Thoughts on ‘Dr. No’

Since my household recently purchased a complete box set of the James Bond films, we’ve begun a total re-watch of the entire series. So, I’ll be giving my thoughts on each film in turn.

First some background: I’m a long-time fan of the Bond films. I’ve seen all of them (except Quantum of Solace) at least once and have a fairly good working knowledge of the history and background of the films, though I haven’t gotten around to reading any of the books yet.

So, we open with the very first of the mainline Bond films: 1962’s Dr. No, in which James Bond travels to Jamaica (the Caribbean was a favorite haunt of Ian Fleming’s and a common setting of the series) to investigate the death of a British agent investigating mysterious radio interference with American missile tests.

What struck me most on this re-viewing was simultaneously how down-to-Earth it is compared to many of its sequels and yet how complete it is. The classic trappings of the Bond formula are almost all there in full force; M, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter, the casino, the exotic locations and high living, the women, and the oppressively powerful villain with his private army of henchmen. Only Q, and with him the emphasis on gadgets is yet missing. Also, the opening credits are instrumental rather than accompanied by a song, and the gun barrel sequence is slightly off in that it opens in silence.

More than that, the character of Bond bursts onto screen essentially complete; there was never a part where I thought “Well, Bond would never do that in later films.” On the contrary, watching this time and paying closer attention to the details of his characterization, I realized just how strongly marked a character he really is, perhaps not in depth, but in style and personality. We’ll come back to that.

Yet, as I say, this film is comparatively restrained when contrasted with its sequels. It in fact takes more the form of a detective story, with Bond spending most of the film pursuing leads and trying to trace the footsteps of his predecessor, Strangeways. He’s even referred to as a detective more than once (Dr. No eventually dismisses him as, “just a stupid policeman”). The emphasis is more on Bond’s cunning and cleverness than on his fighting prowess: the action scenes are generally pretty short and restrained, while scenes like Bond’s verbal fencing match upon meeting Quarrel (the first of many local Bond allies) or his interviews with the slimy Professor Dent take up much of the first and second act, interspersed with more quietly suspenseful scenes like Bond waking to find a venomous tarantula in his bed. The third act ramps up things a bit, but still remains pretty low-key and realistic (including a tense pursuit through a swamp that ends with Bond knifing one of the guards commando-style).

Partly for this reason, I was struck by just how good the movie was, and how effectively it tells its rather complicated plot and ushers us into the world of Bond for the first time. In the very first minutes of Dr. No we discover that a man at a British gentleman’s club is a spy, and then see him gunned down by what seemed to be three blind beggars. The stage is set; we are in a world where appearances cannot be trusted and death is a moment-to-moment possibility: a hidden world of spies and counter-spies operating just out of sight of normal people.

This is immediately followed by a scene of men and women working at a radio switchboard, identifying that something is wrong, and passing the information along. They’re dressed in normal work clothes and deal with the disappearance of two people in a calm, professional matter by referring it to the correct channels. It is a short scene that most people probably forget, but it is also important; the apparatus of spy work is, fundamentally, not a cabal of supermen, but a job like any other, carried out, for the most part, with cool routine and procedure. This is an idea that the films will return to again and again, and it is here established almost immediately.

From there we go to a high-end casino, where we receive our unforgettable introduction to, “Bond…James Bond” (apparently, this immortal line and its delivery was worked out by Sean Connery himself when he found the original version of the scene too dull).

As I’ve said, what is remarkable is how complete Bond’s character is from the start. To take an illustrative example: when Bond first arrives in Jamaica, he finds a man with a car waiting for him, ostensibly from the government. He coolly excuses himself without arousing the man’s suspicions and calls his contact to check whether a car has in fact been sent for him. Finding that none has, he goes back to the car and gets in anyway. He then grabs the chance to turn the tables, easily outfights the man, and proceeds to interrogate him (a cyanide-laced cigarette prevents him from getting any information, establishing the fear Dr. No inspires in his underlings).

This is a pattern that will recur throughout the film and indeed the series: Bond never takes the safe option. Instead, he prefers to walk into danger with his eyes open, trusting to his skill and his luck to get the better of his opponent and thus to learn from them. Bond is not looking for safety, but information, and in the hidden world of spies he needs to skate shoulder-to-shoulder with the people trying to kill him in order to get it. If he discovers a trap, his instinct is not to avoid it, but take the bait and try turn it to his own advantage, which he more often than not is able to do. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy: the personality of a born gambler.

Casting Sean Connery was brilliant, not only for his acting chops and rugged physicality, but also for the rough air that came from his poor background. As implied in the early scene at the switchboard, Bond is fundamentally a workingman: a civil servant with a paycheck and a pension (despite the fact that he actually comes of a high-class family, as will be revealed later in the series). Connery, himself a working-class man in a job that causes him to adopt an air of sophistication, brings the perfect balance to the role, so that both elements are there, but so blended that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

This is the strange, potent blend that makes Bond so interesting; he is simultaneously rich and sophisticated, a gentleman of wealth and taste, and also a workingman, living by his wits and his luck, with earthy, human appetites in alcohol, women, and food (granted with high standards in all three). He combines in one person Jack the Giant Slayer – the cunning peasant who overcomes enemies ostensibly far above him through use of his wits and taunts them when he’s finished for good measure – and Sir Lancelot – the high-born knight of unquestionable loyalty and unmatched martial prowess who follows court etiquette to the letter. I don’t think any culture but England could have produced such a hero, which might be one of the reasons he has taken such a place in the popular consciousness.

Of course, he’s not a classical hero, like a knight of old: morally, he’s closer to a brutally pragmatic pagan hero, like Achilles or Odysseus. He kills his enemies in cold-blood (and even shoots the corpse of a dead enemy at one point as a final insult). He lies continually and without turning a hair, whether he needs to or not. And, of course, he shamelessly flirts with and sleeps with women as the mood strikes him, or as a strategy, and he’s perfectly willing to rough them up to get information.

But, at the same time, he has real virtues. He cares for his friends, is unshakably loyal to his country, and sincerely believes in the justice and freedom he is fighting for (when he meets Dr. No, he sneers at people who think they’re “Napoleon. Or God,” and comments that No’s disregard for human life suggests he’s working for ‘the East’). He’s also shown to be fairly generous and respectful towards servants and the poor (as seen when he drops generous tips to the staff at the casino). And though he sleeps around with many different women, he also makes a point to protect innocent girls like Honey Rider, the shell-collector he meets at Dr. No’s island. Once she shows up, he tries time and again to get her to safety or to protect her against the bad guys, and he treats her, as far as the film goes, very kindly.

Honey is the first main ‘Bond Girl,’ and her introduction, rising from the sea like Venus, is one of the most famous images of the series. She really doesn’t have anything to do with the story, except giving Bond someone to protect, but she is a comparatively rare Bond girl with an actual backstory (daughter of a marine biologist murdered by Dr. No), and she’s certainly a pleasant enough character, and giving Bond charge of an innocent party is a good way to keep the film’s rather shaky moral premise intact and emphasizes that there is a world of difference between Bond and his adversaries. Whatever nasty things Bond does, he ultimately does it to protect the innocent people that the likes of SPECTRE would abuse, exploit, or kill.

As for Dr. No himself, again we see the trappings of the Bond franchise are remarkably complete here in the first of many vivid Bond villains. He has comparatively little screen time, but his presence as an ominous, unseen force that drives people to suicide for fear of displeasing him, hangs over the whole film. He is introduced as a disembodied voice rebuking Professor Dent in terms that assure him (and us) that he knows far more of Bond’s investigation than he ought and considers himself completely in control of the situation. And, despite all of Bond’s strength and skill, he makes good on that assertion for almost the entire film.

Played with cold detachment by Joseph Wiseman, Dr. No, like so many subsequent villains, takes an opposite approach to Bond. He is a chess master and scientist, relying on his brains and organizational skills to control his environment to his own advantage. He speaks in a soft, calm voice, almost a monotone, wears a featureless suit, and has powerful robotic hands. All this marks him as having largely sacrificed his humanity for his own goals, in contrast to Bond, who retains his natural appetites and enjoyments, his sense of humor, and some fundamental ideas of right and wrong.

Dr. No, though not on screen long, makes a powerful impression and even after some twenty-four films, he stands as one of the great villains of the franchise. Not only that, but he serves as our introduction to the legendary SPECTRE organization, which will be pursuing Bond through most of the early films. We’ll talk more about them as things go on.

Though I mentioned the film’s remarkable sense of completeness, there are a few signs of it’s being the first of a series. The film opens with Bond trading in an old Berretta for his trademark Walther PPK, for instance, and he later is shown meeting his perennial American ally Felix Leiter for the first time (Bond specifically comments that he’s “heard of Leiter, but never met him” at this point). Leiter himself is slightly more antagonistic towards Bond than he would be later on, with some mild jockeying over whose jurisdiction No falls under.

The scene where Bond receives his Walther is another example of the film’s efficiency. It rapidly and naturally establishes the capabilities of the firearm, the fact that Bond is an experienced field agent, but not invulnerable (it’s mentioned he was in hospital after a previous mission went south), and that the double-o designation means he’s licensed to kill.

It’s not perfect, of course (I don’t know that any of the Bond films will make a ‘best of all time’ list, though some, this one included, would easily land on a ‘best action-adventure films’ list). There are things like how, as mentioned, Honey Rider has no story purpose in the film at all, or that Bond seems to escape No’s cell and foil his plan rather easily after all that build up, or the moments where the film’s comparatively low-budget shows through, such as the unconvincing green screens during the car chases. It probably could stand to be a little shorter, and depending on your taste in music the song ‘Underneath the Mango Tree’ will probably start to grate on you long before the film is over (the ‘Three Blind Mice’ song that opens the film is much better, to my tastes).

But despite these problems, even after all these years I’d still consider ‘Dr. No’ as one of the best of the Bond series. It’s a strong opening act setting the tone for a long journey.

Aquaman and Causation at The Everyman

That review I fisked last week sparked some thoughts in my mind about Progressivism and causation. The resulting essay appears today at The Everyman

First it must be noted that Aquaman is a very successful film. As of this writing, it’s made 265 million dollars in the US and close to a billion worldwide (according to boxofficemojo.com)—and it’s still going, sitting comfortably at number one in the US Box Office, while standing at a respectable 7.5 rating on IMDb. Objectively speaking, it’s not a great film by any means, but clearly people like it. Heck, I liked it, even with all its many flaws.

Now here comes the point: if it had been everything this reviewer apparently wanted it to be—a social justice driven, feminist-environmentalist tale where instructions on real-world politics and ideology served as the main themes—does anyone honestly suppose that it would have been half as successful as it is?

There are no hard and fast rules in the box office, but there are in philosophy, and one of them is this: if you change the cause, you change the effect. Aquaman is a very successful film because audiences enjoyed it, and one of the reasons they enjoyed it seems to be that it was so unabashedly escapist in its tone. If the filmmakers had changed that and instead opted for a self-consciously ‘relevant’ film like, say A Wrinkle in Time or Ghostbusters 2016 or Robin Hood, it almost certainly would have bombed just like they did.

Read the rest here.

By the way, since writing that, Aquaman has officially passed the $1 billion worldwide mark. He’s come a long way since the Superfriends.

An Aqua-Fisk

Last weekend I got out to see Aquaman. It was incredibly stupid and absolutely ridiculous in a lot of ways, but I enjoyed it a lot. Certainly, I much prefer over-the-top dumb-fun like this to self-consciously grim garbage like Man of Steel.

Then I happened across this review which I thought was so off-point that I had to write something about it. As usual, original in italics, my response in bold. 

No, yes, please, let us continue the tradition of telling stories about men who proudly don’t care about anything thrust into positions of power and authority purely by dint of birthright. I mean, as long as they have some smart, dedicated, noble-minded women around to support them and guide them and show them the way to wise manhood, that’s fine, right? Like, maybe some women who have been working toward whatever lofty goals the man will eventually “achieve” even though he’s just arrived on the scene and, as previously noted, couldn’t give a shit about the things they will now step aside and let him take all the credit for.

Well, we’re off to a great start; a ‘tradition’ that, as far as I can tell, you would have to really look for and stretch things to identify, and which is in any case depends on putting who achieves something over what is achieved. And, really? This is what she gleans from the film? We’ll come back to this.  

I certainly cannot see any way in which this recurring cultural narrative could have any negative impact on the world.

            Huh. I wonder whether she’d have a similar reaction to the recurring cultural narrative that, say, capitalists are heartless, greedy monsters who only desire to exploit workers for their own gain? Because I’m pretty sure that narrative has had a negative impact on the world. But never mind; pray continue.

 So here we have Aquaman, about a fish-man, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa: Justice League, The Bad Batch), who is half human and half Atlantean… as in the ancient underwater realm of Atlantis. He can breathe underwater, see even at depth in the dark ocean, swim superfast, and communicate with the animals of the seas. (For some reason he is also superstrong, because, I dunno, fish are unreasonably brawny?)

            This is explained in the film: Atlanteans are much stronger and more durable than normal humans because they’re built to survive under thousands of pounds of oceanic pressure. It’s easy enough to miss, I suppose, but it’s only the first sign that she didn’t really pay much attention to the film.

And his Atlantean half is not just any-old peasant, either: His mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman: The Beguiled, Big Little Lies), was queen of Atlantis, though not a willing one, so she ran away, had a kid with a human man (Temuera Morrison: Moana, Green Lantern), and then got dragged back again. Now, another unwilling queen, Mera (Amber Heard: The Danish Girl, Magic Mike XXL), comes to the human world, the surface world, to bring Arthur back to Atlantis because his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson: The Commuter, The Founder), is up to no good and must be stopped, and apparently only Arthur can stop him, by taking up the throne of Atlantis. Mera can’t stop Orm, even though she seems to be secretly part of a resistance against him. She’s just a girl, after all.

             Okay, let’s address this. Mera (who is a princess, by the way, not a queen) cannot stop Orm because he is the legitimate king of Atlantis. She’s Princess of a smaller kingdom, which is ruled by her father, who is in league with Orm. Thus, she really has no way of stopping him; she can’t depose both him and her own father, and if she tried the people would revolt against her. The plan, therefore, is to bring in Arthur, who, being first born, actually has a better claim to the throne than Orm. However, since he’s an outsider and half-human, the only way the people will accept him is if he brings a very clear symbol of his right to rule in the form of the lost trident.

            It’s a little convoluted, and I’m not sure if it all holds together, but it’s all there. They’re doing what actually would be done in a real monarchy if the King were out of control: finding an alternative claimant and convincing the populace that he has a better right to the throne. This isn’t Black Panther where an obviously psychotic outsider can just show up, take the crown, and the entire country instantly gets behind him: the characters have to take things like legitimacy, local customs, and the will of the people into account (yes, Aquaman is a smarter film than Black Panther, and yes, I do like picking on that film).

Here is another recurring cultural narrative that by all means must endure, and that surely isn’t doing any damage whatsoever:

Okay, what is your definition of ‘damage’? Do you want to cite anything objective here, any actual incidences of real harm being done to real people by the things you’re complaining about? Put up, or actually tell me something about the darn film rather than your socio-political paranoia. 

science fiction and fantasy stories — of which Aquaman is arguably a bit of both — told by men — the screenwriters here are director James Wan and three other guys —

Wow, nice little gratuitous bit of misandry there.

that feature wildly inventive alternate worlds full of magic and wonder and all manner of fanciful places and creatures… and is just as f***ing sexist as the real world.

          And what, specifically, in this film was ‘sexist’ by her definition? I mean, I can see her thinking that the fact that Atlantis has arranged marriages, at least among royalty, is sexist (though Mera actually points out to Arthur that there are reasons for it), but what else? Mera’s a tough, capable heroine, very powerful, and saves Arthur’s life more than once, as well as being generally smarter and more on the ball than he is. Heck, I thought they went too far in that regard and would have preferred if she’d needed to be rescued at least once, just to balance things out a bit.

The limits to the imagination at play here are shocking but tediously predictable. God forbid we should enrage the fanboys who would howl should any hint of social-justice warfare edge into their fish-man-who-would-be-king story.

Okay, let’s deal with this. First, the only limits to the imagination I see here are her attacking a film for daring to show a culture that doesn’t work like modern upper-class America. That’s if her complaints mean anything at all beyond that she just didn’t watch the film very closely. The movie being willing to present a monarchical society, complete with arranged marriages and clear distinctions between high and low-born shows a refreshing freedom of imagination: a willingness to not be restrained too much by the rigid standards of the present culture. Nor do I think any reasonable person would look at this film, with its fantastic monsters, characters, and environments, and conclude “lack of imagination” simply because it doesn’t regurgitate the same tired political talking points you can find literally everywhere these days.

            Yes, ‘social justice warfare’ does not belong in an ‘Aquaman’ film; it does not represent a lack of imagination, but awareness on the part of the filmmakers of what their job is. People do not like be lectured when they go to see a fantasy film: they don’t want to see their favorite hero turned into yet-another mouthpiece for telling them why they should be ashamed of themselves for existing. Again, they can get that literally anywhere else anytime they want it; it does not belong in a superhero movie.

 Which, they may all rest assured, has not happened at all. Unless there is something objectionable in the non-blond-Aryan Momoa — who is partly of Native Hawaiian and Native American descent — in the lead role? (*Googles* Yup, some people think so.)

Why the heck did she bring this up?

            Yes, when you cast someone who looks completely different from the original character, some people are not going to like it. I’m sure you could find some people who even were legitimately racist in their reaction to it (it’s the internet; you can find anything). But why mention it, especially in context of the surrounding points? The best I can tell is that she means it as an insult to those she so contemptuously describes as ‘fan boys,’ implying they are racists as well as sexists and generally insufficiently woke.

            But here’s the thing; the ‘fan boys’ obviously liked the film, since any doubts about Mr. Momoa in the role clearly haven’t hurt the box office or prevented the film from making a billion dollars.

            Look at what she is doing: she complains that the film is politically regressive, and that those who like the film hate social justice, then to support that she cites fans who had a problem with Jason Momoa’s casting. But that would be a reason for people not to like the film. She is equating two separate groups: those who liked the film and consequently were okay with its ‘sexist’ politics, and those who didn’t like it based on the choice of Mr. Momoa in the title role.

This is one of the main reasons I wanted to do this fisk, because this is quite frankly disgusting; she’s gratuitously attacking a huge number of people (those who liked the film) for no reason by snidely linking them to views they very obviously do no hold.

Indeed, even Aquaman’s nominally pro-environmental angle doesn’t dare to say anything even slightly radical. The badness of King Orm is all about how he wants to lead a war against the surface world because we’ve been dumping all our garbage in his ocean since forever, and just generally doing our best to destroy the planet, and it’s pretty difficult to fault him for this.

             Wait, she thinks a world war and mass-murder is an acceptable punishment for pollution?

But Arthur, straddling the two worlds as he does, can prevent this, apparently… and so Aquaman ends up reassuring us polluting humans that we don’t have to change our ways and clean up our act — literally or figuratively — because the half-human guy will make it all better and save us from suffering any consequences for our crimes. 

            Arthur’s role is to be a mediator, with the point that both sides have a mistaken view of the other (as explicitly shown in Mera’s rant against the surface world: even heroic Atlanteans are prejudiced and dismissive of the surface), but he is able to see things from both points of view. And ‘crime’ is a bit of a stretch for pollution, don’t you think? Obviously she doesn’t.

There is no suspense in anything here, and so no real sense of triumph even when we’re meant to be cheering. It barely even registers when Arthur morphs every so slightly from a guy who might engage in some light maritime rescuing, even though it means missing happy hour, to a guy who is no longer scoffing at the “fairy tales” that indicate he is the rightful ruler of Atlantis. (He has to find a legendary trident and publicly wield it. Not pull a sword from a stone and publicly wield it. Totally different thing. King of the who?) 

            They explicitly made that connection in the film. It’s very obviously intentional. That’s not a criticism.            

Of course some of what he has to do involves dick-measuring hand-to-hand combat with his half brother, or with other manly obstacles, and for a guy who thinks with his muscles, that’s just fun.

            More misandric comments, and it’s an action film with a male lead; what does she expect? This isn’t a criticism, this is just smugness.

 He’s not particularly challenged by anything that happens to him. He doesn’t struggle. As long as Arthur gets to keep being the same old pretty but colorless meathead (spoiler: he does), it makes no difference to him.

            No, he has a huge moment of crisis when he realizes that he’s endangered the people he cares about because he made a bad decision earlier in the film. It’s not brilliantly done, but it’s not nothing. Again, I get the impression she didn’t really watch the film.

            Arthur’s actually a pretty decently developed character; he acts like a meathead most of the time, but underneath is shown to be pretty intelligent and feels strongly for the people in his life, but he runs from this side of him because he doesn’t want anything to do with Atlantis, since they killed his mother just for having him. His coming to terms with this and becoming a king capable of mercy and moderation comprises his development. All this is established in the film. Again, it’s not perfectly done, but it’s not nothing.

What else is there? A lot of imagery of the high-tech underwater realms, especially the city of Atlantis, that seems inspired by 80s mall-store black-light posters. (Hello, Spencer Gifts!) Jarring detours down an Indiana Jones/Dan Brown tangent, then another into a Lost Continent realm. (This movie is trying to be a lot of movies all at once, and it doesn’t work.) Undersea action sequences — big battles, chases — in which director Wan (The Conjuring 2, Insidious) offers us no sense of geography or space, no sense of who most of the characters involved are, and so they just mush together into a lot of noise and psychedelic chaos.

            And here we finally get a legitimate criticism; the big battle scene at the end is pretty hard to follow, except that a lot of stuff is going on and a lot of people are getting killed, but where our characters are is kind of lost in the shuffle.

            The sudden shifts to Indiana Jones and the Lost Continent are a little strange, and you could cite them as a problem, though I enjoyed them, personally; I thought it was tonally consistent with the madcap fantasy world of Atlantis, as set early on in the film.

I don’t know why she’s complaining about the look of Atlantis: just likening it to ‘black light poster’ doesn’t tell me anything. Is it inconsistent with what Atlantis is supposed to be? Aesthetically ugly? Thematically inappropriate? I thought it was fine; reminiscent of both Ancient Greek architecture and bioluminescence, with a high-tech sheen. Pretty much perfectly fitting for Atlantis. Is it the best possible Atlantis? No, but I don’t think the visuals can be legitimately cited as a criticism; the film looks great. There are a lot of very impressive, very creatively filmed scenes. You could argue the CG is a bit much, but that’s about it.

This is part of the problem: even when she cites legitimate flaws, she doesn’t seem to be giving the film an honest hearing; she’s just citing everything as a flaw, apparently because she didn’t like the politics. This ‘review’ doesn’t seem like an attempt to say what works and doesn’t work in the film, but to vent her spleen on something she took offense at.

There’s a human villain trying to kill Arthur, but when Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Boundaries, Baywatch) — who is hellbent to get revenge on “the Aquaman” for a thing Arthur did — has a chance to shoot Arthur, literally has Arthur in his sights, he fails to do so. (It’s much worse than the typical movie trope of the bad guy who fails to take the opportunity to kill the good guy: there’s no feint toward giving Manta a reason to hesitate. He’s not even monologuing at the time!)

I don’t know what specific moment she’s talking about here, but I distinctly remember Black Manta nailing Arthur with his lasers at least once, not to mention stabbing and slicing him several times. So, maybe this is a legit criticism, but…I wouldn’t bet on it.

When Aquaman isn’t an incoherent mess, it’s little more than Jason Momoa standing around smirking or Amber Heard shifting instantly from disgust of Arthur to adoration of him. Which is barely any better.

Aquaman is not a great film; I don’t think I’d even call it a good one. It’s got a large number of plot holes, questionable moments, laughable mistakes, and it goes on for probably about a half-hour too long. This ‘review,’ on the other hand, is a single paragraph of substandard film criticism stuck onto the end of a nonsensical rant about progressive politics.

            There are a lot of positives in the film: Arthur’s character and Mr. Momoa’s performance, Black Manta, Arthur’s relationship with his father, the visuals and creativity, the fact that Orm is allowed to have an honest and human reason for hating Arthur (he blames him for their mother’s death), Mera overcoming her prejudice of the surface world, the camerawork, all of these things are honestly well-done. She doesn’t mention any of them.

There are a lot of other things that could be argued one way or another, and likewise a lot of flaws: the question of why Orm needs to hire Black Manta to go after Arthur, and how he’s able to tinker with ultra-advance Atlantean tech to build his helmet (and why they allow him to do so), the fact that the arena battle is almost completely unnecessary to the story, the question of how Arthur and Mera hiked out of the desert, Manta’s father firing a grenade-launcher inside a submarine with no repercussions until he hits a torpedo, the cringeworthy inspirational speeches, and so on. But she doesn’t mention any of these either.

Again, this isn’t a review, it’s a rant: she doesn’t like that the film doesn’t go out of its way to promote her favored politics, so nothing it does is right, and she sprinkles it with gratuitous insults towards the filmmakers and fans.

Chesterton said that a good book tells us the truth of its characters, while a bad one tells us the truth of its author. I think that goes double for reviews.

It’s a Wonderful Life at Catholic Match

If anyone were to ask what I think the best movie ever made is (understanding there’s objectively no such thing), I would probably say It’s a Wonderful Life. I might do a piece going into why I think this, but in the meantime I get to give some idea of why in today’s piece on Catholic Match. 

I have sometimes thought it a shame that It’s a Wonderful Life is regarded as a ‘Christmas Movie.’

It is, of course (in more ways than one), but if we think of it as ‘merely’ a Christmas movie we risk undervaluing it.

Frank Capra’s masterpiece, of course, needs no introduction. You’ve seen it at least once, and if you haven’t you know the basic premise: an ambitious, gifted young man named George Bailey wants nothing more than to escape his small, provincial town and do something big and important with his life.

But, one way or another, he gives up every opportunity to make good on that dream in order to help the people around him until one Christmas Eve finds him contemplating suicide, feeling he’s wasted his life. A roly-poly, ‘second class angel’ named Clarence then appears and shows him what the world would be like if he had never been born.

The message of the film is usually given as “every life has value.” Yes, but not quite in the way you might think. It is not George Bailey’s intrinsic value as a person that leads to his vindication, but the choices he made along the way.

Read the rest here, and Merry Christmas!

Yes, Virginia, ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas Movie

My latest piece is up at The Federalist, and it’s all about the Christmas classic Die Hard and what makes it a Christmas movie.

Since the question hinges on there being a difference between a Christmas movie proper and a movie set around Christmas, it seems that a Christmas movie proper is a film that has some thematic element of Christmas as a central part of its story, while also linking this theme with the Christmas holiday itself. For instance, generosity and kindness are Christmas themes, but a film is not a Christmas movie for featuring them, only if they are linked with the Christmas season (otherwise something like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” would be considered a Christmas movie).

So a Christmas movie is a movie specifically about Christmas and the related ideas of love, generosity, family, and so on. “Miracle on 34th Street” is a Christmas movie, not only because it is set during Christmas and features Santa Claus, but because it is all about putting innocence, generosity, and kindness ahead of modern cynicism and consumerism.  

It would be going too far to say that “Die Hard” has the same moral premise as “Miracle on 34th Street,” but it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate either, because “Die Hard” is all about the clash between love and materialism.

Read the rest here.

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.