Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column discusses Catherynne M. Valente's new novel Space Opera.  As I discuss in the essay, this is seemingly an odd choice--Valente's Hitchhiker's Guide-inspired comedy about a galaxy where species prove their right to exist among civilized nations by competing in space-Eurovision is pretty far outside the boundaries I had previously defined, of works that engage with concrete political and social issues.
To which the answer is, because talking about Space Opera gives me an opportunity to point out a glaring lacuna in almost all the works we’ve discussed so far—the way that nearly every one of them leaves out the centrality of culture, and particularly popular culture, in shaping a society and reflecting its preoccupations. ... Even as it strives to create fully-realized worlds, art—high and low, functional and abstract, popular and obscure, ridiculous and serious—tends to be absent from them. So are artists—try to remember the last time you encountered a character in a science fiction or fantasy story who had an artistic side, even just as a hobby. Even worse, few characters in SFF stories have any kind of cultural touchstones.
Valente not only creates a setting where art and music are the most important thing, but also touches on how central culture is to our existence as thinking, feeling people.  Plus, it's a really fun book.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Review: Lost in Space, Season 1 at Strange Horizons

This week at Strange Horizons, I review the first season of Netflix's re-reboot of Lost in Space.  Like a lot of people I found the entire notion of remaking a silly little space-pioneering show from 1965 (after a failed reboot movie in 1998) rather bizarre, and I can't say that the show has proved that this was something that needed to happen.  What it does achieve, however, is to demonstrate how you can take an unnecessary concept and execute it with intelligence and sensitivity (something that the makers of, to take a recent example, Solo: A Star Wars Story completely failed to accomplish).  I still don't think we needed a new Lost in Space, but the show we got has interesting characters, good storylines, and does some things that I'd almost given up on seeing in a genre show, such as construct coherent and compelling episode plots.  That said, because this is a reboot that is ultimately an attempt to monetize a familiar IP, the end of the season is a lot less interesting than its beginning, working overtime to get the characters to the canonical Lost in Space form, despite the fact that the new one it had originally presented was a great deal more interesting.

One thing I didn't find space for in the review, but which feels important to note, was my disappointment in the total straightness and cisnormativity of the show.  All of the characters we meet are implicitly straight.  All of the romances presented or suggested on the show are straight.  Though the characters spend a lot of time around other space-bound colonists, who, like them, are divided into family units, none of them have same-sex couples as parents.  All of the children are presumed to be straight and cis, and none suggest that they might be realizing otherwise.  This is particularly disappointing given that Netflix's other big kid-oriented show, A Series of Unfortunate Events, is cheerfully LGBT-friendly, dropping frequent mentions of gay couples into the story, and even featuring a non-binary character.  So it's not a matter of the target audience, but simply the show's creators making no space in their future for queerness, something that we should have long ago moved past.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Infinity Links

Somewhat surprisingly for a film that has so little time (and possibly also inclination) to explore any interesting ideas raised by its premise, Infinity War has resulted in a rather vibrant conversation.  I'll say from the outset that most of the links I've collected proceed from the point of view that the film is at the very least flawed, if not genuinely bad.  This is probably my selection bias speaking, but I really haven't seen any interesting positive discussions of the film--any in-depth engagement with it, it seems to me, must inevitably grapple with the film's myriad, foundational flaws.  Also rooted in my own preoccupations is the fact that a lot of these links end up talking less about the film, and more about how it exposes some uncomfortable truths about how Marvel sees its franchise, its long-term goals, and its audience.
  • Of the mainstream reviews--that is, those prohibited on pain of death of discussing the film's ending, AKA the only thing that is really worth talking about--my favorites are probably A.A. Dowd at the AV Club and Matt Zoller Seitz at  Both manage to address the film's flaws without stepping on a revelation they couldn't address.  First, here's Dowd getting at the heart of the matter:
    Infinity War is the closest a movie has come to a true comic-book crossover event, those massive arcs that unfold across multiple titles, forcing cash-strapped readers to shell out for books they don’t normally buy just to get the full scope of the narrative. The dirty secret of these heavily hyped ensemble sagas is that they’re usually pretty underwhelming, and Infinity War inherits plenty of the problems endemic to crossovers: the privileging of quantity over quality, of spectacle over story, and of the shock value of major changes to the status quo over just about everything else.
    And Seitz perfectly capturing the sense of missed opportunity that wafts over the entire film:
    If only the film were better modulated, or perhaps longer, or more elegantly shaped, or ... well, it's hard to say exactly what's wrong here. But something's not up to snuff. This is, as many have pointed out, one half of a story broken in two, but it feels like less than half somehow. Until pretty recently, MCU films have suffered from collective curve-grading—each film seemed content to settle for "better than expected," as opposed to being really, truly good—and that feeling returns here, unfortunately. "Infinity War" faced so many challenges, many of them unique to this particular project, that it's a small miracle that it works at all. On some level, it feels ungrateful to ask a movie that already does the impossible to do it with more panache. But what are superhero movies without panache really good for? If there was ever a moment to swing for the fences, it was this one.

  • With a bit more freedom to discuss the disintegrating elephant in the room, Film Crit Hulk masterfully analyzes the way Infinity War--and other Marvel movies before it--try to establish stakes and a sense of urgency.  In "Avengers: Infinity War and Marvel's Endless Endgame", he argues that the film fails at this task long before it gets to its consequence-free ending.
    If you’re going to kill half the population in the universe, then kill them. Right now these other tertiary characters are "dead," but dramatically-speaking, they may as well have just been kidnapped. But what else should I have expected? These movies have always been about "the texture of consequences" without any real commitment to them. So now phase one heroes are going to have to rally together or go save phase four heroes, and maybe sacrifice themselves, blah blah blah. It's always been promises and deferment. Which means that the MCU has ultimately belied what was the greatest hope for these movies: to use the unique medium of film to tell full stories, full of big, bold, lasting choices in a way that had become impossible within the cyclical bloat of comics. And that's when it hits you. The simple, obvious answer to what the MCU "is." Because these are definitely not movies. And despite all the arguments, they're definitely not a season of television either…

    They finally just became comic books.

    After 10 years of unparalleled success they've managed to inherit the same exact problems of critical mass that plague that industry. Endless cycles. Confusing timelines. Continuity issues. Basic bloat. Feints of death. This isn't the infinity war; this is the infinity loop. And the MCU had the opportunity to avoid all that. But thanks to its unparalleled success, they took on the same exact problems of comics instead.

  • Speaking of Thanos's evil plan, this handy website will let you know if you were among its victims.  I, sadly, didn't make it.

  • Darren Mooney does a close read of the film's plot--with side visits to Age of Ultron and Civil War--to discuss how not only is there a great big nothing at its core, but how the team-up MCU movies seem perpetually at work dismantling the films that came before them so as to ensure that no consequences or meaningful changes ever trouble their universe.
    Everything in Civil War is very meticulously calculated and engineered in such a way as to avoid anything that might challenge or upset an audience invested in either Tony or Steve. The films are wary of politicising their heroes even slightly, and so Civil War is stripped of any significance or weight. It is impossible to hate either Tony or Steve for any of the decisions that they make within Civil War, because the film bends over backwards to avoid having them make any decisions at all. Even the climactic throwdown is driven by highly-charged emotion and immediately walked back. Even Rhodey is walking by the end.

    Unsurprisingly, Infinity War is this "story without meaning" approach extrapolated past its logical extreme. ... Within the narrative of Infinity War, none of the characters make any choice that has any meaning. Tony is reluctant to call Steve for help, which would be a bold character-driven decision. However, he is about to call Steve when he is interrupted by the arrival of Ebony Maw and Black Dwarf in New York. Later, Bruce Banner picks up the phone and makes the call anyway. The two teams created at the end of Civil War are reunited when Captain America takes the team to the New Avengers headquarters. Rhodey has no qualms about working with the people indirectly responsible for crippling him.

    To that last observation I would add: It's not just that Rhodey doesn't hold his disability against Steve and company (since after all, it was Vision's fault, for using potentially lethal force in a fight where everyone else was pulling their punches).  It's that at the end of Civil War he proudly tells Tony that his maiming was "worth it" because going against Steve was the right thing to do, but in Infinity War he sneers at General Ross and happily welcomes an unrepentant Steve back to Avengers headquarters.  There are multiple other such issues.  Vision tried to kill Sam in Civil War, and yet Sam has no problems working to protect him, and no comment on the fact that his fellow fugitive Wanda has been having an affair with Vision for two years.  Wanda destroyed Bruce Banner's life--something he once felt so strongly about that he promise to kill her "without even changing color"--and yet now he has no reaction to the fact that she was essentially given his old room.

    The obvious response here is that the characters are dealing with a more pressing crisis.  But there's a vast gulf between putting aside your differences for the greater good and simply not giving a shit about things that were supposedly a matter of life and death just one or two movies ago.  Character interactions in Infinity War overwhelmingly fall on the latter side of the divide.  It couldn't be any clearer that the question we were supposed to find flummoxing and thorny in Civil War is now completely irrelevant, just as Tony's loss of perspective in Age of Ultron ceased to matter by the time we got to Civil War.  Which tells us, I think, all we need to know about how seriously we should be taking anything that happens in Infinity War.

  • In "Thanos is America", Lili Loofbourow finds some odd resonances in how the film depicts Thanos, and wonders if these might not undercut the audience's ability to feel shock at his actions:
    America has been Thanos, and it got over the slaughter without much difficulty. America has claimed that killing thousands of people irrespective of their age, occupation, status, or personal storyline was for the greater good. And here is the really eerie part: It's convinced many people that this is a correct assessment. It was a tough choice, sure, and it took a tough man — a great man, even — to make it. (You might say the hardest choices require the strongest wills.) Metaphorically speaking, America has sat in a garden and smiled because the world we bombed into being is (in our view) a better place. People said it was brutal, but America knew better. And got everyone to basically agree, or at least move on.

    Not to disagree with this entirely, but I think it's also important to note how much Thanos acts as a necessary boogeyman that validates the kind of violence Loofbourow describes on the part of the Avengers.  Thanos--on his own or through his agents the Chitauri--has been dogging the MCU since Avengers, and in all his guises he has justified the existence of extra-legal, unaccountable violence that just happens to come wrapped in an American flag.  In a universe where beings like Thanos exist, not only are Captain America and Iron Man necessary, but hobbling them with laws and international agreements becomes an act of, at best stupidity, at worst villainy.

  • Following up on this article on twitter, Loofbourow adds an interesting observation on how the film completely misses the real import of the relationship between Thanos and Gamora, reminding us again of how poorly-served Gamora has been by the MCU.
    The fact is, Gamora should have been a perfect reader of Thanos. That's literally the only way she could have survived his fatherhood this long. Instead, in every scene they share, their respective archives of knowledge are reversed. He's portrayed as the one who knows her so well that he can tell when she's lying. She, bizarrely, appears to know nothing at all about him. Gamora should have known exactly what Thanos' vision of love is, and how insistently he applied it to her. She's lived with the burden of his love her whole life. She would, accordingly, have instantly realized that she was the beloved thing Thanos needed to kill to get the Soul Stone. Her speech and tactics should have reflected that. Instead, the scene got garbled into incomprehension, with her raving about him nothing him [sic] while he looked on in omniscient self-pity--ahead of her once again.

  • Still on the subject of Thanos, there have been a few articles along these lines, but "Thanos Didn’t Have a Point and Someone Should Tell the Writers", by Kylie on Fandomentals, is the most comprehensive, both in how it spells out the errors in Thanos's overpopulation bugbear (and how they connect to racist policies and worldviews), and in how it expresses the feeling that, rather than depicting a villain who is misguided, Infinity War doesn't seem to realize just how wrong Thanos is.
    For Infinity War? The writers seemed unaware that anything needed to be condemned. Overpopulation…it’s obviously a problem! And a universal one at that, in the most literal definition of the word "universal." Otherwise, why would Thanos, this rather mild-speaking individual who experienced horror thanks to an overcrowded planet, be willing to sacrifice the daughter who he abused loved and take on the mantle of this burden? Sure his solution was too much, but there was suffering, and the test-results of randomly wiping out half the people worked great! Why wouldn't he continue pursuing it? Why wouldn't there be anything but great results? Fewer people means everyone gets more things and that's good! There would have been no recovery period with mass panic and devastation or anything.

    Also good if you have anyone in your life who think Thanos and Killmonger are the same because "they're both villains with a point".

  • A brief comedic interlude: a botanist answers the hotly-contested question of whether teen Groot is the original Groot or his son.

  • And now, the motherlode: hands-down the best essay about this movie, by, unsurprisingly, Aaron Bady, is "Post-Shawarma: On Avengers: Infinity War" at the LARB.  I'm going to quote a whole chunk because it's really that good, but do read the whole thing.
    Infinity War—as Gerry Canavan observed to me—destroys each of these stories completely. It does not develop them, build on them, or bring them to a climax; it simply eats them up. Thor: Ragnarok ended with the remnants of Asgard sailing bravely into the future in a kind of space ark; Infinity War begins with that space Ark having been blasted to hell (and though Thor later says something about how "half" his people were killed, come on). Peter Parker ended his movie by declining to join the Avengers; in this movie, he joins the Avengers almost immediately. Black Panther is about a place where everyone is black, the white guys are not that important, and Wakanda's survival is the most important thing; Infinity War has T'Challa deciding to sacrifice Wakanda in battle without any trace of the prickly and regal insularity that has been the entirety of his character up to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy was about finding a family and staying together; in Infinity War, Thor arrives and they break up the group immediately.

    My point is that there's a conflict between the accumulative narrative impulse to see these movies as one continuous story and the sprawling impulse that lets them maintain different styles and themes and even narrative logics. If the MCU has been good because they let different voices tell different types of stories—and to the extent that it is good, it is because of that—Infinity War is bad because it smashes them all into indistinguishable paste. The Collector said that a powerful person "can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field"; this is a good description of how Infinity War relates to its constituent stories: it harvests them.

    Let me put it this way: There's an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers "team up" movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it's the "job creator." But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the "team up" movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: "Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!" they say; "Look how it makes you feel!"

  • Speaking of Gerry Canavan, he offers his own take: "Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe Can Show Us a Story, But Can't Tell Us a Plot".

  • Tom Holland ad-libbed his "I don't want to go" death scene.  It seems really fitting that the one scene that keeps being held up as an example for how, even though the film's deaths are clearly going to be rolled back, they still have emotional resonance, wasn't even in the script.

  • Netflix Breathes Sigh of Relief as Iron Fist Disintegrates During Infinity War Finale

  • Not content to let their work stand (or fall) on its own merits, Infinity War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have gone on the record that the deaths in the film are real and that fans should "move on to the next stage of grief".  This in total defiance of the fact that Spider-Man 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy 3 are already on the books for 2019 and 2020, and that Marvel has been hard at work trying to get Ryan Coogler back for Black Panther 2.  And look, clearly there's wiggle room here--someone on twitter laboriously tried to explain to me that the deaths are "real" in the current timeline, but when it's rolled back using the Time Stone or whatever they will never have happened.  (I am not a lawyer, but I think I'm on solid ground in saying that if a writer ever offers this sort of excuse to your face, you are legally permitted to kick them in the shin.)  But what I find disturbing here is the brazenness of it.  Markus and McFeely are lying.  We know that they're lying, and they know that we know that they're lying.  And yet they still do it.  Why?  Do they have so little confidence in their writing that they think they need to resort to outright, implausible lies to get butts in seats next year?  And if so, what does that say about them as writers, or about the movie they've written?

    It's not surprising that a lot of the reactions to this interview brought up the comics' HydraCap kerfuffle from 2016-17, in which Marvel turned Captain America into a Nazi sleeper agent, solemnly announced that this was not a trick or a fake, and then revealed a few months later that it was a trick and a fake.  Once again, it's not that anyone--and certainly not anyone likely to be reading comics news--believed the original assurances.  But that just makes this behavior worse.  At best, it feels like a bunch of writers who see genuinely smart works like The Good Place or Jane the Virgin pulling off audacious twists (or even just-OK shows like Westworld whose twists aren't great but are at least totally committed-to) and think they have a shortcut to that kind of delighted, exhilarated audience reaction through bald-faced lies.  At worst, it's something far more sinister, Marvel trying to dictate how its stories are to be read, and whether audiences are permitted to bring their own knowledge and experience to bear when they react to those stories.

  • A similar dynamic seems to be on Alex McLevy's mind when he asks "How the hell are we supposed to care about Ant-Man And The Wasp now?" and wonders how we're supposed to take an interest in a light-hearted crime caper when we know that, five minutes after the credits roll (the film is apparently set before Infinity War), half the cast will crumble into dust.
    Thanos may be sitting back and watching the sun rise, content in the completion of his genocidal mission, but the rest of us are left here asking how the remaining Avengers are going to save the day. Yes, it’s just another superhero movie, but when you commit to a shared universe and do as good a job as they have at making it all feel of a piece, you also commit to an audience that expects stories that don't just meander about, dropping one narrative and picking up another to wave in our faces, assuming it's all the same. It's not. This was a huge decision, and it’s the only thing people invested in the Marvel universe have on their minds, for obvious reasons. To expect us to go, "Well, sure, nearly everyone we care about just crumbled to dust, but whatever, let’s see what this shiny thing in the corner is!" assumes that we don't actually emotionally invest in these films. It's a betrayal of precisely what movies should do, even ones that are manufactured to be four-quadrant popcorn entertainment.

    A lot of people seemed to misread McLevy's argument, assuming that he doesn't understand how light, fluffy stories can coexist with dark ones.  But that's clearly not what he's saying.  If we're to take the ending of Infinity War seriously, then everywhere in the universe has just suffered a calamity that, realistically, will be almost impossible to recover from.  There's no story that can be told within the MCU that doesn't address that fact, unless you're willing to admit that the destruction at the end of Infinity War isn't really supposed to matter.  By which I don't mean that it's going to be rolled back (though clearly it is), but that we're only supposed to take it as seriously as Marvel wants us to, no more and no less.

    Once again, this is about Marvel wanting to control not just the narrative, but how we react to that narrative.  We're supposed to be gutted by Infinity War, and pay no attention to the 2019 and 2020 movie slate behind the curtain starring multiple characters who have just been disintegrated.  But not so gutted that we can't buy tickets to Ant-Man and the Wasp and laugh at Scott and Hope and Luis.  To me this is disappointing not only because it reveals, as Aaron notes, the mercenary heart beating beneath the surface of this media juggernaut.  But because until this year, this kind of behavior was something the MCU was above.  They didn't try to rope us into seeing their movies through pavlovian loyalty and the sunk cost fallacy.  They did it by making movies we wanted to see.  I'm really starting to wonder whether that wasn't just a way of getting us in the door.

  • In conclusion:

Monday, May 07, 2018

Review: Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift at Strange Horizons

My latest Strange Horizons review looks at E.J. Swift's time travel novel Paris Adrift.  I've been hearing Swift's name spoken with admiration for several years now, as more and more readers I trust became absorbed by her Osiris Project trilogy (Osiris, 2012; Cataveiro, 2014; Tamaruq, 2015).  As a standalone, Paris Adrift seemed like a perfect opportunity to hop on, but unfortunately what I found was a classic case of what is good is not interesting, and what is interesting is not good.  Paris Adrift is a rather slight story of a lost young person becoming even more lost when she discovers the ability to travel in time--the sort of thing that would probably have worked very well as a novella but is stretched into shapelessness by the novel length--combined with a political story that doesn't really bear much scrutiny.
It's perhaps unsurprising that a novel so rooted in the notion of special people will also filter its politics through the lens of great men and women, whose life or death determine the course of history. I haven't said much about Hallie's adventures in time, but one of them in particular left a bad taste in my mouth. In it, Hallie travels to 1942, and finds herself sharing a crawlspace with a young Jewish woman, Rachel Clouatre, who has just barely evaded the roundup of French Jews by Vichy officials. It's obviously not Swift's fault that the subgenre of "time traveler helps to save a Jew from the Nazis" has been at the forefront of Holocaust fiction's devolution into Holocaust Kitsch, but one might have expected a little more awareness of this fact in 2018.
Paris Adrift clearly thinks of itself as a deeply political novel, but its ideas about politics are simplistic and in some cases genuinely dangerous--a charismatic political leader who urges non-specific niceness and is too good to stand for office is a particularly worrying plot point.  I'm sorry that my first encounter with Swift was so disappointing, and I may yet give her earlier books another shot, but if, like me, you were hoping to discover her with Paris Adrift, I wouldn't recommend it.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

A Political History of the Future: The City & The City at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column takes the opportunity of the BBC having released a miniseries adaptation of it to discuss China Miéville's The City & The City, a novel about two cities that exist side-by-side but have erected a convoluted mechanism of psychological self-deception to "unsee" one another.  When I reread my 2009 review of the book, I was struck by how much it emphasized Miéville's poking at core fantasy tropes over what feels now like a blatantly political premise.  But as both that review and the miniseries have reminded me, that imbalance exists in the book itself.
despite a surface feeling of relevance, the premise of The City & The City doesn’t map to any real-world political situation. Unseeing isn’t a way of ignoring an inconvenient or ugly reality, but a hefty psychic burden that the citizens of the two cities undertake out of ingrained habit and fear of retaliation. And despite multiple attempts to read it as such by reviewers, it is impossible to compare the Besźel/Ul Qoma split to real-world instances of ethnic strife, because that strife doesn’t exist in the book—as, indeed, how could it, given that Besz and Ul Qoman citizens are rarely allowed to acknowledge each other’s existence. The City & The City‘s ability to comment on real instances of political division shading into geography is thus quite limited. More importantly, Miéville’s handling of his setting, once he’s established it, doesn’t push against any of the things we’ve been trained to read as “bad”.
The miniseries seems to miss this fact.  It gestures at relevance--though it has shockingly little to say about Brexit--but is ultimately undone by the fact that the ending of the novel takes the story in a direction that most political readings can't accommodate.  It's a disappointing handling of a novel that is much more complex, but also much less immediate, than most readers assume.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

For the last ten years, Marvel Studios has been doing the impossible.  Just look at the list of decisions they've made on the road to total dominance of the movie box office, Hollywood's action-adventure machine, and sizable chunks of the cultural conversation.  Every one of them, at the time it was made, elicited loud cries of "why?", and more importantly, "how?"  How can Marvel create a movie universe without the rights to tentpole heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men?  How can they launch their new franchise with C-list weirdos like Iron Man and Thor?  How can they create a successful team-up movie combining the heroes of five previous films?  How can they incorporate genuinely out-there concepts like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man into their burgeoning cinematic universe?  How can they re-incorporate Spider-Man into that universe, relaunching the character for the third time in fifteen years?  How can they accommodate directors with a more definitive viewpoint and agenda, like Taika Waititi or Ryan Coogler?

And yet, every single time we've asked this question, the answer has been "like this".  I don't like all of the MCU movies and I don't think all of them are good, but every single one of them works.  Through a combination of inspired casting choices, a firm grasp of the kind of world they wanted to build and the stories they wanted to tell in it, and sure-footed leadership from mastermind Kevin Feige, Marvel has created a universe that is always entertaining to visit, with characters we can care about, settings we can become attached to, and, even in the worst films of the bunch, moments worth experiencing.  It's all the more impressive an accomplishment when you look at other studios' (and even Marvel's sister division in charge of Star Wars) attempts to replicate it, almost all of which have resulted in half-baked or genuinely unwatchable fare.

So even though I wouldn't say that I walked into Avengers: Infinity War with high hopes, I had certain expectations from it.  I'm not a great fan of any of the MCU's team-up movies--I think Avengers is more impressive for being attempted than for its limited success; I get more annoyed with Age of Ultron whenever I think about it; and though I praised Civil War when I first watched it, it has aged very poorly for me, and I now remember mainly its risible politics and the fact that it has made me dislike Steve Rogers.  But for all that, I still believed that the question aroused by the Infinity War concept--how can Marvel rope together dozens of characters from multiple storylines into a battle against a single universe-destroying villain, and make a successful and entertaining movie out of it?--would be answered with the same definitive success as previous ones.  I didn't expect to love Infinity War, but I expected it to work.

Instead, it is barely even a movie.  The answer to "how can you give each of these lovingly crafted characters the space and attention they deserve" turns out to be "you can't".  Characters in Infinity War turn up to prop up the plot and move it along, nothing more.  There's barely any space for meaningful interactions or even the occasional revealing plot point.  In fact, there's barely any space for story.  Infinity War is simply non-stop event, one fight scene leading into another with only the minimum of connective tissue.  And if that conjures up images of something energetic and exhilarating like Mad Max: Fury Road, Infinity War is the exact opposite, dutiful and airless.  None of the fight scenes are bad, but they're the same CGI spectacle we've seen many times before, and all so clearly in thrall to the demands of the plot that there's no space to be excited, surprised, or worried.

Infinity War proceeds along three storylines.  In the first, the Guardians of the Galaxy pick up Thor, left adrift in space after his crew of Asgardian refugees was slaughtered by Thanos, who was in search of the Tesseract Cube (along the way Thanos kills Heimdal and Loki; Valkyrie's whereabouts are never mentioned).  Thanos is, of course, the estranged father of Gamora, and she reveals that his goal is to kill half of all living beings in the universe, to which end he needs to collect all six of the Infinity Stones, which will give him control over all aspects of reality.  In a second storyline, an advance party of Thanos's henchmen arrives on Earth looking to collect the Time Stone (wielded by Doctor Strange) and the Mind Stone (currently powering Vision).  Strange, Tony Stark, and Peter Parker fend off the invaders but in the process end up trapped on Thanos's ship on its way to his homeworld, where they decide to mount an attack against him.  Finally, nearly every other major MCU player converges on Wakanda, where they hope to detach the Mind Stone from Vision so they can destroy it and foil Thanos's plan, and where they end up in a last stand against Thanos's regrouped forces.

The third of these storylines is nothing more than make-work, wasting the presence of such vital MCU players as Captain America, Black Widow, and pretty much everyone from Wakanda.  The emotional crux is meant to be the revelation that Vision and Wanda have been carrying on a secret affair since they ended up on different sides in Civil War, which now turns to tragedy since only Wanda's powers can destroy the Mind Stone.  But introducing a romance half a scene before telling us that it is doomed is a tough sell even if the lovers in question are well-developed characters (as seen with the example of Natasha and Bruce in Age of Ultron).  Doing it with Vision, who is underwritten, and Wanda, who is inconsistently written, is a losing proposition, and so the entire storyline ends up feeling perfunctory, a chance to check in with our favorite characters--here's Shuri showing up Bruce!  Here's M'Baku doing the Jabari war-bark!  Here's Natasha with a new hair color!--without letting them actually be the people we've come to care about.

The Tony/Strange/Peter storyline is little more than an excuse for three of the MCU's most inveterate quippers to quip against each other, which is entertaining as far as it goes but not much more than that.  The film's only real weight of emotional significance comes, strangely enough, from Thor and the Guardians.  There's a genuinely touching scene between Thor and Rocket in which the former recounts the losses he's experienced in the last few years and tries to convince himself that he's still up for a fight.  But most of the heavy lifting is done by Gamora, who struggles with her fear of Thanos, her guilt over the role she played in this atrocities, and her terror that he will capture her and learn from her the location of the Soul Stone, the final, lost Infinity Stone.

The problem here is that Gamora is by far the MCU's most underdeveloped headliner.  She has an incredibly fraught, complicated backstory, and yet the character who has shown up on screen has always been overshadowed, playing a sensible mom type to her more flamboyant crewmates (and sister).  And that's before we even get to the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 apparently took place four years ago, and that Infinity War has so little space to fill us in on what's happened to the Guardians since then that it has Peter awkwardly reveal that he and Gamora are romantically involved during a fight with Thanos.  So when Thanos tricks Gamora into thinking she's defeated him in battle and she breaks into uncontrollable sobs, it comes as a surprise in the worst possible way.  We know so little about Gamora and how she feels about Thanos that we have no idea how she'd react to his death, how she thinks she'd react, or how she'd like to react.  Zoe Saldana does the best she can, whether it's urging Peter to kill her if it looks like Thanos is about to capture her, or breaking down when Thanos tortures Nebula to get her to give him the location of the Soul Stone, or multiple scenes opposite Thanos himself.  But she can't get around the fact that we have no idea who Gamora is, and that the writing for Infinity War isn't really interested in changing that, as the first Avengers did for Black Widow and Bruce Banner.

And then there's Thanos himself, who has been looming over the MCU since Avengers in 2012, for the most part to very little effect.  Infinity War doesn't quite rescue him from the MCU's villain curse, but there's a solid argument to be made that he is the film's most interesting, rounded character, perhaps even its protagonist (that would certainly be one way to interpret the end title informing us that "Thanos Will Return").  After so much buildup, and with so much hatered registered towards him from Gamora, Nebula, and Drax, it's a reasonably clever choice for Infinity War to depict Thanos as even-tempered, patient, and wistful.  When he listens to Gamora rail against him, or explains to her that in killing half the population of the planets he visits, he's saving them from resource scarcity, it's hard not to feel (despite the absurd purple CGI) that there's a thinking, feeling person in there, however monstrous his reasoning.  In the end, however, the film can't quite make Thanos work.  His relentless pursuit of carnage can't be squared with his oh-so-reasonable demeanor.  Unlike, say, Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Infinity War doesn't do the work of building a character whose tremendous power and longevity has led them down a path of destruction that to them feels entirely rational.  One eventually comes to feel that Thanos is pursuing his horrific plan of galactic genocide simply because the plot needs him to

(It should go without saying that Thanos's overpopulation bugbear and his proposed solution for it are hideous claptrap.  Reducing a population by half, whether through violence as Thanos used to do, or by making people simply disappear as he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, would result in immediate economic and industrial collapse, and therefore mass starvation and most likely war.  It should go without saying, but because Hollywood continues to linger in the grip of Malthusianism decades after the rest of the world saw it for the racist nonsense that it is, I'm not sure that it does.  After all, we see Thanos tell Gamora that her home planet, whose population he massacred only twenty years ago, is now a paradise, which suggests the film does want us to see merit in his approach.  So, before the first thinkpiece suggesting that "Thanos Was Right" drops, I want it on the record that no, Thanos is a moron.)

To be clear, none of what I've written so far is the reason I've come down so hard against Infinity War.  If the movie was only what I've described in the preceding paragraphs, my reaction to it would be a resounding "meh".  Not as good as Avengers, not as bad as Age of Ultron, possibly better than Civil War but mainly because it has no political message with which to infuriate me.  The thing that makes me say that Infinity War is barely a movie is its ending, in which, well, Thanos wins.  The film climaxes with an epic battle between most of our heroes plus the Wakandan armies, and Thanos's forces.  (This would be a lot more exciting if it weren't so painfully dumb; naturally, if one side is invading from space, and the other is surrounded by a force-field dome, the thing to do is to have armies square off against one another on open ground like in The Lord of the Rings.)  The point of this battle is to give Shuri time to remove the Mind Stone from Vision without killing him.  But when Shuri's lab is overrun, Vision convinces Wanda to kill him and destroy the Stone, which she does.  At which point Thanos, who already has possession of Strange's Time Stone, rewinds back a few minutes and retrieves the Stone, killing Vision.  He then completes the Infinity Gauntlet and uses it to remove half the living beings in the universe, including Bucky Barnes, Wanda, Sam Wilson, T'Challa, Peter Parker, Doctor Strange, all of the Guardians except Rocket, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill.  Roll credits.

Look, I don't have to tell you what this means, right?  The combination of comics + lots of major character death + an established McGuffin that can and already has rewound time pretty much writes the story for you.  True, some fans are already debating how much of the carnage of Infinity War is going to be rewound in Avengers 4 (personally, I think it's obvious that it's going to be everything, though perhaps some minor characters will die in the new timeline, just for appearances' sake).  But to be honest, if the argument we're having while walking out of the movie theater is "how much of the movie we've just watched is going to be cancelled out of existence by the next one?" I think we can probably agree that we are not the richer for having watched it.

One of the reasons that I despise the way pop culture has come to conflate character death with meaningful drama (a development for which I mainly blame Game of Thrones, but which the MCU has happily indulged in) is that even when that death sticks, it never ends up feeling real and significant--more like a gimmick to make people gasp and then move on to the next big moment.  The previous Avengers movies teased us relentlessly with inane "who will die" slogans, only to kill off minor characters (one of whom was revived almost immediately on TV).  Infinity War obviously couldn't take that approach again, so by the time Thanos killed Gamora as a sacrifice to earn the Soul Stone, I was pretty sure that her death, and the ones that had come before it, were going to be rolled back.  The ending of Infinity War virtually guarantees this.  It's not that I want wholesale slaughter, but when characters die, I want it to matter.  When characters suffer, or argue, or even just talk to one another, I want it to matter.  The way Infinity War ends is a promise that nothing about it--the entire 160-minute slog--is going to matter.  That the purpose of the whole exercise was the "gotcha" of the credits rolling on Thanos's victory.

You can get away with something like this in comics or TV, where it's clearer that you're telling a chapter in a story.  (In fact I would argue that the excellent second season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow tells a story that is virtually identical to Infinity War, to the extent that I'm pretty sure the Avengers will use the same tactic as the Legends did to defeat Thanos.)  But those formats usually have enough space to make the journey worth the readers' while, even if parts of it are going to be erased.  Infinity War, as I've written, is nothing but forward momentum, so to discover that the only thing that momentum was leading us to was its own cancellation--and that we're going to have to wait a year before the actual story happens--feels very much like having been cheated.  It certainly doesn't help that Marvel has been insisting for years that the Infinity War story hasn't been split into two, even changing the names of Infinity War and Avengers 4.  As the saying goes, you can trick your readers, but you can't lie to them, and pretending that Avengers 4 isn't Infinity War 2 was a lie.

A lot reviewers are going to praise Infinity War for having a "brave" downer ending, but that's not what we've gotten.  A downer ending has weight.  It leaves you feeling something besides shock.  But shock is all Infinity War has to offer, bolstered by the freedom to do whatever it wants with its world, because none of it is really going to matter.  It's the kind of emptiness I've come to associate with the DC movies (Wonder Woman excepted), where grandiosity and melodrama are allowed to stand in for genuine emotion and meaning--something I thought the MCU knew instinctively to avoid.  There's no substance to Infinity War, only spectacle, and the fact that this was the capper that the remarkable ten years of the MCU have been leading up to leaves me thinking that I have massively overrated this entire effort.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 29

Avengers: Infinity War is just around the corner, which in some way feels like the true beginning of 2018's movie year.  We've mostly wrapped up last year's Oscar hopefuls, and the more experimental action-adventure fare of the year's early months, and now it's time to get down to business.  I'm not feeling terribly hopeful about Marvel's fourth attempt to wring a coherent dramatic work out of mashing all of their characters together (on twitter, I did the traditional thing and ranked all the MCU movies, and the team-up movies all ended up in the bottom half of the list) but I do think it offers a useful opportunity to sum up the last few weeks' movie-watching.  This is probably the last batch of "grown-up" movies to reach my part of the world for several months, so this is also an opportunity to look fondly back before world-destroying mayhem takes over our screens.
  • I, Tonya - A semi-mockumentary about the rise and fall of competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, who was embroiled--to a degree that has never been fully established--in a plot to assault her competitor Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 winter olympics, the most surprising thing about I, Tonya is that deep down, it is a straight-up sports movie.  Though the climax it's leading up to isn't victory or honorable defeat, but humiliation and ignominy, the beats of I, Tonya are familiar, predictable, and best of all thrilling.  We see Tonya start training as a child, until by the time she's in her teens (at which point she's played by Margot Robbie, very good in the role but also far too old and imposing to play the slight, young-looking Harding, who was only 24 when her saga ended) her entire life is devoted to skating.  We see the key figures in her life, who spur her on but also hold her back with their tangled emotional connections--her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), physically and emotionally abusive but also very perceptive in her judgments of Tonya and the people who latch onto her; her on-and-off husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who initially seems like a perfect, loving counterpoint to the harshness of Tonya's home life, but quickly reveals himself as abusive; her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who nurtures Tonya as hardly anyone else in her life does, but also keeps trying to push her to embody a genteel ice princess type that doesn't suit her rough-and-tumble personality.  Most of all, there are the skates, thrilling sequences at which every bit of work and suffering that Tonya has endured are summed up in a few minutes of performance, encompassing triumph--when she becomes the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition--and defeat--when she can barely make it through her program in the 1994 Olympics.

    It's interesting to note how similar I, Tonya is to Molly's Game, and how different their approaches to their subject matter end up being.  Both movies are about high-powered, talented women who discover very quickly that the line between fame and infamy is razor-thin, who are not innocents, but who also probably didn't deserve the harsh punishment they received for, essentially, being a Bad Girl.  But whereas in Molly's Game Aaron Sorkin runs in horror from the very thought that his heroine is not a completely admirable person, in I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers revels in Tonya's contradictions.  In his hands, she is at once a badass, who trains with total determination and literally marches to her own drum, performing routines to ZZ Top when everyone expects her to be gentle and demure, and an emotionally unstable fuckup, incapable, even in the most charitable reading of her story, of disentangling herself from toxic relationships and habits.  But it's not just Tonya who gets this treatment.  Everyone in the movie is at various points lovable, hateable, pitiable, and kind of a moron.  (This is a bit of a problem in the case of Jeff, whom Stan plays as a soft-spoken nebbish even as he's tossing Tonya across the room.)  None of them deserve a happy ending, but it's also made clear that the bad ending they do get is rooted as much in circumstances outside of their control--in the prejudices of the skating world, the authorities' tolerance of domestic abuse, and the public's need to tear down and hate women who don't live up to an image of perfection--as in their own actions.

    The problem that I, Tonya eventually bumps up against is the one that almost any attempt to depict or sum up the Harding/Kerrigan scandal encounters--there is, ultimately, no lesson that can be taken from this story, because everyone in it is wrong in one way or another (except, obviously, Kerrigan, who is instead a victim).  It is undeniably true that Tonya Harding was unfairly dismissed by the public, the press, and skating authorities because of her looks, her demeanor, and her lower-class background.  It is undeniably true that the public outrage that built around her after the assault was completely out of proportion to what she actually did (if indeed she did anything), and had more to do with her gender, her appearance, and a ravenous press cycle.  But against all that, there is the simple fact that a woman got her knee bashed in.  I, Tonya soft-pedals its condemnation of both Tonya and Jeff, somehow arguing that both of them stumbled into the attack on Kerrigan.  Though at the same time it also pokes at its own assertions by constantly breaking the fourth wall, having characters in the midst of scenes of great emotion and violence turn to the camera and complain that these events didn't happen, that the person telling the story is lying to make themselves look like the victim and everyone else look like a villain.  It's a clever conceit, but the end result is that the film can feel a little centerless, uncertain about what it wants to say about its heroine or story except perhaps that there is nothing to say.  This, however, doesn't change the fact that I, Tonya is massively entertaining, cleverly constructed (it is genuinely baffling that Molly's Game and Three Billboards received best screenplay nominations while Rogers didn't), and truly moving.  Whatever you end up thinking about Tonya Harding and the people around her when you leave the movie theater, I, Tonya wants you to remember that they are people, and at this it handily succeeds.

  • The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro's latest dark fantasy is an homage to old Hollywood, mashing up mid-century romantic melodramas and monster flicks to produce a tale in which the doe-eyed, beautifully emotive heroine falls in love with a fish-monster.  Working as a cleaner in a military research laboratory in the early 60s, mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) befriends the lab's latest subject, an amphibious anthropomorphic creature (Doug Jones) retrieved from the Amazon.  As their friendship deepens, the lab's security officer, Strickland (Michael Shannon) agitates to have the creature vivisected, prompting Elisa to mount a daring rescue.  The film is, as is typical with del Toro and in keeping with his obvious inspirations, a lush visual and auditory experience.  The rich shadows and colors, the evocative imagery (such as Elisa living over a movie theater whose sounds penetrate her dreams), the constant presence on the soundtrack of music, from show tunes to jazz, all combine to create the impression of a setting that is half dream-world, of a movie that knows that it is a movie, whose characters see themselves as movie characters.

    Describing The Shape of Water as a mashup, however, creates the expectation of something that pushes against boundaries, and instead the film feels much more like a retread than the sensational terms of the conversation around it suggest.  The problem, as it has been for several of del Toro's recent projects, is in the script, and while the one for The Shape of Water isn't as underdeveloped as, say, Crimson Peak, it is a story that substitutes bald declaration for any hint of subtlety or complication.  The film is a lovely, surprisingly hopeful (and refreshingly sexually frank) story of seemingly impossible love, but it never suggests what it can loudly say.  Whether it's the parallel between Elisa's muteness and the creature's difference (something that has left disability activists divided), which the film has Elisa spell out in a pivotal moment.  Or the fact that Strickland is literally every sort of evil you'd imagine from a character like him, and spends his every moment on screen reminding us of this fact, from pointlessly browbeating his underlings, to making racist comments to Elisa's friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to drooling over his latest status-symbol-slash-phallic object, a new Cadillac.  Or a subplot about Elisa's neighbor, an aging gay man (Richard Jenkins), who declines to help her because he still hopes to claw himself back to respectability, only to come to her aid when the young man he's been lusting over turns out to be a homophobe and a racist.  The closest The Shape of Water comes to offering a mixed, challenging message is when the only scientist in the lab who sympathizes with the creature (Michael Stuhlberg) is revealed to be a Soviet plant, but even then, we're quickly reassured that his handlers are just as eager to exploit the creature as the American military.

    Of course, subtlety isn't always something to strive for.  I've seen some reviewers complain about the unmitigated awfulness of Strickland's character, for example, when to my mind he feels like the perfect villain for this moment, in which there's value in reminding people that racism and homophobia and authoritarianism and a complete disrespect for the rights of others often go hand in hand, without any redeeming characteristics.  (If there's a complication of Strickland's character, I'd say it comes from outside of him, in a scene in which his superior makes it clear that there will be no tolerance for his failure to reacquire the creature, and we watch Strickland realize that the toxic system he's bought into has no qualms about treating him as badly as he's treated others.)  But when I compare The Shape of Water to other best picture nominees like Call Me By Your Name or Phantom Thread, it feels thin despite its visual and textural richness.  In a way, the film feels of a piece with other recent "Hollywood does Hollywood" Oscar nominees like La La Land or The ArtistThe Shape of Water is about more than either of these other movies, but its obviousness means that it doesn't quite escape their gravity well.  It's a film that is luxurious to watch, but didn't leave me with very much when I left the movie theater.

  • Mudbound - Dee Rees's historical drama unfolds on a Mississippi farm in the 40s, and charts the growing, racially-charged tensions between two families, one white and one black.  The McAllans, Henry and Laura (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan), buy the farm on a whim, to indulge Henry's fantasy of being a landowner.  The Jacksons, Hap and Florence (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), have been sharecropping the land for generations, with no hope in sight of climbing out of subsistence living.  The early parts of the film skip nimbly between different characters' points of view, letting them narrate to us the subtle currents of power and prejudice that govern the two families' interactions--the fact that Henry feels entitled to call on Hap for help at any moment, and to dictate the terms of their financial relationship; Florence's reluctance to help Laura at home, born partly out of a desire to care for her own children, and partly out of a recognition that if anything were to happen to Laura's children, she would be blamed; Laura's mingled insight and detachment, her refusal to take an active role as a white landowner's wife that might allow her to mitigate some of the injustice she observes.

    Things come to a head when WWII ends and the two families' soldiers return home: Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a rakish pilot, and eldest Jackson son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a decorated tank commander.  Both are having trouble readjusting to civilian life, and they find in each other a sympathetic ear, someone who understands the traumas they've experienced.  Jamie is also struggling with his feelings for Laura, and with his bullying, racist father (Jonathan Banks), while Ronsel chafes against a society where he is seen as barely human after having been lauded as a hero in Europe.  The small oasis from intolerance and inequality formed by their friendship is compelling, but clearly also doomed.

    Even ignoring the long stretches of voiceover, it's easy to see that Mudbound is based on a novel (by Hillary Jordan), and while this might sound strange given that I haven't read it, the adaptation (by Rees and Virgil Williams) feels respectful and faithful.  The way the film slowly develops each of its wide cast of characters, and follows them along tangents that expose their unique point of view, feels novelistic, and unlike what you often find in feature films.  Sometimes the result can shade into melodrama--a scene in which Jamie reveals that his racial prejudices were exploded after his life was saved by the Tuskegee Airmen might have worked on the page, but feels hopelessly mawkish on screen--but for the most part it makes the film's world and characters feel vivid and lived in.  It helps that the film gives its actors a chance to shine, with Blige, Morgan, and Mulligan in particular giving deeply human and touching performances as complicated people hoping for better but not sure how to achieve it, and whether a path is even available to them.

    As Mudbound approaches its climax, however, one becomes more and more cognizant of the fact that there is only one way for this story to conclude, with tragedy, and it's hard not to resent the film for this--for introducing us to strong, hard-working, hopeful people like the Jacksons only to tear them down, because that's how historical dramas about black people in the south have to end.  It feels a little as if Rees shares that frustration, because Mudbound's final act is rushed and more than a little confusing, as if the film were trying to quickly get through the horror that it knows it has to depict.  That this horror is ultimately mitigated, and that the Jacksons find a way to build a better life for themselves in spite of it, is a tremendous relief, but nevertheless Mudbound is stronger in its beginning and middle than in its end.

  • Pacific Rim: Uprising - I wasn't a huge fan of the original Pacific Rim, which seemed made up of really compelling pieces that never really cohered into an interesting whole (again, see Guillermo del Toro's perennial problems with scripts--the one for Pacific Rim just gives up the ghost in act three).  But it's genuinely fascinating to see what happens when that film's universe and core concepts are handed to a more conventional director (Steven S. DeKnight, mainly known for TV stuff like Daredevil) and writers.  It's not just that the fleshy weirdness of del Toro's visual worldbuilding is gone, but so is the weirdness of some of his core concepts.  The idea of drift compatibility, for example, which in the original Pacific Rim was such a rich metaphor for empathy and connection, is here turned into just another skill that people need to develop, at which point they can drift with anyone--a way of proving individual fitness, not a connection to a specific person.  (It's not surprising that the first Jaeger we see in the movie is a small model piloted by a single person.)  There are other ways in which Uprising streamlines the original Pacific Rim's messiness, moving it in line with Hollywood's standard template for heroic movies.  Introducing a heretofore-unheard-of son for Idris Elba's character from the first movie, who is a hotshot who doesn't follow orders well, is particularly old hat.  So is a subplot that someone on twitter aptly summed up as "Jaeger Hogwarts", in which a group of aspiring young Jaeger pilots squabble and eventually learn to put their differences aside and work as a team.

    None of this is to say that Uprising is a bad movie.  It's just that it's good (for a given, limited value of "good") in very different ways than the original Pacific Rim, conventional and fun to its predecessor's charming but messy.  And it is a lot of fun, precisely because it wears its conventional plot lightly, and spruces it up with a lot of forward plot momentum.  Not to mention Jaeger and Kaiju fights, which continue to be this series's not-so-secret weapon, cheerfully bashing giant robots and monsters into buildings and each other with utterly delightful abandon.  Tying it all together is John Boyega, without whom this film would totally fall apart (proving this point is Scott Eastwood as Boyega's rule-following counterpart, who barely even registers on screen).  Boyega's charisma is so instantly engaging that he manages to make an underwritten character in an unconvincing situation completely engaging, and that in turn powers the rest of the movie.  Between that, the Jaegers and the Kaiju, Uprising makes for an utterly enjoyable evening out, even if it isn't nearly as soulful as its predecessor.

  • The Death of Stalin - Armando Iannucci's latest black comedy brilliantly dramatizes the days before and after the death of the Soviet tyrant, and the chaos into which the Politburo, the NKVD, and the Russian army are thrown by the sudden removal of a figure who had not only consolidated a horrific amount of power into his own hands, but who erected such a monumental cult of personality around himself that even the people he hurt most don't know how to go on without him.  The historical details are no doubt fudged or even outright invented, but Iannucci's clever script wastes no time in establishing the complex political web that exists around Stalin, and how it's overturned by his death.  We meet Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin's devoted deputy who initially balks at but is quickly won over by the idea of taking over as dictator.  Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the venal, cynical head of the secret police who immediately starts scheming how best to position himself in the new reality, including trying to reinvent himself as a reformer and a friend of the people.  And our point of view character, Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who scrambles with Beria for survival before realizing that he's in position to grab the entire pot.  The cast is rounded-out by a who's-who of British and American comedy actors, all in top form, but standouts include Stalin's drunken wastrel of a son Vasily (Rupert Friend, suddenly reminding everyone how wasted he's been in dour action hero roles like Homeland) and Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs, magnificent), whose WWII heroism is perhaps the reason that he's the only one willing to admit that what's happening in the wake of Stalin's death is not an orderly transfer of power in which everyone has the best interest of the people and the Communist ideal at heart, but a plain and simple coup.

    I'm not sure what Iannucci's reasons were for embarking on this project, but in our current political moment it ends up feeling utterly essential.  At the heart of the film's comedy is the denial, sometimes necessary and sometimes self-serving, that the characters need to deploy in order to survive and advance in their increasingly irrational world.  They must pretend to live in a worker's paradise, because to acknowledge Stalin's tyranny, the cruelty of his whims, and the capriciousness of the state's organs of policing and punishment, might be more than their lives are worth.  After Stalin dies, the Politburo pretend to be working together to stabilize the Union, even though they all know that a purge is coming, either from the people or the military or each other.  When they gang up against Beria, they pretend to be rooting out a cancer afflicting the purity of Communism, even though, as he indignantly insists, they've all committed atrocities and abused their positions.  Most importantly, they pretend that this latest round of violence is the last one, and that after it they'll be able to set things right, and put a stop to the arrests, executions, purges, and gulags.  It's all very, very funny--standout scenes include a Politburo meeting in which the veneer of free discussion quickly crumbles under the need to make every decision unanimous; or a scene in which Khrushchev and a barely-hanging-on Molotov (Michael Palin) compete to see which one of them can more fervently denounce Molotov's wife, imprisoned for allegedly plotting against Stalin, while Beria keeps trying to interrupt them so he can spin the new narrative in which she was wrongly accused; when we meet Vasily, he's desperately trying to whip into shape a Russian hockey team made up of replacements after the previous team was killed in a plane crash, which he can't acknowledge because Soviet planes aren't supposed to crash.  But underlying it all is a deadly serious, and horrifying, truth: that all it took to erect and maintain this system of abuse and oppression was the cowardice and selfishness of these thoroughly unimpressive men, and that none of them will do anything to make things better.

    The Death of Stalin also feels essential in the context of the conversation about how comedy can function in the era of looming fascism, and whether mocking dictators does anything but normalize them and minimize their potential harm.  Iannucci offers a master-class in how to ridicule totalitarianism without losing sight of its dangers, as well as a demonstration of how hard that is to do.  The film doesn't always keep a steady grip on its tone.  It occasionally slips from exposing its characters' absurdity to a more generalized gawping at the Russian people's acceptance of their deranged situation--as in a minor subplot about a young man who directs the secret police to his father's location to save his own skin, only for those prisoners to be released as part of Beria's attempted reinvention.  But in its best moments, The Death of Stalin knows who it's meant to be laughing at, and it laces that laughter with palpable anger and disdain.  Its primary focus is in revealing its characters' paltriness, their desperate need to have someone to blame for everything that's gone wrong around them--Stalin, then Beria, then Melankov, and eventually Khruschev--in order not to see that it's the system they've created and are propping up that is to blame.  Even as it mocks their weakness, The Death of Stalin keeps reminding us that we allow such weak people to rule us at our own peril.