History, Myth and Captain America

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier is what’d you expect from something in the MCU: the familiar 3 act structure, witty dialogue, pretty special effects, less than optimal fight cinematography and popcorn plot. Winter Soldier stands apart though, because of its use of history and related politics. This film’s use of history stands out as promoting a specific mythology. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

 

The villains of the film, HYDRA, a Nazi off-shoot organization, are revealed to have spent the postwar years infiltrating SHIELD, working behind the scenes to sow chaos. This chaos and instability will then be used as a pretext to install Project Insight, spy satellites with kill capability to seize control. I’ll come back to Project Insight, but first I want to talk about HYDRA’s backstory. Captain America and Black Widow encounter Armin Zola’s brain hooked up to a computer system where he reveals HYDRA’s master plan. A throwaway line from Black Widow about Operation Paperclip is the tip of an iceberg of problems.

Operation Paperclip really happened; the US recruited Nazis scientists and technicians and employed them, most famously Werner Von Braun. The MCU borrowing from real history is one thing, it creates a degree of immersion and contributes to the secret history feel that Captain America has. Tying it into this piece of history and then explaining the Cold War with all of its unsavory actions, is pure fantasy.

The United States did not morph into an empire overnight. While things such as NSC 68 did shape US policy and one can trace a line from that to things such as Operation TPAJAX or Operation PBSUCCESS, or the 1973 coup in Chile or the list goes on and on.. it presumes history started in 1945. The people who orchestrated these policies weren’t foreign operatives; they were Americans inheriting their country’s legacy, a legacy of empire. Thomas Jefferson spoke of how “we should have an empire of liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: & I am persuaded no was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire & self government.” We conquered Native Americans, tried invading Canada repeatedly, conquered Spanish Florida and Mexico, Hawaii, the Philippines and have a long history of intervening in South American affairs. The pre-WWII era can be best summarized by Maj Gen. Smedley Butler:

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

The United State has always been an Empire, but we’ve decided to forget about that. Instead, we decided to embrace a narrative, a myth, of being a peaceful sleeping giant that awakened on December 7, 1941 and became an empire to save the world for democracy. Any wrongdoing done in the name of Empire, is an aberration, a corruption.

This myth doesn’t play into the film just with SHIELD’s corruption. Captain America is supposed to embody what America should stand for, even if it those are ideals that aren’t being lived up to at the moment, especially if those ideals aren’t being lived up to. His decision to dismantle Project Insight, compared to Fury’s initial desire to preserve the system, is a desire to to rebuke this idea of empire in this reading. It’s a return to a mythical past that never existed.

This myth isn’t something that the MCU invented; it’s incredibly common in real life. Reaffirming this myth isn’t surprising; it just showcases the shallowness of the MCU. Any other reading of the film just runs up against the history and has to jump through more hoops to justify. Next week, I will be taking a break due to the holiday. I’ll be back in December with something interesting, I hope. Till next time.

 

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Review: The 100 Season 2

            The 100 on the surface sounds like little more than a focus group tested, demographic pleasing triumph of mediocrity. It’s based off of a YA dystopia series with a female lead and it airs on the CW. But despite a rocky start, the first season developed a compelling cast of characters who shone through a less than fully developed setting. While it had its bad moments, the first word I always thought of to describe the show was ‘competent’. It was the moments that rose above that competence and were able to evoke some emotional response that had me stay through the rocky start and look forward to the second season. Now that I’ve been able to watch it a second time, as it’s available via Netflix streaming, it seemed like a good time for me to gather my thoughts and share.

While season two retained the core of season’s one appeal, it also seemed to gather a lot more crud around it. This is partly because of the longer season and partly due to the tonal shift that the show takes. Season two is 16 episodes, three more than season one, and it does not use them well. Plots meander to a conclusion and there are a lot of B plots that don’t really go anywhere. (This also makes the show pretty poor when binge watching it compared to spacing out episodes) These plots are entertaining enough, but they don’t connect well together in a cohesive whole. It’s a testament to the characters, the acting and writing carries them above the incomplete world they operate in. What matters is that you are entertained in this scene, in this episode, not that the whole season makes sense, because it doesn’t.

In terms of tone, the show was never cheerful, but the characters were never cavalier about the terrible things they did. There was always a moral voice of dissension; but those protestations wear thin over repeated use and become less frequent. The territory that show goes into by the end has me calling the show downright nihilistic. A post apocalyptic set up where all factions find they have no choice in doing horrible things, repeating the sins of the past.

On a technical level, the show has either improved or maintained its competence. The scenery is what you’d expect, well-made indoor sets and the woods of Vancouver. The actors have grown into their characters and the new characters are unremarkable at the very worst. The special effects and fight cinematography are fairly impressive, considering that this is a TV show. The music is the only downside, as the usage of whatever flavor of pop is in vogue is gratuitous and annoying.

Despite these flaws, it’s worth repeating that the characters still work and that there are still moments when something shines through. It’s flawed, but it’s still entertaining enough that if you liked the first season and don’t mind the problems I outlined then you should at least give it a shot.

Trigger Warning: Alcohol, Guns, Medical experimentation, Death, Mass Murder

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

 

When talking about season two, it’s important to start with the show’s structure. There are 16 episodes, that aired as two half seasons. The first half is concerned with the fallout from the season one finale. Fallout in this case means several things: getting everyone who isn’t in Mount Weather back together, hashing out the leadership of the Sky People, ending the conflict with the Grounders and setting up the Mountain Men as the new antagonists. A lot of these plotlines involve Finn, so it makes sense to focus in on him compared to a more thorough but less substantive checklist view.

Finn was the one who saw history repeating itself and did everything he could to stop it from passing. His was the dissenting moral voice that often got drowned out by forces beyond his control but he served as a physical manifestation of moral boundaries. In the second season, this is discarded as he becomes obsessed with finding Clarke. He has no problems in ambushing Grounders, executing prisoners, leaving someone to die, or massacring a village. The ideas that Finn would go to great lengths to find Clarke and that all the shit he’s seen have finally started to get to him aren’t bad, but it’s a note that the writers keep hitting so the impact is dulled with each subsequent use. But those sequences, however good they may be in their own right, aren’t taken as a whole; they cease to exist once the episode is over. Hitting that note over and over again is a poor writing technique, but it’s one that works on some level. Furthermore, it’s just a buildup to what Finn’s purpose in the season: the village massacre.

Finn’s credibility as the moral dissenter is wiped away, his crime largely ignored by the rest of the Sky People and used to reinforce the conflict with the Grounders. It’s incredibly tacky and distasteful. The build up to the massacre itself strains credibility and the response from the other Sky People is disturbingly muted. What should be a major event is quickly brushed over by everyone until the Grounders force them to deal with it.

The Mount Weather plotline, for the entire season, works with exception. The fact that it is entirely predicated upon poor communication is sloppy. Dante never reaches out to Abby or Kane or gives a reason for just banking on the 47 to fix the radiation problem. While one can argue that it’s a part of the season’s theme of how humans are doomed to poor communication and war, it’s executed in a poor manner.

One of the conceits of YA fiction is that adults are useless, and The 100 follows on that trope, at least with the Skye People. It goes out of its way to make Abby, Kane and Jaha useless. The first two rehash their conflict from the first season, which is annoying, moreso because the show points that out. All of three of them are focused on the whole and are willing to sacrifice the people inside Mount Weather in order to keep everyone else alive(or just act contrary) in order to engender conflict with Clarke. Our heroes, through crafty planning and circumstances outside their control, end up calling the shots. It works well enough, but the circumstances involved aren’t terribly engaging once you move out of the target demographic.

So the half season ends with Finn killed to cement and the Mountain Men moving onto bone marrow to fix their problems. (There’s some spectacularly bad science this season) Which sets the stage for waging a war on Mount Weather….that somehow lasts for eight episodes. The show can now engage in retreading history and engaging in the worst accepts of human nature largely unstopped. A lot of these plotlines are actually good and it’s a not the worst attempt at being an ensemble, but there are two worth talking about: Clarke and Jaha.

Clarke shows that she’s from the Ark as she becomes hardened, with encouragement from Lexa and only stops after committing genocide. While she does at least recoil at the end of the season, I’m really not interested in watching grimdark shows where the Heroes are Hard People making Hard Decisions. While Lexa being the exact opposite of Finn and pushing Clarke to be harder is something I’m not on board with, I am happy for more diversity with Clarke being Bi (the show not saying the word is a different matter though) I’m also not really keen on shows being self aware of things and thinking that their self awareness means recycling tropes is good; but Kane’s exchange with Abby in the ruins of Tondic really sold me this time, even if it is short of payoff.

                        Kane: Clarke escaped? She knew it was coming?

Abby: Yes. How could she do something like this?

Kane: Because she grew up on the Ark. Because she learned things from us.

Abby: She let this happen. She could’ve stopped it.

Kane: She made a choice. Like executing people for stealing….medicine…and food. Like the    sucking the air from the lungs of 300 parents so they could save their children.

Abby: Like floating the man you love to save your people.

Kane: Yes, we have to answer for our sins Abby.

Abby: After everything we done, do we even deserve to survive?

Jaha is a man who has lived his life making impossible decisions and feeling sorry about it. He’s a finished character, while Kane and Abby have some degree of self-awareness and want to move beyond that, Jaha can’t. He’s sorry that he made those decisions, but he’s not sorry that he carried them out. Not only that, but he needs to believe that his story isn’t over, that everything means something, and he won’t tolerate anyone getting in his way. He’ll sacrifice anyone to further his own story. Jaha isn’t exactly a good guy and his whole arc this season was set up for next season.

Which brings us to the other problem that the season has with a lot of build up and not a lot of payoff. Clarke needs to answer for what she did, not just self imposed exile. Jaha needs to be guided to burn the world again for starters. But the status quo being shaken up by the Grouder-Sky People alliance dissolving is somewhat nonsensical in and of itself, but it throws a lot of stuff sideways. The ending is fine, but there’s no real denouement so it’s just leaves the feeling of now what? And not in a good way. Sadly, we have to wait till next year for season three.

The 100 isn’t the best show on the air right now, but it is an entertaining and interesting show. I just hope that season three can move past the flaws of the first two seasons. I don’t know what I’ll be talking about next week. Till next time.

 

 

 

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Clines is not a good book. It is not a particularly fun or interesting book either. It is a rather bad book. Whatever novelty or creativity the book has is overshadowed by dull, grating and in some cases offensive, execution. The book would be forgettable except that is a different spin on some ideas and its widespread praise. Those two things mean that it’s worthwhile to discuss it at the very least.

Trigger Warning: Violence, transphobia, homophobia, suicide

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

 

           

            In the interest of fairness, the best thing that this book does is painting a plausible version of the future. The world of 2045 sucks and it sucks in ways that are very plausible; in a lot of ways it’s the new version of what cyberpunk should look like. This degree of proficient world-building does not hold true for much else. It is impossible to discuss the shortcomings of his world building in other spaces without talking about one of the key parts of the premise though.

A major part of the setting is that the 80s have come back in vogue because they were an obsession of the world’s richest man and creator of the OASIS, James Halliday. This is in and of itself is hard to believe. The notion that an eccentric rich dude could cause a massive resurgence in this stuff is unlikely for two big reasons. First, it requires people to collectively stop caring about stuff (the most recent thing referenced is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) which isn’t going to happen, there is more recent stuff that people are attached to. For every triumph that has aged well there are a dozen duds that are best forgotten. Second, because 80s pop culture, embodied by things such as Revenge of the Nerds (a noted favorite of Halliday) have been deconstructed as problematic and we are collectively making some measure of progress towards being more diverse and inclusive. It requires people to collectively stop caring about any of that. Of course, when 80s pop culture is a roadmap to becoming the richest person on Earth; you have a pretty good motive to not care.

This Easter Egg hunt, to claim Halliday’s treasure, has spawned an entire subculture and is the focus of the book. Our protagonist, Wade, has made finding the egg his own quest for the Holy Grail, and he is profoundly unlikeable. Now, some of this is because he’s a teenager with basically no support network, but those parts of him aren’t what I dislike. Wade is a walking encyclopedia of Halliday trivia who just cites stuff and identifies stuff. He doesn’t have any substantive opinions on this stuff, the most we get is that he dislikes a certain song. He, nor does the text for that matter, play with this stuff in interesting stuff. It’s all slavishly recreated so the reader can nod and go, ‘Oh, I get that reference’. Which is strange, a lot of these references are just straight up recreations, so you’re expected to know what’s going on, but nothing fun happens.

Now, you could just make an argument that since I didn’t experience the 80s first hand, there’s stuff I just missed. Which is partly true, but event the stuff I did get was dull. The climax involved a mecha fight, and as someone who will put up with a fair amount for giant robots, found the sequence to be dull. The problem is even worse when it involves videogames, reading someone play through a videogame is incredibly boring, fan service padding before we can get back to things actually happening again. It’s dull and uninspired, fan service that the reader should appreciate because it’s there, not because of what it does.

Wade lacking substantive opinions isn’t the only reason I dislike him though. He’s also the perfect example of my issues with 80s pop culture being problematic, as the trigger warnings should have indicated. Early in the book Wade uses a homophobic slur to verbally spar with someone. The point of hate speech is to be hurtful and the use of slurs to hurt. So, in 2045 homophobia is still a thing, no doubt because culture has regressed to the 1980s. The fact that it’s teenagers doesn’t excuse this as typical high school drama either, kids learn bigotry from somewhere and social mores change.

Now in order to discuss the transphobia I need to digress to how the book discuss cyberspace. This book has a sophomoric view of what constitutes real vis a vis cyberspace and virtual reality. The idea that everything that happens in the OASIS isn’t real, that it has to take place face to face in the real world is complete nonsense. It ignores how the OASIS is used in every aspect of life in setting. Outside the setting, it’s the view of the privileged super-user, it’s the view of someone whose never had a meaningful talk over Facebook, never had friends they’ve never seen in real life, never had to worry about who they were around people they knew in real life and didn’t need an alternative.

This brings us to Art3mis and Aech, two characters who take advantage of the OASIS to look as they want, not as they are. In the case of Art3mis, it’s to not have a wine-stain birthmark. In the case of Aech, it’s to be appear as a white male instead of a heavyset black woman. Art3mis, a badass and charming gunter, is the love interest who creates tension by proscribing the aforementioned view of reality. This “tension” also comes from Wade, who is insistent upon knowing the “real her. Setting aside the issue of not being happy with how someone chooses to present themselves and that being just as real as the body they’re born with, there are other issues at hand. First, there are the incessant jokes about how Art3mis might be a guy named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement, which aren’t funny on either a societal or personal level. Wade is poor and the Great Recession never ended, that you have to live in your parents’ basement isn’t something to laugh about; it’s something to rage about because your generation, the generation before yours, were screwed into such a situation. On a personal level it’s not funny either, so what if Art3mis is biologically male? She chooses to present herself as a woman and that should be good enough. Wade’s transphobia and nonsensical fixation on the real world comes to a head for me with the following question “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex change operation?” It’s incredibly offensive and it’s what you’d expect…out of a 1980s movie.

The reason I mentioned Aech is that her* identity is meant to be a shock, that someone wouldn’t present themselves as they actually were on OASIS. This is silly, a ton of people wouldn’t present themselves the same way; a ton of people would not be the same as they are in the real world for any number of reasons. Any hesitation that Wade has is swept away once he spends time her, because Aech is still Aech and this wasn’t some long con borne out of bad faith. But no issues are raised, because Aech isn’t the love interest and there doesn’t need to be “tension” in their relationship.

Speaking of romance, the relationships in this book are pretty bad. Wade and Art3mis is fairly groan inducing, partly cause Wade is a teenager whose idea of relationships comes from 1980s teen movies and partly cause Art3mis is made to be contrary. It takes up a not insignificant word count and it’s a lot of telling, not showing. Art3mis gets a few scenes where she’s allowed to be herself and not an appendage to something greater, and in those scenes she’s a wonderful character, a badass gunter with an endearing side. If the book had her as the main character, it would be infinitely better. The only other relationship is the love triangle between Og, Halliday and Lauren, which is a case of socially awkward people are bad at expressing themselves and end up making questionable life decisions because of it. Also there’s some grating parallels between that and Wade’s situation that are a cause for further groan. A healthy relationship where both people are alive is too much to ask for. These relationships aren’t charming, they’re forced.

Ready Player One is a bad book, it so very badly wants to be one of the 80s movies it has sycophantic reverence for, but it’s not. It’s a book that could have existed in 2011 because many of the issues I talked about weren’t as mainstream, but even then its problems were clear. In 2015 it’s a laughable work that oscillates between boring and offensive. In no way can I actually recommend that you read this book. Next week, I’ll be reviewing the 100 season two. Till next time.

 

*Another issue is that Wade doesn’t know the significance of pronouns and misgenders her once we know the truth, but all indications are that Aech identifies as a woman.