “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.”

Steve does try to look on the bright side – “no polio is good” – but the sense of something lost and corrupted, maybe beyond saving permeates the film. There is, as Peggy comments, no going back. This is reflected in her aged, deteriorating state, as well as in revelations about both SHIELD and the Winter Soldier. It’s also echoed in the subordinate theme of homecoming soldiers; Steve befriend Sam Wilson, a fellow former soldier who now helps counsel servicemen and women suffering from PTSD (The way the two connect immediately over the shared experience of war, despite those experiences being separated by several generations, is excellent, by the way, as is the lighthearted one-upmanship they engage in upon meeting). The question, again and again, is how much, if anything, can be saved, whether of SHIELD, America, or the characters themselves.

In this regard, it’s significant that two of the main villains – Pierce and the Winter Soldier – are good, or at least apparently good men corrupted. Pierce is an old friend of Fury’s who declined the Noble Peace Prize (though whether this was ever more than a pose is ambiguous), while the Winter Soldier, of course, turns out to be Steve’s best friend, Bucky Barnes, brainwashed by Hydra and the Soviet Union into being an assassin. One of them is clearly too far gone to bring back, the other is perhaps not beyond saving, though that’s far from clear for most of the film (even Sam comments that he’s “not someone you save; he’s someone you stop”). This parallels that state of SHIELD and America; one is too corrupted to save – as Steve sternly tells Fury when the later wants to try to salvage the organization – while the other is, perhaps, salvageable.

Of course, this fits perfectly with Cap’s status as an aspirational hero; he is uniquely placed to uncover and defeat the conspiracy because he is someone that people look up to and trust. When he goes rogue and SHIELD is ordered to put all its efforts into finding him, Agent Carter – who is also Steve’s across-the-hall neighbor – bluntly demands “If SHIELD is conducting a manhunt for Captain America, we deserve to know why.” And it is clear that at least some of the agents in the room don’t buy the excuse Pierce offers. Later, when Sam volunteers to join the party, he explains his motives as, “Captain America needs my help; there’s no better reason for me to get back in.”

This only works, though, because, as before Cap “lives up to the legend,” being not only an extremely competent and dangerous soldier and skilled commander (as demonstrated in the excellent opening raid on a pirate-held ship, where he devises a workable strategy for subduing the bad guys and rescuing the hostages within moments of hearing the situation), but also a thoroughly good man. During that opening mission, his first concern is for the hostages, and he’s angry with Natasha when she goes off mission for that very reason. We later see him tenderly visiting with Peggy, bantering with Sam, and dropping by a Smithsonian exhibit on himself (an elegant way to recap the first film), where he shares a silent moment of recognition with a little boy. And all the while, he is constantly questioning whether he is, in fact, doing the right thing. The film, like its predecessor, sells Cap as someone you can always trust and always count on.

But, again, he’s not simply a stiff or an unbelievably perfect character either, as shown straight away from the way he teases Sam after their ‘run.’ He shows a bit of macho pride, as when he puts down his shield at a taunt from Bartok, the pirate captain, and fights him hand-to-hand. He gets angry, frustrated, and freezes in shock when Bucky’s identity is revealed. He also gets flustered when Natasha kisses him (to hide their identities while on the run), and defensive when she teases him about his evident lack of experience in that regard. In short, Steve remains convincingly human while nevertheless being a legitimate moral icon, which is a very tricky balance to pull off, but the film makes it look effortless.

As indicated, this not only is inspiring for the audience, but for the characters as well; Sam Wilson willingly joins up at the chance to help Captain America. Black Widow ends up questioning her own cynical outlook at Cap’s example. And (in one of the film’s best moments) even an unarmed, terrified SHIELD technician finds the courage to do the right thing in the face of almost certain death on “Captain’s orders.”

All this is in the midst of very strong plot, one that is, as indicated, much more coherent and flowing than that of the first film. It moves neatly from point to point, with the characters (mostly) making logical moves based on what they know and are trying to achieve. It makes perfect sense, for instance, that Nick Fury would go to Steve’s apartment following an assassination attempt, as Cap is the one person he knows he can trust. It likewise makes sense that Steve would hide the thumb-drive before leaving the hospital, and that Natasha would be able to guess the move and would wait for him to come back for it, and that Cap would go to Sam after escaping, as someone not connected with SHIELD.

There are a few small gaps; such as Cap and Widow’s ability to steal Sam’s flight suit so easily that it happens off screen (though considering they are, respectively, the world’s greatest soldier and the world’s greatest spy, it’s not really a problem). Likewise their ability to set up their subsequent capture of Sitwell is slightly suspect (how did they make Pierce’s ID appear on his phone?), as is the Winter Soldier’s preternatural ability to track down his targets. But again, that’s not necessarily impossible, just something that isn’t explained. It’s a minor point; something that might make you stop and go “wait…” after thinking about it. I also have to wonder; given the size of those guns on the helicarriers, just how ‘precision’ were these strikes going to be?

There is, by my count, one other major plot question, but we’ll come back to that.

Then there’s the big twist: that Hydra is, in fact, still alive and has been working behind the scenes at SHIELD to bring about its new world order. This was a bold move on the part of the writers, eliminating many possible storylines, but creating many as well. It allows them to turn minor established characters (like Agent Sitwell from Thor and Senator Stern from Iron Man 2) into flat-out villains, while creating ripple effects that will be felt all across the franchise. It brings Hydra back into play and overturns much of what we thought we knew.

When I first saw the film, I wasn’t sure what I thought of this development, and even now it’s probably not what I would have done, but to their credit they pulled it off very well. It was undeniably a gamble, but one that largely paid off.

In addition to Cap’s continued development, we get lots of it for both Black Widow and Nick Fury, especially the former. She’s more or less the polar opposite of Steve in terms of outlook, with a cynical, distrustful nature born of her life as a spy and KGB background, though (amazingly enough), the film actually deconstructs this outlook over its runtime. After the shocking revelations midway through the film, she laments that she doesn’t even know what the truth is any more; she’s compromised so much that she’s lost all sight of what it’s for. Except, that is, for the fact that she trusts Cap and, what is rather more, he trusts her. In other words, though her skill at deception is useful, especially when they have to go undercover (and Steve is, as she says, a terrible liar), it requires honesty and loyalty like Cap’s for it to mean anything at all. People like her are dependent on people like him.

She also shows more of her warm side, of the deep affections and loyalties running below the surface as she is devastated by Fury’s apparent death (“Don’t do this to me, Nick”), and develops a close friendship with Steve. The two actors have excellent chemistry, and part of me still wishes their friendship could have developed in a romance, but nothing of the kind happens. It’s still a great relationship.

Fury, meanwhile, has his largest role yet as the master spy taking on his own agency. He opens up a bit about his background, hints at how he lost his eye, which symbolically plays into his backup plan (and we are going to forget about any possible future retcons there might be regarding the subject). He also shows that, for all his deceit and dirty tactics, he is fundamentally on the side of the angels. When he finds something suspicious in his master plan, he puts it on hold until he can figure out what it is, even at the risk of political fallout or even scrapping years of work because, as he says, “Everything I’ve done, I did to protect the people.” Especially after his more ambiguous portrayal in The Avengers, this is refreshing.

As for the villains, Pierce is okay as the corrupt politician (mostly helped by Robert Redford’s excellent acting and continued charisma). He’s not just a powerhungry madman either; he lays out a clear and consistent point of view that, while horrible, is not at all unthinkable. And, for a superhero movie, it is kind of odd to have the main villain be just a guy in a suit.

On the other hand, there’s the Winter Soldier, who is a striking and alarming figure. From the moment we meet him – taking out Nick Fury’s car with a single shot after an entire SWAT team failed – we understand that this is a particularly dangerous figure; an impression reinforced by every subsequence scene. Even Black Widow seems terrified of him, and is clearly outmatched when she takes him on (though she does get a few good shots in), and he’s able to match Cap almost beat-for-beat. This is aided by his musical motif, which almost sounds like an insane scream.

Then, of course, we learn the truth, and the full horror of what Bucky has become strikes hard, particularly when we see him being re-brainwashed (and who knows how many times he’s gone through that process). He makes for a striking contrast with Captain America; Soviet Union versus United States: metal-arm (offensive) versus shield (defensive): brainwashed assassin versus free soldier. It then becomes a question of whether Steve will be able to save his best friend, or will have to kill him to save innocent lives.

On that subject, the action scenes in this film are some of the best yet, starting with the aforementioned raid on the freighter, which is enlivened with great moments such as Natasha using her evident sex appeal to catch one pirate off guard, or Cap thanking Rumlow for his assistance and getting the quip “Yeah, you seemed pretty helpless” (a perfect variation on the ‘what took you?’ or ‘I had him’ cliché; both funny and reinforces Cap’s decency). Then there’s a glorious nine-on-one fight in an elevator, which starts with Cap quietly figuring out what’s going on and asking if anyone wants to get out, which is followed by Cap’s spectacular escape from SHIELD HQ. The fights between him and the Winter Soldier showcase some truly spectacular choreography, as the two supersoliders trade blindingly-fast techniques.

During all of this the film finds a lot of very creative applications for Cap’s powers and shield. How many different ways can you use superhuman physical abilities, plus a shield that can absorb almost any impact? Turns out, quite a few, from jumping out a tenth-story window to taking down a fighter jet, to even just bouncing off of walls to maintain speed around corners. The same applies to Winter Soldier’s single metal arm and Falcon’s wingsuit (few superheroes have made better use of simply being able to fly).

And of course there’s lots of snappy dialogue and humor. Natasha has a running gag of trying to get Steve to start dating again (“Secure the engine room, then find me a date.” “I’m multitasking.”), while Sam gets some good lines as the normal person thrust into the world of the Avengers (“I made breakfast. If you guys eat that sort of thing”). I also like the cheeky way that Natasha is chewing bubble gum when she reveals that she’s already taken the drive out of the vending machine, and Steve’s sweet, if somewhat fumbling efforts to ask Sharon Carter out on a date, not to mention his occasional rueful comments on his own age (“I’m 95; I’m not dead”). There are also some cool little details that you probably won’t notice the first time, like how Steve’s shelf is lined with history books.

I said there was one other possible plot issue to talk about, and it’s simply the question that arose in Iron Man 3: with all this going on, where are the other Avengers? In particular, why didn’t they contact Iron Man? (The question didn’t really come up in Thor: The Dark World, since so little of that film took place on Earth)

But the question isn’t as much of a problem here as it was there. In the first place, Tony Stark is a civilian, and not the most reliable one at that; I can imagine that Cap or Fury simply wouldn’t have considered bringing him in for that reason alone, especially given that he lives on the other side of the country and they don’t have many secure communication options. For another, per the events of that film, Tony is (apparently) retired from being Iron Man, so contacting him might not even have done anything. Besides, events move so quickly, and the characters are so uncertain of whom to trust, one could argue that it simply wasn’t a viable option for them.

Whether those explanations work or not, this is at least a clearly different scenario than in Iron Man 3, where we had an on-going, months-long terrorist threat directly and publically targeting the President of the United States, yet with no sign of either SHIELD or Captain America. That is a scenario where it makes no sense at all for Cap to not be involved, whereas in Winter Soldier, the characters would have had to go out of their way to bring Stark in, and though he likely would have been useful (depending on whether he had any functioning suits at the moment), it isn’t necessary.

I’ll be honest; Captain America is my favorite hero in the MCU (and one of my all-time favorites), and Winter Soldier is pretty close to my ideal of a Captain America film. He’s out there fighting for freedom and the ideals of his country against corrupt spies and politicians seeking to “build a better world by tearing the old one down,” while also trying to save his friends and acting as an inspiration for others to take up the good fight. It’s not quite my ideal, but it’s pretty close, as well as being one of the best entries in the MCU thus far.

Thoughts on ‘Thor: The Dark World’

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

The Avengers
Iron Man 3

Well, almost anything short of The Last Jedi would have been an improvement after the last entry (the key word there being almost, but we’ll get to that), and Thor: The Dark World is certainly a step in the right direction, judged against its immediate predecessor. By the standards of the first film, however, it’s a definite step down.

As before we open with Odin narrating the history a great battle the Asgardians fought to save the innocent, this time we learn that Odin’s father Bor battled the Dark Elves led by the fearsome Maleketh. The Dark Elves meant to use the Aether – a red-black liquid with immense power – to destroy the universe, since they hailed from the before time, when there was no light and long to return. They were defeated and the Aether captured and hidden.

Back in the present day, Loki is sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes in The Avengers (because his mother Frigga plead his case down from the death penalty), while Thor travels throughout the Nine Realms quelling the unrest that has arisen since the Bifrost’s destruction in the first film. Back on Earth, Jane Foster is finally starting to date again after being stood up by Thor for two years (her date is hilarious, by the way; the guy is refreshingly nice, but…well, no Thor). But her date is interrupted when Darcy barges in to let her know of some strange readings, which leads them to a warehouse experience gravitational anomalies and mysterious portals being caused by the ‘convergence;’ a cosmic event where the Nine Realms align once every several thousand years. Jane ends ups sucked through one of these to find herself at the Aether’s hiding spot (well, if that isn’t just plain unlucky! Better get used to that sort of thing; it happens quite a bit in this film). She accidentally absorbs it into her body and collapses.

Thor, alerted by Heimdall that she has disappeared, rushes to Earth and takes Jane to Asgard to try to discover what the curious power is and how to remove it from her before it kills her. But at the same time, the reappearance of the Aether awakens Maleketh and the Dark Elves, who plot to recover the Aether and destroy the current, light-filled universe at the ‘convergence,’ when all the Nine Realms align.

The Dark World starts strong with an efficient demonstration of how Thor has grown since the first film. He drops into a battle in Vanaheim (the film helpfully provides titles for each world), knocks around a few goons, then faces off with the enemy’s champion: a massive rock monster. Thor walks up to him and offers to accept his surrender. The monster laughs, so Thor takes him out with one-shot, ending the battle. Thor now approaches fights with an eye to minimizing casualties and keeping his friends safe, rather than for his own glory.

Unfortunately, we quickly run into problems. The most obvious of them is that Maleketh is simply not a very interesting villain. In fact, he’s pretty much completely forgettable. He has no relatable motives (he wants to destroy the universe because he comes from the dark and hates the light. Okay), no real personality beyond being menacing, nor any kind of memorable powers. He’s just…there. A bog-standard bad-guy to show up, be evil, and be defeated. The Lovecraftian tendrils of Aether coming off him at the climax are a memorable sight, but that’s pretty much it.

This might not have been a huge problem if the rest of the film were stronger, but the story is also very shaky. It’s a bit of luck that Jane happened to be the one to find the Aether by randomly being sucked through a portal, though to be fair since she is a scientist she might be expected to run into something like that if anyone would. Still, it transporting her there of all places is…a bit of luck. Likewise, when Jane and Thor are stranded with no way out, they just happened to walk into the cave where there’s a portal back to Earth. It’s supported by the earlier convenience of Jane being pulled in to find the Aether (and why was she pulled in?), but it’s still a pretty massive and convenient coincidence. Then, in the climax, the collapsing ship just happens to teleport away moments before crushing them; not unacceptable, since things have been teleporting about all day, but still, very convenient. The conveniences aren’t unacceptable, but they do start to pile up and it begins to feel like lazy writing, as though any time the writers were stuck they just used the weird effects of the convergence to get them out of it.

Speaking of the convergence, there is a lot of repetition in this film. The convergence is explained at least three or four times by different characters. There’s a bit early on where we see news footage of Dr. Selvig being arrested for going nuts and running naked around Stonehenge. Then later we see the exact same news report so that the characters can learn where he’s been taken, moving the plot along (another convenience); why have both rather than just the one? Also, the film seems to imply that Selvig’s been in the mental home for some time, so why does the news report play just then?

Another problem is that Asgard, and especially Odin himself, are very ill-served by this film. Part way through, the Dark Elves mount a full-scale assault and pretty much decimate the Asgardians without much effort. We’ve been led to believe that Asgard is the most powerful of all the Nine Realms, able to keep the others in check by its sheer might. It is the home of the gods, inhabited by some of the most powerful beings alive. Yet a fragment of a force that they had already defeated is able to make mincemeat of their defenses and get away more or less free and clear while inflicting heavy casualties, including the Queen. This sinks Asgard horribly in the sight of the audience and makes them appear less a mighty, all-powerful noble empire and more a tottering paper tiger ready to fold at the first sign of resistance and held in place only by Thor’s might.

Obviously drama must be maintained, but what they should have done was to have the Dark Elves stage a covert infiltration, slipping past their defenses and taking what they wanted before the main force of Asgard was even aware of their presence. This would have fit with the ‘Dark Elf’ concept and (ironically) have made them seem all the more dangerous; that for all its power, even Asgard can’t fight a foe that it can’t find. We could have gotten much the same sequence of events, but without making the Asgardians look like chumps (which, alas, will only get worse in future films).

Not only that, but it would have made the confrontation between Frigga and Maleketh stronger and her plan to hide Jane more reasonable. As it is, it’s simply a delaying tactic, since they’d find her the moment they searched the room. But if Maleketh were on a strict time limit and needed to be gone before the guards were alerted, then the whole scenario would have made much more sense.

Meanwhile, Odin’s primary role has become to simply be wrong, unreasonable, and hotheaded in order to make Thor look better. This is a terrible decision on many, many levels. It makes Thor’s heartfelt line from the first film, “I will never be a wiser king than you” sound retroactively hollow. It contradicts Odin’s portrayal in the first film as the voice of reason and restraint. Like with Asgard itself, it makes Odin appear much weaker and more pathetic than he has any right to be (he is the king of the gods! He ought to be, as was said an unfortunately deleted scene in the first film, “the most powerful being in the Nine Realms”). When Jane appears with the Aether inside her, Odin doesn’t even wait to learn why she’s been brought to Asgard before ordering her to be gone (his line to Thor should have been something like, “I trust you have an excellent explanation for this?”). Throughout the film Odin is wrong about everything, and then at the end we learn that he’s been subdued and replaced off-screen by Loki. What a sad waste of a classic character.

What all this amounts to is a strong impression of rushed or lazy writing, as if the writers just wanted to get the script out and done with and threw it together without paying much attention. It’s extremely unfortunate and means that many of the opportunities presented by the story go to waste and the whole thing is remarkably average.

But, along with these key weaknesses, we have a number of real strengths. Loki is still a fascinating character, and even after two films we still are never quite sure what he’s going to do or what his motives are. If Avengers showed him at his most malicious, this one sees him apparently trying to maintain his malice with less success. He still interprets everything as a conspiracy against himself, still lies, cheats, and schemes for power, but he can’t deny his real feelings when things come to the point. The scene where he learns of his mother’s death (done in silence) is great, as are his various conversations with Thor. Not to mention he gets some ambiguous moments, as when he shoves Jane out of the path of a black-hole grenade, thereby nearly being sucked in and killed himself. It isn’t clear, even at the end, just how much of his behavior is malice and deceit and how much is based on sincere good-will.

Sif and at least two of the Warriors Three (Hogun sits out most of the film) get a bit more to do this time, such as joining Thor in a daring escape plan, though they remain very underdeveloped. Sif herself gets a few more scenes hinting at her attraction to Thor, but it unfortunately never gets to go anywhere.

On the other hand, Darcy gets a bigger role this time, which I was glad for since I really like Darcy. Her interactions with her own intern, Ian, are hilariously cruel and completely in-character (used to being at the bottom of the totem pole, she takes every chance to lord it over someone lower than her), but have a delightful payoff when he ends up saving her life. I also like that, though she’s still comic relief, she actually does take initiative and try to get things done in Jane and Selvig’s absence as best she can.

Meanwhile, a good chunk of the film is dedicated to Thor and Jane’s relationship, though unfortunately we don’t get much more insight into it than we got in the first film. The film assures us that there is a great, true love between them, but again we’re not really sure why. The relationship is sweet, and there are some very nice moments between them (as well as some very funny ones), but for a match between a god and a mortal, there really ought to be more weight to it. Jane in particular needs more than just good looks and a pleasant personality (both of which she admittedly has in abundance) to sell the idea of a mortal woman who haunts the heart of a god.

That said, they do certainly sell how out of place and, well, fragile Jane feels in Asgard, amid these god-like beings. Whether from staging or acting or both, you feel her vulnerability and comparative weakness, which makes those scenes all the more effective (and I love her flustered reactions to meeting Odin and Frigga). This gives Thor quite a few chances to be heroic and chivalrous to her, though the film doesn’t make as much use of this aspect as it might have. Thor himself remains the thoroughly likable fantasy hero he was before, and retains every bit of the character development he received in Thor and The Avengers, though, alas, he doesn’t really get to add to it much here; his journey mostly amounts to deciding to move to Earth to be with Jane. I suppose he takes initiative, but then, when has he not? This isn’t a huge problem; Thor’s a perfectly good hero by this point, but it does make the film feel a bit like filler.

The action is one area where the film steps up its predecessor, which didn’t give Thor very much time to be swinging his hammer around being Thor. Though I don’t like it from a story perspective, the assault on Asgard is undeniably interesting to watch, as is Thor and Loki’s subsequent escape. The film also continues the tradition of finding creative consequences for Thor’s connection with his hammer, culminating in a very amusing sequence where Thor and Malketh are being ported all across the universe and Mjolnir whips back and forth trying to get back to Thor like a lost puppy. The film also makes several startling and unexpected uses of Loki’s illusion powers. And the portals themselves are used to very creative effect during the climax.

On the other hand, the finale, with Jane and Selvig using their anomaly detecting equipment to somehow create portals raises a lot of questions, like “how the heck does that work?” and, more importantly, “how is it this Aether cloud is ripping stone structures apart, but Thor is able to carry this delicate scientific equipment through it without at all affecting its functionality?”

Dark World further continues its predecessor’s strong visual style, and though it’s not as striking (the Dark Elves’ home world is pretty bland), it does manage some great images, especially at the convergence when the realms appear as ‘pools’ in mid-air. I also love the scene where Jane is caught up in the Bifrost for the first time, and we get a gorgeous impression of what it feels like for a mortal to be whipped across the galaxy in a rainbow bridge. I also like the imagery of a flock of birds disappearing into midair, only to erupt from the ground.

It also continues its predecessor’s strong dialogue. There’s usually a lot of snappy dialogue in the Marvel films, but the ‘Thor’ movies tend to be particularly strong in this regard; “I am not getting stabbed in the name of science!” “Evidently, there will be a line.” “Is there a point to this, because there really needs to be a point to this.” “Oh, dear; is she dead?” “There’s nothing more reassuring than realizing the world’s crazier than you are.” “Thank you for the commentary; it’s not at all distracting.” “Perhaps next time we should start with the big one.” That’s in addition to the juicy, elevated, almost poetic lines: “Merriment can sometimes be a heavier burden than battle.” The Nine Realms are not eternal. They had a dawn as they will have a dusk.” “Always so perceptive about everyone but yourself.” “I wish I could trust you,” “Trust my rage.” “If I were proud of the man my son had become, even that I could not say.”

Ultimately, The Dark World is not bad, exactly; it’s entertaining enough, and it continues many of its predecessor’s strengths. But it’s weighed down by a very lazy script, several bad storytelling decisions, and one of the most forgettable villains in any superhero movie. The result is probably the most thoroughly ‘average’ of the Marvel films; relatively solid entertainment crafted onto a heavily flawed story.

 

Everyman Article on Why You Can’t Just Agree to be Wrong

A new piece is up on ‘The Everyman,’ this one discussing how false logic doesn’t work even if everyone agrees about it:

When I say or write a word, such as “four,” I am attempting to convey an idea that is in my head to yours. Our minds have no direct common communication, so the only way I can do that is to create signs in the environment we share, such as sounds or images. These, by common consent, correspond to particular ideas. That this is by consent rather than by nature can be seen by the fact that the same ideas can be expressed by totally different sounds: ‘four,’ ‘quattuor,’ ‘she,’ and so on all convey the same idea, only in the established ‘styles’ of English, Latin, and Japanese. Likewise, the same sounds can be used to convey different ideas: ‘four’ sounds the same as ‘for’ and ‘fore,’ but they all mean different things.

From there, take a step back from the words to consider the ideas themselves. Ideas are reflections of perceived realities. The idea ‘rock’ is the reflection in my mind of a particular reality that I encounter. It may or may not be a completely accurate reflection; if I see a given rock, I may believe that it is heavy (that is, my idea of it is as something heavy), only to find when I pick it up that it is light, whereupon the idea in my head would change to more closely resemble the actual rock itself. This what we mean by calling our thoughts ‘true’ or ‘false.’ A true thought accurately reflects the reality it corresponds to, as far as it goes, while a false one does not (as we will see, this applies to more abstract concepts as well as to concrete physical reality).

Thus, there are three elements in any given word: the sounds or symbols that make up the word itself (such as ‘four’), the idea that is being conveyed, and the reality that this idea reflects.

Now, we have established that the words used are a matter of convention and consent; that everyone in a particular region agreed to use the sound ‘four’ to convey that particular idea. However, the idea itself is nota matter of convention, because it reflects an objective reality that we encounter in the real world (or at least an objective concept).

Go here to read the rest.

A Record of the Past

One way or another, I watch a lot of old films, whether old TV shows, old movies, or even old instructional videos.

It’s informative, and not just in the way the original filmmakers intended. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, consuming work produced in a different time doesn’t just tell you what the work is about, but also how people thought and their basic assumptions about life. The point isn’t that it’s completely accurate to how life was back then, but that it does show what at least some people thought and felt at the time regarding the subject. It also gives a sense of how that subject might have been generally viewed by the audience, depending on the assumptions the creator felt he had to cater to.

For instance, viewing 1946’s Miracle on 34th Street, we can tell that having a woman in a position of authority in a major corporation like Macy’s Department Stores was not considered particularly unusual or surprising at the time it was made, since no one comments on or expresses surprise at Maureen O’Hara occupying such a position, and the film feels no need to provide any explanation for it. We can likewise gather that having a Black day servant was fairly normal for a well-off businesswoman, since again, the film feels no need to explain the character’s presence. On the other hand, the film does need to explain the difference between a hearing and a trial, because it’s not something the average audience member might be expected to know or take for granted, and they might become confused as to what the stakes are and the rules of the proceeding.

A steady exposure to the thoughts of many different ages is an indispensable defense against blindly following the zeitgeist and prejudices of one’s own particular age. Because what you get is actually what was said or filmed or thought at that time; not someone’s reconstruction of it.

For an example, consider the following short. It was intended for a proposed Mystery Science Theater 3000 tie-in CD that never got off the ground. Looking past Mike and Bots’ typical irreverent humor, we see an image of what Venezuela used to be like (sorry for the poor sound quality).

Now, obviously it’s a very positive portrayal, since the film is Creole Oil showing their employees how great it can be to work there, but look at what’s on screen; the clean, busy streets and beautiful buildings of Maracaibo and Caracas (many of them recently constructed, according to the film), the Sears store, the full car lots, the stores crammed with American products. This is, at least in part, what the country looked like in the 1950s, and how an American company interacted with the country.

A Point of Linguistics

I was listening to audio versions of some of C.S. Lewis’s essays today, and came across an interesting point. Talking about the judgment that so many of the Psalms call for, he points out that “judgment” in Hebrew, as in the Book of Judges, doesn’t so much mean ‘render a verdict in a court of law,’ but more “to be vindicated or avenged.”

So, one of the books of the Bible could be translated as “The Avengers.”