Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Third Queen: Thoughts on the Seventh Season of Game of Thrones

Well, this season of Game of Thrones was pretty shit, wasn't it?  That comes as a bit of a surprise, to be honest.  For years, I've taken an attitude of fond indulgence towards the show.  What's wrong, after all, with watching a bunch of generally quite fine actors enact a complicated plot with stratospheric production values and the occasional fantastic action scene?  Sure, the show wasn't actually about anything, and its writers had blind spots on issues of race and gender that were often glaring.  But if you're able to put that aside, what's left is a genuinely enjoyable, well-made soap opera whose main appeal is the desire to know what happens next.  It hadn't occurred to me that this was a formula that could be screwed up, but at the end of the shortened (and yet seemingly endless) seventh season, there's really no escaping the conclusion: Game of Thrones may not be a good show, but there is a palpable difference between good Game of Thrones and bad Game of Thrones, and we've just been served a heaping helping of the latter.

What makes the whole thing particularly disappointing is that at the beginning of the season, I actually thought it had tremendous potential.  The season premiere, "Dragonstone", was to my mind the strongest such episode the show had ever fielded.  Unlike previous premieres, dutiful affairs carefully going about the business of establishing who is where before the proper business of the story can start, "Dragonstone" felt like a thesis statement for Game of Thrones's final chapter.  After six seasons in which the show seemed defined by its impulse to withhold--to deny us the character reunion, the shared, crucial bit of information, and most of all the opportunity for characters to act rather than being forced to react--this hour felt as if there was a fresh breeze running through it, with characters finally moving forward.  It's an episode hard at work to remind us how many different stories are happening on this show at the same time, full of conversations in which characters express their conflicting, and yet accurate, worldviews.  On the battlements of Winterfell, Sansa and Jon discuss the war to come.  She looks to the south, and the Lannister army, while he worries about the army of the dead.  They're both right.  At King's Landing, Cersei Lannister reminds her brother Jaime that their only hope of survival is to grasp power as brutally and completely as they can.  He counters that they have no dynasty to fight for, and that the country in dispute is about to be consumed by the business of surviving winter.  They're both right.  At the citadel in Old Town, Sam Tarly tries to convince the archmaester that a world-ending catastrophe is coming, only to be informed that there's always some catastrophe around the corner, and that civilization survives by continuing to attend to the minutiae of existence through them.  They're both right.  At the end of the hour, Game of Thrones feels like something very different from what it previously was, a story in which people make decisions and take actions, but in which no actor has possession of a complete picture of the world.

This is, obviously, not the show that we got.  There are hints of that story still in the season's second episode, "Stormborn", when Daenerys, after six seasons of existing outside the narrative constraints that have directed the lives of all the other characters, suddenly finds herself inextricably tied to her name and family history, and the horrific associations that everyone in Westeros has with them.  When the mere whisper of the name "Targaryen" can make Cersei--fresh off the destruction of the Sept of Baelor and with it much of King's Landing's civic and religious leadership--look like the safe, reasonable option, the rules have well and truly changed.  And yet they don't.  Far from being forced to finally reckon with her family's history and function as a player equal to all the others, Daenerys simply slips out of the narrative's grasp, just as she's always done.  And, just as it always has, this tendency paradoxically makes her storyline feel the most airless and least engaging on the show.

Only now it's the entire show that feels airless.  The entire show where actions have no consequences except the ones the writers need them to have, and where characters make decisions not because it's what a person in their situation would do, but because their token needs to be on a particular spot on the board for the next bit of story.  Why does Jon set off on a foolhardy, Rube Goldberg-esque quest to retrieve a wight from beyond the Wall?  Because that's how the writers are going to give the White Walkers the ability to destroy the Wall, which they otherwise would apparently not have been able to do, despite Jon's repeated warnings that their attack was imminent.  Why does he knock on Daenerys's bedroom door when doing so is politically unwise, contrary to the norms of his society, and seemingly uninvited?  Because the writers want a bit of dramatic irony when they make their revelation that Jon and Daenerys are not only nephew and aunt, but in direct competition for the Iron Throne.  Why has Bran concealed the truth about Jon's parentage all season?  Because the writers wanted him to reveal it to the one person who has information that proves Jon's legitimacy--information that Bran, despite being all-knowing, doesn't have until Sam prods him to look for it.

What one finally has to admit is that Benioff, Weiss, and their writers seem to have no idea how to finish this story.  They did a good job embroidering around the structure that George R.R. Martin provided them, and even embellishing from it when the time came to push the middle game forward.  But going into the endgame, they appear to have no real plan.  The result, as Aaron Bady writes, feels like a Game of Thrones cover band, throwing out fan favorites and acknowledging beloved memes--Gendry is still rowing!  R+L = J!  Tormund and Brienne!--without ever really having a sense of a story to tie them all together.  We all know where it's supposed to end up, but how we get there feels increasingly schematic.  (Since I've mentioned him, if you're not reading Aaron's, and Sarah Mesle's, reviews of Game of Thrones over at LARB, you're missing out on what is hands-down the best commentary on the show.)

But then, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that this is Benioff and Weiss's fault.  Without downplaying the failings of this season--the weirdly rushed pacing, the flights of irrationality and stupidity, the ravens that function like text messages--is it possible that there is no way to satisfactorily end this story?  That the traits we've identified as flaws, unintended consequences of a source material with no ending in sight--the withholding of resolution and forward momentum, the diffusion of the story into tangents and cul-de-sacs--are in fact the traits that define this story?  To go back to Aaron Bady, this is something he suggested a few years ago, when he argued that the series had reached not just its climax, but its natural ending point, with the Red Wedding, that quintessential denial of heroic tropes and storytelling conventions.  It's something I seem to have recognized in my dissatisfied review of the first book, when I pointed out that the story's heroic narratives, involving Daenerys and Jon, seemed to be in direct conflict of tone and intent with the more political, anti-heroic slant of the other characters' stories.  Is it possible that by trying to force a resolution to its story, Game of Thrones's writers are being untrue to what the show actually is?

Think of the fundamental questions that most fans will have gone into this season asking.  Who will Jon end up with, and does it matter that Daenerys is his aunt?  Will Jaime kill Cersei, or will Arya do it?  Will Brienne ride off into the sunset with Tormund or with Jaime (or neither)?  Who will end up on the Iron Throne?  They look like storytelling questions, but a closer look reveals that they're actually logistical ones.  That's a problem in a season that has thrown all basic logic and plausibility out the window, but it would still be a problem even if this season had been impeccably plotted, because the crucial difference between these two kinds of questions is that in the second type, you don't actually care what the answer is.  It's about how you get there, and that is what Game of Thrones has always been about--getting there, and the weird layovers, false starts, and distractions you encounter along the way.  Trying to tie it all up makes about as much sense as trying to put an end point on any soap opera, except that now we have the threat of ice zombies imposing an artificial end-point on the story.  Is it any wonder the result has been unsatisfying?

All of this has been a roundabout way of getting to talk about the only thing in Game of Thrones I actually care about: Sansa.  Sansa has been my favorite character since the second season, but it's only in the last few weeks that I've realized why that is: because unlike everyone else on the show, Sansa doesn't know what she wants.  More importantly, what she wants changes dramatically according to her circumstances and level of understanding.  In the first season, Sansa wanted a fantasy, to marry a prince, become a queen, and rule beside him (this, to be clear, was a perfectly reasonable fantasy for someone of Sansa's class and background, and if the Baratheons weren't who they were it would probably have been a good life for her).  In the next four seasons, and in the wake of that fantasy turning into a horrific nightmare, Sansa's desires turned to survival and escape, and in the last season, they became about securing her safety and retaking her home.  Now ensconced as Lady of Winterfell, possessed of a reasonable amount of security, authority, and power, Sansa is faced with a dilemma that hardly anyone else on the show has had to struggle with: what comes next?  She can keep her head down and try to address immediate problems of changing weather and dwindling supplies, but then she might end up a minor player in world-changing events, or worse, swept away by any or all of the forces converging on her home.  She can aspire to total control and domination, but then she'd find herself in direct opposition not only to her family, but with characters whom the narrative has imbued with exactly the kind of reality-avoidant powers that she lacks.  Or she can dedicate herself single-mindedly to a particular, extraordinary goal, like Arya or Jon, but that would require skills that she has never developed.

The truth is, Sansa has no idea what she wants and what comes next for her, which makes her the quintessential Game of Thrones character--her story is all forward motion, with no end in sight--and the most exciting figure in the seventh season.  Nearly alone among the cast, she has no predefined role.  Her story in this season revolves around clearing the board of a leftover villain who should have been shuffled off three seasons ago, and while this is done with amazingly bad writing (I've tweeted about my issues with how this story weaponizes misogynistic complaints about Sansa and makes both her and us wade through them, but there's so much else to criticize there) it also leaves Sansa feeling more free, and more self-directed, than almost anyone else in the cast.  She could go anywhere and do anything.

To be clear, I don't expect Game of Thrones to realize this.  One need only look at the way Sansa and Arya's conflict in the latter half of this season--so understandable in principle, and so poorly executed in practice--is slanted towards a big heroic moment in which Sansa fools Littlefinger into presenting himself at his own trial and execution.  That moment is, quite frankly, ridiculous--it requires us not to think too hard about any of Sansa's decisions (why is she bringing up the murder of Lysa Arryn, when surely the fact that she vouched for Littlefinger immediately after it happened is a greater impediment to her than to him, certainly more so than the letter he left for Arya to find?), or Westerosi legal custom (how are Bran's visions admissible as evidence?  If they aren't, and Sansa's accusations are enough, why didn't she have Littlefinger tried ages ago?), or Littlefinger's own resources (remember when Brienne suggested that he might have soldiers loyal to him in the castle?  What happened with that?).  More importantly, just where the show should be delving into the psyche of one of the few people on it who still has the freedom to be a person, it pulls away, and leaves us wondering how Sansa and Arya could still have a relationship, much less each other's back, only days after Arya threatened to cut off Sansa's face.

But, just as she's always done, Sansa emerges from under the weight of crap the show throws at her a fully-realized, fully-human character.  And while I do not expect the show's final episodes to give her anywhere near the role she deserves, I do expect her to be interesting to watch, no matter what they do with her.  Sansa is our reminder that the real story of Game of Thrones is one that has no end, simply a long litany of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and truces.  Occasionally, the show tries to pretend that it is aware of the tragedy this represents for anyone who is not a member of the nobility, and through Daenerys, gesture at the possibility of a better world.  But since Daenerys's plan for "breaking the wheel" involves burning people alive, I decline to treat her, or the rest of the show's stabs at political relevance, with any seriousness.  Game of Thrones will never be a show about breaking the wheel of injustice and inequality.  It probably isn't going to be a show about the forces of life defeating the forces of death (and the forces of nihilism, as represented by Cersei).  But there is a third queen on this board, one who has no idea what her story is but is determined to keep living it.  She's the one I'm still watching for.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Recent Reading Roundup 44

Summer is usually a dead reading time for me, the heat and dust making it difficult to concentrate on anything but the least challenging fare.  But this summer--which has anyway featured some interesting developments--has turned out to be very exciting on the reading front as well.  I didn't love all of these books--in fact one of them is easily my least favorite read in quite some time--but all of them broadened my horizons and took me places I wasn't expecting.  Here's to many more summers (and seasons) like this one.

  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I'm having trouble explaining to myself why I picked up The Buried Giant.  After all, the only other Ishiguro novel I've read, Never Let Me Go, left me feeling disappointed, frustrated, and genuinely puzzled at the love and admiration that so many other readers (including genre readers) had for it.  The only justification I have for giving Ishiguro another look is that it had been ten years since Never Let Me Go put me off, and in that time the ongoing praise for it made me doubt my own recollections.  Was it possible that I was being too harsh?  Did I miss the point of the novel's tragedy, seeing nastiness in what was intended as a soulful meditation on the human condition?  Add to that the conversation that developed around The Buried Giant's genre, and the fact that its premise and setting sounded intriguing, and it seemed like a good opportunity to give Ishiguro a second try.  Turns out, I was right the first time.  Ishiguro is a nasty piece of work; The Buried Giant, like its predecessor, is a mean-spirited, taunting bit of misery-porn that seems to hold its readers in actual disdain, and pretends to profundity without having anything to say.  And what makes it all worse is that I have no one to blame but myself.

    The story of The Buried Giant revolves around an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in a small English village some time after the collapse of the Roman Empire.  The setting is deliberately hard to fix, not just because the couple have a very limited view of their world, but because folklore and fantasy seem to exist side by side with established history--this is a world where Arthur was a historical king whom some of the novel's older characters remember, and where dragons exist.  (On the question of the novel's genre, I fall in with those who class it as a fantasy; though as a fantasy, it isn't a very interesting or original one.)  One particular dragon is breathing noxious fumes into the air, affecting the entire region and causing memory loss, passivity, and irrational behavior.  Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village to go on a visit to their son, whom they only vaguely remember, become increasingly aware of these effects as they travel, and fall in with a group of people--including an elderly Sir Gawain--who have various plans for the dragon.  As they journey, more and more pieces of their forgotten history start falling into place, as does the vicious, bloody conflict between Saxons and Britons, now curiously abated but bubbling beneath the surface.

    The Buried Giant is slow and meandering, and Axl and Beatrice's thought- and speech-patterns are halting, almost childlike (it's hard to tell if this is meant to be the effect of the dragon, since in flashbacks to the past they seem just as literal-minded).  That's not what put me off the novel, though--for all its blandness, The Buried Giant is an easy read, and in its own way engaging, as we watch its characters go out of their way to be kind and accommodating to one another, and slowly puzzling out their world and history.  But the simplicity of that world and that history mean that the reader will work out relatively quickly what the characters take until the novel's last pages to figure out--that the dragon's fumes, even as they suppress memory and intelligence, are also the only thing preventing ethnic strife and bloodshed from breaking out again, and that several of the novel's characters want the dragon killed so that the cycle of vengeance can start again.  So The Buried Giant is a long, terribly polite, terribly gentle trudge towards war and ethnic cleansing.  As if that were not enough, Axl and Beatrice's relationship, the only thing they have left to cling to in a world going slowly mad, is nibbled away at piece by piece as they regain their memories.

    Here's where a partisan of the novel might jump up to say "but that's the point!"  But the more I think about it, the more misguided that seems.  I don't think Ishiguro has written a book about the inevitability of human conflict and how remembering history can doom us to repeat it.  I think he's written a smug, sneering work whose primary purpose it to point and laugh at its readers for hoping that things might turn out better than that.  Throughout the novel, Axl and Beatrice are eager to end the dragon's influence because they fear that if they lose their memories of loving each other, they won't be allowed to go to heaven together.  But not only does regaining their memory reveal all the cracks and flaws in their relationship, as the novel's final chapter reveals, there's no amount of love they could have for each other that would ever allow them to go to the afterlife together--any expression of anger or hate, even momentary, in a decades-long marriage is enough to disqualify them.  In the hands of another writer, this might arouse compassion, the recognition that there is no such thing as a perfect love, or a perfect peace.  But underneath The Buried Giant's polite surface, there is a genuinely misanthropic heart, that sees the flaws in its characters as a reason to hate and punish them, not pity them.  The point of the novel isn't that war and conflict are inevitable, or that no love is perfect, but rather that it is foolish to hope otherwise, and that people who do--both the characters and the readers--are to be derided.  The only good thing that has come from my choice to read this novel is that I no longer have to wonder if I was wrong about Ishiguro ten years ago, and hopefully I won't make the mistake of picking him up again.

  • Broken River by J. Robert Lennon - Lennon is turning out to be one of those authors who never write the same kind of book twice.  I've seen him do family dramedy (The Funnies), and metaphysical slipstream (Familiar), and now he returns with Broken River, a thriller with more than a dash of the existential.  The house in the woods outside Broken River, NY was once the site of a horrible double murder.  Twelve years later, it is purchased by a wealthy, bohemian family--sculptor Karl, novelist Eleanor, precocious tween Irina--who move to the country in a last-ditch effort to recover from Karl's serial infidelity.  All the ingredients for a fairly standard thriller plot seem to have been laid out, including a mysterious young woman who may or may not be the daughter of the murder victims, a local man whose knowledge about the murders has been eating away at him for years, and a sinister stranger who arrives in town not long after Eleanor and Irina begin investigating the history of their new home.  And yet Broken River repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag.  It often feels more interested in Karl and Eleanor's crumbling marriage, and particularly the way that it has been both sustained, and ultimately destroyed, by his monumental self-absorption.  Long stretches of the novel are told from the point of view of an "observer", an entity who came into being shortly before the murders, and who spends the years afterwards watching the house and then following the people who move into it, slowly developing its theories about why humans behave as strangely and inconsistently as they do.  Most importantly, though Lennon takes a while to reveal what actually happened on the night of the murders (to the readers, anyway; most of the characters never work out all of the details), he makes it clear from the outset that there is no grand mystery here.  That what happened at the house all those years ago was nothing but the confluence of mundane greed, cruelty, and foolishness, with no greater meaning or purpose.

    The result is that Broken River often feels more interesting for its parts than its whole.  The chapters in which we follow Karl in his relentless quests to gratify his most immediate desires--for weed, for his mistress, for artistic recognition, for some fleeting sense that he is not failing as a husband and a father (he is)--are a sort of horrifying comedy, a constant seesaw between disgust at Karl's steadfast refusal to be an adult, and amusement at the sheer audacity of it.  Eleanor's slow realization that she needs to disentangle herself from his narcissism, and Irina's childish conviction that she knows everything she needs to know about being an adult, are similarly well-sketched.  But at its core, Broken River is a novel about the folly of imposing a narrative on life, whether it's the murder mystery, or the murderers' belief that their victims' daughter is coming back for revenge, or even Karl's fantasies about masculinity.  Which inevitably means that the book refuses its own impulses towards a coherent plot.  When the story erupts into violence, it's not because the forces that exploded in the house twelve years ago were so malevolent and all-knowing that they've been lying in wait all these years, but because the limited people making limited observations of the family's actions jump to irrational, unsubstantiated conclusions.  That's not as frustrating as it sounds--a lot of the pleasure of the book comes from our ability to piece together what the rest of the characters don't realize, and to marvel over their foolishness.  But it means that Broken River ends less with a crescendo and more with an unraveling, and the feeling that as enjoyable as the components of the ride were, we weren't actually headed towards a destination.

  • Human Acts by Han Kang - I didn't know quite what to make of Kang's The Vegetarian, winner of last year's Man Booker International prize and generally beloved of literary folks, when I read it earlier this year.  It was obviously successful at what it was trying to do--chart the way that mental illness and a misogynistic culture combine to drive the main character to self-destruction, to the complete incomprehension of those closest to her--but for the life of me I couldn't figure out the point of the exercise, or even admire Kang's skill at pulling it off.  Human Acts, Kang's third novel to be translated into English, has finally made me realize what everyone has been seeing in her.  It is a riveting, shattering work, at once personal, philosophical, and political, dealing with the after-effects of state violence in a way that no novel I've read has come close to.

    Kang's subject is the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which students and factory workers in a Korean city staged a takeover in protest of the country's military leadership.  The uprising lasted ten days, and was finally brutally suppressed, with hundreds of citizens left dead or missing.  To Koreans, this is a defining moment in the history of their nation, but I had never heard of it before reading this book.  It was therefore fascinating to see how Kang dealt with the details of history.  None of the characters in the book infodump, and it's left to us to piece together the events of the uprising and its aftermath from their asides and observations.  To a foreign reader in particular, this has a strangely wrongfooting effect.  The first chapter, which takes place in the middle of the uprising, with the city holding its breath in anticipation of the military's return and the massacre that will be sure to follow, felt, to me, almost like a chapter out of an SFnal dystopia.  It seemed impossible that, in the real world, ordinary people could have found themselves, from one day to another, living in a war zone.  And yet the further one gets in Human Acts, the more that sense of alienation and unreality comes to feel like the point.  As the years pass, the uprising is folded into Korea's history, and into the lives of the people who survived it, a rupture in the expected order of things that is also horrifyingly mundane.

    What occupies most of the characters in Human Acts is the death of one specific Gwangju victim, fifteen-year-old Dong-ho.  We meet him in the book's first chapter, helping to tend to bodies that have been brought to a local gym, looking for the friend he was separated from in the protest that sparked the uprising.  Though it takes a while to learn exactly how Dong-ho died, that isn't the story's focus--it is, after all, fairly easy to guess, and the actual identity of the murderer doesn't matter with so many guilty parties to go around.  What is important, to Dong-ho's friends, his family, and the other rebels who managed to escape with their lives, is the violation that his death represents, and the greater violation that it comes to stand for.  Following these characters over the years and decades after the uprising, Kang finds them struggling with trauma, PTSD, survivor's guilt, and most of all with the knowledge that people are capable of doing such things to one another.  The violence that the state is capable of is ever-present in this book, from the uprising itself, to the torture of prisoners that followed it, to routine mistreatment at the hands of the police.  For all the novel's characters, the illusion that they are living in a civil society, that they can trust their government and fellow citizens not to hurt them, has been irrevocably shattered.  The question they keep coming back to, as they try to rebuild their lives, is: how do you participate in a society that has abused you?  How do you go on with your life in the knowledge that all of the things you've witnessed, the cruelty and the suffering, are a fundamental part of being human?  Throughout the novel, Kang's focus is on the corporeal--on dead bodies and how we care for them (or not); on abused bodies and how they heal (or not)--and through this most mundane of topics, she repeatedly drives home the point that what she is describing is ordinary, even, in some ways, normal.  It is that normalcy that gives Human Acts its horrifying force, and makes it one of the most powerful novels I've read.

  • The Girl With the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash - I first heard about this novel, which caused quite a stir when it was originally published in Hindi in 2001, from Aishwarya Subramanian.  According to the introduction by translator Jason Grunebaum, one of the things that made it controversial in India was its discussion of caste and the effects that it still has on modern Indians, and to a foreigner that's one of the aspects of Indian society that feels most opaque--the subtle cues of language, name, and geographical origin that clearly identify caste to an Indian are invisible to most of us, and certainly to me.  One might think that this would make The Girl With the Golden Parasol incomprehensible to a foreign leader, but instead my reaction to Prakash's portrait was to think that he'd managed to capture currents and trends that are universal, present in any country and society, even as he depicts the unique ways in which they express themselves in his home.

    Both a campus novel and a romantic comedy, The Girl With the Golden Parasol follows Rahul, a young student at a prestigious university, who falls in love with Anjali, a girl from the highest, Brahmin caste.  In order to be close to his crush, Rahul transfers into the Hindi department, which is simultaneously looked down on by the wider university community, as a hidebound discipline with little utility in the new, capitalistic Indian society, and ruled internally by a cabal that sees their mission as more cultural than academic, building a bulwark against the erosion of Brahmin superiority and control.  Being exposed to the internal politics and prejudices of the department gives Rahul (and Prakash--when the novel gets into its speech-making mode, it can get a little difficult to distinguish between the two) an opportunity to exposit on the currents affecting Indian society.  On the one hand, the influence of the West, which encourages capitalism, consumerism, and inequality.  And on the other hand, the form of Indian nationalism espoused by the Brahmins, which seeks to erase the cultural impact of less-privileged ethnic groups (Rahul is, for example, startled to discover that his syllabus in Hindi literature is composed almost entirely of Brahmin authors) and erect a philosophical model that treats Indian-ness and Brahmin superiority as interchangeable.  Despite the local details--and without downplaying Prakash's skill at conveying them, even to a foreigner like myself--these forces feel so familiar, especially right now with nationalistic movements all over the world identifying themselves with idea of cultural supremacy and the rule of the elite, that it seems impossible to believe that this novel was written almost two decades ago, in a very different world.  (One amusing and presumably unintentional touch is that the peak of the novel's action happens in the middle of September 2001, and yet 9/11 is never mentioned.)

    Prakash isn't shy about using Rahul as a mouthpiece, and a lot of the novel is made up of his speeches--to his friends, to his teachers, to Anjali.  But what should make the novel a bit of a slog ends up being delightful, not just because Rahul's perspective was new to me, but because of the way his imagery swoops from the mundane to the fantastical, from being rooted in the novel's narrative to a high-flying view of India as a whole, from completely naturalistic to combining elements of mythology, religion, and history to illustrate Rahul's take on India's core flaws and failings.  (If I have any problem with Rahul and his worldview, it is that, like so many campus leftists before and after him, he tends to view women as a means to an end, rather than actors and thinkers in their own right, and this also expresses itself in some of his politics.)  Even more impressive is the fact that, in such a short volume, Prakash manages to combine Rahul's philosophical and political musings with a fairly crackerjack plot, involving not only the blooming love story between Rahul and Anjali, but a student rebellion against the corrupt campus leadership, which is cahoots with local criminals.  The result is a novel that feels vibrant both for its politics and its story, and extremely funny and touching besides.  Near the end, Prakash demonstrates an obvious awareness of his genre by asking whether he can justify ending his story like any Bollywood romance between a rich girl and a poor boy, and it's a testament to the strength of his worldbuilding that he manages to find an ending that is satisfying on both the political and storytelling level.

  • Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi - Saadawi's 2013 novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and I'm getting it slightly before English readers (who will be able to enjoy it in 2018) because the Hebrew translation was a little bit faster.  Set in 2005, at the height of the chaos following the American invasion and the fall of the Ba'athist regime, its events are punctuated by a constant litany of gang wars, reprisals for long-held grudges, financial collapses, and suicide bombings.  In the midst of all this upheaval, an old junk dealer, shellshocked by the death of his friend in a bombing and by the sight of the dismembered bodies left after it, begins a macabre project of constructing a single corpse from orphaned bits of victims.  For reasons the book never elaborates, but which are clearly linked to the psychic charge of trauma and pain that lingers over the city, the patchwork creature comes to life.  He begins taking vengeance on the people who caused his body parts' original death--criminal gangs, militias, terrorist groups.  But as his quest for vengeance proceeds--and as tales of the mysterious, inhuman avenger spread through the city--the creature's body begins to fail, and he finds himself having to take the lives of innocents in order to extend his life.

    It's a fairly obvious metaphor, and Saadawi is almost certainly not the first to employ it (Victor LaValle is currently telling a very similar story in his comic Destroyer, to name but one example).  What makes Frankenstein in Baghdad original is its portrait of Baghdad itself, and the way the creature's story intersects with those of so many ordinary people whose lives have been rocked, not just by the current crisis, but by a legacy of dictatorship and ethnic strife.  Saadawi sets his story in a single neighborhood, whose residents have long-simmering currents of friendship and resentment shaped by Iraq's tumultuous history--one of the novel's protagonists, an old woman, holds a grudge against the former party member who hounded her son into enlisting in the army in the 80s, leading to the boy's death in the war against Iran.  Religion and ethnicity are also discussed--on a personal note, I was intrigued by the frequent references to Baghdad's departed Jewish community, whose echoes continue to linger in the houses and artifacts they left behind.  Perhaps most importantly, there is the tension between traditional ways of life, the order imposed by the fallen regime, and the new, more strongly capitalist society emerging after the invasion, which cause tremendous upheavals in the fortunes of many of the novel's characters.  (In light of all this, it's interesting to note how little Saadawi has to say about the American occupation force.  It exists as a grey eminence, a threat that backs the power of some of the novel's more connected characters.  But hardly any American characters appear, and the Iraqi characters are more concerned with the neighbors and enemies they can see in front of them.)

    If there's a weakness to Frankenstein in Baghdad, it is that it can't bring this tapestry of characters and stories to a definite conclusion.  Rather, the novel ends with one final act of destruction, after which many of the characters end up surrendering their grip on a city they no longer recognize, and moving on from it, leaving it to the creature's stewardship.  This, however, may very well be Saadawi's point; that in such chaos, with the ghosts of so many past victims emerging to claim their vengeance, Baghdad becomes unfit for the life of the community, and must be abandoned to those--human and inhuman--who are dedicated solely to violence.

  • Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen - A visit to Finland felt like the perfect opportunity to read this biography of Jansson, and my reading was certainly enhanced by taking place within short distance of so many of the book's most important settings: the Ateneum, where Jansson studied art and displayed many of her works; the chief branch of the furniture and design store Artek, whose fine art competitions she entered; the famed department store Stockmann's, where one of many Moomin promotions was held.  But even divorced from these concrete reminders of Jansson's life, Work and Love paints a vivid portrait of its subject.  A lot of the details of Jansson's life were already known to me--I knew that she was the daughter of artists, that she had been a left-wing political cartoonist in the 30s and 40s, that she had a decades-long relationship with another female artist, Tuuliki Pietilä, with whom she lived part of the year on a remote island, and that she had written novels and stories for adults as well as the Moomin books.  Karjalainen expands on these bare facts, charting the development of Jansson's career along the many paths she took over the course of her life, as a painter, graphic artist, cartoonist, and author.  She discusses the dominant influences in Jansson's life, including her parents, friends, and early lovers.  And she identifies echoes of Jansson's life in her writing, from her fraught relationship with her father, to her open-secret sexuality, to the specific inspirations for various Moomin characters.  Her text is interspersed with many photographs and reproductions of Jansson's art, making the book a work of art as well as a fascinating biography.

    But the chief pleasure of Work and Love is the portrait it paints of Jansson, as a person who was first and foremost hardworking, curious about the world, and eager for new experiences.  You get a glimpse of Jansson's personality in many of her books, including Fair Play, The Summer Book, and The True Deceiver.  But Karjalainen offers a more rounded portrait, discussing Jansson's limitations (her political naivete, her resistance to modernist movements in the art world) as well as her strengths.  And, though the book touches on this fact only lightly (and mostly in discussing the more limited prospects of Jansson's mother Signe, whose career ended up taking a backseat to that of her husband), Work and Love is a profoundly feminist work.  Its depiction of Jansson as an artist rejects so many of the terms we're used to using when discussing male artists, whose careers often seem dedicated as much to curating their public image, and to taking up as much space as possible, as to their work.  Jansson was hardly shy and retiring, but she valued her privacy and didn't like to make herself, rather than her work, the focus of attention.  Her life was dedicated to working hard, supporting her friends, and making a comfortable existence for herself and the people she cared about.  This describes so many women I know--women who hold up the world with their care and attention, but who are also passionate, exacting, and extremely proud of their accomplishments--that it's not at all a surprise to learn that Jansson was one of them.  It's a model for life--not just of the artist--that I'd like to see lauded, certainly over that of the genius creator who must be coddled and protected from the mundane details of existence.

  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris - Ferris's monumental, breathtaking graphic novel presents itself as the sketchbook/diary of ten-year-old Karen Reyes, who lives with her mother and older brother Deeze in a basement apartment in Chicago, 1968.  When the family's upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, dies under mysterious circumstances, Karen is moved to investigate, discovering tapes Anka made in which she narrates her life in pre-WWII Berlin, and her experiences in a concentration camp after the war breaks out.  This impulse towards investigation also branches out into Karen's own family and her other neighbors, as she becomes aware of the weight of history and secrets that so many of the adults in her life carry.

    My Favorite Thing is Monsters is probably weakest in its plot--it's easy to guess, for example, what dark secret Deeze is hiding about his past, and the book's use of the Holocaust in Anka's reminiscences verges on the sensationalistic, as when we learn that Anka, a former child prostitute, conceived a plan to rescue children from the gas chambers by recruiting them for her own brothel, and that her death may have been linked to this.  But Ferris's art elevates the material into something completely its own, moving effortlessly between past and present, fantasy and reality.  Karen's inspiration comes in equal parts from the schlock horror films and magazines she enjoys with her family, and the paintings she studies at her visits with Deeze to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Long segments of the book involve Karen recreating, analyzing, and in some cases entering the paintings that capture her mood or resonate with her impressions of the people she meets, but often in combination with elements from monster movies--including Karen herself, who is almost always drawn as a creature halfway into transforming from a human to a werewolf.  Alongside these fantastical elements, there is also a moving and carefully observed portrait of Karen's seedy neighborhood, populated by marginalized people, some of whom are still clinging to respectability, while others have been forced to let go of it, or have gleefully surrendered it.  Ferris's ability to combine this stark social realism with a sensibility that is part high-art, part cartoon--and do it all in the medium of cross-hatched pen-strokes and shaded pencil sketches--adds up to a stunning artistic achievement, all while maintaining the conceit that the book is a child's sketchpad.

    None of this, however, would work if it weren't for Karen herself, who is bold but naive, good-hearted but so determined to learn the truth about the various mysteries in her life that she ends up trampling over the feelings of people who are often already damaged and broken.  Matter-of-factly reporting on the hardships of her life--a sick mother, a troubled brother, a school where she is considered a "freak" and subjected to abuse by both the students and teachers, a growing awareness of being gay and of the social costs that will entail as she gets older--Karen's defense mechanism is the belief that she is on the verge of escaping this reality to become a full-fledged monster.  The recognition that she, as well as all of the people around her, are just humans (albeit ones who will always be marked as different and, in some ways, monstrous) is the painful cost of growing up, a process that, alongside the book's various mysteries, is only half-complete at the end of this volume.  As I've said, those mysteries are probably the least engaging aspect of Ferris's project, but between her winning characters, and her luminous, versatile artwork, there's a great deal here to marvel at, and a great deal to look forward to in the story's conclusion.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Well, That Happened

I am thrilled, overjoyed, and genuinely shocked to report that at the Hugo award ceremony held last night in Helsinki, I won the award for Best Fan Writer.

This came as a complete surprise to me.  I was certain that Chuck Tingle would carry the award away (and if you look at the voting breakdowns, it was a near thing).  At the same time, I knew that I had a chance, so the days before the award were spent in a state of anxiety.  I'm rather pleased with myself that after all that I managed to make it to the stage and deliver my speech in a semi-coherent manner.  For those of you who weren't there (and who weren't able to watch the live feed, which as I understand it failed early in the ceremony), here is the text of my speech:
Thank you very much.  I want to thank the administrators and voters, as well as my fellow nominees.

I was first nominated for a Hugo in 2014, as part of a ballot that was celebrated for its diversity.  In the intervening years, the Hugos were marred by interference from people seeking to advance their own careers and their bigoted worldview.

I am so, so proud to win this award in a year that has seen the Hugos return to the hands of the people they belong to.  I am proud that my fellow nominees once again represent so much of what our field is capable of.

Writing--whether fiction or non-fiction--is a solitary pursuit.  You put thousands of words into the world and hope they resonate with someone.  As a critic and essayist, I am enriched by a community of writers whose ideas I am in constant conversation with.

These include, but are by no means limited to: Nina Allan, Erin Hórakóva, Adam Roberts, Aishwarya Subramanian, Samira Nadkarni, Vajra Chandrasekera, Niall Harrison, and so, so many others.  My greatest thanks and appreciation go to them, for their inspiring, enlightening words.  Long may they continue.
Since I have you here, I'll also take the occasion to thank all of you, for reading, commenting, linking, and generally making this solitary pursuit feel worthwhile even in its loneliest moments.

I'll probably have some more coherent comments about the rest of the awards at a later date (I freely admit that I had trouble concentrating on the remainder of the ceremony after my category was called).  I will, however, say that the evening as a whole was delightful even in my extremely stressed state, with the chance to meet and squee over so many talented people, some of whom I've known online for years but had never had the chance to meet.  (Far from least among the people I was excited to meet was Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, whose band Clppng was nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, and who turns out to be just as charming and approachable as you could possibly hope.  Reader, I fangirled.)  Following the ceremony, there was the Hugo Losers Party, where, having had the nerve to show my face, I was both mocked and plied with drink.  It was, in short, a totally satisfying evening.

On a final note, I'd like to thank and marvel at the skill of Hugo base designer Eeva Jokinen, who made this year's trophy a thing of beauty (if also incredibly heavy).  There doesn't seem to be an official picture yet, but File 770 has a snapshot.  I've lusted over previous year's trophies, and I'm so thrilled that the one I get to take home is such a lovely piece of art, as well as an award.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

New Scientist Column: Yoon Ha Lee, Karin Tidbeck, and Nina Allan

Greetings from Helsinki!  I am briefly emerging from the chaos of Worldcon to link to my latest column in The New Scientist, in which I discuss Yoon Ha Lee's Raven Stratagem, Karin Tidbeck's Amatka, and Nina Allan's The Rift.  It was interesting to see how three novels that seemed so superficially dissimilar ended up being about very similar things, chiefly the way that humans construct their own reality even when it seems rock-solid. 

I was particularly struck by how similar the approach that Lee and Tidbeck took to their stories was, in both cases taking a well-defined genre with extremely familiar tropes--space opera/military SF in Lee's case, highly conformist future dystopia in Tidbeck's--and use the idea of humans' ability to shape their world through agreed-upon concepts to subtly distort their stories' conventions.  In both cases, I think, the authors end up boxed in by their genres, perhaps more than they intended.  But both books (and the Allan) are nevertheless extremely interesting exercises, and fun reads to boot.

And now, back to the convention!  If you're see me around, do come by and say hi.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 26

I haven't seen a lot of people take note of this--and what with everything else going on, that's hardly surprising--but 2017 is shaping up to be a really good movie year.  Specifically, the genre/action/adventure movies this year has served up have been genuinely strong and enjoyable, from envelope-pushing fare like Logan, Get Out, and Colossal, to well-made, thoughtful variations on familiar formulas like Wonder Woman.  (This is especially noticeable in comparison to 2016, which in terms of its movie offerings pretty much peaked with Deadpool.)  I didn't love all of the movies discussed in this post, but I enjoyed all of them, and more than that, I admired their attempts to do something different, even if in some cases those attempts didn't quite work for me.  In a movie scene that seems increasingly governed by formula and last year's successes, it's heartening to see so many idiosyncratic efforts, and hopefully their success bodes well for the future.
  • Baby Driver - For months, reviewers and filmmakers have been priming us have our socks knocked off by Baby Driver, Edgar Wright's victory lap after being unceremoniously dumped from Ant-Man.  The praise for the film was as unanimous and rapturous as it was strangely unspecific--everyone seemed to love Baby Driver, but no one seemed able to say why, beyond some vague gestures towards its soundtrack (and you know, the last film I saw where the soundtrack was a major selling point was the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which is hardly an encouraging comparison).  So when I went to see Baby Driver, it was less in the spirit of enthusiasm and more out of curiosity--what was it about this movie that made people go so gaga over it?  I'm sorry to say that my questions have not been answered.  Baby Driver is enjoyable and well-made.  There are some extremely fun action and car chase scenes (though on that last front the film peaks in its first ten minutes, and never quite recaptures the same high).  But none of this is quite enough to elevate the film past its thoroughly generic story and characters.

    The premise of Baby Driver is so familiar that it practically follows from the film's description as a heist movie.  A demon-behind-the-wheel getaway driver agrees to do One Last Job for some shady characters in order to protect the lives of his loved ones, including his angelic girlfriend, and then things get complicated.  The one twist that Wright offers is that Baby (Ansel Elgort, in a brilliant physical performance that nevertheless feels like little more than a support beam for the film's plot) is obsessed with, constantly listening to, and filtering the world through, music, which he pipes in through the earbuds he hardly ever takes off, ostensibly to ward off the tinnitus that has plagued him since childhood, though like so much else about the film this is a plot element that is introduced and then quickly left by the wayside.  This turns Baby Driver into essentially a long sequence of music videos, an approach that is at first exhilarating, but quickly loses its flavor when it turns out that Wright doesn't have a second gear for it.  For a little while, it feels as if Baby Driver is trying to be the portrait of slightly different person (perhaps even neuroatypical), who needs a soundtrack to his life to function, and who can only truly express his humanity through movement--whether behind the wheel of a car, or walking down the street, or dancing in his apartment.  But as the plot of Baby Driver progresses, this obsession comes to feel less like a character trait and more like a gimmick, a way of establishing the film's coolness credentials--to which end it also gathers actors such as Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx to play the over-the-top criminal types whom Baby squares against.  By the film's final act, in which Baby must save his girlfriend Debora (Lily James) while also retrieving the tape containing the last recording of his mother's singing, he comes off as a less engaging version of Guardians's Starlord, and the film's use of music feels just as calculated.  (This is also a good place to note how few and uninteresting Baby Driver's female characters are, all of them defined by the love, protectiveness, and vengefulness of men.)

    The most obvious point of comparison for Baby Driver is Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, and the difference between how these two movies handle their protagonist feels extremely telling.  Drive's most brilliant touch is the third-act revelation that beneath its angel-faced protagonist's placid exterior, there is a great big nothing.  That his coolness is merely a thin veneer for genuine psychopathy, which eventually tarnishes, and sometimes destroys, the lives of everyone he gets close to.  Baby Driver feels like the movie for people who found that conclusion too depressing, who wanted to be able to keep rooting for the Driver with no moral qualms or complications.  The contortions the film goes through in order to assure us that Baby is a good person, even an innocent--at the same time as he willingly participates in horrific violence--are ultimately more alienating than Drive's condemnation of its hero.  The film's ending feels almost like a parody of the way the American justice system bends over backwards to avoid "destroying the life" of photogenic white criminals.  This is a problem less from an ethical standpoint (though the film's approach to race is troubling, and deserves a lot more attention from reviewers than it's gotten) than from a storytelling one.  If Baby Driver won't give its title character a personality, and won't admit that the absence of a personality is an indication that there is something wrong with him, then all that's left is the film's obsession with coolness, which--for me at least--is not nearly enough to carry it over the finish line.

  • Spider-Man: Homecoming - If the rapturous reception for Baby Driver left me feeling warily curious, the only reaction I had to similarly positive reviews for the latest Spider-Man film was resigned fatigue.  As the sixth (!) Spider-Man movie in fifteen years, Homecoming seemed more like a chore than a pleasure, and the fact that Marvel was clearly only making the movie so that the web-crawler could appear in Infinity War and then become the lynchpin of phase four of the MCU certainly didn't help.  For all that Homecoming turned out to be a smart, charming movie, I'm still not convinced that this character needed to be rebooted for the third time.  But I am impressed with how Marvel has handled the significant challenges of doing so, with a great deal more wit and care than comparable franchise launches (much less re-launches) from other studios have managed.

    It's not surprising that Homecoming steers clear of the over-familiar tropes of the Spider-Man story (in fact some of them, like the burden of guilt Peter carries for the death of Uncle Ben, feel weirdly absent from this story, in which he is far too insouciant and carefree than your standard Peter Parker).  What I didn't expect was for the film to face head-on some of the growing problems with the more recent MCU movies, and to swiftly disarm them.  Homecoming strikes a compelling middle ground between the overheated bombast of MCU team-up movies, and the by-the-numbers plotting of recent standalones.  It tells a story with relatively modest stakes and scope, with a hero who is frequently out of his depth, and villains who are just trying to get paid.  But by giving its setting and characters room to breathe, it paradoxically ends up the most involving MCU movie in some time.  Tom Holland plays Peter as something between Tobey Maguire's soulful nerd and Andrew Garfield's dimwitted jokester, but most of all he plays the character as young.  His Peter is fundamentally decent and heroic, whether he's giving an old lady directions or thoughtlessly stepping up to take a bullet for a street criminal caught in over his head.  But he's also immature, playful, unclear on how this whole superhero business works, and star-struck by his recent adventures with Iron Man in Civil War.  That looseness in his characterization extends to the rest of the cast.  The kids in Peter's school--best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), popular nice girl Liz (Laura Harrier), too-cool-for-school Michelle (Zendaya), asshole Flash (Tony Revolori), and even some of the background players--all get space to be their own, idiosyncratic versions of these types, each a little bit weird in their own way.  As a result, Homecoming ends up feeling more grounded than most films in this genre, like a teen movie about a superhero, not a superhero movie just waiting to shake off its teenage hero's ordinary life.

    There's a similar heft and humanity in the film's handling of its villains, whether it's a small-time crook played by Donald Glover, or the main bad guys.  All feel like people first and plot tokens second, with lives that exist outside of Peter's drama, and limits to their villainy informed by their being part of a community and a family (when Peter convinces Glover's character to give him information, he does it by pointing out that the bad guys have blown up a popular local sandwich shop).  The film's villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), breaks the MCU films' villain curse, ending up simultaneously terrifying and sympathetic.  He makes the largely convincing argument that people like Tony Stark cause tremendous damage that they never look down and notice, much less face consequences for.  Peter's heroism is expressed by recognizing the rightness of this criticism, but also the evil of Toomes's reaction to it--he steals and modifies alien technology, and sells it to criminals.  Even then, the true measure of Toomes's villainy comes not when he dons a terrifying flying suit, but through the mundane details of his double life--the hurt that he causes his family, and the damage he does to his community.

    Much has been made of Tony Stark's presence in Homecoming, with some critics even calling it half an Iron Man movie.  I was actually surprised by how little space Tony takes up in the movie, and more than that, by how Homecoming feels free to subtly criticize him.  If, like myself, you thought Tony's decision to recruit Peter in Civil War was reckless and irresponsible, then Homecoming will be the film for you, as it delves into the unintended consequences of that decision--such as Peter retreating from his life in the belief that he will soon be called to join the Avengers.  When Tony tries to repair the damage he's caused, he repeatedly overcompensates, either ghosting Peter completely or micro-managing him, in both cases expecting him to follow orders without considering that he is still a child.  A major component of Peter's growth into heroism and maturity is the fact that he outgrows Tony, rejecting his worldview and choosing to a be a street-level hero, someone who can address the damage that Tony and the Avengers don't see.  (The film also gets in a few jabs at Captain America, who appears as the star of some breathtakingly clueless PSAs screened at Peter's school, even as the teachers admit that he is currently a war criminal.)  It's an ending that also brings Homecoming full circle, back in conversation with the previous Spider-Man movies.  Whereas those films were driven by Peter's tragic inability to balance his life as a person and a hero, Homecoming concludes that it is essential to Peter's heroism that he maintain his humanity, and not ignore his life for the sake of the excitement of being a hero.  It's a little surprising for a Spider-Man movie to end up concluding that its hero should stay "close to the ground" (many of the film's jokes even rely on Peter's inability to find tall buildings and structures to swing from), but for this moment, in both the MCU and this much-rebooted character's existence, that feels like the right decision.

  • Okja - Bong Joon Ho's follow-up to Snowpiercer (produced by Netflix and available to stream on it) is, like its predecessor, a film that veers somewhat haphazardly between dark social satire and earnest social commentary.  Also like Snowpiercer, Okja is a collection of set pieces that vary wildly in tone and even genre, but without the organizing principle of a journey along a train, the result feels even more bitty.  That's not necessarily a complaint.  Some of Okja's set-pieces--chiefly a truck-heist/prison-break scene in the streets of Seoul that gives Baby Driver a run for its money--are worth the price of admission in their own right.  But especially for a film so driven by its message, it can be hard to get a grip on the story Okja is trying to tell.

    The title character is a genetically engineered pig hybrid the size of an elephant, bred as a new, environmentally-friendly food alternative.  Ten years ago, sample piglets were handed out to farmers all over the world, as a publicity stunt meant to normalize the new protein source.  Now, with Korean-raised Okja deemed the "best super-pig" and carted off to the US to be fêted (and then slaughtered), Mija (An Seo Hyun), the granddaughter of the farmer who raised Okja, sets off on a journey to rescue her friend.  It's a fairly basic animal-in-peril story, and yet Okja veers into some extremely weird tangents that never quite coalesce into a coherent whole, whether it's the animal rights group that helps Mija (led by a pacifist Paul Dano and a slightly shady Steven Yeun), or the dissipated former animal show host who has been coopted by the corporation to put a smiley face on Okja's looming fate (Jake Gyllenhaal, in what is easily the most deranged performance of his career).  Some of these bits work very well--the fact that the corporation's CEOs are twins both played by Tilda Swinton, one a money-obsessed monster, the other an airy wannabe-celebrity desperate to remake her company's image, ends up making a subtly cutting statement--it doesn't matter which of these women takes over the running of the company, because the end result of animal abuse will be the same, whether or not it's sugarcoated with good PR.  And even when the film's weirdness doesn't work, it's so expertly done as to be fun to watch.  But the constant shift between absurdism and utterly serious animal rights rhetoric--chiefly a long sojourn in a super-pig slaughterhouse that has definite concentration camp associations--can make it hard to know how to react.

    Perhaps the most significant way in which Okja holds back from its audience is the title character itself.  The CGI for Okja can get a little ropey in the film's action scenes, but it works where it counts, in convincing us that this is a feeling creature whom Mija loves and who is capable of returning that affection, and in making us root for her survival.  And yet Okja, as a character, feels curiously absent from the movie that bears her name.  In most animal in peril stories, the animal is in many ways in the main character (think, for example, of the way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes spends its middle segment focused almost entire on Caesar).  But in Okja, even in scenes in which she is alone (or alone with her abusers), the focus is almost always on the human characters, not on Okja's feelings.  (This is particularly strange because there's a strong implication in the film that Okja and the other super-pigs are a lot smarter than suspected, perhaps even self-aware, and yet ultimately nothing is made of this.)  Okja only really comes to life when she's paired with Mija, and though that pairing, and the love and devotion the two have for one another, are never less than entirely convincing, it's yet another way in which Okja feels confused about what it wants to be.  It's a film that I'm glad exists (not least for how it pushes forward Netflix's willingness to take a shot on strange material and creators from outside of Hollywood) but it's worth watching more for its pieces than its whole.

  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - On paper, Luc Besson's latest movie (based on the comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières) should be an unmitigated disaster.  The plot is predictable and frequently relies on the characters being stupid, or worse, following stupid rules and regulations.  The characters are flat, with informed personality traits that never manage to emerge from the actors' performances.  In particular, Dane DeHaan is woefully miscast as the title character, a rougeish adventurer with no time for rules (except right at the end of the film, when he suddenly decides that abiding by the rules defines him).  It's a role that ends up wearing him, rather than allowing him to make it his own.  The film's decision to hang its emotional arc on a putative romance between him and his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), is almost comically misguided--not only is DeHaan completely unconvincing as a lothario whom Laureline desires but can't trust, but the film never gives us any reason, any romantic or sexual spark, to make us root for Valerian and Laureline as a couple.  And despite aiming at a message of inclusivity and tolerance, Valerian's character work frequently plumps for thoughtless stereotypes, particularly in an ill-advised sojourn in a red light district, where Valerian befriends a shape-changing prostitute (Rihanna) who can't get away from her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold type, or the racially insensitive guises her clients favor.

    And yet for all these flaws, I found Valerian utterly delightful, for the simple reason that the film's world is so broad, so varied, and so much fun, that it's possible to tune out the leaden dialogue, the annoying characters, and the idiot plotting, and simply enjoy the ride.  This isn't simply a matter of visuals--though these are spectacular and constantly evolving throughout the film's run--but of worldbuilding.  Valerian mostly takes place on a travelling space station, Alpha, where humans and other species have for centuries mingled freely and peacefully, adding modules and segments as each species joins the journey.  The film's opening scene, which shows us Alpha's origins as an international space station orbiting Earth, establishes a theme of tolerance and mutual respect, and though, as noted above, that's something Valerian honors as much in the breach as in the observance, it's still a powerful message that informs how Besson builds his world, and how Valerian and Laureline move through it.  This isn't a Guardians of the Galaxy-esque setting, where entire space-faring civilizations exist solely for our heroes to punch their way through.  It's a living, functional world, whose rules and values are worth preserving because they allow its inhabitants to live in (relative) peace and prosperity.  It's no surprise that the villain of the piece turns out to be someone who thought he had the right to tear through another civilization for his own goals, and that our heroes triumph not just by defeating him, but by bringing him to justice.

    All of this is to make Valerian sound a great deal more high-minded than it actually is (not least because, as noted, for all the film's lofty intentions its actual execution is at best awkward, at worst actively working against its message).  But the belief that the world he's constructed is interesting and worth exploring informs how Besson constructs his action plot, and as a result Valerian never stops moving, and never stops showing us new corners of its world.  The film is made up of several gargantuan, and incredibly fun, set pieces, from a chase through an intergalactic market that exists in several dimensions, to Valerian pursuing aliens who have kidnapped his commander by jumping from one environ in Alpha to another, to an underwater quest for a jellyfish that will help Laureline find a missing Valerian.  Perhaps most importantly, the aliens whose dispossession is the film's inciting incident have a society that feels, if not exactly realistic, then sympathetic and interesting.  You find yourself rooting for them to have a happy ending, and it almost makes Valerian and Laureline bearable that they clearly see this as a more important goal than obeying orders.  None of this is enough to make Valerian into a good movie, but it's one that left me feeling a great deal more hopeful and exuberant than any other recent example of this genre, and that's worth celebrating.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Colossal

Going into Colossal with only the film's trailers and promotional material to prepare you, it's easy to expect an entertaining but fairly shallow handling of its premise, in which a hard-partying alcoholic (Anne Hathaway) is kicked out by her boyfriend and returns to her home town to wallow and hang out at a bar with her childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), before discovering that she mysteriously has control over a giant monster that has begun menacing Seoul.  Despite the weirdness of that description's final turn, there's something very familiar about that combination--a melding of mumblecore character drama and out-there genre elements, along the lines of The One I Love.  So while you might expect Colossal to be good, you also expect its genre components to be merely a jumping-off point, a particularly on-the-nose metaphor--alcohol makes our heroine, Gloria, into a literal monster!  (There is, in addition, an uncomfortable undertone to this premise, in which a white woman's obliviousness causes mass deaths in an Asian city on the other side of the planet.)  And yet, in the hands of writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal turns out to be something much smarter and more exciting, doing things that not many movies, in and out of genre, are doing.  It is, on the one hand, a hair-raising portrait of abuse and how a person might unwittingly slip into a relationship with an abuser, and on the other hand, a fresh and thoughtful twist on the superhero origin story.

The early scenes of Colossal, in which Gloria finally exhausts the patience of her circle in New York, moves back home, reunites with Sudeikis's Oscar, starts working at his bar, and begins to realize that she and the monster in Seoul are connected, are doing a lot of ground-laying work.  It's therefore easy to miss the early danger signs in Gloria and Oscar's relationship, especially as the film seeds them so subtly.  Oscar's social circle, into which he immediately folds Gloria, at first seems like the typical indie film collection of losers and sad-sacks--Tim Blake Nelson as drug-addled conspiracy nut Garth, and Austin Stowell as introverted Joel, whose attractiveness is outweighed by his lack of confidence around Gloria.  But when Oscar explodes in rage the first night that the group spend together--ostensibly in defense of Gloria--we begin to get a sense of the reality of the group's dynamics, in which Oscar, in the guise of the genial grown-up friend, exerts an unhealthy amount of control on people too weak to break away from him.

The same dynamic quickly begins to ensnare Gloria.  After her first night drinking with him and his friends, Oscar arrives at her house to inform the hung-over Gloria that she agreed to let him lend her a TV, and to start working at the bar.  Because Gloria is such a trainwreck, it's easy to believe that she might have had these conversations without remembering them.  But the next morning, when Oscar arrives with a sofa and makes a similar claim, his behavior seems more suspicious.  We spent most of the previous evening with him and Gloria, and a sofa never came up.  It suddenly becomes obvious that both this and the previous morning's claim were lies, that Oscar is gaslighting Gloria, supposedly for her own good but really as a way of insinuating himself into her life and home.  By the time his behavior turns sinister, later in the movie, he's already so embedded in her routine that shaking him off requires genuine effort and carries meaningful costs.

Throughout all this, there's the monster.  It's difficult to explain how deftly Colossal weaves this gonzo element into the dynamic of slowly-growing menace that permeates Gloria and Oscar's interactions, but it quickly grows into an expression, not just of Gloria's own dysfunction, but of the baleful influence that Oscar has on her.  When she realizes the rules of her connection to the monster--it appears when she walks onto a certain playground near her house, at a certain time of day--Gloria tries to exercise responsibility.  Her first attempts fail miserably.  While trying to show Oscar and the guys her connection, she panics at the news that Korean authorities are shooting missiles at "her", trips, and falls, causing massive destruction (there's really not enough that can be said for Vigalondo's ability to make a drunk woman falling down in a playground look like an earth-shattering catastrophe).  But the more Gloria tries to act like a responsible person--including trying to stop drinking--the angrier Oscar gets, and the more he tries to push her into going back into monster mode.

The metaphor--an addict trying to straighten out while their resentful friends who are still using attack and sabotage them--is blatant.  Almost any other film might have stopped there.  But Colossal moves into the realm of all-out genre storytelling when it reveals that Oscar, too, has an analogue in Seoul, in his case a giant robot.  (There is, ultimately, an explanation for both Oscar and Gloria's conditions, and it mostly hangs together.  But it also isn't entirely necessary--no amount of backstory will make this movie's premise any less ridiculous, and it's the execution that makes it work, not whether the script can come up with a sufficiently convincing McGuffin.)  This places him in a position to threaten Gloria.  If she doesn't do as he says--stay in town, continue working at his bar and hanging out with his friends, start drinking again--he will deliberately trash the city.  This sets up an obvious monster-movie situation--the scenes beamed in from Seoul, in which the monster and the robot grapple against a backdrop of skyscraper and a soundtrack of screams, are almost prototypical of this genre.  But it also sets up a hellish scenario of abusive blackmail that reminded me a great deal of Jessica Jones, as does Gloria's self-destructive personality.  (Indeed, the choice to cast Sudeikis, an indie-film stalwart who often plays mopey but good-hearted love interests, as an abusive villain feels as deliberate as Jessica Jones's choice to cast fandom's beloved David Tennant as Kilgrave.)  With the added turn of the screw that, unlike Jessica, Gloria doesn't have super-strength.  In their human guises, Oscar is bigger and stronger than her, and she has no ability to force him to stop.

When I say that Colossal reads like a superhero origin story, what I mean is not just that it ends up pitting Gloria and Oscar (and their gigantic analogues) against each other in a classic punch-up pose.  But that its premise forces its characters to confront what lies at the heart of heroism and villainy.  What makes Gloria a hero--or at least temporarily heroic--is the fact that she takes responsibility for her actions, finally realizing that she can't blithely go about her self-destruction, smashing into people and things without any concern for the damage she causes.  What makes Oscar a villain is the fact that he's so steeped in self-loathing that he doesn't even want to get better anymore, and is content to drag everyone around him down to his own level.  Telling this sort of story with, on the one hand, city-scale stakes, and on the other hand, no actual superpowers, means that the focus remains strictly on the emotional.  Gloria triumphs not just because she outsmarts Oscar, but because she refuses to give into despair, even in the face of a seemingly inescapable trap.

Colossal finds a way for Gloria to escape that trap--one that is conceptually elegant, but whose execution is perhaps a little sloppy, leaning a little too much into the profound satisfaction of seeing Oscar get his comeuppance.  What's more important, however, is what happens afterwards.  Flush with triumph and awash with relief, Gloria walks the streets of the city and then turns into.. a bar.  It's clear from the film's closing moments that she didn't even realize what she was doing, that the choice was practically automatic.  Which is perhaps the cleverest thing Colossal does with the superhero story.  Just because Gloria saved the world doesn't make her a hero, and her continuing to be one--or even just a functional human being--depends on constantly making the choice not to sink back into bad habits, even when the fate of a South Korean metropolis doesn't hang in the balance.  It's left to us to hope that the lessons Gloria has learned will help her going forward, but the film's open ending is reminder that she still has it in her to be a monster, this time of the more scary human variety.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Five (Additional) Comments on Wonder Woman

I didn't expect to have anything more to say about Wonder Woman after publishing my short review of it.  But in the week that followed, the film has stayed with me, particularly the ways in which it complicates (and fails to complicate) the conventions of the superhero narrative.  Partly, this is just the shock of the new.  The MCU--and particularly those parts of it that are a bit more politically engaged--has gotten more than a little top-heavy, constantly bumping up against the limitations of its genre when it tries to do anything interesting with it.  Wonder Woman isn't kicking off its own cinematic universe, but I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that we'd all be better off if WB wrote off its previous three DC movies and used Wonder Woman as its template going forward (and, at least until November, we can all pretend that this is what's going to happen).  Without the baggage that the MCU has accumulated, DC is in the enviable position of being able to learn from the earlier franchise's mistakes, as well as striking its own path.  The following are some thoughts on how Wonder Woman sets up some interesting ideas for that project going forward, and how the conventions of Hollywood, and of the superhero genre, are likely to stymie that approach.
  • It's been a little frustrating to watch the conversation around Wonder Woman coalesce around its feminism.  Not that I don't understand why that's happening, or that there aren't interesting things to be said on this front.  In particular, I've been struck by discussions of the film's visual language, and of its avoidance of typically male-gaze-ish approaches to depicting powerful women.  And, in the other direction, there have been some trenchant critiques of the whiteness of the film's feminism, the fact that, in the Amazonian utopia of its opening segments, women of color are mostly relegated to the background, and in the WWI segments, they are almost entirely absent even as non-white men appear in crowd scenes and as main characters.

    My problem, however, with talking about Wonder Woman as a feminist work is that most of that feminism is external to the film.  That is, Wonder Woman is feminist because of what it is, not because of what it does.  To be clear, I absolutely agree with the statement that being the first movie about a female superhero in the current, mega-successful iteration of superhero movies (and one of only a small number before that) is a feminist act in its own right.  But there's only so much that you can say about that, and that's a problem that is exacerbated by Wonder Woman herself.  More than almost any other character in pop culture, Diana exists outside of patriarchy.  And while it's powerful to see a woman who brushes aside the assumption that she's not as good as a man because the very idea that this might be true is completely foreign to her heritage and upbringing, what this also means is that a lot of the central questions of feminism are equally foreign to her.

    I'm not as down on Wonder Woman as Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, but she's not wrong when she says that "Gadot's Wonder Woman doesn't fight for rights because she transcends that fight; she is unfettered by it and insensible to it, an implausible post-feminist hero."  Diana's journey over the course of the movie involves learning to see humanity--or, as she puts it, "men"--for what it is, with all its strengths and flaws.  But left completely unacknowledged is the degree to which the cruelty of men is often visited upon women.  How does Diana's bemusement at the concept of marriage face up to the discovery that almost all of the people she meets in 1918 would consider it acceptable for a man to beat his wife?  How does her decision to engage in heterosexual intercourse change in light of the fact that she is moving through a rape culture?  How does her joy at seeing a baby withstand the knowledge that most women in that period have no choice in when or whether to have children, and that many of them die in childbirth?

    If DC and WB were actually serious about making their cinematic universe "dark", this is precisely the sort of material they could latch on to, instead of focusing on the angst of privileged white men like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent.  As I've written, Wonder Woman already shows us a Diana who has more of a justification for despairing of humanity than either of her established fellow heroes, but it misses an important point when it ignores how much of that despair should be rooted in the world's treatment of women.  That's something that could change in future movies, but not if they continue to hold on to the simplistic notion of a woman who is a feminist idol simply for existing.

  • One of the few explicitly feminist moments in Wonder Woman comes when Diana meets Etta Candy, and, after learning what a secretary does, exclaims "where I'm from, that's called slavery!"  At the most basic level, this is a 21st century joke awkwardly shoehorned into an early 20th century setting.  As modern feminists, we are supposed to disdain secretarial positions (we shall leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether this is actually a feminist stance, and whether there are many feminists who still hold it), while in 1918 the profession, still largely male, would have been seen as prestigious and important (it is, in fact, entirely possible that Etta only has her job because too many of the men who might have taken it have been sent to the front).

    If you look at this exchange more seriously, however, some troubling questions emerge.  How can Diana be completely ignorant of patriarchy, and yet also know what a slave is?  Where exactly do the boundaries of Themyscira's utopia lie?  It's a question that puts me in mind of some of Sarah Mesle's excellent writing about Game of Thrones, and particularly the way the show styles its supposedly badass, egalitarian women.  Who, Mesle asks, is pleating Daenerys Targareyn's skirts?  Who is braiding Arya Stark's hair?  No one who cares about that sort of thing can have missed the elaborate (if functional) hairstyles on almost all the Amazons in Wonder Woman, but even if we assume that the women braid each other's hair, in a show of sisterhood, who tanned Diana's leather training outfit?  Who dyed the bright blue gown of the tutor the young Diana escapes from in the film's opening scene?  The pre-modern Greek civilizations that Themyscira is modeled on ran on slave labor, and particularly when it came to styling high-status women, there would have been an army of lower- and no-status ones working to make the illusion seem effortless.  Is Themyscira perhaps run like a kibbutz, with everyone, low and high, sharing in even the most noxious of tasks?  But if so, then again, how does Diana know what a slave is?

    The answer, of course, is that this is not a thing that the film wants us to think about, and in this it is ultimately no different than most Hollywood products (including, of course, Game of Thrones).  But to go back to that scene with Etta, it's interesting to note what happens after the exchange between her and Diana.  The camera follows as they walk into the department store, and the musical score rises, but it is still possible to hear Etta, having agreed with Diana that she is the equivalent of a slave, go on to explain that "...the pay is rather good."

    So, on the one hand, we have Etta making a 21st century joke about how being a secretary is like being a slave.  And on the other hand, we have the film's obvious belief that Etta is a trailblazer for being a woman who works (with all the issues that attend that form of mid-century, mainstream-friendly feminism, which tends to ignore the fact that women have always worked, just not always in professions with prestige, good conditions, and good pay).  But most importantly, we have Diana falling in with both of these contradictory attitudes, when what she should be decrying as slavery is the very notion that one should have to work to earn the means of survival.

    When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, there was a lot of discussion of Steve Rogers's politics, with some persuasive arguments that Steve, the Brooklyn-born, working-class child of immigrants, would have been at least a socialist if not an all-out communist, in direct opposition to Tony Stark, the benevolent oligarch (four films later, Steve and Tony have devolved into subtly different variations on American imperialism, so it's no wonder that we're looking to Wonder Woman for a fresh start).  But, if we assume that Themyscira is the utopia that it claims to be, then Diana should be even more of a radical than Steve, and her feminism should be inextricably bound up with the kind of anti-capitalism that would obviate both Etta's pride in having secured well-paying work, and the idea that one's work would require you to be constantly at the beck and call of another person.  Obviously, this is putting more thought than the film ever expected me to into a fundamentally thoughtless gag.  But it also feels like the perfect encapsulation of the limitations of Wonder Woman's feminism--of the limitations of any feminism that begins and ends with representation.

  • I've written already about the similarities between Wonder Woman and The First Avenger--as I said on twitter, Wonder Woman feels at points as if it's retelling the Captain America film's story, from the perspective of a Peggy Carter who also happens to be the one with superpowers.  The more I think about it, however, the more it feels as if Wonder Woman is in direct conversation with the earlier movie, and deliberately attempting to address its flaws, particularly when it comes to the depiction of weakness, injury, and loss.  Wonder Woman's variation on the Howling Commandos stands out for its willingness to allow these characters to carry irreparable damage, and to contribute nevertheless.  But the film is perhaps most remarkable for its willingness to accept that people don't have to be able to contribute in order to be valuable--or that their contributions don't have to be related to martial prowess.  The moment in Wonder Woman that most sets the film apart from the superhero films that have come before it, and most effectively establishes who Diana is and what makes her a hero, comes when the shell-shocked sniper Charlie, who froze and was unable to carry out his duties in the previous battle, suggests that he stay behind, because he has nothing to offer.  Without missing a beat, Diana replies: "but Charlie, who will sing for us?"

    By the end of the film, Charlie will of course have picked up his weapon again.  But it's important that this is not signposted as a huge redemptive moment for him.  As far as Wonder Woman is concerned, Charlie doesn't need to be redeemed, or even cured.  His value as a human being, and a friend, is not diminished by his inability to be a soldier.  As I've written many times in the past, I am deeply bothered by the way that superhero stories, and the MCU in particular, depict trauma and disability, often distinguishing good from bad characters by whether they are willing (or able) to overcome their past, and become fighters once more.  The franchise is profoundly uneasy with characters who can't overcome their damage, and particularly those who express their mental health issues in uncomfortable, unattractive ways--consider, for example, the way that Thor: The Dark World plays Erik Selvig's lingering trauma over having been brainwashed by Loki for laughs, while dealing very soberly with Loki's own, more photogenic emotional problems.  Let's not forget that The First Avenger itself is a story about a hero who is weak--one might say disabled or chronically ill--and who is magically cured of his weakness.  Or that the MCU's most consistently incurable character and most obvious analogue to Charlie, Bucky Barnes, is someone the films have never entirely known what to do with, literally sticking him in storage in lieu of facing head-on the full extent of the damage he has sustained.

    There's an obvious caveat here, which is that while Steve Rogers may be cured of his weakness, Diana was born without any.  It's easy for her to tolerate weakness in others when she is literally a goddess herself, and in fact one might argue that the former emerges from the latter--that to Diana, we are all so fundamentally weak that the difference between Charlie and Steve Trevor is essentially meaningless.  But even taking that into account, it still feels incredibly important for Wonder Woman to have taken the time to let Diana be kind, and to let characters like Charlie express their weakness without being expected to overcome it.  (Having said that, it shouldn't be ignored that the film also fails quite badly on the disability front with the character of Dr. Maru, who falls into the risible stereotype of the evil disfigured person.)

  • The more I think about it, the more it feels like the biggest flaw in Wonder Woman, not just as a feminist work but as a film trying to establish Diana as her own unique kind of hero, is the near-total absence of women after Diana leaves Themyscira.  The scenes on the island are powerful, not only giving the film an easy and meaningful Bechdel pass but establishing strong relationships between Diana and her mother and aunt.  But those relationships are effectively closed off when Diana leaves the island.  It is particularly frustrating to see how Steve repeatedly draws on the memory of his father for courage and inspiration, while Diana never even mentions Hippolyta or Antiope after parting from them.

    In the modern world, Diana's relationships with women are brief to the point of nonexistence.  Etta disappears almost as soon as she's introduced.  There is virtually no interaction between Diana and Dr. Maru.  Aside from all the other ways in which this is a problem, it feels utterly unbelievable for Diana, who has spent her whole life surrounded solely by women, to be so comfortable being the only woman in her circle.  She should be seeking out women wherever she goes, inherently more comfortable in their company than she could ever be around Steve or the other men in their group.  Nor should there have been any shortage of women with whom she could have interacted--WWI offered great scope for women outside the confines of the domestic, as nurses, factory workers, even spies.  If there's one thing that I want future Wonder Woman movies (or, for that matter, future Justice League movies) to address, it is the paucity of relationships between Diana and other women.

  • Like, I suspect, most viewers (who don't know a great deal about WWI), I assumed that the villain of Wonder Woman, Ludendorff, was an invented character.  I was surprised--and impressed--to discover that he was based on a real WWI general, and even more intrigued after I read his wikipedia entry.  The real Erich Ludendorff was one of the most influential figures in wartime Germany, essentially running large parts of the war and of the country's economy.  Unlike his film analogue, he supported an armistice, but only because he saw no hope for victory.  But he also saw Germany's defeat as a humiliation, both personal and national, and was further outraged by the Treaty of Versailles.

    Though not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff was absolutely a fellow-traveler to them.  He coined the "stab in the back" myth, which blamed Germany's loss in the war on internal sabotage by Jews and communists.  When the Nazis emerged in the 20s, Ludendorff was sympathetic to them, even having cordial meetings with Hitler, and he supported the abortive Beer Hall Putsch.  After the Nazi party was outlawed following the putsch, Ludendorff represented the National Socialist Freedom Movement in the German parliament, made out of former Nazis and members of the German Völkisch Freedom Party.  Even his personal philosophy sounds like the origin story of the Red Skull:
    Ludendorff was a Social Darwinist who believed that war was the "foundation of human society," and that military dictatorship was the normal form of government in a society in which every resource must be mobilized.[63] The historian Margaret Lavinia Anderson notes that after the war, Ludendorff wanted Germany to go to war against all of Europe, and that he became a pagan worshiper of the Nordic god Wotan (Odin); he detested not only Judaism, but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.[64]
    I mention all this not just because it's interesting, but because it casts the film's depiction of its villains in a new and intriguing light.  There's been a lot of discussion of Wonder Woman's choice to frame Germans as the "bad guys" in WWI, with some commentators lamenting a simplification of history that depicts all German villains as Nazis, and others arguing that the film's choice of WWI as its setting was a deliberate attempt to avoid an easy categorization into heroes and villains.  But as Ludendorff's history shows, the issue is more complicated.  While not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff sympathized with and supported the Nazis' goals and philosophies.  What's more, his post-war career reminds us that the Nazis were not the only fascist, racist movement to emerge in Germany, and that the ideas that drove them found fruitful ground in many levels of society.

    Especially right now, it feels important to me to point out that Nazi-esque evil is not restricted to just those people who wear the right uniforms and make the right salutes (this is one of the reasons why the "Hydra are Nazis!" conversation that has emerged in response to Marvel Comics's bizarre pandering to the far-right has struck me as oversimplified and frustrating).  In every society, there are always going to be racist, authoritarian, anti-democratic groups, that worship power and believe that things like human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression are, at best, effete luxuries, and at worst, threats to the nation.  Whether they're the Nazis or the KKK or the alt-right, the danger that these groups pose is not in themselves, but in the possibility that the population as a whole will enable them, ignoring the danger they pose or even voting them into power.  The narrative of Economic Anxiety that most of us have been taught about the Nazis' rise isn't entirely inaccurate, but it elides the degree to which people wanted the Nazis in power because they wanted to feel powerful, because the allure of authoritarianism and violence is ever-present, especially when fanned with hysteria about Those People.

    To be clear, there isn't a great deal of this in Wonder Woman, and in fact I'm disappointed that the film leaves out so much of Ludendorff's actual personality (there's also the fact that with both Ludendorff and Hindenburg dead at the end of the movie, one might expect the history of the world in the DC cinematic universe to have progressed very differently from ours).  But I think the seeds of what I've described here are in the movie--the idea that it isn't one particular fascist philosophy that we should be worried about, but an entire cluster of nationalistic, authoritarian movements, and more than that, the impulse towards war and conquest.  It's hard to know how much we can expect future Wonder Woman movies to espouse the pacifist philosophy that the film ends on--this is, after all, a genre that runs not just on violence, but on the idea that violence can be good, even redemptive.  But Wonder Woman itself certainly comes closer to doing so than almost any superhero story in recent memory.