On Cartoon Villainy

Since politics and culture are inextricable from each other, it’s easy pickings for any number of thinkpieces on just why thing X is responsible for the present fall of the republic.  Here’s a half-baked observation, including spoilers for some things.

As our increasing appetite for darker, more complicated stories and more complicated, conflicted, flawed heroes gave way to movies, books, and tv shows about antiheroes and actual villains, we became blase about legitimately bad people in real life.

How are we supposed to decry torture while applauding Jack Bauer?

Even though he was a sociopath and an asshole, were you really glad Walter White didn’t get away, or were you rooting for him and his big pile of money, an everyman’s badass?

Isn’t it great when Frank Underwood subways, er, subverts his enemies to his own corrupt urges?

Weren’t we thrilled when Darth Vader showed up in Rogue One and slaughtered good guys mercilessly?  Didn’t we want more of Heath Ledger’s Joker?

Batman and Superman have to fight each other, hell, even Captain America’s conscience isn’t clean; so many of our good guys are kinda assholes, too.

Are we desensitized to evil?  Enough so to not recognize it on the nightly news?

When prison guards boil someone in the shower?

When frat boys laugh with excitement over sentencing Americans to death-by-bankruptcy?

When CBP tricks visitors into giving up their visas via coercion?

When Congress tells ISPs they can finally sell you out.

When ICE ambushes people trying to become citizens and deports them?

When the guy responsible for awful things done in Iraq sets up a meeting between our government and the awful government of an adversary to talk about helping each other do awful things?

When the Department of Justice takes a look at the detailed investigation of systemic racism on the part of police departments nationwide and hard work to fight it and says ‘never mind‘?

These aren’t just horrible things, these are transparent, cartoonishly evil things being done in broad daylight and being bragged about in a lot of cases.  Swaggering, cackling, excellent evil showing up and doing whatever the hell it wants, for reasons ranging from deep cynicism and greed, to racism, to just straight up petulance.  Forget the problem of a third of the country endorsing and cheering on these things.  Ask so many of the rest of us why there aren’t so many more of us in the streets, why we aren’t seizing a moment in real life to join a battle of good and evil.

Ask why there aren’t more Princess Leias and Harry Potters.  And wonder if it’s because we all secretly wouldn’t rather be Kylo Ren.

We’re home

Han Solo’s line in the last trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is as neat a summation as anything.  After three (in retrospect, kinda weird) prequel movies (which i still like, in varying degrees), here’s a movie that feels exactly like a movie that could have been made three years after Return of the Jedi.  Is it what everybody thought it would be?  It’s both considerably more and a lot less, i think, months later (and having just rewatched it for the first time–i know, i’ve been busy).

  • A lot of ink has been spilled about the structural similarities of the plot to the original Star Wars, and it’s both correct and irrelevant.  The ceremonial blowing-up-of-the-giant-battle station could have been fleshed out a bit more, or have been something else, but it’s nothing more than set dressing for what the movie’s actually about.
  • Which is that, 30 years later, our dashing, young, attractive heroes have each let us down.  Han Solo and Princess Leia couldn’t raise a kid.  Princess Leia couldn’t form a lasting coalition.  Luke Skywalker couldn’t rebuild the Jedi order.  Things are a mess, and in the case of 2/3 of them, they’ve stopped even trying.  Just like before, yes, but it matters the world that we grew up with these people (and even my 5-year-old nephew already grew up with young Luke, Leia, and Han), and they’re not mere name-dropped ancestors.
  • Fortunately, the movie is mostly about all these fun new people we get to meet and they’re endlessly fascinating.  Sure, this is great in the corporate Shared Universe sense, but when my wife is still thinking about what the fuck is up with Kylo Ren after just the second Star Wars movie she’s ever seen, then you’ve probably done something right.
  • Seriously, it is an insane feat of writing (acting, directing) to drop four or five new, big characters into the most famous story of our age and have them instantly burst into an iconic life of their own.  Imagine if The Phantom Menace made us care about any of its new characters.

If the girl finds me up in the middle of the night watching it again, i hope she’ll understand.

It’s not the end of the world

A funny thing happened when i was watching the trailer for X-Men: Apocalypse on my iPad the other day.  The girl said something to the effect of “the world’s blowing up, again, what a surprise.” over my shoulder.  And i found myself agreeing with her.

Now, i’m not any kind of comic book fan, and these aren’t anything resembling sacred texts for me.  But i like big summer tentpole movies, and i like watching characters snark and blow things up, in varying proportions.  At the same time, my overwhelming reaction to all this was, “meh.”

Like i said, though i’m not invested in comic books, emotionally, the first Iron Man drew me in instantly, not least because forget the superhero part, the protagonist is plainly an engineer.  And a smartass.  Plenty to identify with.  Captain America was a fun period adventure.  And while i liked South Park‘s take on Thor better than the movie, The Avengers, when it came along, was fun, because all the characters were fun.  And that’s just the rub.

These movies succeed because they’ve hired good writers and have done a fantastic job finding great actors to inhabit iconic characters.  But it’s tough to come up with impressively escalating stakes for all these movies.  Saving the world is exhausting for those of us in the audience as well, as it turns out, and it’s tough to write yourself a smaller story that feels as important afterwards.

It’s been said about some actors, some characters, that they’re so good you’d watch them do anything.  And that can cut both ways.  After all this meaningless galactic import and world-saving, at this point, i think, hell, i know i’d rather watch Iron Man, Mystique, Spider-Man, and the Joker in a sitcom set in their local bar.

Remember, everybody, i came up with the idea to remake Cheers with superheroes first. You can paypal me my royalties whenever’s convenient.

Everything is Awesome

As someone who grew up on Legos, or arguably didn’t, since i still have all of them, The Lego Movie could not fail to make an impression on me. Short story: go see it, it’s hilarious, and your kids might like it, too. But if you grew up not just with Legos (n.b.: i grew up calling them Legos, and no amount of corporate brand usage guidelines are sufficient to break me of the habit), but immersed in them, this movie will make you laugh until it hurts. And then, if you’re like me, you’ll start wondering how these plastic bricks helped make you who you are.

To me, you could sum up the movie as the story of the conflict between the front of the box and the back of the box. At least in the olden days, the back of a Lego set had all sorts of off-the-wall things you could build when you got bored of the fire engine. We cut them out and saved them, but few of these spoke to me in the same way as the front of the box did.

That’s right, kids, i identify with the forces of order, with Lord Business himself. i had no interest in a walking robot with ladders for legs, my town needed a damn fire truck. i had a vision, and that vision had precious little room for whimsy. Ask my favorite sister about the rigid zoning requirements enforced upon her more multicolored contributions to my fair city. In the corner, a dead-end street.

It’s not, i hope, an indication that i lacked imagination, far from it, i should think. But my imagination was grounded in things that were real; cities, subways, harbors, world’s fairs (hey, i lived in New Orleans in 1984), amusement parks, Olympics, skyscrapers, spaceships (spaceships are real, dammit). Maybe not so much real as realistic; things that fascinated me. And realism was an attention to detail; toilets, clock towers, bustling squares, street lights, airlocks (it always bugged me that Lego spacemen never seemed to have anywhere to take off their helmet).

Don’t mistake me for the man with the krazy glue, though. This was to be played with; crashed, razed, remodeled, perfected, then apocalyptically destroyed in the name of having that clean-slate day with its rush of new creation until my dad bade me go outside.

It’s that same impulse that stokes a burning fury at a design that just isn’t right, where the parts fit okay, but not the way they should, where the seams line up okay, but must be better. Sure, I can pretend it’s good enough, and if it’s 4am and they asked for it tomorrow, damn right it is. But with the time to do it, it gets ripped apart, turned over, blasted into pieces and put back together armed with the knowledge of how it should fit, how it should work.

That’s why i’ve kept all my Legos, even if real life keeps them stowed under the bed far too long; that quick hit of frustration-to-satisfaction is an outlet i do not wish to ever part with. Although i’ll gladly share some with my favorite nephew and niece someday soon. But there’s a reason i use a red spaceman as my avatar these days, sparing me the need to take the dreaded selfies in assorted places around the world. He’s kinda been me all along, and he wants to see cool things, too.

Everybody have pity on my girlfriend, because I’m dumping out the buckets real soon now.