Watching: Avengers: United they Stand (1999)

On the start of any kind of discussion about this 1999 Marvel venture, this cartoon was universally deemed an average at best television show. Avengers: United they Stand serves as an example of how the flaws of an aesthetic work serve as interesting aesthetic features.

 

I knew of this show when it was originally out but I had little interest in it. In an age nearly 15 years later where there’s a big cultural interest in comic characters and franchises/intellectual properties/money-making commercial properties (delete as appropriate), the Avengers: United they Stand (UtS) serves as a lovely obscurity.

 

After I finished episode 13 I then found out that was actually the final episode. I was then reminded of a discussion in the TV series ‘Toast of London’ (starring Matt Berry [a subject for a future blog post I’m sure]) in which the titular character, Steven Toast, wrote a book without an ending. The literary agent loved the book but said that it couldn’t not have an ending. Toast made this decision to write a well considered feminist novel but left it without an ending. As if its incompleteness left it complete.

 

I feel the same about this show. The premature ending with the unresolved plot lines and even an unresolved episode arc was a masterstroke of story. There was an unresolved romantic storyline between Vision, the synthetic lifeform created by Ultron (one of the main villains); and Scarlet Witch.

 

It is certainly true that the female characters left much to be desired in terms of developing a back story or sense of an inner world, but as far as 1990s kids shows went, it fared a hell of a lot better than most. The gender ratio was about 3:5 or 3:4 (if you consider vision as normatively male – which technically you shouldn’t as a robot is genderless). The flaw of having poorly developed female characters was not so much an issue of poor gender representation but poor representation of the character roster in general, as almost all of them hardly had much back story.

 

Perhaps the big thing that people point out was the obvious thing: How can you have an Avengers lineup that does not include Captain America, Iron Man or Thor? This notion made me think really hard. In recent comics (Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X Men, All New X Men, Avengers, or in their unique cases: Wolverine and the X Men and Secret Avengers), characters such as Wolverine and Captain America are basically present either as main characters or significant background characters. Having a world where certain characters have so much of a role in that universe evokes a cult of personality about them. This could be said of world leaders or public figures who seem to be in multiple discourses (say, celebrity culture and political discourse combined).

 

Thinking about the B-team, or the other guys is a really neat angle for a TV show. Thinking back in 1999 when there was a dearth of big Marvel shows: X men TAS had finished, Spiderman TAS had finished and shows like X-Men Evolution or Avengers: EMH (which I have discussed in a previous post) had not arrived; having this bunch of B-teamers was inherently underwhelming for a comicbook franchise which put a high place on the heavy hitters.

 

There was something inherently equalising about the UtS lineup. Contrast UtS’s Hawkeye to the Hawkeye character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic world was basically a pawn, the lowest fodder of a chess board and his abilities in the final fight were…staying on a high vantage point with arrows? Contrast this to ARC powered Iron Man who flew all around the city; Thor and Hulk who are comparably invulnerable to anything resembling human. There’s probably a good reason why Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye hasn’t found the right time to re-appear in the Marvel Cinematic universe and that is because it’s hard to have a place in such a super-powered world.

 

UtS’s Hawkeye is perhaps the best character in the show by contrast to his MCU counterpart (next to maybe Vision, but I’ll get to him). Hawkeye has a rough edge to him, being a former criminal trained in the circus (sensitive to his comic book origin). Hawkeye is very much a loose cannon, with legitimate trust issues and complex loyalties. Except for the ridiculous costumes they had (which were a very thinly veiled toy commercial), Hawkeye’s character made a Marvel character look…human when it is not desirable to be so in such a superpowered universe.

 

Vision is perhaps my favourite character in this show. Vision has the developing humanity and exists in a show where acting wooden was actually a benefit in the context. Some of the flaws of the ‘main’ characters who appear in the show are quite notable because they reveal something very human and real about them. Captain America’s cameo in one episode shows him as brash, and an inadequate leader compared to Hank Pym’s Ant Man. Even though Cap is the universal hero he is trapped by his own reputation and seen almost as if he were a better leader than he actually is. Kids watching this show probably would have lost this level of nuance.

 

By contrast, Hank Pym appears jealous, vindictive and self-doubting as a leader, and it makes him look like a very ugly person. In addition he spies on his wife visiting a family friend of hers in the penultimate episode and when she finds this out she is a little annoyed but shes seemed to let it go pretty easily. Hank Pym does look like a pretty horrible person in this show. Finally there was the appearance of Iron Man in a one episode cameo. Iron Man seems so single minded (as he was working in one of his commercial projects) that although he appreciated the help of the Avengers and joined in the action, he had no time for small talk, reflection or even acknowledgment that he was once on the Avenger roster. This shows an interesting side of Iron Man – flawed but not like the usual flawed depiction of an hedonistic and distracted Tony Stark, who lets his personal failures have implications on his professional life.

 

To close I thought I’d mention the honorable and noble aspects of the show. Although I’d think this show was absoutely rubbish as the 13 year old that I was in 1999. There are bits of the show that are farcical. For example, the NSA liason, Raymond Sikorski (who serves as a representative of the real world) continually notes things such as the poor public perception of the Avengers; how they caused millions of dollars in damages to public property. Not to mention the episode where Big Ben  is destroyed and nothing is mentioned of it at all afterwards, except to find out how it was caused. Have no doubt that this is not a great show nor is it a good show. It’s my view though that there are interesting psychological gems in the character development (or lack of) that as an adult (who probably should be doing better things), gives an interesting complexity to the show.

In Praise of: Joel McNeely’s ‘Shadows of the Empire’

Through Spotify, I have recently re-discovered an album that I have had different degrees of familiarity with. That album being Joel McNeely’s ‘Shadows of the Empire’. How can I explain what this album is? In the mid 90s there was a revival of interest in Star Wars in the lead up to the period of time that led to the prequel trilogies. There was a project based on multiple media around a brand new story explaining the events between Episode V and VI of the Star Wars saga (saga as it is now called). This story was a novel by Steve Perry, which was then made into a money making machine – there was a Nintendo 64 game based on the novel; later on some comics; action figures; trading cards and was even referred to in later Star Wars franchise type things.

 

I used to have a big thing about Star Wars and back when Shadows came out it was a big deal for me. I came to know the soundtrack through the game, which played it at a really low volume compared to the rest of the audio tracks. I then discovered it years later in the Napster age. When I recently rediscovered it I had a whole new layer of appreciation for it.

 

I’ve written in the past about a reading of Adorno’s Wagner. In a way this soundtrack is a similar culmination of all those ideas about Wagner’s music. The leitmotif applied to indicate characters Xizor, the motifs that reflect certain kinds of plot moods in a sound world already created by John William’s soundtrack, and let’s not of course forget the interesting scoring and instrumental part writing of the composer.

 

The beauty of this soundtrack is manifold. I thought I might make a list:

 

  • The soundtrack works as something independent from the Star Wars films if you want it to be so, and can also be seen in continuum with it (although more as a fork in the road).
  • McNeely’s piece is said to be an interpretation of a series of events, that sense of interpretation allows for a different kind of emotional narrative different to the medium of the story through the video game and the novel.
  • McNeely’s soundtrack is evocative of the programme music composers and intentionally so. This is the ultimate modern programme score as it is not a soundtrack to a film but a sonic narrative.
  • The motifs applied repeat through the piece and give a sense of internal unity to both the narrative of the novel and the music as a piece of music. Such as the repetition of the ‘Xizor’ motif, the established ‘Imperial March’ (Vader’s theme) invented by John Williams, and the unique Shadows’ motif. There are points where the motifs fight for dominance in a similar way to the three-parties of the Rebels, Imperials and the Black Sun are fighting against each other.

 

I am such a fan of this work. What makes it particularly interesting for me is how the album works in the commercial and modern confines of soundtracks, film franchises and other money making machinery, yet works successfully as a piece of music. I would hardly consider it anodyne either. There are subtle dissonant and modernist cues to the soundtrack. I later found out that McNeely was involved with re-recording scores from Bernard Herrmann films (a composer with deeply modernist idioms). Perhaps it is my personal favouring bias that sees this work in a positive light. Or it could be that the message of modernism was historically situated to a degree that using modernist techniques today do not communicate its political significance. Either way, I am greatly taken by the soundtrack as a musical medium, as well as the ways that it allows different aesthetic standards to it that ‘absolute music’ might.

‘New media’ is now old hat

I remember when I was still in university there was a lot of talk about ‘new media’ as some emerging thing, or even of web 2.0 discussed with some sense of open hope and anticipation towards pastures new. I thought about this when I was at a planning meeting for the community garden that I’m involved with, when we were talking about outreach.

 

Somebody said that twitter and facebook are a bit old hat in terms of social media (the preferred term of today). We all understood what was meant, in the sense that we would hit at an audience who already know about the garden and using such media mostly retains our base of interested persons and who are already informed of most of the community garden’s activities.

 

Getting involved with a community garden is as grassroots as things can get. I mostly got involved because somebody said they didn’t like lifting things. Now we are talking about having a co-ordinated strategy for tweetdeck posts, preparing copy for upcoming mail-outs (we use mailchimp). One of the great liberating features of the social media is that it has enabled such a broad form of expression. Taking the perspective of the community garden, I can live-tweet about garden events or things going on; garner attention and new interest from tweeting about and being seen tweeting and take part in a wider discussion. The community garden twitter account has a follow from our local MP, various councillors in local government, and even a transition town group in Latin America. The fact that others in the garden share the tweeting means I can get on with what I particularly enjoy at the garden: lifting stuff and playing my clarinet in an open space.

 

Although perhaps not part of the ‘new media’ but more of the late 1990s and early 2000s zeitgeist, I’ve found blogging (both writing and reading) and podcasts as a big staple of my life these days. I have come from seeing podcasts as an obscure infant medium to an established form. I recently listened to a radio programme on the podcast recently, which made me reflect on how the evolution of the medium has aged as I have aged. I suspect however that the podcast will outlive me and morph into more fandangled and interesting things than I ever can.

 

Podcasts used to be something really scarce. Back in 2005 I would re-listen to episodes of Philosophy Talk and go through the whole archive of ‘In Our Time’. I would eagerly follow Marc Maron’s WTF in mid-late 2009 as Maron’s life was in dire straits and wondered what the next episode would tell. Nearly 5 years on, Maron’s podcast has a TV series based on it and he’s gone from strength to strength, even to the point of broadcasting an episode with Josh Radnor on the day that How I Met Your Mother had its finale. I would dare say that after WTF, Maron’s podcast format has had many imitators.

 

I wonder if the ‘wild west’ or Californian gold rush of podcasting is over at least in terms of the solidification and establishment as podcasting as a medium. But with it another gold rush might emerge, perhaps a less figurative commercialisation and profit-making set of models. I love the podcast for the same reasons as the radio. I can feel connected to the world despite distantly listening in without taking part in the things that are discussed. I am also starting to find there are a few too many podcasts to listen to in the world! I can’t listen to them all as attentively as I used to listen to every episode of Melvyn Bragg and I can’t give all the philosophy podcasts as much attention as they deserve or that would require a good amount of learning from.

 

And here comes the other ‘old hat’ of blogging. I have said to myself that when I get a smartphone I will be able to read blogs quicker with the (now defunct) Google Reader App. Then I said to myself that I could get a lot of reading done on Feedly with my new Tablet, although both of these are true, it is also the case that these new devices allow me to reach a much much wider pool of information so plentiful that I end up not reading the stuff that I planned to.

 

Blog reading is a big part of my life, it’s become both a leisurely pursuit and in some cases for friends, necessary for their work. Because of the ubiquity of ways we can access the internet the stream of blogs and RSS feeds is soaking human experience, perhaps for some, too much so. Lately I’ve set time limits for myself for blog reading and catching up on articles. I’ve found that I use my time more efficiently that way.

 

Perhaps its time to be more deliberate about blog reading and podcast listening. Time to be more mature about facebook profiles and twitter accounts. As the medium has grown up so have I and I see so many pitfalls with these media (or rather put – more ways people can be silly with them). Perhaps like the 19th century after the wild rush comes an age of more deliberate and considered usage and perhaps regulation. It almost looks like an historical narrative repeating all over again.

In Praise of: Captain America

I’m a bit behind in what I want to write about lately. Evidence of this is the fact that Antisophie was discussing about the ‘fatigue’ of super-hero films after Thor 2: the Dark World which may lead to suggest that the emerging genre is tired and has little to offer except more of the same.

 

Then I saw Captain America: the Winter Soldier, twice. I saw it with two different groups of people. One with a nerd friend, who got all of the easter eggs and got all of my jokes about defeating Magneto with a wooden gun. The other group I saw it with were the last people to take any interest in super hero films that involved the supernatural, but oddly enough they don’t mind science fiction if it fitted in with their worldview (i.e. technologies that were conceivable). On both counts we found the film to be quite moving, despite all the explosions.

 

Mark Kermode had a review of the film which said something to the effect of: the plot had a thread which was very contemporary which could have been developed more, but was tempered with the inevitable action set pieces that are a requirement with a big budget film such as this. One of the reasons I am a big fan of the Marvel stories is that the stories can be genuinely engaging and are a reaction to much of the things going on today.

 

On a personal note, I think that Captain America’s real super power is his commitment to his sense of personal and political value. Steve Rogers has an uncompromising commitment towards a conception of the good and on many occasions he is challenged to not always uphold this ideal. I was recently reading the 2013 issues of Captain America, where the character is kept in a dimension created by Armin Zola. Rogers spends over a decade in this dimension and his aging is visible. One also notices that he develops a relationship with a child who is Zola’s son and is challenge on a great many fronts. In the recent 2010-2012 Avengers EMH animated series, Captain America’s character faces a public backlash after his Skrull doppelganger destroys the public reputation that Rogers had. The EMH Captain America carried on despite the public hatred about him and was unwavering.

 

The idea of a Captain America has to be different in a world where the idea of the United States has vastly changed due to geopolitical and economic factors. But I’m quite impressed at how Marvel still successfully makes him relevant.

The Badminton mind (, or the sui generis-ness of discourses)

I’ve often used the phrase, in my blogging and in my personal conversations, that one has to have a musical mind or must think musically in order to understand some piece or other, or as an instrumentalist to approach performance. I remember studying aesthetics at university and finding the topic different (but learnable). The thing that I found particularly difficult about aesthetics was thinking aesthetically. Often in theoretical philosophy we’d think of examples in physics or mathematics, thought experiments that would never happen and so forth, that would apply in thinking about metaphysics, philosophy of language or epistemology; but not so well at aesthetics. To think aesthetically (I would contend) can involve one’s inner aesthete having a contribution to one’s way of thinking. As far as branches of philosophy go, aesthetics seemed to involve an independent kind of form of querying (perhaps this is just a phenomenological thing to me).

 

Some discourses seem to have an autonomous way of thinking about them which do not merit cognates, analogues or comparisons very easily or if they do, they are clunky. In recent years I have taken up badminton and I have found that in spite of all the drills, techniques I have learned and court hours I’ve racked up, I’m starting to discover a voice of expression within badminton. I discovered this when I was playing with a new partner in a doubles match against two people I know pretty well. I knew that their playing standard was definitely above mine but this new partner was an unknown quantity to all of us.

 

I started to take winning seriously and I began to think things that never had any kind of cognate in the rest of my life. I thought about things such as what the best starting positions would be; where their weaknesses are; how to rally 2-3 shots ahead of the current shot and how to break the opposing team’s sense of resolve.

 

Perhaps it is because I’m unfamiliar with other racket games like say Tennis or Squash. One of my friends chooses not to play Tennis because in his view the technique and approach: gets in the way of his Badminton play. I suppose the point I am making is that it is a nonsense in the same way someone might say that the Organ is 3 piano keyboards on top of each other and therefore a good pianist must be a good organist (or could read organ music transferable); likewise, Badminton strategy has a sui generis quality about it, in the same way.

 

I came to learn the Clarinet after playing the Piano and one of the pitfalls that I had was acknowledging the uniqueness of the Clarinet. Reading the Treble Clef on its own for example didn’t seem to be an issue for me because I have experience of reading 2 clefs as standard (3 if I’m accompanying, 3-4 if playing 20th century music). However reading clarinet music requires thought about phrasing and breathing, especially if breath marks are not included! Thinking about the unity of a phrase in terms of the breath put into it, or the unity of a melody line as a unit of the piece. Then there are the aspects of my poor breath technique that I am constantly working on (that requires a lot of work). I’m pretty bad at badminton, and so too with the Clarinet!

 

Of course, noticing that thinking as a Badminton player, or say, a Judoka (as opposed to another form of fighter like say thai boxer) can have transferrable traits to some other discourse. Perhaps the most obvious one in badminton is deception. Deception is a beautiful tactic whereby you give a tell of what your next move is going to be (and where it will go), but that tell is entirely contrived to throw off the opponent. The beautiful thing about deception in my playing experience is choosing when to do it. Doing it all the time itself is a form of a tell to the other player. Deception in this way sounds like the kind of general skill that one might have in social life, or other game-playing such as Poker. The autonomy of a discourse should have as its defining conditions, continuities (such as deception can apply to other games or social interactions) and discontinuities (shuttlecock aerodynamics).