America First

I haven’t written about this administration in a while. I haven’t said much specific about politics in a while, actually. But it’s left me with very little to say. I’ve been wanting to find ways of being more positive. I’ve tried asking myself:

Is Trump really so bad?

I want to understand how so many can support what has seemed to me so intolerable. So as a thought exercise, I’ve tried going through it all objectively. Yes, clearly he has shattered norms. He is incurably dishonest. He is brash and rude. But is it possible to just look at these things as showmanship? Could it just be an act? Could we on the left have been distracted by the bluster and miss the substance, the ideology behind it?

But even if you do that, then you come to see that if Trump’s persona is a comedian’s schtick, then his policies and ideology are those of a huckster.

Recently he commented to Fox News that he believes America should get paid for sending its troops to a foreign country. He has in the past bristled over the cost of our alliances to South Korea, to Japan, to NATO.

This is the mentality Trump brings to the White House. The cheap landlord trying to get his dime.

This is America First.

This is Trump’s business model. But this is not leadership.

Leaders do not put themselves first.


To Do List for the Nation

It’s 2020, so I’m spitballing here. What should be our priorities for sustainability in the next decade?

-Subsidize solar, wind, and tidal energy.

-Replace fossil fuels with biofuels (but not corn-based ethanol, sorry).

-Establish a plan to shift all (non-medical) single-use plastics to bioplastic.

-Subsidize green roofs.

-Develop a national rewilding program.

-National initiative to improve municipal recycling capacities.

-Shift to only sustainable palm oil in products sold in US.

What else?

Review: The Expanse Season Four

Season four of the Expanse has arrived! If you haven’t watched it, go do that. 

Because below thar be SPOILERS! 

The first episode opens up with what amounts to a roll call, revisiting the series’ various characters, now clumped into a few groups that will mostly remain separate through the season as they grapple with the ramifications of the galaxy being opened up for possible exploration and exploitation by the events at the end of season three. 

On Earth, UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala is facing a new web of political machinations, far less sinister than the plots she foiled in season three, but in some ways, this new ordeal is more horrifying: an election. Despite popular clamoring for expansion, her impulse is to hold back on colonization beyond the ring gates. Having seen the horrors of Eros, she is reluctant to open the floodgates and let the “blood-soaked gold rush” that central protagonist James Holden predicted begin. 

So when she needs someone to help her apply the brakes to the expansionist zeal, she turns to the man who knows the ring-building protomolecule best: Holden himself. At her behest, he and the Roci head out past the ring gates to a little planet called Ilus, or New Terra, depending on who you talk to.

The Ilus storyline where Belter squatters and corporate stooges from Earth tussle for control of a planet that is brimming with both hostile alien organisms and world-shaping protomolecule technology is adapted largely from the fourth Expanse novel, Cibola Burn.  

On Ilus, Holden and his crew work through a pretty self-contained story arc. The Earth expedition crashed under suspicious circumstances and their security chief, Murtry, wants to flush out the Belter terrorists responsible. Meanwhile, Holden has ferried the protomolecule’s artificial intelligence based on the memories of Joe Miller along to Ilus and inadvertently switched on the planet-scale machinery beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Naomi pushes herself to the breaking point trying to acclimate to a planet’s gravity and Amos makes a new friend (wink, wink). The conflicts these core characters face are mostly external now since they have coalesced into a little family and aren’t at odds with one another. The action here isn’t quite episodic, but the challenges and complications our core characters face feel somewhat disconnected from the larger issues of the galaxy, just as they did in Cibola Burn. 

That novel takes place almost entirely on Ilus, away from all the other characters except the core Rocinante gang of Holden, Alex, Naomi, and Amos. Season four of the show, though, does not leave the rest of the cast from the previous seasons behind. 

Just as the show continues to track Avasarala’s political conundrum even after she has sent Holden on his way, it also keeps up with Drummer and Ashford, who are now both in uniform and hunting rogue OPA around the ring gate to maintain the uneasy alliance with Earth and Mars. Ashford is a changed man since season three. He acknowledges his errors and has resolved himself firmly to non-violence—well, in the largest sense anyway. He still has to shoot down pirates, but he preaches to any he can catch that the new Belt needs to reject violence as a political tool. It’s easy to see that this stance is both his penance for almost lashing out at the ring gate and wiping out humanity and the natural evolution of his compromises in the name of progress when we met him in season three. The show, though, hints that he has also come to blame himself and his life of violence for the death of his child, alluded to in past episodes but made more tangible here as he watches some old zero-G home movies. 

The Expanse was no doubt trying to get the most out of its big guest star here and lets him outshine Cara Gee’s Drummer a bit, but that’s understandable, considering his fate. His loss at the end of the season suggests darker developments ahead for the peace between the Belt, Earth, and Mars. 

The show also finally goes to Mars. We’ve technically been here before, but only for an outdoor combat exercise in season two. At long last we get to see Martian culture through Frankie Adams’s Bobbie Draper, now a disgraced ex-marine looking to reintegrate into Martian society. Ever since she first joined the show, I’ve been hoping that they would just leave Bobbie on the Rocinante once she was there (even though that’s not what happened in the books either). Bobbie’s reluctance to do so makes sense for her character, though. She is, as we hear so often, a good Martian. But that means less than it used to now that Martian society is fraying. Why spend your lifetime terraforming Mars, many are now wondering, when there are livable worlds on the other side of the gate? 

The novella Gods of Risk features Bobbie as a side character and is one of the most forgettable of The Expanse’s ancillary pieces. Going into the season, I’d kind of hoped we wouldn’t be seeing it hashed out on screen, but it does serve as the jumping off point for Bobbie’s arc here. The series, though, extends that story and eventually makes her foray into the underworld connect with the larger events in the system. It makes sense for the show, and even makes sense for the character—to an extent. Bobbie slides into her criminal life a little too easily. I honestly thought she was probably under cover for the cop who harasses her at the beginning—that she’d discreetly contacted her and was gathering evidence to bust up Esai’s little syndicate. 

But the Bobbie Draper we met on the show has always been different than her counterpart in the books. Always a little angrier, and always a more fervent believer in Mars’s destiny. Having that carpet yanked out from her and losing her sense of purpose yet again just works as justification for stepping outside the law. Many fans may have wished that she would just take Avasarala’s job offer and leave Mars right away since Frankie Adams and Shohreh Aghdashloo are delightful together and their chemistry in seasons 2 and 3 made those some of the best episodes of the whole series, but hopefully we will see plenty fo them together in season five. 

In their discreet plot arcs, each of the main characters from the previous seasons interacts with new faces—some potential allies, some foils, and some antagonists. Bobbie spends her time running with a crew who are in no way as cool as the Roci gang. Avasarala has a couple of new political flunkies (I really thought one of them would turn out to be Soren from the books) and a new political opponent. Their two story lines likely feel the least significant because those other characters don’t seem to be sticking around for long and don’t really carry much weight when all is said and done. When Bobbie is back on her own, we aren’t exactly left missing her erstwhile fellow criminals—and would rather see her clash with the new enemies she meets in only a literal flash at the end of her story on Mars.

The Expanse has had villains before, monsters like Dresden or people warped by their ambitions like Errinwright and Mao. But the show’s best antagonists are the ones who kind of have a point. Dawes and Fred’s conflict was layered and nuanced, just as their eventual alliance is presumed to be (I hope they are moving heaven and Earth to ensure we see Jared Harris again in Season 5) because you could see Dawes’s argument and understand his ambitions for the belt even when they ran counter to what our heroes wanted. 

Murtry, the boogeyman of Ilus is certainly not one of those characters. He could have been, and it’s somewhat disappointing that the show misses such an obvious chance to develop him as a more nuanced counter to Holden. The moment when he spins around and says, “Now that’s a threat” and fires without real provocation was too black and white. A simple second or two of footage where the Belters, uncowed, continue challenging him, a simple “What if it is?” to cast some shades of gray into the moment would have made his whole arc and all the choices he made afterward more compelling. 

But Murtry was never staying around long anyway, so it’s no great loss. 

If The Expanse missed its chance with him, then it stuck the landing with Marco, who is obviously being set up as a major antagonist for the future of the show. We know from the exposition introducing Naomi’s former love and lover that he has a reputation for being “charismatic,” but that flash of tell, don’t show in Ashford’s dialogue is rendered totally forgivable when we meet him and find that, dammit, they weren’t kidding.

Played by Keon Alexander, Marco is seductive. His scene in the airlock doesn’t just win over some of the enemy factions, it woos the viewer. He is easily the strongest new presence in any of the separate threads that run throughout the ten episodes of season four. 

These threads come together—or at least start to—in the end. Like the novel Cibola Burn that provides much of the material for this season, season four does a lot to set up the board for future action. That foreshadowing becomes more overt by the end of the season when Marco Inaros reveals his plan to attack Earth, where most of the rest of our characters either are or are heading to. The entire plot on Ilus was about resolving the nagging issues of intergalactic expansion, wiping away the last traces of the intelligence that opened the gates for us so that this bold new frontier would be ours, truly ours, and even demonstrating that, in a pinch, we can survive the myriad trials waiting for us on these habitable, but still alien worlds made available through the miracle of the protomolecule.

But in the hands of showrunner Naren Shankar and his tremendous cast and crew, the season is also a settling of personal frictions. Each character explores and resolves inner conflicts. Drummer is going to be her own person. Avasarala has made her peace with defeat, for the first time. Bobbie, robbed of her life-long purpose, has found another mission. By working with Lucia, Naomi accepts that she has remade and redeemed herself. Alex, too, is able to articulate his regrets about his family, but is still sure he is where he belongs. Holden moves past being simply the “hand terminal” the protomolecule is punching buttons into and chooses his role as the vanguard for this new civilization. (Amos is, well, still Amos; but even he has faced the very root of his trauma through the ordeal of going blind.) 

Through it all, they’ve now been tested and are steeled for the challenges ahead in Season 5…




And readers of the books know what those challenges will be.

Obviously, setting up Marco’s attack on Earth seems like it’s spoiling one of the big shocks of Nemesis Games. In the post Game of Thrones era, TV viewers no longer expect that the heroes will always thwart the bad guys at every turn and many are likely prepared now for the rocks to fall. 

The build-up, though, lends more direction to the events of season 4. These threads that Drummer, Ashford, and Bobbie have been pulling lead somewhere—somewhere more horrible than any of them has yet realized. Looking ahead to season five, it’s difficult to imagine how the show will reckon with a catastrophe of the scale described in the books. One hopes it does better than the novels did. Holden making “sympathize with the Belt” videos after the greatest atrocity in human history always seemed both tone deaf and pointless. I think Shankar knows where to go with this, though. The level of foreshadowing that has gone into this moment—not just with Marco’s holograms and the captured Martian’s warning about the dream of Mars being “writ large,” but from hints and mentions of “rocks” falling throughout the show’s life—suggests that he knows that he and his crew are building up towards something both massive and monstrous. 

The Expanse is often compared with BSG—hell, I’ve done it—but the disaster of the Cylon attack launched the series. This will be different. The entire world of The Expanse will be upended and a new order will be left in its wake. 


Stray Thoughts:

  • I wonder why Brian George was recast. New Arjun was one of the most distracting things in this season. It’s hard to accept such a dramatic turn in Avasarala’s relationship without the sense of continuity we’d have had with the previous actor remaining in the role. 
  • Also, the choices they make in Avasarala’s arc on Earth are fascinating. The conceit of her losing the election was concocted for the show, along with the tension in her marriage (which had alway seemed like her rock both in the novel and past seasons of the show). But the really fascinating wrinkle comes in her debate with Nancy Gao. Gao’s attack on the economic policies on Earth is dramatic and we can’t help but see Avasarala as a guardian of a social order that is fundamentally unjust. As with her later manipulations that alienate her husband, Avasrala is just plain wrong. It’s an interesting choice for one of everyone’s favorite characters and I’m curious how it will shape her future. 
  • We get to see Nadine Nicole’s Clarissa Mao reach out to Amos via video chat because she has no one else left in the world. She comments that she has to—cough, cough—spend the rest of her life in jail. Stay tuned, Peaches. 
  • Also, for shits and giggles, I inaugurated a new Twitter feed with one-sentence recaps of every Expanse episode as self-help book titles like this one. Check ‘em out. 

In a Rut

Lately, I’ve been thinking the scope of my activities is just too narrow.

When I get online, I go to the same cycle of websites every day. I check CNN to see if anything important is happening. I pick out a couple of articles from The Atlantic that seem interesting. I go to io9, my portal of choice for the Gizmodo geeky stuff I want to follow. I go to the forum for my gaming clan. Then I google “Destiny” and see if there’s any news, usually reading Paul Tassi’s near-daily post at Forbes. Then I google “Expanse” to see if they’ve finally released a premiere date for Season 4 (spoiler: they haven’t).

That’s it. Then I’ll end up doing that all over again a few times a day. Whenever I need a break at work, I run that gamut even though there’s nothing new after 8AM on most of those sites. (And once a week, I peek in at National Review to try to force myself outside my bubble.)

Oh, and there’s Facebook.

But Facebook also feels like it’s just the same thing over and over again. There’re left-leaning political posts. The algorithm makes sure I know what Elizabeth Warren and Ocasio-Cortez are up to. There’s going to be a some petitions for me to sign to tell the powers that be that I want to save the bees and stuff like that. There’ll be the daily activity on my AP English teachers’ group and my Expanse fan group. Sometimes I’ll respond to some of that stuff.

But there’s a definite sameness and monotony to all of it, that’s for sure.

Scrolling through just now, I saw the oatmealish paste of pics of “friends” doing “stuff.” A few Memorial Day tributes. A few news items from one ex-student whose reposts always seem to end up in my feed.

Apparently, though, there is a way to shake this up. In–ironically–this weekend’s Atlantic, Joe Pinsker describes his own experiment in unseating Facebook’s algorithm and basking in unfettered randomness. He describes how using tools like Noisify, he has been able to follow in the footsteps of hyper-randomizers like Max Hawkins, a man who has literally let randomizers dictate what he eats, where he shops…even where he lives! Pinsker ended up in Facebook groups on everything from dinosaur fans to rat breeding.

Recently a friend at work told me I should download the Reddit app. Tell it what you like, he said, and it will feed you items of interest. At the time, I kind of smiled and nodded, but some little voice inside was telling me that I didn’t want to have another app offering me more articles about Destiny and The Expanse (Jesus Christ, are those really my only interests?!?).

But maybe I will download it now.

I’ll try it out and tell it nothing. Maybe I’ll use a random number generator–a dice app–to dictate each day how many links to count down and then click. I will commit to diving down the rabbit hole and seeing what sort of weirdness I can get myself into. I will broaden my god-damned horizons!

But first let me check my clan’s forum–see if anyone’s online.

On Endings and Fan Service

Two colossal sagas in the history of geekdom came to a close recently.

We fans have witnessed the end of both the TV saga Game of Thrones and the close of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, I know that technically the continuity of the Marvel universe will go on, but Avengers: Endgame was obviously an ending–it was right there in the titles. Whatever comes next will be fundamentally different.

Anyone who’s paid any attention to both series knows that these conclusions have been received very differently.

Avengers: Endgame has closed out an audacious, improbable, often-absurd twenty-two film cinematic cycle with such aplomb and bombast that fans were blown away. Like all the MCU, such a thing should not be possible. After the dark cliffhanger of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, I personally didn’t think there was any way that the architects of this sweeping, epic comic-book fantasy could pull it off and stick the landing.

But they did. They really did.

On the other end of the spectrum, Game of Thrones landed with an audible plop.

What went wrong? There’s been a lot of criticism of the writing on Game of Thrones and its seeming decline for several years now. For example: As if the entire story was taking place in a game of Skyrim, all the characters seemed to have leveled up in the last few seasons and gained the ability to fast travel wherever they needed to be.

But this kind of handwavium sloppy writing isn’t confined to Game of Thrones. The Marvel movies–Infinity War and Endgame in particular–are guilty of similar plot contrivances. Tony’s Ironman armor, which was once a merely impossible piece of technology that encased a human being in a flight-suit and weapons platform at once–now seems capable of, well, anything. The “nannites” that he developed sometime after his appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming can just fashion anything he needs on the fly. And, like Game of Thrones, our characters seem remarkably spry in jumping from place to place–even the ones who don’t have access to mystical inter-dimensional portals.

So, why do we forgive the one and not the other? It’s not because one is a superior spectacle. The production value and cinematography, along with the acting, in the last few seasons of Game of Thrones have continued to be top notch, indubitably superior to the frenetic whiz-bang flashing energy that characterizes the visual palate of the MCU.

Most of those who share the opinion that Game of Thrones took a nosedive would probably fault the character development. Thrones has thrown some curve balls at characters’ apparent narrative arcs before. Hell, subverting the audience’s expectations of how characters are supposed to develop is pretty much the show’s (and novel series’s) trademark. After all, wasn’t Ned supposed to be the protagonist of the series? Yet, his head ended up rolling into a basket in episode nine of the first season.

What made Thrones great was that characters’ choices always led to consequences that they could not foresee–that’s where the conflicts in the show came from. Because they were nuanced beings in a complex world, the dominos never quite fell how these characters thought they might. Rob Stark’s plans fell apart because he followed his heart at one point, and tried to do his duty at another. Tyrian failed because he underestimated his sister’s animus and because his political capital wasn’t stronger than his own underlying resentment of a world that had served him ill.

But at a certain point, the characters seemed to stop simply being served hands other than what the audience might expect and began to behave inconsistently with the journeys we could see them taking. They were not just thrust into difficult situations; they were forced to behave in ways that didn’t seem to fit who they had been, sometimes just episodes before.

Obviously, the central example of this is Daenerys. For many viewers and fans, she was the hero of the show. Yet, beginning in season seven, the show started hinting that she had dark inclinations and was a tyrant in her heart of hearts. Many of us who had been thrilled for her triumphs–which were again and again framed as heroic by the show’s bold visuals, rousing music, and the structure of the episodes themselves–hoped that these hints were red herrings, that in the end, Dany would be the leader we believed her to be.

But, no, in the end, she did the unthinkable and burned down the very city she had crossed an ocean to possess. With the battle for King’s Landing already won and her enemies surrendering, she just kept burning anyway.

Now, this outcome could have been well done. Dany as an antagonist could have been very interesting. But the showmakers clumsily made her simply a villain, losing all nuance. It’s as though they could not really conceive of a (female) character who was both ruthless and compassionate. They insisted on reducing her to one thing, one variable–and painted her embracing her ambition as morally unambiguous as genocidal rage. The word I read again and again in reviews online was “unearned.”

Again, I think a contrast with the MCU is instructive here. When the plot for Captain America: Civil War called for the Avengers to be divided, there were people on Team Cap and Team Tony–debating which of the two central Avengers was right. And the really interesting thing about that movie was that you could really see how both were right and both were wrong.

If Game of Thrones had played its cards right, we could have seen a similar tension between Jon and Dany, able to see how her ruthlessness could serve the realm and pave the way to the future, but also maybe understand that Jon and Tyrian would have believe they had to stop her.

But instead, we all had to agree that Dany had become a kind of monster and that Jon had to kill her.

Many fans felt betrayed by that turn of events, but even more were disappointed that it wasn’t handled with the kind of careful development that marked the early seasons of the show.

George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones book series A Song of Ice and Fire, warned us via Twitter back in 2013: “Art is not a democracy. People don’t get to vote on how it ends.”

That’s certainly true of his novels, but some might wonder about the larger phenomenon of Game of Thrones, the show. Is this really art any longer? I mean, certainly a lot of art goes into it. From the art of performance from a truly stellar cast to the painstakingly rendered art of the visual universe built form the labor and minds of dozens upon dozens of designers, cinematographers, computer artists, costume designers, etc.

But is a TV series really art or is it, ultimately, product?

And what does either “owe” to the audience. Some fans felt outraged by the last season of Thrones. Some say the characters “deserved” better. Some said they themselves did.

Is this just democratic critique? Voices made public via Twitter and the web that would have simply been exchanged around the water cooler in previous eras? Or is this something different? Has “fandom” become so entitled that it demands, impudently like a child king, the stories it wants and wants them now!

Why did Gatsby have to die? You shouldn’t have killed him, Mr. Fitzgerald. John Proctor should escape; Miller’s an asshole!

I’m not sure we’ve crossed a line from wishing things had gone differently to believing that they should have gone differently. Perhaps the problem is in this era of hypermedia alongside constant cycles of reboots and recycled stories, we feel that nothing is permanent, that no ending is really ever set in stone. People complained about recasting Harrison Ford for the recent Star Wars movie based on Han Solo’s early years. And lo and behold, someone sicked a deep learning AI on the movie and grafted Ford’s face onto the action of the film. I myself thought that a simple fan edit to the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones could throw some moral ambiguity into Dany’s actions. Clip out her strafing the streets willy nilly and have her just attack the red keep. Make the carnage collateral damage and make Jon Snow’s choice more difficult.

Yeah, that’d fix it.

Whether this pattern is the democratization of art wherein everyone is commentator if not creator, or if we’re simply seeing the excesses of an overly entitled generation of fans too used to a digital world that force feeds them what they like and more of it, only time will tell.

Of course, when everyone agrees you did it well, like Marvel, then it doesn’t seem to matter.


Assorted Musings on Endgame:

  • It may all be sound and fury signifying nothing, but damned is it entertaining. A self-referential nerdgasm that bends back on itself like a mobius strip of easter eggs and comic mythology dense enough to collapse space-time itself, a phrase that used to mark media and narratives as too obtuse for mass consumption but is now exactly the kind of thing people would talk about in this absurdly glorious (gloriously absurd?) film series. But to really appreciate some great moments, you’ve got to have been along for so many little things:
  • There’s Carol Danvers taking a head-butt from Thanos and looking schoolmarm stern as if the menace of the entire 22 movie cycle was a particularly disobedient welp. (Oh, who is Carol Danvers? Didn’t you see Captain Marvel? You had to in order to understand why she’s suddenly with the Avengers in the first five minutes of the movie–hell, you had to wait for the after-credits scene for her movie to understand that.)
  • And there’s Captain America back in an elevator with all the bad guys. But you wouldn’t know they were bad guys unless you were taking notes during his second movie when we found out they were all secretly Hydra agents who have not yet–at that point in the time stream–revealed their evil allegiance. Did you think Cap was going to pummel them to escape the elevator? No, he just pretends to be one of them by whispering “Hail Hydra.” (But you don’t really get the significance of that unless you followed the recent Secret Wars comic series, or at least paid attention to the press that buzzed around the gimmicky, attention-getting twist in the series.)
  • Pyrrhic Victory, much? Think about the world the Avengers have actually “saved.” The psychological trauma of the snap is hardly erased by the return of all the folks who were dusted. Think about what suicide rates must have been like after the snap? Hawkeye’s family may be intact because he went on a morose murder-spree, but how many other wives and husbands moved on and remarried while their significant others were disappeared? Those are some awkward “Homecomings.” And think about poor Peter Parker. Yes, from the trailers for his next movie we see that all the characters whose names we knew were conveniently also missing for five years and are still teenagers, but think about that Monday back at high school. Half the class is “new” to the other half. That’s a lot of social awkwardness. “Hey, that’s my usual seat?” and such. What about food production? Society would have ramped down agricultural production. There will have to be rations while everyone retools. The job market is going to be utterly bizarre. “This is my office!” People will have moved. Houses will have been abandoned for years. The whole economy will have adjusted to a smaller population and now, suddenly, there are going to be mouths to feed, people who want to work and to have roofs over their heads. The world–hell, the entire universe–has a lot of sorting out to do. Poor Antman missed out on all his daughter’s middle school years…wait, maybe he lucked out there.
  • My favorite part has got to be Thanos’s ship turning its guns skyward. I was like, “Oh, yeah, here she comes.”

Assorted Musings on Thrones:

  • Honestly, I’m still too aggrieved to geek out about much of anything in the Thrones finale. But part of me can’t blame Dany for going rage-monster. I mean, poor Missandei. And wouldn’t you be pissed off if it took you like ten minutes to conquer King’s Landing even though your stupid advisors were all like, “Oh, don’t attack it yet, let’s go drag a wight from the north to not convince the evil queen that we’ve got to kumbaya and everything.” Losing her two dragons and her best buddy/hair-dresser was completely unnecessary. She could have taken King’s Landing in the first episode of season six without losing half her army at Winterfell and then marched north to defend the realms of men with the throne in her pocket and all three dragons. Maybe it was realizing all that that made her just decide to fuck it and burn the place down.
  • Oh, but anyone who’s surprised that neither Jon nor Dany ended up on the Iron Throne wasn’t paying attention. I 100% knew that neither of them would rule Westeros. Doesn’t mean I wanted one of them to turn into a homicidal maniac, sheesh.

The Marvel Formula Has Reached Its Limit

So, I just found this mostly-finished post in my unpublished drafts. Since I’m about to write about Avengers: Endgame, I might as well put this up, too. 

Spoilers ahead for the latest Marvel outing: Captain Marvel.

MCU, blah, blah. Ten years. Blah, blah. Twenty-one movies. Blah, blah.

I have long been fascinated with the enormity of the interconnected universe crafted by Marvel Studios under the guiding hand of ur-producer Kevin Feige. But I’ve already talked myself to death surveying its dimensions, its peaks and valleys.

Captain Marvel feels like a flat plane in that landscape. In telling the story of Carol Danvers, Air Force pilot cum intergalactic superhero, the film takes few risks and mostly just pulls the trigger on Marvel’s tried and true formula: Action, check. Witty banter, check. Um…geez is that the whole formula?

By now, that formula is pretty darned familiar. It’s worked well in most of those twenty-one films, and even in some others. By now, the DC comics universe, such that it is, has shifted away from its dour and glum early films toward following the same playbook. The much ballyhooed Wonder Woman was basically a pretty standard fare Marvel movie. I haven’t seen Aquaman, but it seems like it was on script, and the upcoming Shazam’s trailer definitely suggest it’s a paint-by-numbers Marvel clone, too.

Captain Marvel doesn’t have anything like the emotional depth of Black Panther, nor the ideas at work that made Winter Soldier a stand out, which is a shame. There was a lot of room to build in both, really. By making Carol a neophyte in the Kree military, the script misses the chance to make her more complicit in the horrors of war–something that could have added more dimensions to her discovery of their betrayal and of the real nature of their conflict with the Skrulls. The Skrulls, too, are handled poorly. Their leader’s conversion from potentially insidious infiltrator to misunderstood good guy wastes an opportunity to paint the duality of warfare with any nuance, as does Jude Law’s character’s overt about face toward cartoon villainy at the end.

Marvel movies are always at their worst when they are serving the gargantuan MCU itself instead of their own stories. Iron Man 2 was one of the low points of the whole enterprise because it was more interested in setting up SHIELD and the Avenger Initiative than anything else. Age of Ultron was okay at best because it was overcrowded with character introductions and dangling plot threads.

So, too, with Captain Marvel. This movie isn’t really about a character named Carol Danvers who is abducted by aliens and given super powers only to discover her true identity. No, this movie is about putting another piece on the board for Avengers: Endgame. It’s entertaining–mostly–and gives the fans what they want–and then some. But, ironically, given Carol’s tagline, it may go fast, but it doesn’t take us any higher and it doesn’t go any further than it needs to.

The New Game

“None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with YOU. You’re locked up in here with ME.”

-Rorscach in Watchmen
(and, also, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)


Look, here’s the Truth: Donald Trump didn’t win the 2016 election. Yeah, yeah, whine all you want. It’s true and this is how history will remember it: He was installed by Russia.

Just wait and see. Any day now will come the revelation that all that stolen Facebook data from Cambridge Analytica made its way to the Russian troll farms so that they could target just the right right-wing rubes (and, in fairness, to keep enough left-wing dingbats away from the polls) to swing just enough counties to “hack” our Electoral College (even if they didn’t literally hack voting machines, which they very well might have) and steal the presidency while losing the popular vote by millions.

That’s how it happened, people. Somewhere in your hearts, you all know it’s true.

But here’s the other thing: A lot of people did vote for Trump.

This train wreck of a human being should never have been within twenty percentage points of winning, but he was.

Some Republicans voted for him because he won their party’s ticket and they didn’t want another Clinton presidency. Some misogynists voted for him because they didn’t want Shrillary in office.

But a lot of others voted for him because he was an outsider, because they thought he would “shake up the system.” (Well, la-dee-da, mother-fuckers. You sure got your wish.)

So this is where we are.

We have a profligate liar in the White House who has completely demolished all the norms of our political discourse and derailed the way our system has functioned for decades.

For better or for worse, Trump has changed the game…forever.

Enter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This up-start, improbable Congresswoman from the Bronx has made a lot of waves, spurring on primary challenges (like her own) to entrenched and well-established Democrats to try to advance a radical, progressive agenda. Like Trump, she uses Twitter in unapologetic defense of her policies and office, but unlike Trump, she’s whip-smart and thick-skinned.

AOC is playing the new game.

Now, of course, comes the chorus of voices telling her to slow down, to check herself, to listen to all these staid and world-wise figures who’ve been in Congress for decades and wait her turn.

“She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress,” one said, ignoring that we have a so-called president who has maintained his support and even set policy via Twitter. (When I read this, I think of the Parkland kids. Their phenomenal success across the country in sponsoring gun control bills at the state level proves, to me, that activism is the best way to make law in this country.)

Or take Whoopi Goldberg’s on-air castigation: “Sit still…learn the job.”

All due respect, Guinan. She’s not there to learn the job. She’s there to remake it.

Everyone asking AOC to cool her jets is hoping that once we get rid of Trump, politics can go back to the old rules of empowered interests guarding their little lots with paid-for politicians griping over marginal interests as a theater of distraction.

“Those…fools want you gone so they can get back to the way things were. But I know the truth: there’s no going back. You’ve changed things…forever.”

Trump is a paradigm shift. He’s torn down our country’s good name and damaged our economy (Oh, you think things are going great? Wait for that deficit to implode.) and destabilized the world at large (which is what Russia paid for…imagine it: after we bankrupted them in the Cold War by spending trillions on defense and missile shield technology, they have–for a price less than a fighter jet–ruined us for god-knows-how-long).

But he’s also torn down the established political order with him. The Republican party as it was is no more. Now it is a cult of personality with some old dogs following the pack they no longer understand.

The Democrats can either be burned down along with their right-wing cronies or they can pass through this and stake out new territory on the opposite side of the Trumpocalypse.

Ocasio-Cortez gets it. Her policies are exactly what we need to reassert American prosperity and greatness in the 21st century and, what’s more, she sees the lay of the land and understands just how much has changed.

Pelosi has been a highly effective Speaker and a highly effective minority leader for more than a decade. I don’t want to diminish her accomplishments as Speaker.

But that was another era.

If she wants her party to lead America out of this nightmare, she and the caucus are the ones who should sit down and learn the new game.