Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Superhero Media: The Dark Knight

Controversial statement time, The Dark Knight would not make my "Top 10" superhero film list, were I ever to do such a thing. The Dark Knight is an excellent film, no doubt, but I would posit that it is not, in fact, a superhero film, given that the 'hero', Batman, is largely incidental to the happenings in the narrative. I am not the first to point out that Batman is not the 'true' protagonist of The Dark Knight, however, unlike many critics, I would suggest that it is not the Joker who drives the narrative of the film, but rather, Harvey Dent. Throughout The Dark Knight, the audience is taken on the journey of the "Rise and Fall of Harvey Dent", from his time as a crusading District Attorney through to his death as the villain Two-Face. For starters, let's take a look at what Batman actually does in this film; really, he does only three things that matter all that much. One, he violates the borders of another sovereign nation to kidnap one of their citizens and detain them illegally until they can face trial in the United States. Two, he rescues Harvey Dent, though not before Dent is injured. Three, he makes a civil-rights violating sonar device that surveils the entire city without anyone's knowledge or consent. 

The reason I tend not to count The Dark Knight as being among my favorite superhero films, is that the superhero in the film, Batman, is largely incidental to the plot. The few incidences where Batman's presence makes an impact, as discussed above, certainly don't paint him in a favourable light. Given that these articles aren't written in the order they're published, I'm not sure if I've spoken about Objectivisim on this blog yet, but let's just say I find the Post-Miller tendency to paint Batman as an Objectivist icon to be highly problematic. Hell, Dent himself rejects the idea of unchecked heroism as a universally positive force, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain"; referencing, for emphasis, the actually contentious historical figure of Julius Caesar as an example. Whilst we're on the point of BatRand, that the character seems to believe that only he is qualified to be the savior of Gotham specifically because he's rich, "I'm not wearing hockey pads", is, frankly, somewhat disgusting, especially seeing has he inherited his wealth and did nothing to earn it. For a character whose intelligence is such a factor in his comics, the Batman of The Dark Knight relies a great deal on the work of Lucius Fox, James Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth and Harvey Dent in order to actually achieve anything. 

Wow, I'm not even up to Dent and Rachel yet, this one's going to run a bit long sorry. I don't want to go so far to call Nolan a misogynist, but he doesn't put too many women in his huge, male-ensemble, films does he? Rachel, the character we're supposed to believe is driving the actions of both Batman and Dent doesn't make it out of the second act alive. As I said in the Batman Begins article, Batman has a host of interesting female characters to draw upon, but Nolan only uses a damsel in distress, it just grates when you think about it. Harvey Dent is amazing in this film, failing and "falling" through no fault of his own, finally getting what he wanted (we find out in the next film) at the cost of his own life. That the narrative doesn't centre around Dent is baffling, everything about him is cleverly laid in; we know from the "die a hero" line that he is prepared to give everything to his cause, something Batman doesn't consider until the closing minutes of the film. The coin is a fun element to Dent's character with the reveal of the two-heads coming at just the right time before the subversion at the hands of "Harvey Two-Face" and all the fun to be had there. Two-Face is probably my favourite Batman villain and The Dark Knight is one of the best interpretations of the character, I was actually annoyed when he was killed at the end, even if it is a good narrative choice for the film.

I almost feel like I don't need to talk about the Joker here, as so many people have done such a better job of it than I will. Seriously, check out the YouTube video "Movies with Mikey: The Dark Knight", he does about the best take on the Joker that I've seen, even if I disagree with his contention about The Dark Knight's protagonist. Personally, I still prefer the BTAS or Batman (1989) interpretations of the character, as they're more in line with my experiences with the comics, cracking more jokes and having a sense of sinister fun is essential, in my view, to portraying the Joker. The Dark Knight remains a magnificent film, even if each of my subsequent viewings turns up more issues for me to quibble against; I think that's the nature of examining popular culture too closely, everyone has a different interpretation and most are at least somewhat valid. Is Batman an Objectivist icon or hero of the people? Is the Joker the true hero of the film, or an avatar of lawless societal decay? Is Harvey Dent a failed hero, or was he destined to always be a martyr? I can't make these decisions for you, but I can give my opinion and encourage you to seek out more writing and academia about this film.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Thinking Out Loud: Why the Endgame Matters

The following contains spoilers for Avengers Endgame

I can't stop thinking about Avengers Endgame. I'll admit that I'm likely, at any given moment, to be thinking about either superheroes and/or philosophy, but Endgame has occupied my thoughts in a significant way since I saw it. I believe that Endgame is not only a bloody good film, I think it may actually be one of the most important films to come out in years. We are in a cultural moment right now, the whole world is reeling from the lives, deaths and stories of fictional characters that originated in 5 cent 'funny books', and damn, but that's a big deal. I'm lucky to be old enough (32) to remember Robert Downey Jr in films like U.S. Marshals and to also recall his downfall. I was studying film at university when Kiss Kiss Bang Bang came out and suddenly RDJ was back and everyone in my class was making a big deal out of the film. Iron Man was something of a landmark in superhero film history, launching the MCU, and now, more than a decade later, what feels like a true finale to Iron Man's story has happened and the world mourns. First of all, I think it's important to acknowledge that Iron Man wasn't meant to be the launching point that it became, it was an experiment with a fun little sting with Nick Fury at the end; but that was so impacting that The Avengers followed a few years later, and here we are. 

What made Iron Man such a big deal? As a film, it's pretty good; the third act is weak and the villain forgettable, but otherwise, everything comes together well and it's a fun ride. As a big Marvel Comics fan, I squeed with delight at the Nick Fury scene, but for those who didn't really care much for Iron Man before the film, why was it this one that broke through? I contend that the 'secret' of the MCU isn't continuity, or adherence to comic lore, or even quality of film-making, but character. It seems obvious that a character like Captain America, who has been around in comics since the 1940s, would have some enticing element that compels audiences to create emotional connections, however, the first Cap to do this on a global scale was the one portrayed by Chris Evans. Make jokes about the MCU becoming an ongoing soap opera if you will, but if people are crying when Peter gives Tony one last hug, there has to be a real connection driving that emotion. It is that very connection which matters. 

People care about these characters. Not just nerds, or hardcore fans, but everyday people who have never read a comic and maybe haven't seen all of the MCU films. We are in a cultural moment right now, a large proportion of the world is in mourning for a fictional character in a way we haven't seen in a while. Enjoy this moment. When the dust settles and the next film breaks the box office records (I'm guessing Detective Pikachu or Rise of the Skywalker), Endgame is still going to be around. People will be talking about this film for years, and not just film students or MCU nerds, but anyone who has or will see it. Endgame will become part of the fabric of our culture, just like Jaws or The Shawshank Redemption, new generations will be introduced to it and everyone will have it in their collection or general "Top Ten" they keep in their heads. This film makes us feel something very genuine, a melancholy and pathos that speaks to where our culture is at the moment. We need Endgame right now, it is the mark of a cultural shift the we are all in the midst of, and it will change things; not just in terms of film, but there are ideas here that will come to mean more than the substance of Endgame itself. Get ready, things are about to... snap. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Superhero Media: Dragonball Super

It may not come up much on this blog, but I'm a big fan of Doctor Who, a television programme that has been running for over fifty years at this point. With such a legacy, people who grew up as fans eventually start to work on the programme, creating an odd meta-nostalgic tone where it becomes a re-imagined version of what the new crew mis-remembers watching as children. For Doctor Who, this led to the tonally terrible "New Who" that I can't stand and don't even hate-watch anymore after that time I screamed myself hoarse at the television and my girlfriend was actually scared of me for a hot minute even though she knows Muay Thai and could bench me. On the other hand, Dragonball Super is a masterpiece of fan-management, fan-fiction made canon and fresh new takes on characters older than I am, not just in spite of being made by fans who grew up with the material, but because of it. Some amount of time after the defeat of Buu, Goku is a not-terribly-successful radish farmer until a fateful meeting with Beerus, the God of Destruction. 

Stories expanding on the Battle of Gods and Resurrection 'F' films begin Dragonball Super, but the programme really begins to shine once these are out of the way and more original content can begin. Although Akria Toriyama plots out the major points of the stories, what DBS ends up with is a treasure trove of stories and ideas that seem to be ripped from the wish-lists of fans worldwide; evil Goku, the return of Future Trunks, Super Saiyan Blue Vegito, tournaments aplenty and Gohan rediscovering his power. As good an arc as it is, the "Universal Survival Tournament", in which fighters from multiple realities battle to save their entire universes, is really simply a brilliant framing device for a brand new series of adventures and set-pieces that are great to watch. This review could really have just been a list of my favourite moments from the programme, like Tien making (another) sacrifice play, Gohan rising to lead the team, Frieza and Goku fighting side-by-side, Androids 17 and 18 getting back into sync, Master Roshi overcoming his compulsions, I could keep going. The absolute best elements of the programme, however, don't even involve the main cast.

See the picture above? Meet Dragonball's first, positively-portrayed, queer couple. Call it "head-canon", call it me reading too much into it, but Cauliflower and Kale are not only two young women in love, but are actually in a 24/7 Sub/Dom relationship, clearly evidenced not only by Kale's behavior around Cauliflower, but also Kale's collar. For those not in the know, a collar can be an alternative take on a wedding ring in the kink community, with the submissive partner wearing it. Also, female Super Sayians! Shit yeah! I feel like it took way to long to get there, but glad we finally made it. A couple of points for the fanboys in the back while we're here too. One, Cabbage and the Sayians from his universe clearly have a different physiology, what with not having tails, of course Super Saiyan works differently for them. Two, Krillin beat Goku in that training match because he's smarter than Goku, everyone got that but you. Three, the time rings would indicate that Dragonball GT is likely an alternate timeline, though it still could "work" in the current timeline, more on that when I get to GT. If you liked DBZ and want more, DBS has you covered and more, maybe just lay off on the heavy mathematical analysis, ok? It's not meant to be taken that seriously, the characters are named after food for Whis' sake!

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

SS4 AAR: Anchor Away!

For the briefest instant, space folded around itself, like a fourth-dimensional pretzel, then five figures who had not been there a moment previously, now stood in the street. The sudden arrival of five colourful characters did not cause any stir, as, a little further down the same street, a battle between superheroes and villains was about to begin. The enigmatic dimesnioneer known only as 'Ulysses' watched with interest, flanked by his companions Avatar (a master of bladed weapons), Lynx (an agile warrior-woman), The White Fly (the most notorious Polish pirate to have ever lived) and the Good Doctor (a 'tame' serial killer). The display inside Ulysses' skull helmet indicated that their targets were ahead of them, one, the leader of the supervillain team, the other, a hostage under the protection of the heroes, seemingly a news anchor for local television. 

"Split up," Ulysses gestured towards each group of opposing superhumans, "take out the targets, two on each. I'll deal with anyone who gets in your way." 

"Who are the targets?" growled The White Fly as he unsheathed his cutlass. 

"The news anchor and that big, green fellow down the end of the next block," Ulysses waved at some of his team, "you and our medical friend take the anchor, let Lynx and Avatar worry about the more distant target." 

"Anything else we should know?" drawled Avatar as he adjusted a strap on his armour. 

"Just this," Ulysses began to levitate a few inches off the ground as he activated his powers, "those two aren't what they seem." 

Played a great three-way game of SuperSystem at club last week with Neil and Piotr on my lovely, but recently-neglected city table. The mission was a variation on Assassinate, with Neil's Team Quasar trying to protect the News Reporter and Piotr's as-yet unnamed villain team trying to take her out. Just to add some chaos to the proceedings, Ulysses and his Hussars (my team) are trying to take out both the Reporter and the leader of Piotr's team. 

All three teams can be seen deployed, with the Hussars closest, then Team Quasar and the villains up the back. 

Lynx, Ulysses, the Good Doctor, the White Fly and Avatar have just entered this reality. 

Team Quasar, made up of Morphisto, Mindstorm, Backbreaker, Candace and Dr Quasar, find themselves caught between two opposing super teams. 

The villains; Sonic Varlet, Mean Machine, The Bulk, Dr Psycho and Red Diamond. 

Lynx rushes up to the monorail platform to get a better vantage point. 

Mindstorm uses her psychic might to levitate, as her mental blasts are one of Team Quasar's best weapons. 

Belying his size, Red Diamond takes to the air. 

The White Fly takes cover and downs his rum ration before beginning his attack. 

The blue pattern on Sonic Varlet's skin is a warning not to get too close. 

Using his own telekinetic powers, Ulysses soars into the skies to better observe and direct his team of Hussars. 

The White Fly charges into Dr Quasar, but his cutlass merely passes through the ethereal hero. 

Having left himself in the open, the White Fly quickly comes under attack from Backbreaker's crushing blows; but the seasoned pirate is made of stern stuff and stays on his feet. 

Watching from the shadows, the Good Doctor uses his powers of mind-manipulation to take control of Morphisto. 

Under the control of the Good Doctor, Morphisto moves towards his teammate and swings at her with his elastic appendages. Thankfully, Candace's inhuman agility saves her from the friendly fire. 

Lynx moves towards the fight by running down the monorail carriage, like a proper superhero. 

Red Diamond zeroes-in on Morphisto and blasts the ductile hero with a beam of deadly energy. 

Candace reaches her target, the brute known as "The Incredibly Distinct and Not Legally-Actionable Bulk", sinking her blades deep into his flesh. 

Using his ninja-like stealth skills, Avatar has moved up to the plaza and is about to launch his attack. 

A brawl breaks out between heroes and villains. 

Seeing the crowd of enemies down the street, Ulysses lifts a police car with his telekinesis and flings it down the road, but he misjudges the distance and misses. 

Avatar at last reaches the fight, slashing through Sonic Varlet with a razor-sharp blade. 

When a blast from Red Diamond brings down Mindstorm, Morsphisto decides to get involved in the fight. 

Having just blasted one hero away, Red Diamond draws a bead on the news anchor, but its shot goes wide. 

Backbreaker swings once again at the White Fly... 

...knocking the pirate back into a nearby building. 

Morphisto grabs a nearby car... 

...his throw hits Red Diamond square-on! 

Ulysses' next throw, this time a cement mixer, lands square on the melee between Candace and three of the villains. 

When the dust settles, Bulk and Candace are still locked in battle! 

Backbreaker decides to get in on the "throw heavy things" game. 

Lynx and Avatar team up to take down Sonic Varlet. 

The White Fly corners the fleeing anchor, but falls short of cutting her down. 

Ulysses lands near his teammate, but the game has ended without a proper KO, so he's left wanting. 

As the villains are arrested and Team Quasar are lauded by the civilians, Ulysses and his Hussars watch from the shadows. The day has not gone well, with both of their targets getting away thanks to the meddling of local heroes. They would have to withdraw soon, or else divert the course of history too much, creating dangerous ripples in reality. Through the high-tech lenses in his helmet, Ulysses could see the true faces of the 'people' he had been hunting; he knew he must return to this reality soon, before it fell to an insidious threat... 

The game ended with a win for Neil, having been able to both keep the VIP alive and take out Bulk (by the skin of his teeth). The game dragged on a bit, because everyone hadn't played for a while and most were using new teams. As usual, the table is a joy to play on, though the buildings with interiors don't get enough use. When I'm doing building Sci-Fi stuff, I really need to get back to this table and finish some of the little flourishes. 

I have to say that I'm missing a couple of things from SS3 now that I've had more than a few games of SS4. I really think Super Leap needs to be able to work on Dodge as well as Strength, just to help represent more agile characters flipping about, rather than just Hulk-leaps. Also, powers like Armour and Mental Acuity that bumped dice pools without increasing stats just feel missing in the current edition. I may see how adding these back in goes and send my results to Scott P.