Archive for June, 2017

Did the World Need a Wonder Woman Movie?

In today’s Hollywood, producers, movers, and shakers are all clamoring for “shared universe” franchises. Inspired by the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every possible story-telling rock is being overturned in the hunt for a franchise of franchises–money making interconnected characters and settings that will hopefully have infinite reservoirs of built-in audience appeal.

It cannot last.

Soon the silver screen will be graced with a Mummy remake starring the incomparable Sofia Boutella. But I doubt even her physical grace and screen charisma can carry a movie that is basically going to be Tom Cruise playing Ethan Hunt (again) vs. monsters. Universal is hoping otherwise, though. In fact, they hope it will be a relaunch (they tried already with an abysmal Dracula movie a few years back) of their monsters-themed shared universe.

On the horizon, we have other studios with similar hopes for Transformers spin-offs (because Bumblebee, the yellow camaro that cannot talk can totally anchor a feature film) and Godzilla vs. King Kong movies.

They’re all trying to do what Marvel did with its superhero movies, and thus, they all miss the point.

Superheroes work as a “shared universe” because they already occupy one. They already dwell in a common space within our collective imagination–they live within the mythic.

That is what the DC shared universe of super hero movies has failed to grasp thus far. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel offered some rays of light, but mostly was subdued by a larger interest on the director’s part of making a darker, grittier superhero universe–an impulse that took over (and took a shit on) the Batman v. Superman debacle.

Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, though, finds the soul in her super heroine that the boys’ outings for the DC murderverse never could. In Batman v Superman, Superman was dragged into the muck in a sophomoric attempt to make his idealism grapple with the ugly side of humanity.

Wonder Woman shares a similar thematic impulse, but executes it so much more capably.

The film is in many ways a bildungsroman for Diana, the nascent Wonder Woman (who never gets called that on screen), who moves past fish-out-of-water gags in London to have her eyes opened to the horrors of war on the Belgium front of WWI. She has trained her whole life to fight war in order to end it, but the suffering she actually witnesses surprises her.

It’s a somewhat superficial exploration of the limits of idealism, but it’s more depth than one generally finds in a super hero movie (Winter Soldier aside) and does much greater justice (pun intended) to her character’s unflappable heroism than Snyder’s take on Superman where Henry Cavil mostly had to grimace to try to maintain Supes’ dignity in the face of terrible, terrible writing.

One cannot credit Gal Gadot enough for her turn as the titular heroine. Even when she exudes naive confidence that the key to peace is simply to find Ares, the God of War, and slay him, her radiance is irrepressible and you want her to be right even though you know she can’t be. Naturally, Diana must learn the hard way that the world of men is not so simple as that and Gadot carries that growth–and conveys the protagonist’s distance from humanity–flawlessly. It’s ironic that many people, both myself and director Patty Jenkins, were skeptical that Gadot had the chops for this part since now she seems like the perfect screen embodiment of the character and likely will be for perpetuity the way that Hugh Jackman will always now be Wolverine.

The other key player in the success and charm of the film is Jenkins. She adopts the visual aesthetic of Snyder’s work–slow mo, muted color palettes–and bends them more purposefully to her story. Her camera loves Gadot’s face, seen often in close up, as much as it does the glint of her armor deflecting a bullet and she manages to humanize the action and epic story (one regrettable bit of CGI artificiality aside) so that the audience feels connected to Diana’s story through her warmth and optimism.

So Wonder Woman is an expertly executed super hero movie and, as many have pointed out, it’s high time that we had one of these stories helmed by a female character.

But, alas, it is one of these stories.

It doesn’t take a fine analytical edge to see the DNA this film shares with its predecessors, particularly the Marvel films that have previously perfected the formula. At one point, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor leads Diana into a bar to recruit an odd-ball crew for their dangerous mission behind enemy lines and I half expected the camera to pan across the pub to see Chris Evans’s Captain America on the very same endeavor.

It’s a great movie, no doubt. But more than anything, I left wondering if this genre has anything left to give us? The fight choreography was great, but we’ve seen characters tackle rooms of baddies with similar dramatic flair dozens of times–yes, even female characters. Just imagine shooting Black Widow’s fight scenes from Marvel in the style of 300 and you’re there. We’ve also seen the epic show down between God-like heroes and villains tearing the screen and reality apart in blasts of cosmic energy again and again.

Can these scenes really thrill us anymore? Show Wonder Woman to children–preferably some little girls–as their first action movie and they would probably be in rapt awe.

But for us, what is left? We can hardly be dazzled any longer. The story beats and their larger-than-life climaxes are requisite, familiar. The DC movie universe is building toward its Justice League, which looks to be The Avengers with the lights turned down. Marvel itself is building toward the culmination of its “Phase 3” in the two-part Infinity War. And now the world has a really good Wonder Woman movie.

Maybe that’s all it needs.

Maybe it’s time to say, “I say, we will have no more [comic book movies]. Those that are [in production] already, all but one (stop Aquaman, please!), shall live. The rest shall keep as they are…”

The (New) Civil War

Yesterday, I wrote about the Trump presidency and its effect on America’s standing as a world leader as a triumph of “ignorance.”

Now, there might have been some ambiguity about what I was saying when it came to this label. Some might have been unclear as to whether I was trying to say that anyone who supports Donald Trump was “ignorant.”

I don’t want there to be any such ambiguity, so let me clear this up:

If you fully support Donald Trump as president, then you are being ignorant.

Now, you may not be guilty of the racist or intolerant ignorance we’ve seen on display since his election and you may not be guilty of the sort of gross ignorance of global political and economic realities that drive his Bannonesque isolationist/nativist policies, but if you support this president then you are guilty of at least some measure of willful ignorance.

In writing yesterday, I quoted the National Review’s editors. I believe it’s important for any honest intellectual to make an effort to listen to and engage other viewpoints. In today’s increasingly balkanized and bubbleized online discourse, it’s more important than ever to step outside the echo chamber of what-we-already-believe and try to understand where others are coming from.

For a progressive today, that’s really, really, really hard. There simply aren’t many venues where conservative ideas are being discussed without rampant hyperbole and naked bias like one sees at Fox News or, God forbid, in the right-wing blogosphere where fraudulent stories run amok (let’s not forget that 75% of the fake news during the election cycle was right leaning).

The National Review, though, is an outlet with reasoned articulation of conservative thinking as it applies to the issues of the day. You know how you can tell? They routinely grapple with the problems of the Trump presidency, such as Charles Krauthammer’s recent editorial criticizing Trump for weakening NATO’s deterrent effect in Europe–or, even better, David Harsanyi’s assertion that “no political tribe…deserves your complete loyalty” where he notes several sound constitutional arguments against Obama’s approach to the Paris agreement.

Now, I think he gets a lot of other things wrong in that article and I would love to sit down and discuss it with him, but there’s the thing: we could sit down and talk about it. There’s room for discussion. The divide is not unbridgeable.

Harsanyi supports some of Trump’s actions, but does not argue for blind obedience to Trump’s agenda simply because he is an ostensibly Republican president.

Conservative Dennis Prager in his column for The National Review, though, does.

Writing recently, he chastised the “never Trump” conservatives that he knows for failing to get behind their “general.”

It was a column so unctuous to the general milieu of reasonable discourse on their site that in addition to Harsanyi’s “hey wait a minute” article, there is another rebuttal from Jonah Goldberg.

Prager’s argument is that America is in a “civil war” and that the republic itself is threatened by the left’s assault on campus free speech and its shift toward “European-style socialism.”

There are so many things I would like to say to this man, but I doubt we could sit down and have a reasonable discussion…

I, too, believe that the foundation of our republic is threatened, but not in the way Prager imagines. Mr. Prager, if this is a civil war with the heart of American democracy caught in the balance, are you sure you’re on the right side? Your “general,” after all, has attacked the courts and tried to rule via fiat from the oval office despite your party controlling Congress. If President Obama tried to circumvent and exploit loopholes in the balance of powers, your president is simply balking at them.

But there is something even more deeply disingenuous about Prager’s lament about the danger of it being “close to over for America as America” if Clinton had won.

Prager, and anyone who laments in fever pitch the imminent defeat of conservatism, is not taking an honest view of history–even recent history.

Prager feared a descent into socialism and warned that a Clinton victory would have made complete the “fundamental transformation” that Obama began.

What “fundamental transformation” would that be? Would it be the one where global capitalism was stabilized following a collapse that wrecked the world economy? It doesn’t look too “fundamental” from here.

Let’s face it, Prager, not even “socialist” Bernie Sanders was suggesting a shift toward real socialism. In fact, even Germany–which my conservative father always held up as a boogeyman of nanny-state socialism–is a perfectly fertile garden for capitalist enterprise.

Your histrionics, sir, ring hollow because we still live in the world Reagan built. Business is still booming. CEOs are still super, super rich. And inequality is still running rampant.

You need not declare a Civil War to protect your world view.

You can calm the heck down. Maybe we all need to.

Not about Trump, though, come on. The guy’s a nightmare.

But someday Trump will be gone. I’m hoping really, really soon. If we can’t impeach him or if his erratic behavior doesn’t lead to the invocation of the 25th amendment, then I really think he just can’t take four years of this. He’s already deteriorating physically and mentally and I’m not the first person to think that he’s desperate for some face-saving excuse to resign.

Someday we will face a post-Trump America. And what should that be? Should it be a battleground, Mr. Prager? Should Democrats and Republicans, liberals vs. conservatives, dig in and fight on tooth and nail onto oblivion?

Let’s remember that, strictly speaking, we are all liberals. We all pledge allegiance to the principles of enlightenment liberalism: reason, discourse, progress.

There are a lot of shortcomings with our two-party system, but it evolved basically to serve two necessary impulses in our political landscape.

There should be a party pushing out, calling for progress and proposing bold experimentation to address whatever issues plague us, a party striving for solutions to make our union “more perfect.”

But there must also be a party with a steady voice, warning of the dangers of change for change’s sake, a prudent party that safeguards what is working in our system.

Our government should be an engine grinding out compromises between these two voices–not a battleground.

I continue to maintain that it is ignorant to support Trump, but let’s be honest: we are all guilty of occasional willful ignorance on behalf of our political tribes. It is also ignorant, for example, to ignore the fact that President Obama never really had the authority to join the Paris Agreement without Congress.

We are all guilty of such ignorance, but we should strive against it within ourselves, with our compatriots, and with our opponents.

Because “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Ignorance on Parade

There is no denying that today, we face a new global landscape–one that was unthinkable before the ascendancy of Trump to the presidency. It is perhaps, though, one we should have seen coming.

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, National Security Advisor H. R.¬†McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn argued that the world order is not and should not be defined in terms of a “global community,” but rather, the world stage is an “arena” defined by competition.

It is an alarming shift of world view. To be sure, this smacks of Steve Bannon, who famously celebrated “darkness” and “power” in describing the governing style he hoped for under Trump. Many are calling this op-ed the clearest articulation yet of what Trump et al. mean by “America First.”

Yet, herein lies the great problem with “America First” (besides its connection to Nazi sympathizers):

America already was first.

The United States of America was indisputably the leader of the global community, not just the fiercest competitor in some arena as McMaster and Cohn insist. Our nation was the leader of, not just the free world, but the entire world.

As global orders go, it could have been better. Many critiques could and should be leveled at the quality of that leadership. Yet American hegemony in the post-Cold War era has marked a time of relative peace and uneven prosperity–and it was a community and order led by America.

No more.

Donald J. Trump, the accidental president, has pulled the rug out from under decades American leadership. This shift in world view is more than just rhetoric, as his disastrous appearance before NATO and his shameful withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement demonstrate. His enablers, like McMaster and Cohn, along with far-right cheerleaders in Congress believe and declare that Trump is serving American interests.

The fact that their understanding of those interests is short-sighted and skewed is irrelevant in discussing the larger, critical issue.

The simple fact is that leaders do not consider only their own interests. That is simply not what leaders do.

As the leader of the global community, it was America’s responsibility to look beyond its own limited interests and to put conditions like global prosperity and global peace above narrower concerns like the health of individual industries or particular (and often peculiar) sub-national interests.

That is the price of leadership. It is one that past American administrations have understood.

The Iraq invasion, for example, was undertaken in the name of leadership. America would lead, we were told, a “coalition of the willing” to remove Saddam Hussein from power in the interests of global stability and the eradication of rogue states bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

The idea that this invasion was solely in our narrow national interests was a charge that the administration vehemently denied. We were told, repeatedly, that we were not invading for the oil or for the potential windfalls for related industries should Iraq be transformed into a friendly state (those were just fringe benefits). We were eliminating a source of dangerous weapons and, when that turned out not to be the case, we turned our national attention to “liberating” the Iraqi people.

The extent to which this was a completely misguided application of our leadership capital is not really important for this discussion. What is important is that President George W. Bush and his neocon allies still acknowledged and, ostensibly, believed in the truth of American leadership.

President Obama took great pains in his early years repairing that stature, assuring allies and partners worldwide that America would not fly off the handle again with a ill-advised war and that we would be more tempered and more cautious in our role as leader. But his rhetoric and policies again presumed the simple fact of American global leadership.

But no more.

Today America has receded from that role under a president increasingly unlikely to finish out his term. His ill-begotten presidency, won under a previously unthinkable electoral scenario that saw him lose the popular vote by a greater margin than any other president not selected by the House of Representatives, is plagued by ongoing scandals even as his health and soundness of mind are in demonstrable and rapid decline. But even if we rid ourselves of this president, the damage is done.

The withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is the surest sign of Trump’s disastrous impact on America’s role as a, nee the, global leader. The editors of the National Review applaud Trump’s decision, citing low-end projections of climate change’s impact on the GDP of 2%, and echoing Trump’s claims about the coal industry and how the agreement allows developing nations to keep burning coal while phasing it out in America.

These spurious claims aside for the moment, the National Review does point out something fairly important about the Paris Agreement, a critique that no proponents with an understanding of constitutional powers can lightly dismiss: Obama never had the authority to join it in the first place.

President Obama, in one of his many acts of legal gymnastics to try to address policy with an unabashedly hostile and obstructionist Congress, joined the Paris Agreement without sending the treaty to Congress for ratification. Given that several high-profile senators, like Texas’s Ted Cruz, applauded Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, Obama rightly feared that the treaty would not be ratified.

Yet Obama knew what these senators and Trump have ignored or forgotten: The United States of America cannot be the leader of the world if it rejects a treaty signed by every other major nation–every nation on Earth, in fact, save Nicaragua and Syria.

American leadership required that we join the Paris Agreement. It demands that we remain committed to it.

The details of the treaty are almost irrelevant in that regard, but it is worth noting the extent to which its detractors are wrong. In focusing almost solely on the coal industry, both Trump and the National Review editors take a myopic view of the treaty and the larger issue of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if they want to maintain a healthy American coal industry, then they should embrace the fact that the accord would have continued to allow for American coal to be exported. It is not, after all, environmental regulation that is killing the domestic coal industry, but good-ole fashioned free market competition. With natural gas and even renewables becoming more price competitive, coal is on the way out no matter what.

Even when the coal industry is gone, though, the atmosphere will still be in jeopardy. That is the importance of the Paris Agreement. It represents an international acknowledgement that climate change is a pressing issue for the global community.

An arena of competitors is never going to effectively deal with a global problem like climate change. It is a problem of the commons, and dealing with problems in the commons requires cooperative–not competitive thinking.

It is the failure to grasp that truth of leadership and community that is the greatest hallmark of the Trump administration’s ignorance–which is sadly its defining trait.

Trump claimed that the treaty was not fair to America because it allowed different standards for developing nations. Yet, even if we ignore America’s role as global leader, we must consider our role as a global polluter. We have only recently been passed as the world’s greatest contributor to global warming, despite China having more than six times our population. (The National Review editors disingenuously cite America’s share of the global pollution market in terms of GDP instead of per capita.)

But none of that matters to the ignorant.

And make no mistake, Trump’s election and presidency mark the triumph of ignorance in America. His refusal to embrace climate change as a sound scientific understanding of our physical world in the 21st century is the most glaring example of this uncomfortable truth, but it is far from the only one.

What greater sign of ignorance in power do we need than the president’s absurd relationship to truth itself? Again and again, he has spouted off false-hoods and out-right lies. Yet he is uncowed, and blithely unconcerned with any pretense of honesty.

And while some past followers have publicly admitted regret over his antics as president, many remain committed. Again, their ignorance is glaringly obvious as studies confirm that the values that motivated many Trump voters are decidedly Unamerican.

This shift toward ignorance has been brewing since the Tea Party stormed Congress and dragged the entire Republican establishment away from both the center and from reason. The Tea Party was always built on ignorance. Initially, it was only ignorance of economics and tax policy. But the right-ward nose dive of the Republican party has attracted all manner of ignorances into their coalition of the befuddled, from climate change deniers to conversion therapy believers to alt-right racists and lock-her-up Benghazi fanatics. All now empowered voices in our political landscape.

This slide into an abyss of us vs. them nativism and isolationism is exactly why Obama never sent the treaty to the Senate. Though we can fault him for such a maneuver coming from a constitutional law scholar, at least he tried to preserve American leadership.

But, sadly, that is no more.

All we can hope is that the next administration can right this fool’s course and reintegrate the United States into the global community it built for the security of, not just its own citizens, but for the world as a whole. Sadly, though, it seems unlikely that America will be able to retake its role as global leader any time soon.

The American century is over.