Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.

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The Last Jedi

 

In what our Disney overlords apparently intend to be a new yearly event, a new Star Wars film has arrived in theaters.

The Last Jedi is the continuation of the Skywalker saga, the Star Wars films proper as opposed to the forthcoming torrent of spin-offs that began with last year’s Rogue One: a Star Wars story and will continue with Solo: Because You Know This Character. (In Disney’s defense, they are also giving Last Jedi director Rian Johnson the reigns to a whole new trilogy set in the Star Wars universe but involving–get this–all new characters and stories!)

Before I go further, let me issue the obligatory spoiler warning.

SPOILERS!

There.

I’m glad to report that The Last Jedi dispenses with the sloppy plotting of its predecessor, The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, it replaces it with gratuitous plotting. There has never been a Star Wars film with this many subplots. While Rey trains with Luke, Po Dameron struggles to guide the Resistance in its slow-burn flight from the First Order, clashing with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Hodor, or whatever. Meanwhile, Finn takes new character Rose on a side trip to a casino planet to pick up a code breaker to hack the First Order mothership. Oh, and on the mother ship, Kylo Ren struggles to please his master as they pursue–again, slowly–the fleeing Resistance ships.

(Star Wars has never been real sci-fi, but as with the last movie, the logic of the physics in this film are laughable. So the First Order fleet is getting outrun by the Resistance cruiser that is faster and lighter…and yet they never get outrun. They seem to just be stuck behind the Resistance at pretty much the exact same distance for eighteen hours. And yet, it’s only the Resistance ship that can’t go to light speed, so why don’t the First Order ships just split up so some of them can light speed AHEAD of the Resistance, surround and destroy them.)

Of these many plot threads, some are much stronger than others. The most conspicuous weak link is the Finn-Rose subplot. One has to feel for newcomer to the saga Kelly Marie Tran, whose Rose is really shoehorned into an already crowded cast. Her forced motivation is very reminiscent of some of the hackneyed character arcs in Rogue One and the attempt to work her in as one vertex in a love triangle with Finn and Rey (or quadrilateral if you give the Po-Finn shippers their due) just falls flat.

Oscar Isaacs mostly carries through his plot arc as Poe Dameron, wrestling with mutiny to buy Finn and Rose time to pull off their plan, but the real saving grace of the movie is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. As with the last movie, her earnest heroine is the heart of the movie and her interactions with Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren are great. Their showdown with Snoke is tremendous, made all the better because it only ends up revealing the gulf between the two.

The Force Awakens teased Rey’s origins, leading to two years of speculation about her parentage. Is she Luke’s secret daughter? Is she Ben Solo’s secret sister? Is she Obi Won Kenobi’s secret granddaughter?

Thank goodness the answer to all those questions was: No.

According to Kylo Ren, she’s nobody. So, the Skywalker saga will end in Episode IX with Kylo Ren’s defeat and Rey’s ascension as the new Jedi master. (Oh, sorry, did I spoil it? Did you think the whole sage would end with the universe being plunged into darkness?) As Ren breaks this news about Rey’s parentage which the Force revealed to him, he suggests that, deep down, Rey has always known. It’s as she was told in the last movie, “Whoever you were waiting for…is never coming back.”

And therein lies one of the many failures in the film. No, not the filmmakers’ failures, the characters’. In fact, The Last Jedi distinguishes itself from every other Star Wars movie by plumbing new thematic territory. Almost every major character grapples with failure in this film. Rey failed to reunite with her family, the aching need for which is her only lure toward the dark side of the Force. Finn’s mission fails and he is captured. Poe’s mutiny fails and actually undermines the Resistance’s chances of survival. Luke failed Kylo Ren. Leia faces the end of the Resistance, the failure of her life’s work.

And then Yoda shows up to hammer in the lesson. Luke tempts his old master by threatening to burn down a sacred Jedi tree and take all the religion’s most ancient texts with him, but Yoda beats him to the punch and summons some lightning. “Pageturners they were not,” he admits and says that Rey has more Jedi in her than any old books.

Star Wars was based on myth and sought to explore the timeless battle between good and evil, but The Force Awakens began to explore the limits of that dynamic, to really explore what might be meant by that “balance” that George Lucas wrote into the prequels. According to those regrettable chapters, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader was supposed to bring about balance in the Force and Maz Kanata said in The Force Awakens that the battle between good and evil is an endless, recurrent one. The Last Jedi steps beyond good and evil and frames the Force as the cosmic glue that negotiates the cycle of destruction and creation.

And so failure is part of that cycle. Luke warns Rey that assuming the Jedi are needed to bring light into the universe is pure hubris, that the cycle is unending. Rey, though, gets to remind him–with a little help from Yoda–that we must still always pick a side in the endless struggle, to build or to destroy.

 

Assorted Musings:

-Captain Phasma is still useless.

-Seriously, somebody buy more BB droids for the Resistance. Those things are indis-fucking-pensable!

-Chewy eating roasted porg.

-Seems like we should use that light-speed kamikaze trick more often. Why’d we struggle to hit that one little spot on the Death Star. Just empty out a freighter and light speed it through the heart of the damned thing.

-We finally know where the blue milk comes from. We sooooo did not want to know.

 

The Force Awakens: A Retrospective

You may have heard that there’s a new Star Wars movie out now.

Fear not for spoilers as I have not yet seen it (the wife is feeling under the weather).

Last night, though, while my beloved sniffled, we did watch the previous chapter in the post-George Lucas Star Wars saga: The Force Awakens.

Somehow I refrained from commenting on this film when it was released two years ago. In fact, I haven’t written much about Star Wars in general over the years. That’s a strange omission as Star Wars was–without hyperbole–my entire childhood. (Okay, maybe some hyperbole.)

I watched the original movie on Betamax (Yes, Beta!) dozens of times. My parents tell a story about how, while living in Panama, the delivery of my Christmas present–the Millennium Falcon!–was delayed and they had to concoct an elaborate story, complete with forged note from the big guy in the red suit himself, about how Rudolph had accidentally stepped on the package, forcing Santa to send me a replacement after the holidays.

Then, of course, there were the prequels. I remember dragging my wife to Phantom Menace and becoming very confused the moment Jar Jar Binks appeared on screen. “They’d better kill this guy off quick,” I told her. Those craptacular films are no small part of why I generally fear and distrust prequels today.

Yet, the Force Awakens marked something of a Renaissance for the saga that was so seminal to my imagination. Now safely in the not-at-all-sinister hands of the Disney Corp, Star Wars is prospering again. The praise was unanimous: Star Wars is back! It was fun. It was dynamic. It looked great and not at all a CGI shitshow. The fanboys proclaimed it a success and all rejoiced, “Yay, J.J. Abrams, we forgive you for Into Darkness” (which, for the record, I think is highly underrated).

Except that rewatching Force Awakens last night, I was much more aware of its myriad flaws.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about prequel-level discussions about sand or about how love had blinded anybody, but there is some sloppy ass plotting going on there. Like, Star Destroyer sized plot holes.

Take the story’s reliance on awfully convenient coincidences which I suppose we are meant to assume is the will of the force acting on a grand scale. The map to Luke Skywalker (which…a map to a person?) ends up on Jakku within walking, er, rolling distance of Rey, our erstwhile protagonist with some sort of mysterious background that  will in some future movie hopefully explain her awesome force sensitivity (without making her a Skywalker–please don’t make her a Skywalker!). Then, Han Solo just happens to take her to a bar with Luke’s old lightsaber in the basement. It goes on and on. Han, Chewy, and Finn just happen to find Captain Phasma on a base the size of a planet and she just happens to be self-interested enough to screw over her supreme leader (there is a comic explaining this character’s background that makes sense of this, by the way). After Rey has won the big lightsaber duel against an injured Kylo Ren (How’d she beat him with no training? He was hurt and she was already good with a stick. Yay, not a plot hole!) a chasm just happens to open up between them, killing neither. Then R2 wakes up and just happens to have the rest of map to Luke all along. And, wait, where’d this map come from in the first place? You know, in the first movie, they stole Death Star plans from the Empire. The plans didn’t just fall out of the sky?!?

But by far the worst part of the movie is Starkiller Base. Look, I get how Abrams was intentionally echoing moments from the original film because the original film was constructed to be archetypal and the whole theme was about the cyclical struggle to find balance and fight the darkness. I get it. But the super-weapon trope wasn’t part of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and it wears really, really thin here. Somehow the First Order, which is only remnant of the empire builds a super weapon that is even more fearsome than what the empire produced at its height. Um…okay. (My son had a great idea here; they should have established that this was a project started under the empire that Snoke resurrected. See, most plot holes can be patched with one line of dialogue. One line! Call me, Hollywood. I will script doctor the hell out of all your sci-fi and I will work cheap.)

This giant planet cannon can fire a single burst…that then automatically breaks up and nukes every planet in a star system? How, exactly? And how can Han and company see the red bolt hitting the Republic’s planets from a completely different system? That should take years for them to see. And wait, where’d the energy for that first shot come from? Starkiller base consumes a star to power up (a whole star!?!) so were there two stars in that system to begin with? Wouldn’t the gravitational disruption of losing a star totally destroy that planet before the Resistance even got there? And if not…does that mean the weapon was only good for two shots since there weren’t any more stars in the system to gobble up? (I mean, it’s stretching credulity enough to believe they could move the Death Star at light speed, but surely we’re not meant to believe they could have warped that entire planet to another star system to keep using that thing, right?)

But dammit, the movie still works. And it works for two reasons:

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

They are so charming and engaging as Rey and Finn that you cannot help but love this movie. Seriously, all the fan service may have gotten folks in the door, but what saves this movie from being another Crystal Skull level debacle is these fresh, NEW characters. Enough of the old characters. BB-8 is cuter than R2! Long live porgs! Hell, I’m glad they killed Han Solo. I hope they kill Luke. (But I wish Princess Leia could live forever.)

 

In the Balance

By P.Lameiro - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21095250

In Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth, there is an aphorism supposedly from China which informs much of the narrative:

“When the rich are too rich, there are ways and when the poor are too poor, there are ways.”

Those “ways” often involved violent upheaval when the imbalance between the wealthy and the poor bedrock of society becomes too vast. Buck’s protagonists experience this cycle of poverty and prosperity personally as they struggle through subsistence and then ruin, only to gain riches in the end through their relationship with the land.

Every great society has grappled with how its structure governs wealth, with the cancer of greed and accumulated economic power a recurrent theme through all great thinkers’ writings about society, from Plato’s Philosopher Kings who were barred from owning wealth to Moore’s Utopia where gold was a sign of shame hung about the necks of slaves.

Perhaps none is a starker warning that Marx’s, who predicted a final revolutionary upheaval that would supplant the greedy capitalist class once and for all. While Marx’s prediction that communism could somehow best human greed seems hopelessly naive to our modern eyes–which have witnessed the failure or subversion to autocratic capitalism of nearly every communist state born in the twentieth century–his prescience about the shortcomings of capitalism continues to be useful in studying the modern world. After the 2008 collapse, many a wonk admitted that nobody had seen it coming…except for Karl Marx.

And, of course, his ideas live on in modern socialism. Every developed country has some measure of socialist thinking incorporated into the way it governs and structures society, but the United States in particular resists anything with the taint of socialism. In fact, much of the political discourse in this country is dominated by loud voices that like to treat the term as a dirty word, despite the success of democratic socialist regimes in Europe.

Instead, the political ideologies of America–and of the American right in particular–owe their allegiance to the Enlightenment Liberalism of the Founding Fathers.

This Liberalism was a search for “ways” to regulate the relationship between social classes and those empowered by society’s structure that did not require continual upheaval and bloodshed, ways to shape society so that it could rebalance and adjust itself to the realities of history as it unfolded, instead of being crumpled up and discarded in favor of a brand new design or dynasty. Ironically, though, establishing a republic based on these ideals required…bloodshed and upheaval.

In the intervening centuries, though, the American Republic has functioned relatively well as designed. (There is one interregnum of note.)

The success of the basic model of American government has led some, “originalists” like Neil Gorsuch, to fetishize our Founders for the accomplishment of crafting this Republic. These typically right wing figures seek to assiduously preserve the model envisioned by the Founders, believing their intent is the most important metric by which to assess law and custom in today’s America.

Let that sink in for a minute: Men like Gorsuch think that the best way to govern a nation of three hundred million smart-phone toting citizens competing in a global market is the game plan put together by some eighteenth century farmers as they crammed fewer than three million colonists under one federal umbrella.

The Founding Fathers of the American republic do deserve a lot of credit, but they were only all-too-human beings, not demigods. They knew they were not crafting a perfect system (3/5s compromise, cough cough). They knew that this system would need to evolve and change. Some predicted that every generation would have to draft a new constitution. Most would likely be awestruck that their basic design for a network of fledgling states on the edge of what they saw as a wilderness was still (more or less) governing a vast, industrialized and metropolized superpower state in the 21st century. Some might be horrified.

It’s important to understand the genius of the Founders, yes. Because the Founders accomplished so much not by being paragons of virtue and transcendent models of human wisdom (slavery, cough cough), but rather by studying history carefully. As students of history, they crafted a government meant to meet the challenges of their time. It is only logical that to preserve and adapt their system to the challenges of our time, we too must study history.

Yet again and again, we refuse to learn from this teacher, to study its lessons, or even admit its shape. A key example of this failing is the proposed package of “tax reform” being hashed out in Congress.

You see, the Republican tax plan learns exactly nothing from history.

The basic premise–or at least, the stated premise–of the tax reform bill is to cut taxes to stimulate growth in the economy, allowing business and capital to create more economic activity and thus, by extension, create better jobs and more opportunities for Americans.

So, what does history tell us about how to do this? Nothing. It tells us we will get nothing out of this plan because the outcome promised by this bill’s proponents has never, ever happened…ever. The idea that giving capital what it wants will produce broad outcomes for other stokeholders in the economy is pure fantasy. It has never worked. It will never work.

Some proponents of “tax cuts” try to use history to justify this disingenuous tax reform package, citing the success of the tax cuts proposed by Kennedy before his assassination that actually increased government revenue. No honest scholar can compare this bill to those measures. Though Kennedy did propose cutting taxes on the rich–down to 65% compared to today’s 35%–his tax cut proposal was Keynesian in design, aimed squarely at demand-side stimulus. This Republican tax plan, though, only offers temporary demand-side cuts for middle America. Its tax cuts for corporations are permanent and it does nothing to address the giant tax loophole for the rich in America: capital gains.

What history does tell us is what will really happen when you give up tax revenue to corporations and the wealthy–because we’ve been doing it for a generation. Supply-side economics, the theory behind the Republican tax plan, has governed our economy since the Reagan era and in that time we have reaped clear results.

We have witnessed massive growth in GDP and absolute stagnancy in real wages and income.

Our national and personal debt has grown and grown and grown.

We now have an economy completely out of balance. The rich have indeed become too rich, with a handful of billionaires controlling the same about of wealth and hundreds of millions of others. So far, our society has been protected from the more disruptive and violent “ways” that imbalances like this have historically been reshaped because the poor have not yet become “too poor.”

That, though, is because of spiraling debt. It is a system heading for a crash…in fact, we already faced that cataclysmic reckoning and we paid off the Pied Piper with more debt.

The Republicans profess to be fiscal conservatives and say they are deeply concerned about the deficit and debt levels produced by government spending. Yet their tax reform package is not a grown-up solution to those problems. By making the income tax system less progressive, they will only further perpetuate these issues. Their eventual aim is to shrink government and the so-called entitlements to reign in this disparity, but by cutting government spending, and undermining the economic stimulus provided by government spending, they will only hasten the advent of those other “ways” that history has of righting economic imbalance.

Eventually the poor will be too poor and then their entire house of cards will come tumbling down.

Their solution will only perpetuate these problems. But that’s beside the point from the ideological position they’re coming from. Essentially, their anti-regulation, small-government stance is motivated by an antipathy towards the evils of socialism and an allegiance to their distorted image of the Liberalism of the Founders.

From this vantage, they imagine a dystopia welfare state. Eying the political landscape, they see that so-called entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare have already begun to gobble up more and more of the country’s wealth. Some of them are smart enough to point out that shifting demographics will make this problem much, much worse in the future. Likewise, they are concerned about our enormous national debt, which they legitimately decry as “generational theft.”

They are rightly concerned with these deficits and debt and this looming demographic bomb that so-called entitlements will drop on the next generation, but aren’t really honest about the nature of these problems:

Though the national debt has been an issue for decades, its current stratospheric levels are thanks to, in large part, the bailout after the Great Recession. That crash was exactly what unregulated capitalism gets you. Again, this is a lesson from history that we (should have) learned well. Left to its own devices, a capitalist economy will continually expand and contract, spasming from crash to boom and back again. To fight this natural inclination, we have constructed all manner of regulatory measures–from social safety nets to robust monetary policy. The 2008 crash was due, at least in part, to Republicans pushing to relax regulations to protect consumers. So our national debt is debt owed to bailing out a faulty capitalist system that had been deregulated…by Republicans.

On entitlements, the right is similarly misguided. Yes, there is a looming demographic crisis that we must grapple with. Benefits for retired boomers threaten to derail our economy if there aren’t enough taxable high-wage jobs to provide fresh cash for the social security and medicare slush funds. Yet, the Republicans are the ones who have pushed to remove protections for unions and minimum wages (and against immigration), the very factors that history tells us can fill those coffers again.

Not to mention that the biggest driver in the growth of entitlement expenses is rising healthcare costs, a problem which other developed nations address through socialized medicine. Yet, the Republicans have tried and tried to repeal Obamacare, the only piece of legislation that has had any impact on those outrageous, spiraling healthcare costs.

What we’re left with is the story of three isms: Liberalism, Socialism, and Capitalism.

We have long assumed that Liberalism and Capitalism belong in the same boat, yet even Adam Smith warned that capitalism could become a monster if not watched carefully. In creating the invisible hand, he did not intend to slap back the very real and human hands of human beings from protecting society from the ills of capitalism.

In the modern world, Liberalism needs Capitalism…and Socialism. Capitalism needs Socialism. Liberalism–the very ethos of democracy–can only flourish in a populace with the opportunity to pursue happiness and the knowledge that their lives and liberty are protected. Capitalism drives growth and prosperity, making sure the well is full. Socialism, though, we use to safeguard the general welfare, steadying the ebb and flow of Capitalism, smoothing out the rough patches.

Without each other, each will implode. As a society, we need to find the right balance. As one idea pushes forward, another sways to the side. As two are about to collide, another passes between them, pulling the others in its wake.

It’s a dance. And with the two-right-feet Republicans leading, a lot of toes are going to be stepped on.

So…it’s been a while

It’s been more than six months since I threw out any flotsam and jetsam into the tides of the Internet for the public record. There is a completed novel to show for my hiatus from discourse, but also an ungodly amount of hours logged in Destiny. During this time, I did occasionally write about the issues that I would typically air out here–politics, geekery, etc.–but I never polished those pieces enough to post.

I think, more than anything, 2017 was a year personally defined by a sense of powerlessness. I would write something and then look at it and think, “What’s the point?”

The world has gone so stark raving mad, yet everything I wanted to say about it made me feel like a broken record.

So…what’s changed?

Nothing, really. Trump is still president and he’s proven to be very much what we feared. In addition to his near-daily debasement of the already morally bankrupt American political landscape, Mr. Trump is now apparently running 30% odds of starting a war on the Korean peninsula and getting the nice people of Seoul obliterated.

And yeah, I am pretty powerless to do anything about that.

But the one thing we cannot offer Mr. Trump is silence. He is, after all, listening. Every note of discord rankles his fragile ego (and they call liberals “snowflakes”) and so we must resist all the more. This is a historic chapter in the American republic and if it does mark the beginning of the end for that noble experiment, well then I hope some graduate student laboring at some far-future university studying the era just before the Republic of Gilead comes across an archive including my ranting and raving and, for one brief moment, mentally puts me in the column of “Damn, at least some of them knew what was happening.”

Plus, there’s a new Star Wars movie and Expanse novel to talk about so…

 

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.”