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.

Thoughts on the Pro-Life Movement

Every year, about half-a-million people descend upon Washington DC, and many more march in other cities, to call for the end of abortion. It is probably the most noble and most important social movement in the country right now: one of the few that is both appropriate to the moment, possessed of a clear and achievable goal, and which deals with a vitally important issue.

It is thus with a heavy heart that I say they are never going to succeed. At least, not if things stay they way they are. Pro-lifers, as they are called, are up against something far more vast and complex and powerful than most of us seem to understand.

Put it this way; say the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade tomorrow. That would be a very good thing, as far as it went, and most likely abortion would then become illegal or mostly illegal in at least some states. But the problem is, it wouldn’t last. Sooner or later the balance of the polls would shift, new justices would take the place of the old, and another case would come before a restructured court, or new laws would be introduced, and the slaughter would begin all over again.

This is because abortion is only a symptom. A terrible symptom, but a symptom nonetheless. It derives from a much larger cultural and social movement, and what is key, it is necessary to that movement.

The movement is not, as it is sometimes described, the devaluation of human life as such. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that once Hiroshima happened, Roe was inevitable. With respect to the great man, that is nonsense, whatever you think of the bombings. An act of war, justified or not, is clearly in a different category from a peacetime law.

The fact is that abortion does not primarily stem from a devaluation of life; it stems from the overvaluation of sex and, more fundamentally, of self-will. The devaluation of life is a parallel consequence of this.

In other words, the real problem is neither abortion itself, nor a culture that doesn’t value life, but what is called the Sexual Revolution: the radical movement to overthrow moral and legal restrictions on sexual indulgence in favor of an ideology of self-will.

The origins, philosophical and historical, of that movement are too complicated to go into here. The point is that this is the true enemy, and as long as it remains in place, abortion will as well.

The sexual revolution is based upon the idea that the only relevant rules in sexual matters are consent and (possibly) fidelity. It proposes that each person should be able to decide for his or herself the way in which he will be sexually active and the meaning that sexuality will have. This is the doctrine of self-will, which was explicitly expressed by Justice Kennedy in his ruling on Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The great flaw in this view is that nature itself imposes certain meanings upon human life which are not amenable to individual definitions. In particular, when it comes to sexual activity, it imposes the fact of reproduction, regardless of any consent or desire on the part of the participants (there are other ‘imposed facts’ as well, but this is the most blatant). Therefore, in order for these new ideas of sexuality to stand up even for the briefest of considerations some means is required to prevent intercourse from resulting in a child.

Hence contraception and abortion: the twin props without which the sexual revolution cannot stand (no-fault divorce is the third, but that is for another time). Contraception obviously is necessary in order to render the likelihood of pregnancy as low as possible, artificially creating circumstances where the new ideology is at least superficially plausible (I will leave off, for now, the wisdom of a worldview dependent for its credibility upon the existence and accessibility of a particular human technology).

Abortion too is necessary because it allows us to say that we are in control of our bodies: that we dictate the meaning and content of our behavior. It isn’t just that we prevent the consequences of our actions, we actively subvert them once they occur.

Ultimately, the sexual revolution is about claiming this authority to dictate the meaning of our actions, which means controlling the consequences. Abortion is necessary to this, all the more so because the Sexual Revolution coincided with the movement to bring more women into the workforce. You obviously cannot have both an active sex life and a flourishing career if you do not have a way to prevent and to end pregnancies before a child is born. Since we moderns find the idea of choosing one or the other to be abhorrent, we accept infanticide.

This is why pro-abortionists are so passionate about this issue, and why they will defend and even celebrate abortion to the end: because a large segment of our culture is dependent upon the ideas of the Sexual Revolution. Whole industries rely upon it, and even those that don’t go that far often find it extremely profitable.

That alone would make it punishingly hard to dislodge, but there is something else; something that, even in our culture, people value more than profit: self-respect. A huge number of people have staked their images of themselves and their friends as good people upon the ideas of the Sexual Revolution. It allows them to justify actions that otherwise would be seen to be wrong, and which most of them would never have done if they weren’t assured from all corners that it was acceptable. The maintaining of the ideology of the Sexual Revolution is necessary for many, many people to continue to think well of themselves. And abortion is necessary to maintain that ideology.

In other words, ending abortion doesn’t just mean enacting new laws or convincing a majority of the population of the humanity of an unborn child: it will involve convincing a large portion of the population that the moral standards by which they, their friends, and their parents have been living are simply wrong, with all the implications that come with it. That is in addition to overturning assumptions upon which much of our commerce and most of our culture now rests.

That is what we are up against. We’re struggling and fighting against an entrenched fortress when really it’s only guarding the pass to a whole Empire with forces beyond reckoning waiting for us.

When Imperial Japan was gearing up for war with the United States, some of the military brass warned their comrades what such a war would mean: it wouldn’t be a matter of taking Hawaii and California, they would have to somehow find a way to strike at the industrial and agricultural heartland and march into Washington. The pro-life cause is, of course the very reverse of that of Imperial Japan, yet the example applies to us as well. The fight we are engaging in is not to enact one law, or end one practice. We may wish that were all, but the nature of our enemy forbids it. This war must be a war of total conquest or of total defeat, and our enemy is very strong indeed.

I don’t bring this up to discourage those in the pro-life movement, but I do think we should be clear on our goals. It cannot be just to end abortion, or same-sex marriage, or any of the other obvious manifestations of the sexual revolution: that would be a temporary solution at best. The whole ideology has to be ripped up, root and branch, which will involve something akin to conversion and repentance on a national scale, along with a near-total rebuilding of our culture.

With that in mind, shall we begin?

 

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.

Snakes, Snakes, and More Snakes

I’m very fond of snakes, so one of my favorite YouTube channels at the moment is ‘Snake Discovery,’ which is all about snake and reptile care, with lots and lots of gorgeous different kinds of snakes. But they’re almost all colubrids (which are ‘standard,’ mostly non-venomous snakes such as garter snakes, rat snakes, racers, hognoses, and so on), with one or two pythons (and one very interesting little alligator, but that’s another story).

Today, however, the hostess travels to a reptile zoo to learn about venomous species: the vipers and elapids, and we get lots of footage of the kinds of snakes you don’t normally see in someone’s home, along with advice of when and why to have a venomous pet. We also get a sense of just how big a King Cobra really is (it’s pretty huge).

Now, obviously a lot of people don’t like snakes, and often when I share my liking of them, I get a slightly confused reaction. People tend to think they’re nasty, scary, ugly creatures, and they certainly can be scary; some of them (like many of the ones on display here) are extremely dangerous animals with a very limited set of responses.

As this video displays, however, ‘ugly’ is something that is less true than you might think. There are lots of beautiful snakes out there (watch out for that Urutu Viper, and the two varieties of Green Mambas, not to mention a cameo by the Chinese King Ratsnake). For my part I find the fact that these limbless, ground-dwelling creatures are yet dangerous enough to intimidate some of the most powerful animals on Earth (even elephants are wary of snakes, since the larger venomous species – the Black Mamba and King Cobra – can kill them if they bite in a vulnerable place) to be inspiring. Snakes, as a rule, just want to be left alone; they’re solitary, shy creatures as a rule, minding their own business and keeping themselves to themselves, but they can and will defend themselves if they feel threatened.

Snakes, therefore, to my mind symbolize the desire for individual freedom; to be left alone to manage your own affairs and pursue your own interests without being badgered and bothered by rules or other people, and the willingness to fight for that right. And, on the other side, the danger inherent in the things (and people) you regard with contempt, the ones who are despised and ‘trodden on.’ There’s a reason a snake is on the Gadsden Flag.

Also, don’t forget the story in Exodus; when God announced Himself before the mightiest king on earth, the Pharaoh of Egypt, He used a snake as His first miracle. His serpent swallowed up the serpents of the Egyptian priests, and likewise the despised and trodden-on Hebrews would prove more dangerous than Pharaoh expected, and their descendants would live to swallow up the remnants of Egyptian culture and dig Pharaoh’s tomb out of the sand.

In short, snakes are a reminder that despising the humble, the simple, and the solitary is not as easy or as safe as it might appear.

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Found on the Internet

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.

 

 

On Moral Ambiguity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to Know Before Dating a Traditionalist:

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

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