Friday, July 21, 2017

I'm tired of saving the world






They fight crime.

If someone asked seven year-old me what a superhero does, that probably would have been my answer. Superhero movies of today would say otherwise.

Case in point: Wonder Woman. While a strong film in its own right, it eventually falls into a trap of redundancy shared by many of its contemporaries.

"If the heroes don't succeed, the whole world is doomed."

Suits in marketing are partly to blame here. "It's got to be big. BIG! The film must be a BIGLY splodey extravaganza of CGI tidal waves incessantly washing over the audience in IMAX 3D. We must get on this! No time for lunch! We'll snack al desko!"

Like a descent into addiction, eventually the fate of the world is not nearly intense enough. It's the whole galaxy at stake. Then the universe. And if the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War follows the comics, all of existence and the very nature of reality will be at stake.

The concepts of "existence" and "reality" are difficult enough for philosophers to tackle. Can the average audience members really get their heads around "all reality"? I'll admit that I'm not sure I can. Regardless, that's where this constant one-upmanship of raised stakes has us.  Fundamentally, this is a problem of writing. Before exploring this issue, I would first like to examine the nature of the source literature and how that might hold a few answers as to how we got here.

Literary critic Northrop Frye would likely call these stories "romances." This does not mean deep kisses of unbridled passion and love triangles...although there is often some of that. Romantic stories include the tales of King Arthur and Camelot as written by Thomas Malory, Marie de France, and so many others. They are stories of colorful, larger than life heroes who move from one epic adventure to the next. Our contemporary superheroes are drawn from the well of these kinds of myths. That "larger than life" aspect is fertile ground for hyperbolic, "world-ending" stakes.

Yet comic books have their own composition theory. I witnessed this in a workshop at a Comic-Con decades past. A creator from one of the Big Two publishers of comics walked aspiring writers and artists through a little exercise where the participants broke down how they would open an issue of their own comic book. Most of the responses were something along the lines of "I start off with a full page, then go to a splash page, and then another splash page..." The creator responded, "Great, but you've left yourself with nowhere to go. You're not building toward anything."

It's the same conundrum with the writing of these films. If the fate of the world or the universe or realty itself is always at stake, then where else is there to go? There can be no more escalation. How long can a writer sustain such a fever pitch? Instead of nail-biting tension, the stories eventually just get trite, boring, and tedious. It's hard to care about saving the world if everybody is doing it. What was once sublime becomes tedious.

What's more, the writer paints the story into a corner. It is highly improbable that the heroes are going to fail to save the world/galaxy/universe. I'll admit it might be an interesting postmodern experiment to watch them fail and then see the apocalyptic aftermath. The truth is though, audiences would likely find such Bergman-esque risks wholly dissatisfying and that's bad news for the suits in marketing. After all, who will buy the merch tie-ins for a disliked film? In fairness, such an ending also doesn't fit what we humans have come to expect in a romantic story. So it's a given that the boys and girls in tights are going to come out on top. Where's the threat, then? Do we not, in time, just become numb to it?

I'm not saying "doomsday approaching" stories are bad in and of themselves. Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Kree-Skrull War (start here if you want slog through my deconstructive critique of that epic) are examples of great comics carrying this theme. I'm also not saying that the movies should be dull or the threats disproportionate. Take the Avengers for example. The cast includes characters such as Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man. They are incredibly powerful and the antagonists should at least be able to menace them. The Avengers should not be fighting someone who could easily be beat up by Cage and Iron First. Dr. Strange is also quite powerful and should not be able to dispatch his villain by merely muttering a spell. Such would make for boring reading or moviegoing experiences.

There are ways, however, to raise the stakes without dangling the whole world over a pile of lit kindling. A threat to a single person or group of people can carry just as much investment from an audience as a doomsday scenario. One of the most often cited Spider-Man stories has him struggling his way through a death trap. If he fails to get out in time, he will be unable to get medicine to Aunt May and she will die. No, the world won't end. But the most important person in Peter's world will end and that is an apocalypse all its own.

As I mentally sift through the superhero films, we see kernels of such wonderfully personal themes. In the original Captain America, Steve (still in wimpy form) is the only member of his unit to dive on a grenade while all the "tough guys" run. In the first X-Men (2000), Mystique gets Senator Kelly in a headlock (of sorts) and growls, "People like you are the reason I was scared to go to school." Each of these is an amazing moment. I believe superhero films would do well to have more of these moments than "the world's going to end" CGI bonanzas. Additionally, there are so many other types of threats the heroes could face.

Off the top of my head, there's also the theme of "I just want to go home." Yes, it's been on  my mind quite a bit. Homer covers it in The Odyssey and Melville has it in greater and lesser shades in Moby Dick. If you want a genre example, I'll waste no time pointing to the greatest entry in the Star Trek film franchise, The Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk just wants to get his "boatload of children" home, but there's wickedly intelligent madman in his way. Will they escape? Yes, but only after great sacrifice. Along similar lines, even a Nietzschean "will to power" struggle of "I need to get through this" can be infinitely more compelling that the now standard, "suit up because we have to save the world" trope.

I can only hope that the writers and other creative engines behind the juggernaut of comic book-based films will eventually change trajectory. If not, boredom and redundancy are excellent pins to burst what already looks like an inflating bubble. I implore you, Hollywood. There are other directions to take the stories.

After all, whatever happened to just fighting crime?


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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Film Review--Wonder Woman





WONDER WOMAN
starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston, and Lyle Waggoner as The Beav.

This is the origin story of Wonder Woman. Diana (Gadot), princess of the Amazons, lives a life of rigorous training on the island of Themyscira. That is until Steve Trevor (Pine) crashes his plane on the beach, bringing the raging war of the outside world to the marble doorsteps of the Amazons. Diana joins him and wades into the conflict, seeking an old enemy and her destiny as a hero.

This is one of the greatest DC Comics-based films of the past 30 years. Only Dark Knight and the original Tim Burton Batman approach or surpass its level. Don't get too excited. It isn't such a mean feat with movies such as Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman in the mix, but let's give Wonder Woman its due.

The most critical of the film's triumphs is that it absolutely captures the character of Diana. I know that in the past I have been victim of my own unenlightened thinking. What I thought were "strong female characters" were in fact...please forgive the profanity here..."fighting fucktoys." I am taking that term from the documentary Missrepresentation which I used to show in class. It was spoken in the film by a feminist and political thinker whose name sadly escapes me at the moment. The point was that so many "empowered" female characters in Hollywood action films aren't that at all. They are projections of male fantasies poured into catsuits with ample contributions of guns and blades. Indeed, the origin of the characters is in the service of stereotypical male ideals.

On the whole, Wonder Woman is not like this. Oh yes I know arguments could be made to the contrary and with good reason. Her costume for one and a few head-scratching, eyebrow-raising early aspects of her character for another (if you get her hands above her head and cross her bracelets, she's powerless.) For an in-depth look at the life of her creator, William Moulton Marston, read The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I have not read it, but I heard a fantastic interview with the author, Jill Lapore, on NPR. The book went right to my to-read list as it explains what influenced those odd choices by Marston as he created the character. But I digress...

Despite the arguably sexist nature of her comic book appearance, Wonder Woman has always been regal. Noble. Wise. Along with Batman and Superman, she forms one third of the "holy trinity" of DC superheroes. When she would show up on the scene, almost any other character would defer to her and her gravitas. Like all good characters, she is a fully realized human being. That means having flaws or not so good aspects of personality. In Diana's case, she's a warrior. As such, she sometimes falls into a "I got the job done, didn't I?" line of thinking and adverse consequences ensue. I remember one DC storyline where the character Maxwell Lord had the ability to manipulate minds. He was about to mind-control someone into doing something catastrophic and so Wonder Woman snapped Lord's neck. On live TV. She did what had to be done but the world debated the action from that point forward.

We saw all of these traits on the screen in Gadot. Gadot is obviously drop dead gorgeous, but that is never really played up in the film. Nor should it have been. Instead, she commands and inspires through her strength as a warrior and her sense of justice. Throughout the film, she's really the one who's in charge. Except of course on Themyscira (which more seasoned Wonder Woman fans might know by the name Paradise Island). By the way, after seeing Robin Wright as Claire Underwood on House of Cards, watching her smash faces in as an Amazon general just sort of...fits. As for Steve Trevor, I think that Pine plays him as actually somewhat smarter than the Trevor of the comics. I can remember Steve Trevor doing something dumb and then Wonder Woman has to be the one to go bail him out of the fire. Even so, I still didn't find the character to be especially likable on the screen and I found myself wondering if Diana would actually want a relationship with him.

Which brings me to another point. Wonder Woman is not without several flaws. For one, I'm not sure what motivated the change in setting of the origin story from World War II to World War I. That might just be me as I find World War II to be a magnificent canvas to paint stories upon. What advantage was there in this switch? The German villains were beyond cartoonish and fail miserably at generating any real interest in and of themselves apart from being antagonists for Wonder Woman. They basically serve as mere furniture.

Most vexing of all is the last half hour or so. It's a cluttered, CGI-generated, splodey mess. I think that is of course due to the suits in production and marketing. "It's gotta be big. Big I tell ya! BIG! Yuuuuuuge!" Yes, if Hollywood producers were in fact readers of Aristotle's Poetics, they would zero in on the section for "spectacle" and leave everything else he wrote as mere supporting facets. You know, little stuff like thought, diction, et. al. I know that this is not art. It's product. The director and the actors likely had no control over this aspect, but that does nothing to wash away the popcorny, empty-calorie taste in my mouth. It did leave me wondering something, though.

Do the heroes always have to be saving the world? Does the fate of the entire world always have to be what's at stake in these films? Doesn't that get boring after a while? How many times can the world be saved? I think that might be my next blog post.

Despite all of that, Wonder Woman is worth at least a rental. Its strength, as I said, is the depiction of the titular character. Enjoy it while you can. Good as it is, I doubt the strength of the character is going to be enough to save Justice League.

Say you all next time. Be well.


Art by Alex Ross.


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Thursday, July 6, 2017

A class in the "could" and "should" of transhumanism



This picture was found via Google. If you are the artist and want credit or want the pic removed, please let me know.


For what might be the last time, I got to teach transhumanism.

No, I wasn't leading students in constructing AIs and we didn't give each other cybernetic implants. The class was, it has always been, a class for second semester seniors that was focused on ethics. Or as I saw one of students eloquently put it in an online exchange:

S: Thanks for teaching us about robots and ethics.
Some guy: So now you can build ethical robots?
S: Heck yeah.

I love that comeback.
Anyway, teaching the class has always been a necessary mental exercise for this transhumanist. I know that I can sometimes become enraptured with the "sexier" promises of a transhuman future, but I try to never be so blind that I don't see the potential pitfalls. The heady rush of thinking that we can should always be tempered with the question of if we should. That's what the class was all about. Here's how it worked:

I like to start the class by showing a movie. There are any number of films that demonstrate how much the notion of transhumanism has always been ingrained in our culture while raising critical questions of consequences and serious considerations of right and wrong. My first outing I showed Blade Runner. I of course adore that film, but students found it dated and obtuse. So next time out I showed Transcendence. Not a good film really, but it illustrates many transhuman concepts. This time? I showed Ex Machina. That worked. It worked so well that I resolved to show it the first day of all of my future transhumanism classes.

Then they went and closed the college. What are ya gonna do?

We spent the first third of the semester reading and discussing The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. I know, I know. It's about 14 years old by now and it's contested by many. The text does a nice job however of laying out key concepts and questions regarding these emerging technologies. As such it prompted great discussions about just how much...or how little...consideration was being given to ethics as transhumanism becomes a greater part of our lives.

Students then took a month and did writing and research on an ethical question of their choosing. They were charged with looking at this question through the lens of at least three academic disciplines while instantiating their claims with published studies. Most critically, their argued stance needed to be explicitly connected to ethical reasoning, such as deontology or utilitarianism or the like. All of this was poured into their 20 page capstone document and presented to the rest of the class.

Let me tell you. I was very impressed with both the questions and the arguments they raised. Here are a few:

-Creating artificially intelligent robots would basically create a new class of being. We shouldn't do that when we can't even achieve true equality among humans.
-There are large companies like Monsanto that hold patents on genetically engineered organisms. They basically own forms of life. Think about that for a moment.
-Nanotechnology may become a doomsday weapon on par with nuclear warheads.
-Artificial Intelligence. So many thought-provoking meditations on this subject but so little room in a blog post.

At the end of the class, I came away with two realizations.

This year's senior class are "transhuman natives" of a sort. Class discussions from previous years quite often involved an element of shock. "They're really working on human-like robots? That think?" and the sort. These students didn't have that shock. Now granted that may in part be due to a class I had with them as freshmen where I briefly introduced transhuman concepts, but I think it's more than that. We've reached a point where youth see concepts such as machines with human intelligence and augmenting the body through technology as not wild notions but inevitable realities.

More importantly, the seniors were asking all the right questions with almost no prompting from me. Just like the rest of us, they want a better quality of life. They wouldn't mind easier living...but at what cost? There are aspects of their existence, such as identity and achievement through effort, they were unwilling to sacrifice. Yeah, anyone who calls millennials lazy and only wanting to live in their smartphones should take a moment and speak to one of the members of this graduating class.

It was a challenging but rewarding class and I am thankful I could teach it. If it must come to an end, then I can't think of a better roster for the final class.

Oh and if you're reading this, guys? There are a few other people pondering questions you raised in class:

If you have a neural interface, could hackers gain access to your brain?

There might be a downside to sexbots.
   


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets