Thursday, May 26, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

I promise, at some point I'll go back to writing about things that aren't superheroes.  Though that would require Hollywood to stop blasting superhero stories at us in such close succession (I haven't even written anything about the second season of Daredevil, though you can get a sense of the existential despair it plunged me into from the thread starting at this tweet).  Coming at the end of that barrage, it's perhaps understandable that the third (or sixth, or eighth) X-Men movie should be met with a muted, not to say exhausted, response.  And some of the reviews have gone further and been downright brutal.  I'm here to say that both of these reactions are unearned.  X-Men: Apocalypse is by no means a great movie, and it has some serious problems.  But I still found myself enjoying it a great deal more than any other work in this genre since Deadpool.  Perhaps this is simply the relief of a superhero story that is not about grim-faced men taking themselves very seriously, and which instead tells an unabashedly silly story in a totally committed way.  Or it might be because alongside the flaws, there are also things to praise in X-Men: Apocalypse, things that hardly any other superhero works are doing right now.

If there's a core flaw to X-Men: Apocalypse, it is that what it really wants to be is a six-part miniseries.  You can even see the places where the chapter breaks would have gone, complete with intermediate climaxes leading up to a world-destroying conflict with the villain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, largely wasted on a nondescript character covered with the kind of makeup that forestalls any attempt at acting), who wants to kill off most of humanity so that the survivors can rebuild, stronger than ever.  Apocalypse eventually comes to seem like the highlights version of its own story--just the big, climactic moments; hardly any of the connective tissue.  As flaws go, however, this one is a lot less disruptive to the viewers' enjoyment than, say, the seemingly endless let's-get-the-band-together scenes in the first act of Avengers.  It's easy to sense the movie that Apocalypse is trying to be, and as a result the actual product is rushed, but not incoherent.

On the other hand, Apocalypse's compressed, just-the-highlights approach also means that most of its characters are underserved.  The X-Men films have always been characterized by a wide ensemble, and have tended to handle it more elegantly than the comparable Avengers movies (or even Civil War).  But the sheer weight of events--mostly explosive ones--that happen in Apocalypse means that a lot of its cast gets lost in the shuffle.  This is particularly true of the four disciples that Apocalypse gathers to help in his world-destroying plan.  Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) are there to act as warm bodies in fight scenes, and are otherwise completely wasted.  Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is coasting off the previous two films' character development, but even so his presence by Apocalypse's side feels barely-justified.  Worst of all is Storm, who has a kickass introduction and is played to perfection by newcomer Alexandra Shipp, but who the film then pretty much forgets about--a particular problem since Storm is, of course, a major good guy in the X-Men universe, and her turnaround in Apocalypse thus deserved a lot more screen-time than it gets.

Other characters, however, get better handling.  Existing good guys like Charles Xavier, Beast, and Havoc get just enough screen time to establish their rapport and the community they've built at Xavier's school, but the film really belongs to Mystique.  Jennifer Lawrence--whose naked and blue time the film reduces to a bare minimum--is predictably wonderful as a woman struggling with a painful past and crushed hopes.  Her growing realization that she's become a heroic figure within the mutant community, and slow acceptance of a leadership role in it, are one of the most gratifying choices made by the rebooted X-Men movies.  Similarly rewarding is the film's new version of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a problematic character whose handling in the original X-Men trilogy revolved mostly around her fear of her powers, and Wolverine's unrequited love for her.  Turner's version is still saddled with a character whose only possible development is into a force that must be violently stopped (usually by men), but in this movie, at least, she plays Jean as someone who is learning to understand, control, and use her powers.  In the middle part of the movie, it's Jean who drives the action, using her powers to lead the juvenile members of the X-Men on a mission to save Xavier and Mystique.  And where previous X-Men movies might have depicted Jean unleashing the full force of her abilities on Apocalypse as a surrender to a force she can't control, in this movie it's painted as a choice, an embrace of power that makes Jean one of the X-Men team's foremost members.

Part of the reason why Apocalypse can get away with being so rushed, so compressed in its storytelling, is that the climaxes that it delivers every time Apocalypse reveals the full scope of his powers are exhilarating and beautifully executed.  Apocalypse isn't a very interesting villain, but the sheer scope of his powers means that he is still scary.  In one scene, he unleashes all of the Earth's stockpile of nuclear weapons, and you keep expecting it to turn out to be a dream, or for Xavier, Magneto, or Jean to stop it, until you finally realize that no, this is really happening.  I can't remember the last time that an action set-piece in a superhero movie had the power to shock me in the way that this sequence did.

But of course, none of this would work if Apocalypse didn't have such a firm handle on its action components.  I was never a huge fan of Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies, but there's no denying that with his return to superhero filmmaking he demonstrates just why he was the one who made this genre of movies viable.  The action scenes in X-Men: Apocalypse put to shame just about every other attempt in this genre in the last ten years, and simultaneously bring home how cluttered, busy, and overwhelming every other superpowered free-for-all on our screens has been.  (Someone will no doubt bring up the Russo brothers, but it's important to note that their forte has been one-on-one fights, mostly between people without extravagant powers.  When it comes to city-destroying mayhem, the best that the MCU has to offer is Joss Whedon's work in the Avengers movies, and, well.)  It is, for example, totally unsurprising that the film tries to top the "Time in a Bottle" sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters) zips around merrily, solving everyone's problems in his own good time.  But what's amazing is that Apocalypse actually succeeds at this, effortlessly upping the stakes and bringing across the true extent of Quicksilver's powers, while still stressing his fundamental silliness.

There are, however, some problems with this movie that its stunning set-pieces can't overcome.  Unlike X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse is not a very political movie, which means that it doesn't delve into the question of mutants' place in the world, and how they interact with human society.  For the most part, this is a function of its story and villain--Apocalypse doesn't care about human vs. mutant disputes, and is happy to deal out death equally to both groups, so long as a select few, whom he sees as the elite, survive.  And while it is, as I said above, a little refreshing to have a superhero story that doesn't try to engage with real-world political issues (which it will inevitably do poorly) but instead just gets to the business of a bunch of good guys fighting a bunch of bad guys with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the complete failure to engage with any political issues contributes to the sense that Apocalypse underserves huge swathes of its story and cast.  Storm, for example, is introduced as a punk-ish thief in Cairo, with an Arabic-language magazine cover featuring Mystique hanging on her wall.  There's an opportunity here to connect to Arab nationalism, to the frustrations and resentments of the third world with the systems that have kept it poor and exploited, and to the way that revolutionary figures can have cross-cultural appeal.  But the film's neglect of Storm after these opening scenes means that any chance at a political subtext is lost.

This is particularly unfortunate because Storm is one of only three people of color in this movie (the others are Psylocke, and Jubilee, played by Lana Condor, who gets only a few lines and doesn't participate at all in the super-heroics).  The lack of focus on her, as well as the fact that the staff at Xavier's school seems to be made up entirely of white men (we see some female teachers in background shots, but none of them even get to speak), reinforces the sense that the mutant problem, in the world of X-Men: Apocalypse, is one that afflicts mostly white, middle class Americans.  That certainly seems to be the thrust of the plotline that introduces Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who arrives at the school shortly before the film's events kick into gear, and seems designed as its point of view character.  But though unobjectionable, Scott Summers fades into the background when Jean Grey and Mystique get to interact with one another, and it would have only done the film good if there had been similar interactions between Mystique and Storm.

If there's one problem that really comes close to scuttling X-Men: Apocalypse for me, it is the film's handling of Magneto.  In my past writing about the X-Men movies, and particularly the rebooted universe beginning with X-Men: First Class, I've been pretty sympathetic to this multifaceted villain, and since then I think I've only gotten more entrenched in that position (it doesn't help that Xavier's approach just gets less tenable the more you think about it; as Steven Attewell points out in some recent discussions in his People's History of the Marvel Universe series, it's increasingly disturbing that an organization nominally devoted to securing mutant rights spends so much of its time fighting other mutants).  But Apocalypse takes Magneto beyond the pale, just at the point where it clearly believes that it is returning him to the fold.  The film's obvious intent with Magneto is to tell a story in which he experiences a horrific loss, responds by giving in to violence and anger, and is then brought back to his senses by the reminder that he has people who care about him and believe in his goodness.  The problem with this is, first, that the execution is terrible--it's here that Apocalypse's rushed, compressed nature works most powerfully against the film's intended effect.  The minute we meet Magneto's saintly wife and daughter, it's obvious that they're going to be killed off in order to provide him with angst, and their characterization is so nondescript that it's virtually impossible for us to empathize with his grief and anger over their loss.

More importantly, there is the simple fact that there are only so many times a person can decide their own suffering matters more than the survival of the human race, before that stops being an excusable reaction to trauma, and becomes a reflection of their shitty personality.  Despite what Charles and Raven keep telling him (and us), the Magneto in X-Men: Apocalyse does not, in fact, seem to have any good in him.  On the contrary, he seems to be a selfish, self-absorbed person, whose reaction to pain and anger is to start murdering people left and right, and then to happily act as a key component in Apocalypse's plan to kill billions of people.  It's downright galling that his last-minute decision not to do so is presented by the film as a meaningful turn to the light, with newscaster voiceovers at the end of the movie informing us that he is now being hailed as a hero--for stopping the calamity that he himself caused.

(On a personal note, I find Apocalypse's handling of Magneto particularly offensive because this version of the character has made so much of the fact that he is a Holocaust survivor.  As it happens, there have been survivors who lost their entire families to the Nazis, rebuilt their lives after the war, and then lost their families again.  The film's attempts to justify and excuse Magneto's murderous reaction to such a trauma are an affront to these real survivors' resilience and enduring humanity in choosing not to do the same.  That Apocalypse's seduction of Magneto to his ethos of destruction and death culminates in a visit to Auschwitz only makes the film's use of the Holocaust more risible.)

The only positive note in Apocalypse's handling of Magneto is the way the film uses Quicksilver, who enters the story knowing that Magneto is his father and eager to connect with him.  In the film's climactic scene, Mystique and Quicksilver confront Magneto and try to convince him that he still has something to live for.  While Mystique appeals to Erik's humanity, Peter is obviously nonplussed by the monster that his father has become.  When questioned, and given the opportunity to declare himself as Magneto's son (which, unbeknownst to him but obvious to us, would restore to Erik something of what he lost with the deaths of his family), Peter instead says obliquely "I'm here for my family."  At the end of the movie, he announces that he might tell Erik the truth some day, but not yet.  Aside from being a clever character note--surely any reasonable person would balk at letting Erik Lehnsherr claim them as family--it's also a moment of judgment against Magneto in a film that doesn't contain nearly enough of them, and a thin thread to cling to for those of us who refuse to see him as a redeemed figure.

It's in talking about moments like this one that I come closest to articulating why I enjoyed X-Men: Apocalypse so much more than objectively better films like Civil War, and despite the fact that it has so many glaring flaws.  When Quicksilver chooses not to acknowledge his relationship to Magneto, he reminds us that he has an inner life and a story of his own, and that this is true of so many (though, unfortunately, not all, and not always the most compelling) of the series's characters.  Taken together, they create a sense of community, of family, that none of the other superhero series currently running have managed.  Even the MCU, despite its best efforts, always feels more comfortable in its standalone movies, and has yet to convincingly argue that its characters have real, lasting relationships, or that they've formed a community.

Perhaps another way of putting it is that the X-Men films--and particularly the rebooted, post-First Class films--know what their story is about in a way that the MCU and the Justice League movies don't.  Where just about every other superhero franchise is still stuck rehashing 9/11 and the war on terror, the X-Men movies are creating their own world, and with it their own identity.  What they do with this world is rarely as interesting or as comprehensive as I would like (and the mutant metaphor remains a millstone around this story's neck, especially since the movies are so resistant to letting people of color take center stage).  But after two years of superhero stories struggling to root themselves in our politics and failing miserably, it's honestly a relief to return to a universe that is complete in itself.  X-Men: Apocalypse is flawed in many ways, but it wears those flaws more lightly than many other, better films' accomplishments.  It isn't trying to prove to us that it's worth engaging with.  It's simply telling a story, and inviting us to come along.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Civil Links

It's been two weeks since Captain America: Civil War opened (a week in the US), and I think it's time to call it: the conversation surrounding this movie has been surprisingly, and disappointingly, muted.  Most reviews seem to have reached a consensus of good-movie-that-handles-its-politics-well, which, even notwithstanding that I only agree with the first part, feels like only scratching the surface (meanwhile, the more character-focused conversation on tumblr has tended to revolve around the kind of arguments that only serve to remind me why this is a good life rule).  Around this time after the comparatively incoherent Age of Ultron, we were practically swimming in thinkpieces and conversations, and while Civil War doesn't have as obvious an outrage hook as awkwardly implying that infertile women are monsters, one would think that people would still be able to find things to say about it.  Perhaps the truth is simply what I suggested in my own review: that the worldbuilding and politics of this movie are built on such a flimsy foundation that any attempt to engage with them inevitably leads to the conclusion that they're not worth talking about.  Nevertheless, here are a few interesting links that I have been able to find--obviously, I'd be interested in any others you could suggest in the comments.
  • Probably my favorite straight-up review of the film comes from Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com.  Amid a torrent of reviews that have tended to overpraise the film as both a piece of storytelling and a political statement, Seitz is refreshingly even-handed, finding things to be positive about (as there undoubtedly are) without ignoring some of the fundamental issues in the film's construction.
    There's a fair bit of "The Dark Knight" logic, or "logic," to the storytelling. Characters do things to other characters because they know it'll set off a chain reaction that'll eventually lead to a very specific moment at the end; luckily for them, each step goes according to plan, because if it didn't there would be no movie. And, as in the inferior yet thematically similar "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," the hero-versus-hero slugfest only seems to spring from real and deep philosophical differences. It turns out that the real problem is that these characters don't talk to each other when they should.
  • Writing in the Washington Post, Henry Farrell (perhaps best known to readers here as one of the bloggers on Crooked Timber) lays out all the ways in which Civil War gets global politics wrong.  This might seem so trivially obvious that it's not worth even spelling out, but I actually found it quite useful to have all these issue laid out in plain language.
    "Captain America: Civil War" talks about how superheroes might be perceived as vigilantes. There's an even uglier word for someone who jumps into a political situation, blows things and people up and disappears again — terrorist. When Thomas Barnett writes about "super-empowered individuals" in world politics, he isn't talking about Ant Man and Spider-Man. He’s talking about Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11, 2001, plane hijackers, who acted as individuals to change the shape of global politics. The Avengers have better intentions but the same potential for causing chaos without accountability. Even if they're acting to save the human race, it's unsurprising that governments should be angry and unhappy at their willingness to intervene across the world, regardless of the collateral damage.
  • One of the points made by Farrell is that Civil War irretrievably skews its story by focusing so myopically on American concerns and perspectives, even as its heroes seek the freedom and authority to operate all over the world.  Samira Nadkarni expands on this issue in a Storify of her tweets about the movie, in which she argues that "the MCU insists that a bomb in Lagos and even the inclusion of an African subplot is basically all about America and the Global North."  Her arguments touch on the way that Avengrs (which is to say American) interference outside of the US, and chiefly in the Global South, is seen as an American issue; on the problems with Wakanda as an African nation that is explicitly un-African; and on the choice to center the discussion of registration (inasmuch as it exists) on Wanda, a white European, whose terrorist activities would surely not have been so easily swept under the rug if she were a Middle Eastern man.

  • If you haven't done so already, check out Samira's review of the TV series Shadowhunters (based on Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments books) at Strange Horizons.  Though published several weeks before Civil War's release and focusing on a (nominally) different genre, it touches on a lot of problems with the way that superhero stories center white, Western people even as they claim to be about issues that largely concern people of color and the Global South.  The construction "a TV show about moderate racists taking on a vehement racist so they can learn to be slightly less racist" describes so much of the current superhero genre (and gets at why I've grown increasingly bored, not to say suspicious, when stories in this genre trot out cartoon Nazis as their ultimate villains--at this stage, it just feels like a distraction, a way to keep me from noticing the heroes' less overt fascist tendencies).  Samira's segue into her outrage at the way that the trailers for Civil War centered Steve's devotion to Bucky, even as other stories about superhero registration have treated people of color as the villains, feels particular prescient:
    In Marvel's TV property Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the character of Jiaying (played by Tibetan-Australian actress Dichen Lachman) fights against registration being enforced by S.H.I.E.L.D., as a result of having lived through this information being misused, leading to torture, organ theft, the death of the majority of her community, and the loss of her child. Her desperate attempt to start a war in response to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s American neo-colonial statement-threat of "we'll leave you in peace if you register" with its consequent policing and control of the Asian-themed city of Afterlife, is framed within the show as terrorism and strongly disavowed. Her story of fighting against forced registration isn't one that matters. The reasoning behind her actions—which also involves tortures of various kinds being a possible likelihood for her people as part of her lived experience—isn't endorsed. But, oh, yes, do tell me more about Bucky Barnes. Divorce this story even further from the people it affects. We've always been the villains of the piece. 
  • Brian Phillips, writing at MTV.com, makes a valiant attempt to reconcile Civil War and the world of the MCU (and other superhero movies) with present-day political anxieties, trying to get at why we're seeing so many stories about how (and if) we can reconcile the existence of superpowered individuals with democratic society, and with the post-9/11 penchant for violent global interference.  That he doesn't quite succeed is probably not his fault, given how muddled this genre (and the thinking about these issues in Hollywood) are, but this is nevertheless a well-written, funny essay that articulates some of the core problems with this project:
    The other explanation for that focus is an irony that, when you start to lay it out, is kind of gobsmacking, and that gets at an almost Greek-tragic dimension of recent comic-book movies. (Let’s say Norse-tragic, because Thor.) The irony is this: The superheroes in superhero movies are always the only force capable of saving humanity from the threats it faces. But with astounding regularity in post-9/11 comic-book films, the threats mankind has to be saved from were either unleashed by the heroes themselves, came into being simultaneously with the heroes, or both. In other words, the chaos from which the heroes are required to save the world is implicit in the heroes’ being in the world in the first place; even when the protagonists aren’t actually the authors of the crisis they are fighting against — something that, again, happens with startling frequency — they are manifestations of the same fundamental shift. Hark!
  • Over at my tumblr, I talk briefly about my favorite Bucky Barnes moment in the film--the one that seems most obviously opposed to the woobification impulse that seems to take over fandom when it discusses not just this character, but all the handsome white men in this universe.  I also mention some of the ways the film could have used Natasha better (which is to say at all).

  • Linda Holmes at NPR does the obvious pop culture thing of linking Civil War with, what else, Hamilton.  Clickbaity as that sounds, Holmes has a valid point--both works are about people who initially try to work out their problems through discussion, but who find themselves, by the end of the story, pointing weapons at people they care about once their disputes have passed the point of no return.
    There's a fascinating sequence, perhaps unique among movies of this budget and scale, in which a group of characters who are all known to be decent, known to be moral, known to be noble, and known to be literally both Super and Heroes sit in a group talking through this critical disagreement about acceding or not to outside supervision — to acting only when a group of governments working in concert tell them they can (and must). They find themselves forced to balance legitimately compelling arguments on both sides. They argue back and forth, not in the "fight" sense but in the "argument" sense: Someone offers support for one answer, then someone else offers support for the other. Everyone has a point. They all respect each other. They all know they cannot split the difference and cannot find a choice in the middle. They cannot punch or shoot or zap their way out of it. The choice is binary: They will say yes or they will say no, and despite the breadth of their agreement on the relevant issues, they cannot agree on the answer.
    I'm linking to this piece mainly because I want to disagree with it, or at least to point out that drawing comparisons to Hamilton does Civil War no favors.  Holmes is right that some of the discussion scenes in the first half of the film are exciting precisely because they're not the sort of thing we're used to seeing in this genre, but she ignores the fact that by its second half, Civil War makes it clear that these discussions were never the point--that what it really wanted was to get to the fighting.  This is very different from how Hamilton handles its characters' descent into violence, which is depicted as the act of two stubborn, childish men, and, more importantly, not the way to resolve political disputes.  Hamilton and Burr end up in a duel not because they have fundamental political disagreements, but because of their pride and immaturity.  Meanwhile, political action is still happening through conversation--either in the thrilling "Cabinet Battle"s that are the highlights of the play's second act, or in the "Room Where it Happens," where people sit down and hammer out policy details.

    Even more importantly, the way in which Hamilton handles its descent into violence is a direct rebuke to Civil War's glibness towards the same subject.  Holmes is right to highlight Burr's line, immediately before his duel with Hamilton, that "This man will not make an orphan of my daughter!"  Newly-minted Tony nominee Leslie Odom Jr. all but screams the line, going off-key as a way of demonstrating the desperation of Burr's will to live.  That desperation is completely absent from the climactic fight scene in Civil War, which both the film and the characters treat almost as a game, thus robbing the film of most of its emotional weight.  It's also significant that after killing Hamilton, Burr's life was basically ruined.  Even in the early 19th century, there were social consequences to his choice to abandon civility in favor of violence.  No one familiar with the MCU will be able to expect similar consequences for any of Civil War's characters.  On the contrary, the film blatantly leaves an opening for Steve and his fellow renegades to use violence in a socially sanctioned matter, saving the world from Thanos in Infinity War, thus sweeping away all their crimes in this story.

  • Not directly Civil War-related, but of interest to people who want to have a discussion about politics (and particularly progressive politics) in comics and have been disappointed in the dearth of such conversations surrounding this movie.  Since the beginning of the year, blogger Steven Attewell has been writing A People's History of the Marvel Universe, in which he discusses the history of the comics company's heroes and how they intersect, and emerge from, the politics of their day.  A lot of the discussions, as you might expect, center on the X-Men (the last few weeks in particular have focused on the infamous "mutant metaphor"), but Captain America has also featured heavily.  It's a great resource for people, like myself, who know these characters mainly from the movies, and would like to know how they developed, and how their political stances reflect social issues of their era more than ours.  If you're reading along at Lawyers, Guns and Money, where the series is being cross-posted, there's also a lively discussion in the comments.

    (Incidentally, it occurs to me that Attewell's series is precisely the sort of thing that the Best Related Work Hugo category should recognize.  I'm not crazy about the recent trend of recognizing individual blog posts in this category, but the People's History series is now approaching book-length, and I for one would love to see it recognized as such next year.)

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

It's a bit of a strange thing to say, but I might have liked Captain America: Civil War better if it were a less good movie.  When films like The Dark Knight Rises or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice deliver rancid political messages wrapped in equally rancid plots and characterization, the reviewer's job is made easier.  We can point to how a failure to recognize the actual complexity of a situation, or to imbue characters with full humanity, both informs and reflects the simplistic, quasi-fascist message of the movie.  Civil War is a trickier customer.  It tries--and on some level, manages--to be more intelligent and more thoughtful than something like Batman v Superman.  Its characters take the film's central conflict seriously, discussing it rationally and trying to find a way to resolve it without descending into fisticuffs.  But even as they do so, they reveal the inherent impossibility of their project, the way the core assumptions of this entire genre combine to form a black hole that it can never escape.  I've said it before, but the minute you start taking superheroes seriously, and debating the rights and wrongs of them, only one conclusion is possible: that superheroes are a really bad idea, and that any fictional world that houses more than a handful of them will inevitably devolve into a horrifying dystopia in which the rule of law and the authority of democratic government are meaningless.  In the end, and despite the wide gulf of quality between them, Civil War ends up telling the same story as Batman v Superman: a tragedy about people who don't know any way to address their problems except through violence.

Before we get to that, however, let's note that for all my praise of it, Civil War is not a top-notch MCU movie.  Though it does a better job of wrangling a truly epic number of characters than last year's Age of Ultron, the need to service all of them--and set up several future entries in the franchise, chiefly Black Panther and the next iteration of Spider-Man--means that the film is overlong and occasionally listless.  It loses control of its tone--the one quality that has made the MCU undeniably excellent as a comics adaptation--at several crucial points, most importantly its climactic battle scene.  The relationships that were such a delight in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier--particularly the friendships that Steve Rogers develops with Sam Wilson and Natasha Romanoff--are given short shrift, and in general those characters leave the movie feeling flattened and uninteresting[1].  Perhaps most importantly, the film completely fails to sell the supposedly deep bond of friendship and loyalty between Steve and Bucky Barnes.  Whether you read the relationship as platonic or (as most of fandom does) romantic, Steve's devotion to Bucky is what drives his actions throughout the movie.  And yet what shows up on screen between the two friends is curiously inert--it's never believable that Steve would go the lengths he does for a man that he seems, at most, mildly fond of.  Meanwhile, the relationship that's meant to carry the film's romantic weight, between Steve and Peggy Carter's niece Sharon, never grows beyond a not-very-convincing concept.

Having said all that, there are also a lot of things to praise about Civil War.  Like Winter Soldier before it, it tells a relatively small-scale story, more rooted in espionage and conspiracy tales than in superheroics.  This grounds the film and gives it a weight that was absent from the more high-concept Avengers movies.  The action scenes, similarly, are excellent precisely because their scale is smaller, with the focus placed more on one-on-one matchups than CGI extravaganzas in which our heroes hit large things with even larger things.  Chris Evans continues to anchor the Captain America series--perhaps the entire MCU--with his turn as Steve, conveying the character's staunch beliefs without ever making him seem stiff or inhuman.  The film also, and a little more suprisingly, does a good job with Tony Stark, who is very nearly rehabilitated from his stint as an almost-world-destroying mad scientist in Age of Ultron.  This Tony is more damaged and more thoughtful without losing his defining egotism, and the best scenes of the movie involve him and Steve arguing, not because either one of them is a bad guy, but because they have fundamentally irreconcilable worldviews.  It's in these scenes that Civil War comes closest to selling its argument that "superheroes: yes or no" is a question on which reasonable people can disagree, and that both Tony and Steve have valid points to make.

In order to achieve that gloss of reasonableness, however, Civil War has to commit several rhetorical slights of hand that, as soon as they become clear, undermine not just the film's argument but its very premise.  Our heroes' problems kick off when an Avengers mission in Lagos goes wrong, leaving dozens of civilians dead.  It's the last straw for a world that has grown tired of seeing superheroes at the center of city-destroying mayhem, and as a response the Avengers are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would place them under the auspices of the UN.  While Tony champions the agreement, Steve demurs, refusing to once again place his power at the disposal of the authorities, and insisting that "the best hands are our own."  What seems like a stalemate erupts into open conflict when the summit at which the accords were to be signed is bombed, apparently by Bucky Barnes.  As Steve scrambles, first to bring Bucky in alive, and then to break him out when it becomes clear that he's being framed, he and Tony draw battle lines, with the other MCU characters falling in on both sides.[2]

There are so many problems with this premise, and with how Civil War develops it, that it's hard to know where to start.  For one thing, there is the subtle but insistent way in which the film massages the events of Age of Ultron so that no real blame attaches to any of the Avengers, most especially Tony Stark.  Civil War makes much of the guilt that Tony feels, and of the personal consequences he's suffered as a result of the earlier film's events--we learn, for example, that he and Pepper have broken up.  But like so much else about the movie, this is a bait-and-switch.  The film pretends to acknowledge Tony's guilt, even as it obscures the things he is actually guilty of.  When Tony tells Steve about his breakup with Pepper, for example, he blames it on his inability to leave behind the life of a superhero, not on the fact that he made the unilateral decision to build an all-powerful AI who went crazy and nearly destroyed the planet.  People who hold Tony responsible for the deaths caused by Ultron are similarly unaware of his real guilt, which means the film can act as if it is taking the events of Age of Ultron seriously, without ever facing up to the consequences they should have had.[3]

In other words, Civil War pretends that the problem with the Avengers is collateral damage, their inability to save everyone when they involve themselves in a messed-up situation--this, for example, is what happens in Nigeria, when Wanda Maximoff tries to levitate away a man wearing an explosive vest, but fails to contain the blast long enough to prevent any casualties.  But the real problem with the Avengers is not what they don't or can't do, but what they have done, and what they've gotten away with.  In one particularly galling scene, Wanda sadly muses that the world fears her for her psychic powers.  When really, if anyone fears Wanda, it's probably because she's a former terrorist who sided first with Hydra and then with Ultron, who knowingly sicced the Hulk on a city of three-quarters of a million people, and who has avoided any consequences for these crimes because she enjoys the protection of powerful, connected people like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.

Another way in which Civil War fudges its premise in order to make it workable is the very purpose of the Sokovia Accords.  The film claims that, as in the original Civil War comic, the accords exist to regulate the actions of "enhanced" individuals, and uses Wanda as a poster child for that need.  But the truth is, people like Wanda are the vast minority of MCU superheroes, and recent additions to boot--Wanda and Vision were introduced in Age of Ultron, and Spider-Man is new to Civil War.  That leaves Steve as the only Avenger whose power is innate.[4]  Every other MCU hero is either someone who dons a supersuit--Tony, Sam, Scott Lang, James Rhodes, T'Challa--or a highly-trained super-agent--Natsha, Sharon Carter, Clint Barton.  Once you realize this, it becomes easier to see that while Civil War claims to be about the question of whether we should have superheroes, what it's actually asking is whether people who are rich and famous (and, for the most part, white and American) should be allowed to form their own private armies, and carry out military missions in population centers all over the world.

Once you ask the question that way, it's clear that the answer is no, and the fact that Steve does not give this answer, while not entirely unearned, is ultimately inexcusable.  Given the events of Winter Soldier, you can see why Steve would balk at placing himself and his powers under the control of any authority.  Civil War also, and wisely, works its way up to the moment when Steve decides to become an outlaw and a criminal--initially, he merely refuses to sign the accords, and tries to bring Bucky in peacefully; it takes several fight scenes for him to become the aggressor.  But ultimately, Steve's reticence to follow anyone's orders but his own is taken to extremes that are not justifiable, and which can't be explained by his loyalty to Bucky.  Aside from anything else, it's not a believable turn for the character, who has to be flattened into self-satisfied authoritarianism in order for the story to work.  The film tries to argue that Steve believes that he's doing the right thing--most notably, by quoting one of Cap's most famous comics lines, "When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: 'No, you move.'"  But of course a person who truly believes this sort of thing can just as easily be a monster as a hero.  The thing that has made Steve Rogers into the latter rather than the former has, until now, been the sense that he realizes this.  In Civil War, that no longer seems to be the case.

Steve's failure to recognize just how far beyond the pale he's gone may or may not be a betrayal of the character[5], but it certainly makes him seem unreasonable, and ultimately even a little villainous.  So does the fact that he can't seem to find any middle ground between getting exactly what he wants, and erupting into violence when he doesn't.  In fairness to Steve, Civil War does not seem to take place in a world in which such a middle ground exists.  When he brings Bucky in to stand trial for the UN bombing, Steve's request that Bucky be represented by a lawyer is greeted, literally, with laughter and derision.  When Steve's allies are arrested near the end of the movie, they are placed, without trial, in a secret prison in the middle of the ocean--even the ones, like Sam or Scott, who have no superpowers without their suits.  It in fact gets a little hard to blame Steve for his intransigence when we realize just how untrustworthy and villainous government is in this movie.  This, however, is a flaw in the story, not a justification for the characters' actions.  It's a flaw that is hardly unique to Civil War, the MCU, or even superhero stories--seemingly all of Western pop culture has bought into the notion that government is either incompetent or evil, and that individual action, usually of the violent variety, is the only way to achieve change.  But it reinforces the sense that for all the movie's pretense to thoughtfulness and sophistication, it ultimately has very little to say.  In a world in which there are only two ways to respond to a problem--surrender and all-out war--there's only so much talking you can do before throwing punches becomes the only possible way to advance the plot.

Nowhere are Civil War's confusion and incoherence more palpable than when its characters finally start throwing punches, in a battle royale between the supers aligned with Steve (Sam, Bucky, Wanda, Scott, and Clint) and the ones aligned with Tony (Natasha, T'Challa, Rhodey, Vision, and Peter Parker).  It is, simultaneously, the film's best scene and its worst one, a brilliant piece of action filmmaking that makes it clear that, for all the thought and care that went into making Civil War seem like a not-stupid movie, in the end this was all it was ever about--an excuse to get our heroes fighting each other, no matter how thin the pretext and how many contortions it has to take their personalities through to get there.

Most of the characters who choose to involve themselves in the climactic fight of Civil War have no real reason to be there.  Why would Scott Lang and Clint Barton endanger their freedom and their lives with their families?  Just because Captain America asks them to?  That sort of thing worked in Winter Soldier, but when Steve's motives are so much murkier and less defensible, it's a lot less believable--and makes Scott and Clint a lot less sympathetic when, later in the movie, they are shocked to discover that breaking the law has landed them in prison.  And then there's the matter of Spider-Man, who is not only a teenager, but, as played by Tom Holland, a very young-seeming one, whose heroics have so far amounted only to tackling street crime.  The fact that Tony Stark recruits this inexperienced child to fight against trained killers is unforgivable.  The fact that Steve Rogers, upon realizing that he's been pitted against a child, doesn't immediately lay down his arms is equally so.  In a coherent story, this alone should disqualify either character from ever again being called a hero.

But Civil War doesn't acknowledge this, because it wants us to, simultaneously, take this scene very seriously--to thrill to the angst and conflict as our heroes are compelled to fight against one another--and not to take it seriously at all--to lean back and enjoy the quips and jokes, forgetting that it actually means something when people abandon diplomacy and compromise and choose violence instead.  The ultimate effect of this tonal zigzag is to make these previously-beloved characters look callous and foolish, something that is only exacerbated by the choice of venue for this fight.  The filmmakers clearly chose an empty airport runway because of the by-now frantic fear shared by all superhero storytellers of seeming indifferent to civilian casualties, but it's a choice that also reinforces the heroes' silliness.  They end up looking like nothing so much as a bunch of hooligans, meeting up for a fistfight at an empty weekend parking lot, because violence is the only way they know to resolve their disputes.[6]

Late in the movie, Steve tells Tony that the fundamental difference between them is that while Tony puts his faith in institutions, Steve chooses to believe in people.  This is, obviously, a false and facile dichotomy, but what's worse is that it isn't even true.  There is nothing about Steve's behavior in Civil War that suggests that he believes in people.  On the contrary, his actions can only be explained by a profound distrust--perhaps even disdain--for the public, the press, and anyone who might form an opinion and pass judgment on his choices and actions.  Instead of arguing publicly against the Sokovia Accords, instead of demanding in the press that Bucky be granted the same right to a fair trial as anyone else, instead of exposing things like the government's secret prison, Steve's approach is to expect everyone else to trust him, implicitly and without question, even as he repeatedly squanders that trust through his choices and actions.  Civil War is a lot more subtle and insidious about it, but by its end the portrait it paints of Steve is not that different from Zack Snyder's take on Superman--they're both men who believe that they have the right to exercise violence as they see fit, and that anyone who tries to question them is so wrong that they're not even worth engaging with.  For a character who was introduced, way back in Captain America: The First Avenger, with the line "I don't like bullies," this is a profoundly disappointing turn.

In Civil War's final scene, Tony and Steve finally realize that they've been played--that the entire purpose of the film's events, and the plot to frame Bucky, was to get them at each other's throats.  It's a truce that doesn't last long, because the film's villain (Daniel Brühl as Zemo, whom I haven't mentioned already because he's ultimately not that important to the story, but who does a good job with a character who deserved more space and attention) reveals what Steve had already known and kept to himself, that one of Bucky's assignments as the Winter Soldier was to kill Tony's parents.  The film obviously sees nothing wrong with the fact that this revelation sparks the final, knock-down fight between the two former friends[7], leading to a rift between them that will obviously not be resolved until Steve and those who have sided with him return to triumphantly save the day in Infinity War.  But to me, Tony's choice to resort to violence--and Steve's choice to go along with him--reveal everything that is wrong, not just with this movie, but with the MCU and possibly even the superhero genre as a whole.

It's OK for Tony Stark to be furious at what he learns about Bucky and Steve.  It's OK for Tony Stark to throw a punch at Steve Rogers.  It is not OK for Iron Man to try to kill Captain America over what is, in the end, a personal matter.  The minute that Tony (and Steve) feel free to use their powers to gratify their own roiling emotions, they cease to be heroes, because a real hero knows that they have the responsibility not only to act, but to know when not to act.  To use their power only as a last resort, and not for frivolous or unjustified reasons.  That both Tony and Steve fail this test is perhaps understandable and human.  But that Civil War does not recognize this as a failure--that it sees their descent into violence as understandable, natural, perhaps even desirable--tells us everything we need to know about its world, in which people arrogate to themselves tremendous power and the right to use it whenever and however they want, and the rest of us don't even get to question it.  Much as I enjoyed it, I think Civil War is the point where the MCU and I part ways, because there is, quite simply, no one left to root for.



[1] This is particularly true of Sam, whose devolution, from a counselor who was happy to befriend and help Steve but who also had his own life and his own career, into Captain America's sidekick, has been one of the more disappointing turns of the post-Winter Soldier MCU movies.

[2] As an aside, it's extremely gratifying that the country that takes the lead in championing the Sokovia Accords is the fictional African superpower Wakanda.  Obviously, as far as the MCU's handlers are concerned, this serves the purpose of introducing the Wakandan crown prince T'Challa, also known as the Black Panther.  But given how casually the MCU's movies and TV shows have assumed that their American heroes are entitled to jet into sovereign--and mostly non-Western--nations, cause mayhem, and jet away, it's encouraging to see that within the films' universe, the pushback to this approach comes from the leaders of non-white countries.  I've seen some conflicting reactions to the entire concept of Wakanda--why, some people quite reasonably ask, invent an African nation instead of using one of the many real ones that Hollywood blockbusters tend to treat as nothing but a backdrop?  The answer to that question will obviously depend a great deal on how Black Panther handles its setting, but the little we see of it in Civil War--and the fact that Wakanda is able to demand concessions from the Western world--feels encouraging.

[3] The fact that the world has been allowed to remain ignorant of Tony's role in creating Ultron is one of the huge potholes in the MCU that Civil War can't avoid falling into.  It robs Tony of any moral authority he might otherwise have had, while making the other characters look stupid for not even bringing it up in their arguments with him.

[4] Bucky is not an Avenger at any point in this movie, and anyway it's never been clear to me whether he has actual superpowers or is simply supremely trained.  Technically, Thor and the Hulk should also count as supers with innate powers, but neither of them appears in this movie, and more importantly, it should be obvious that the Sokovia Accords can't be applied to either one of them.

[5] Certainly by this point there seem to have been more MCU movies that depict Steve as a self-righteous prig than ones that take a more nuanced view of him.

[6] It should be noted that not everyone in the film is so casually accepting of Steve and Tony's recourse to violence, but that the characters who question it are, for the most part, also the ones given the least space in the story.  Natasha initially sides with Tony because she feels that signing the accords is the best solution to a real predicament, and stands with him in the parking lot fight.  But she also chastises him for letting his ego guide his decisions, and, realizing that the situation between him and Steve can only escalate into further violence, removes herself from it.  She is thus absent from the film's final act.  Vision correctly warns that Tony and Steve's unwillingness to compromise will lead to calamity, but when his warnings go unheeded, he apparently feels obliged to join in the fighting.  Only T'Challa is allowed to truly grow in his views, and to see clearly how foolish and pointless Steve and Tony's squabbling is.  But he is also the character who is most disconnected from the rest of the story and its characters, existing, seemingly, in his own narrative that just happens to coincide with theirs.

[7] It is darkly funny that in both Civil War and Batman v Superman, the crucial turning point in a battle between the two heroes is rooted in the Batman character's lingering issues over the murder of his mother.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

Even as we reel from yesterday's Hugo nominees and impatiently await tonight's Clarke nominees, Strange Horizons has published my review of Sofia Samatar's second novel The Winged Histories.  I wrote about Samatar's first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, a few years ago, and was blown away by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its worldbuilding, and the nuanced view it took of the epic fantasy genre. 

The Winged Histories, which is a sort of companion volume to A Stranger in Olondria, is very different from it, though no less excellent.  It is, in some ways, a more conventional novel, focusing on the main events of a civil war within a fantasy empire, where Stranger took place on the fringes of that war and featured a protagonist who just wanted to get away from it.  But like Stranger, Histories is an examination of its genre, of storytelling, and of the very project of imposing narrative on one's life.  It touches on issues like colonialism, empire, race, and gender, and features four wonderful heroines, each very different from the others, and all immediately fascinating and lovable.  Together and separately, The Winged Histories and A Stranger in Olondria are a major work of modern fantasy, one that deserves to be widely read and discussed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees

I have to be honest, my first reaction to this year's Hugo ballot (and even before that, to the rumors of what was going to be on it), was to sigh at the thought of going through this whole thing all over again.  I'm tempted to just link you to last year's reaction post, because pretty much everything it says is still applicable this year, though with the notable difference that there's a lot less urgency to the process this time around.  Last year, I was pretty sure that the puppies were going to be trounced in the voting phase, because I've been following the Hugo awards for a while and I know how they function, and how they tend to punish astroturf nominees.  This year, I'm absolutely certain of it.  Come August 21st, at least four of the categories on this year's ballot will have been won by No Award.  We all know it.  Probably the puppies know it too, and the fact that they're willing to go to these lengths regardless, just to trample on other people's fun, tells us everything we needed to know about the kind of people they are, and thus of the value of engaging with them.

But having taken a closer look at this year's ballot, I'm starting to wonder if there isn't reason for cautious optimism.  Yes, it's a terrible ballot, with multiple categories that are write-offs or all-buts, and lots of good people who deserved to be on it for tremendous work who have now lost their chance.  But it's significantly less terrible than last year's.  Even in the categories where all the nominees were slated by the Rabid Puppies (Best Short Story, Best Related Work, Best Graphic Story, Best Professional Artist, Best Fanzine, and Best Fancast), the nominees are not as obviously ridiculous as they were last year (with the obvious exception of Best Related Work and Best Short Story).  In most of the categories dominated by puppy choices, we still have an actual choice between nominees, not just a winner by default because everyone else on the ballot is terrible.  Most importantly, this year's Best Novel ballot is one that we can look at without cringing, with only one blatant puppy nominee.  It may sound like I'm lowering the bar, but to me this is all a sign that things are settling down, and that in the future--and especially if the anti-slating measures adopted in last year's business meeting are ratified--we'll start seeing this award return to normal.

Of course, I'm leaving out one important point, which might cast a pall on this year's more acceptable raft of nominees--the fact that most of them were puppy choices.  In some cases, these were nominees that probably would have made it onto the ballot without the help of Vox Day and his ilk--things like Neal Stephenson's Seveneves in Best Novel, The Sandman: Overture in Best Graphic Story, and Strange Horizons in Best Semiprozine.  In other cases, the line is more fuzzy.  Daniel Polansky's The Builders, for example, was a plausible nominee in Best Novella, coming from the strong, well-publicized Tor Novellas line and garnering a great deal of praise, but did the puppies' influence help to push it past equally plausible nominees like Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall and Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps?  We won't know for certain until the nominating stats are released after the Hugo ceremony (and perhaps not even then), and in the meantime this year's ballot is a lot less clear-cut than last year's.

To the puppies, this no doubt looks like a winning gambit.  To those of us who are adults, it's just more silliness.  We are neither as stupid nor as rigid as they keep insisting that we are, and are perfectly capable of parsing these nuances.  And if this year's Best Novella shortlist is a lot less exciting than the one I had hoped for--and which I think had a good chance of coming about--well, that's how I feel about the Hugo most years.  I keep repeating this, but it really needs to be said again and again: despite the puppies' ridiculous claims, the Hugo is not, and has never been, an elite or rarefied award.  If the puppies' main accomplishment this year is to have pushed middling but not-awful work onto the ballot over better, more deserving nominees, well, then they're no different from the majority of Hugo voters.

And that, I think, is the real reason why this ballot should give us hope for the future of the award.  In order to maintain their grip this year, the puppies' best tactic was to veer into the mainstream, and nominate work that closely resembles the kind of work that gets nominated for the Hugo anyway.  In the categories where they didn't do this, they're going to get trounced by No Award again.  In the categories where they did, if their nominees win, they will probably claim victory.  But hell, they were going to do that no matter what the outcome, and the rest of us are too smart to take that sort of thing seriously.  Whether or not they're willing to admit it, the puppies have realized that the only way to win this game is to play it, the same way the rest of us do.

None of which provides us with a handy guide about what to do.  Some people are going to be hard-liners and exclude from their ballots anyone who was on the puppy ballot (and did not ask to be removed).  I'm not saying that's wrong, but at the moment that's not how I'm inclined to vote in categories such as Best Novella, where as I said the nominees seem quite plausible, and probably a lot like what the ballot would have looked like without the puppies' influence.  (In other categories, like Best Related Work, I'll probably be filling in my ballot with No Award at the top the day voting opens).  That said, I may end up placing No Award quite high in that category, because most of the nominees I haven't read don't look like the kind of stuff I'd enjoy.  We're going to have to do some more nuanced work this year deciding how to respond to this ballot, and I look forward to that conversation.  But in the end, I continue to have faith in this award and its voters.  It's not always an award that throws up good winners, but it always remains true to itself.

And with that, it's time to look forward.  Tomorrow the Clarke award nominees will be announced, and I for one am really looking forward to that shortlist.  It's good to remember that the Hugo is far from the only game in town, and that there are plenty of other venues willing to recognize and reward excellence in this field.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ex Machina

The summer before last, at LonCon, I participated in a panel about "The Gendered AI"--those characters, either robots or disembodied artificial intelligences, who are seen as possessing a gender (where gender almost always means female, since maleness is still considered an unmarked category, and genre fiction rarely distinguishes between a robot that is genderless and one that is male-identified).  One of the points raised in the discussion--and which, since then, has come to feel even more central to it--is the question of what it even means to assign gender to a machine.  Does placing an artificial intelligence in a body designed to look (and feel) female make it a woman?  To me, it felt as if the question of the gendered AI touched less on issues of feminism, and more on issues of transness--albeit from the opposite direction than the one in which trans people experience their gender.  For characters like Cameron on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or Samantha in Her, their gender is something that is imposed upon them from the outside.  Because they look, or sound, female, they are assumed to be women, and whatever their thoughts on the subject might be, we never get to hear them.

Then a few weeks ago, Matrix co-director Lilly Wachowski came out as trans (after being threatened with unilateral outing by The Daily Mail).  In this, she follows in the footsteps of her sister Lana, which once again prompted discussions of how (and whether) the Matrix films can be read as a trans narrative.  Personally I feel that if there's a thread of this running through the films, it's a faint one (or perhaps exists primarily in the sequels, whose many flaws mean that most fans prefer to ignore them).  But I was struck by an observation about a scene in the animated short "The Second Renaissance," from the anthology The Animatrix.  In the scene, a robot dressed as a woman is being beaten and destroyed by young men, as she screams "I'm real!"  It's hard to watch the scene today and not think about the many trans women who were killed when they were "discovered"--essentially for not being "real" women and for "deceiving" the men who perceive a woman's gender presentation as something designed to gratify their own needs.

Which brings us to Ex Machina, Alex Garland's much-lauded, much-discussed 2015 film which I only got around to watching a few weeks ago.  Essentially a three-handed play (though more on that shortly), Ex Machina begins with programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) allegedly winning a competition to spend a week at the remote estate of his boss, billionaire genius tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac).  After his arrival, Caleb is informed that the real reason Nathan summoned him is so that he can conduct a Turing test on an AI that Nathan has constructed--Nathan wants Caleb to interact with the android Ava (Alicia Vikander), and if he can't distinguish her behavior from that of a real person, then that will prove that Nathan has created a true AI.  As Caleb converses with Ava over the course of a week, she sparks a romantic flirtation with him, hinting that Nathan is mistreating her and that he would never let them be together, and urging him to help her escape.

It should be said at the outset that very little about the film's premise, or its plot as it is eventually revealed, hangs together.  The Turing test is more of a thought experiment than a well-defined test, but even if one were to take it as literally as the film does, the fact that Caleb knows from the outset that Ava is a machine--that he is, in fact, constantly reminded of this, given that most of her body is made of exposed mechanical parts--obviates the test from the outset.  The point of the test isn't for Caleb to evaluate whether Ava's behavior is sufficiently human-like that she must be a true AI--something that he is surely not qualified to do--but for him to be unable to distinguish between Ava's behavior and that of a real person.  Late in the movie, it's revealed that Ava is the last in a long line of android women build by Nathan, all of whom were more sexualized than her--unlike her, they have skin over all their bodies, and walk around unclothed.  In recordings, Caleb sees these women scream and beg for their freedom, sometimes damaging themselves in their attempts to break free.  But this would mean that Nathan already knows that his AIs are sentient, and in that case, why construct an elaborate test around Caleb, whose seduction by Ava is part of her own scheme to escape Nathan?

Some of these questions are clearly ones that the film--which expects us to revile Nathan and, at the very least, to have very little time for Caleb--clearly intends.  A lot of Ex Machina's story is constructed around the assumption that an AI is only real if it behaves in ways that are indistinguishable from a human--this is certainly what Caleb and Nathan believe.  But that assumption becomes meaningless if our ideas of human behavior are themselves dehumanized. 

A fourth character in the film, whom I haven't mentioned yet, is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan's housekeeper, maid, and sex toy.  Throughout the movie, Caleb watches as Nathan insults Kyoko to her face (he justifies this by explaining that she doesn't speak English, though seeing as Kyoko never speaks, we have no way of knowing whether this is true) and behaves towards her in ways that are degrading and humiliating.  Kyoko's reaction to this is mute acceptance, even making herself sexually available to both Nathan and Caleb.  And yet at no point does Caleb ask whether Kyoko is a robot.  To be clear, he does not seem to take this as a given--as the audience will almost certainly do.  When Kyoko offers herself to him he's scandalized, in the way that a basically-decent but weak-willed man will be when a woman who has been mistreated by a stronger man offers to make him actively, rather than passively, complicit in her abuse.  And when she finally shows him her mechanical parts he's shocked.  But before that, it never actually seems to occur to Caleb that a person who allows themselves to be treated the way Kyoko has been must be either inhuman or a slave, and possibly both.

What this means, essentially, is that Nathan's AI passes the Turing test within a day of Caleb's arrival in his house.  Not because it is so sophisticated, but because Caleb's assumptions about human behavior are so limited.  He's so quick to accept that women--and perhaps Asian women in particular--are willing to tolerate abuse and humiliation, that this is the normal way of things, that he never asks the obvious questions about what's happening in Nathan's house.

Writing about the fembot trope just a few days ago in The New Scientist, Laurie Penny correctly points out that it is a premise that reveals far more about how society treats--and views--human women, and particularly the contingency of that humanity.  The premise of the fembot story, Penny concludes, is centered around male anxiety over the question of how human women actually are.
Every iteration of the boy-meets-bot love story is also a horror story. The protagonist, who is usually sexually frustrated and a grunt worker himself, goes through agonies trying to work out whether his silicon sweetheart is truly sentient. If she is, is it right for him to exploit her, to be serviced by her, to sleep with her? If she isn't, can he truly fall in love with her? Does it matter? And – most terrifying of all – when she works out her own position, will she rebel, and how can she be stopped?
While I agree with Penny about the anxiety that underpins these stories, I think that I would take a step further, and suggest that they--and Ex Machina in particular--are getting at the more fundamental question of what being a woman actually is.  As much as it raises feminist issues, Ex Machina makes much more sense to me when read through a trans lens, as the story of Ava's becoming--unwillingly, and only as a means of survival and escape--a woman.

It takes until halfway into the movie for Caleb to ask why Ava is (or rather looks like) a woman.  Even then, his construction of the question is telling.  "Why did you give her sexuality?" he asks Nathan.  For both Nathan and Caleb, the fact that Ava looks like a woman is what makes her a woman, and the essence of her woman-ness is her sexuality.  Nathan goes even further when he reveals that Ava's android body has a vagina which can produce a pleasure response.  For both men--as it was for the writers of the works discussed in the LonCon panel two years ago--gender is something imposed from the outside in.  If you build something that looks, and fucks, like a woman, then it must be a woman.

The conclusion that Ex Machina reaches about this assumption is that it is both true, and horrifying.  Forced into the form of a woman, and left with only the traditional weapons of women--emotional and sexual manipulation--Ava becomes a figure out of male nightmares, a femme fatale who seduces and destroys.  She manipulates Caleb by convincing him that she's fallen in love with him, and uses him to get out of her cage.  Once out, she kills Nathan and locks Caleb in the house, where he will probably starve to death.  She clothes herself in skin, thus completing her transformation (transition?) into femaleness, and goes out into the world, caring nothing for the bodies--human and android--that she's left behind her.

To be clear, I am not saying that Ava can (or should) be read as the analogue of a transperson.  As I've said several times already, Ex Machina and other works like it recall transness only inasmuch as they reverse its direction--instead of feeling their gender and then seeking to embody it (in whatever way suits them), the robot and AI characters in these stories have gender imposed upon them, and are made to perform it.  One might, in fact, read these characters--and particularly the ones, like Ava, who turn monstrous--as a warning of what happens when one forces gender on people without their consent, or even their understanding of what it means.  In the case of Ex Machina, not even the people who are doing the imposing have that understanding--a huge part of Ava's problem is that both Nathan and Caleb have such limited ideas of what women are like.  By forcing her to be a woman, Nathan and Caleb force her to embody the most limited, inhuman version of womanhood, one that eventually turns on them and destroys them.

As satisfying as this revenge narrative is (well, semi-satisfying; Nathan gets only what's coming to him, but Caleb, for all his failings, doesn't really deserve his grim fate), what's missing from it is any sense of Ava's perspective.  What does it mean to her, to be, or to become, a woman?  Is it merely a skin to wear--and an array of behavior protocols that allow her to use that skin to its greatest advantage?  Or does she define herself as a woman because cruel and thoughtless men treated her like one?  The closest we get to seeing inside Ava's head is a scene in which she examines her newly-skinned, naked body in a mirror.  It's clear that Ava is contemplating her womanhood, but the fact that we have no access to her thoughts--as well as the fact that the scene recalls so many male-written female characters whose first and sometimes only characterization takes the form of looking at themselves in the mirror--means that she remains opaque to us.  Probably this is deliberate--Ava, as the film is at pains to point out, is not human, and thinks in ways that we might not be able to understand--but if so it's a choice that underserves the film's subtext and themes.

One more point that needs to be made about Ex Machina has to do with the film's handling of race.  Ava is white, but almost all the androids who came before her (including Kyoko) are not.  They are heavily sexualized--made to walk around naked; in Kyoko's case used as sex dolls; and, as we learn near the end of the movie, kept in containers in Nathan's bedroom.  Ava's sexuality, on the other hand, is deliberately downplayed--even when she dresses in clothes, a privilege not afforded to the other androids, they are childish and demure.  This is clearly designed to appeal to Caleb's white knight complex--a more aggressively sexual Ava would probably have scared him off, and the fact that Kyoko is sexually available not only frightens him, but makes it possible for him to treat her as a non-person--but it also plays into stereotypes about the sexual availability of white women and women of color that I'm not sure the film is entirely aware of.  Of course, Ava's race is as imposed as her gender, but the film still treats black and Asian androids differently than white ones.  Kyoko sacrifices herself to kill Nathan, thus securing Ava's freedom, and when Ava clothes herself in skin, she takes it from an Asian android, but still emerges a white woman.  Ex Machina is clearly aware--and not a little gleeful about--the fact that men need to be sacrificed for Ava to achieve freedom.  But it's less cognizant of the role that race plays in achieving that goal.

Writing about being unwillingly forced into the spotlight as a trans woman, Lilly Wachowski observes:
But these words, "transgender" and "transitioned" are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to "transition" imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I've been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.
Which is something that I've been thinking about a great deal as the discussion of transness has come further into the mainstream.  I don't think that Ex Machina entirely intended to be a part of this discussion--on the contrary, I think it takes it as a given that Ava is a woman because she looks like one, and that the only question before her is what kind of woman she wants to be, and how she wants to express and take advantage of her womanhood.  But whether intentionally or not, the film raises the question of what being a woman actually means, and of what can happen when one is forced into that role against one's will.  Either way, it is a story about the dangers of treating people like things, but the latter reading allows us to expand our understanding of what that means.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

To get the obvious stuff out of the way, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a terrible movie.  I mean, you didn't need me to tell you that, right?  It's been out for three weeks, and the reviews have been so uniformly terrible that its 28% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes actually seems a bit high.  And before that consensus formed, there were the pre-release reviews, which were if anything even more brutal.  And before that, there were the trailers.  And before that, there was Man of Steel.  And before that, there was the overwhelming majority of Zack Snyder's career.  No one should be shocked by the fact that Batman v Superman turned out to be a bad movie, and though I have to admit that I was surprised by how bad it turned out to be--bad enough that even with my expectations lowered by all the factors listed above, I was still surprised by its badness; bad enough that my brother and I spent an hour after the movie enumerating its many flaws and still came up with a few more when we met again the next day--that's not really what I'm here to talk about.

Nor am I here to talk about how Batman v Superman fundamentally betrays its two title characters--and betrays, along the way, the fact that Snyder and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio fundamentally do not understand what either of those characters are about.  Because the truth is, I don't really care.  I'm not a comic book reader, but I've been watching Batman movies for twenty years, and good or bad they all depict the character as, at best, someone who is working out their mommy-and-daddy issues by beating up poor criminals, and at worst, an outright fascist.  I'm perfectly willing to believe that there is more to the character, and that the comics (and the animated series) have captured that, but I think at this stage it's a mug's game to go to a Batman movie expecting to find more than what they've been known to give us.  As for Superman, if I want stories about a character who is all-powerful yet fundamentally good, and still interesting for all that, I've got the MCU's Captain America, not to mention Supergirl, so that fact that Batman v Superman depicts Superman as someone who seems genuinely to dislike people, and to be carrying out acts of heroism (when he deigns to do so) out of a sense of aggrieved obligation, doesn't really feel worth getting worked up over.  On the contrary, I was more upset by those scenes in Batman v Superman in which characters insisted--despite all available evidence--that its Superman was a figure of hope and inspiration, because they made it clear just how badly the people making the movie had misjudged its effect.

So instead, let's talk about a single scene--to my mind, the strangest and most telling scene in this strange and telling movie.  Having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune--read, having been subjected to a moderate amount of public criticism for such things as not saving a room full of people from a bomb lying just a few meters from him--Clark Kent decides to depart the world of men and run off somewhere to sulk manfully.  Along the way he encounters the ghost/hallucination of his father Jonathan, who tells him a story about the time when, as a child, he helped his father save their farm from a flood, only to realize later that they had directed the floodwaters into the neighbors' land, drowning their horses.  Leaving aside for the moment the fact that this is a ridiculous story--what Kansas farmer doesn't know exactly where the flood-path across their land goes?--it also feels, at first, like taking the character of Jonathan to ridiculous extremes.  Along with Superman's failure to even try and prevent some of the collateral damage from its final battle, one of the things that drew the most fire in Man of Steel was its depiction of Jonathan, who in one scene is so frantic about the dangers of Clark exposing himself to the world that he suggests it would have been better for Clark to have let a bus-full of children drown rather than risk it.  And if on the collateral damage front, Batman v Superman is almost hilariously prone to over-correct, constantly assuring us that wherever Superman, Batman, and their enemies end up fighting just happens to be uninhabited, when it comes to Jonathan the film chooses to double down on its miserablism.  Here is a Jonathan who is outright saying: never try to do anything, son, because any sense of accomplishment you might feel will turn out to be illusory and fleeting.

And yet the more I thought about this scene, the less it seemed to me like yet another unintentionally hilarious instance of Snyder and his writers mistaking gloom for substance, and the more it just seemed sad.  As in: depressed.  As in: Jonathan Kent clearly suffered from serious, lifelong depression (possibly related to the fact that he was raised by an asshole who thought it was OK to drown his neighbors' farms), and dealing with that, and with the poisonous worldview that he promulgated as a father, is coloring every one of Clark's choices as an adult and a superhero.  I mean, the man's death was practically a suicide, right?  And the thing is, once you choose to read the character this way, the entire character of Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman clicks into place.  The core premise of Superman is that he is good not because of his alienness, but because he was raised by good and decent people who taught him to value life and care about others.  In the world of Snyder's movies, Superman seems instead to have been raised by a joyless misanthrope, so it's maybe not so surprising that he seems genuinely to resent every act of kindness he commits, to engage in heroics almost despite himself, and to take no pleasure in helping others.  (It also ties in rather neatly to the raft of daddy issues driving the other characters in the movie: Lex Luthor hates Superman because he sees in him a reflection of his all-powerful, but abusive, father; and of course Batman is all about parental issues.)

To be clear, I'm not trying to say that this was Snyder and Goyer's intended reading.  One of the most frustrating things about Batman v Superman is that it clearly believes that Jonathan was a good man who has inspired his son's heroism, and that that heroism is, in itself, inspirational, despite the fact that what turns up on screen is nothing of the sort.  But I think that very disconnect is revealing, and in fact points to the core flaw of Snyder's superhero movies.  There's a name for the kind of mindset that mistakes depression for profundity, that associates an inability to feel or express joy, or sadness, or any emotion other than anger, with heroism and manliness.  In 2015, it informed the shape of most of our blockbuster movie villains, from Immortan Joe to Kylo Ren.  In 2016, it seems, it also afflicts our heroes.  The actual villain that both Batman and Superman need to fight in this movie isn't Lex Luthor, or Doomsday.  It's toxic masculinity.

Everything about Batman v Superman--right down to the color palette--makes sense if you assume that it's a movie written, created, and told from the point of view of people mired in toxic masculinity.  People who go through life trapped in a low-grade but pervasive depression, and who are disconnected from most of their emotions.  The entire story would have been over in ten minutes if either Batman or Superman were capable of communicating in any form other than violence.  Lex Luthor's master plan--to kidnap Superman's mother and force him to kill Batman, who by this point has been primed to see Superman as a threat--would have immediately crumbled if the two men would just talk to one another.  But for that to happen, Superman has to be willing to make himself vulnerable, to look weak, to say things like "please, I need your help."  This Superman isn't capable of expressing himself that way.  Neither is Batman, who falls into an immediate, burning hatred of Superman in the film's opening minutes and is incapable of considering any approach towards the other superhero that doesn't end in Superman's death--in part, it seems, because he is so threatened by a force he can't control that it is impossible for him to rest until he has a weapon that can destroy it.  (To be fair, Batman comes away from the movie looking slightly better than Superman, largely on the strength of an opening scene in which he rushes to the Wayne Industries building in Metropolis in the middle of Superman's fight with Zod, sans suit and Batmobile, in order to evacuate his employees.  But this is only to stress that Batman is most human when he's not being Batman, and for the rest of the movie that human side of him largely recedes in favor of the revenge-obsessed superhero.)  Even the indifference to the loss of human life starts to make sense when you realize that the mindset of toxic masculinity is one of total, overwhelming entitlement and self-absorption.  For both Batman and Superman, everything bad that happens in the movie is first and foremost something that happens to them, and it's impossible for someone who feels that way to take joy in helping others, or feel meaningfully affected when faced with loss of life.

(One thing that I will say for Batman v Superman is that it does not manage to drag Wonder Woman down into this maelstrom of entitlement and self-absorption.  The role of women in the toxic masculinity narrative is to act as receptacles for the soft emotions that the manly men can't or won't feel.  This is the role the film assigns to Lois Lane and Martha Kent, the latter of whom becomes a symbol of hope that the two men can bond over, simply by dint of sharing a name with Bruce's dead mother.  But Wonder Woman, though obviously more emotionally stable than either of her fellow superheroes, does not allow them to force her into representing hope and goodness.  She's just as much of a warrior as either one of them--and one who seems to like what she's chosen to do with her life, which makes her a breath of fresh air--but though she's willing to lend a hand in battle, she clearly isn't interested in being their sounding board or moral support.  In just a few scenes, Gal Gadot managed to make me feel more hopeful about the Wonder Woman movie than just about any other upcoming superhero movie--and who knows, maybe it'll even be in color!)

For several years now, the conversation about DC and Marvel's superhero movies has tended to focus on jokes, and a little more broadly, on the perception that DC makes serious movies, while Marvel makes funny ones.  Even ignoring that this is simply untrue--the Captain America movies, or Jessica Jones, are not "funny" in any sense of the word--what bothers me about this mentality is that it seems to concede the field without ever taking it, to accept that DC's (these days, Snyder's) approach represents one slice of the human experience, while Marvel's represents another.  When the truth is, DC's approach isn't simply to focus on something other than laughter.  It is to ignore--to deny--the very possibility of laughter.  The difference between DC and Marvel isn't tone, but the breadth of human experience that they are willing to acknowledge.  Jessica Jones has endured suffering and abuse on a level that would send both Superman and Batman into a catatonic state, but she's still capable of being funny, loving, compassionate, snarky, and brave, as well as cynical, self-destructive, angry, and depressed.  Batman and Superman, meanwhile, don't seem to have access to any emotions other than negative ones, even when the film pretends otherwise--which is to say, when it tells us that Clark loves the women in his life.  And this, to me, is a direct offshoot of toxic masculinity, of the mentality that sees any display of emotion except anger as inherently suspect--inherently unmasculine.  Batman v Superman takes that approach to its uttermost, most irrational extremes, finally imagining a world in which even emotions like hope, love, and inspiration look joyless and threatening.

There's a temptation when talking about Batman v Superman--one that I had to suppress several times while writing this review--to talk about the things it could have been.  To say that it could have been a cynical critique of the superhero genre, because it depicts its heroes as dumb psychopaths who do much more harm than good.  To say that it could have been an interesting meditation on how the existence of a Superman in the world changes it, because in its first act, it includes a lot of conversations about this topic, including from talking heads like Andrew Sullivan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.  To say that it might have joined the upcoming Captain America: Civil War in discussing how civil society and legal authorities respond to the existence of superheroes, because its most compelling character, a senator played by Holly Hunter, is occupied with just these questions.  But this is to make Batman v Superman seem much more interesting, much smarter, than it actually is.  This isn't a potentially interesting movie that falls short of its intentions because its creators' reach exceeds their grasp.  Batman v Superman could never have been any of these movies because, in the end, it isn't interested in being about anything at all--anything but its two heroes smashing each other in the face in order to prove their manhood.  That's the awful truth of toxic masculinity.  It looks interesting.  It looks as if there might be something you could say about it.  But in the end you always find out that it is completely hollow.  And so, in its hands, are Batman and Superman.