(anti)Heroes of our time: Cyclops and Wolverine (a year-end post)

So, the year 2012 is ending. This is normally the kind of time when we review what was eventful about the year. To be honest, this year has seemed the same as last, and almost the same as 2010. The headlines seem often the same, either there’s a scandal about someone’s personal affairs which becomes political, or a political scandal that is personalised to specific individuals.

I’m a believer in the notion that our culture reflects our times. Often nostalgia for the year passing focusses on entertainment news or things that have happened in culture. At least in the UK, culturally we seem to live in two worlds. There is the discourse of aspiration and the reality of its improbability. Television shows offer fame and stardom, give us things we wish to aspire to: lovely food, great homes, interior decoration or the spiritual gin of a cheap thrill through comedy and music. I am just as guilty as anyone else in buying in to this irreverence. I am reminded of Robert K. Merton’s notion of strain theory in criminology: the idea that criminality and deviance directly relates to the dissonance between the ideals of what people are told to aspire to against its inherent difficulty due to current social times.

Perhaps one way to sum up the year for me, is through a Comicbook storyline and the way in which it has concluded. Marvel’s ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men’ (AvX) was a story about two teams of heroes who were forced to fight because of a difference of opinion. This difference of opinion was based on the significance of a very powerful supernatural force known as the Phoenix, which enters a physical body and imbues them with special powers. The Phoenix was destined for one particular character, Hope Summers, but as it happened, by an accident the Phoenix entered five different people who it was not supposed to.

(spoiler warnings)

Cyclops and Wolverine

The conclusion of this story was that one of the most archetypal characters representing the moral good has turned into a villain, namely, the X-Man, Cyclops/Scott Summers. Cyclops in his depiction in Marvel Comics has always been a morally upright citizen, the one who always holds the line of decency and has a commitment to the values of Xavier’s ideology of mutant equality.

Perhaps the most notable turn of events for me was the ‘transition’ from hero to villain of Cyclop’s character in the 5 issue short: AvX: Consequences. Cyclops, imbued with vast amounts of power had the ability to change the world, at first it looked like he was acting out of good. Many of Cyclops and the other Phoenix hosts moved to create a better world, some of their acts included things such as improving ecological conditions and solving the fundamental problem of the scarcity gap to end hunger and global energy needs. Quite a poignant use of superhero powers if such people ever lived in the real world. However the vast power of the Phoenix emphasised the nobility of their hosts, but eventually their darker sides were also emphasised, which eventually led to the moral corruption of the Phoenix five.

After the Phoenix ordeal, Cyclops is put in a prison. In a conversation with his former team-mate Wolverine, the latter says: you were always the man I wanted to be. Wolverine references Cyclops’ idealism and his commitment to moral good, incorruptible nature and his courage. Cyclops is, or was, as traditionally heroic as heroes get. Cyclops’ fall was notable in this regard. Eventually Cyclops’ is sprung out of prison and it looks like he has become part of a villainous ‘X-Men’ group including Magneto. One of the most notable acts of Cyclops when  he was empowered by the Phoenix force was that he killed his mentor, Charles Xavier, who is the most important character in the X-men series, since he founded the team.

After killing his mentor and murdering a prisoner out of vengeance, Cyclops realised he has changed and accepts this new moral character emerging from his actions. Summers leaves a note at the prison for Wolverine after he escapes, which says to the effect: I realise that I have to be the hero you once saw me to be, because that hero has now become you. Wolverine, as it has been acknowledged throughout comic law, and by himself, is hardly the most traditionally heroic. Wolverine has killed in cold blood, believes in a vigilante form of justice and embodies rage in many occaisions. Wolverine as an X-man, and a role model realises that his behaviour has implications for those who have looked up to him and this has made him more mindful of his behaviour.

I think that the transition of the hero mantle from Cyclops to Wolverine reflects a change in the cultural sensibilities of our time. Idealism seems no longer relevant, idealism seems sour in an age of austerity and hardship. Our heroes are often the reluctant ones. The heroes of our time are more like Aeneas: brooding, strained, unwilling, encumbered by duty. Charlie Brooker has written a piece a few days ago to this effect pointing out how James Bond and Batman, characters of two blockbuster films this year; are essentially the same character. That Cyclops has become a villain hit home to me the cultural sensibilities of today, and how different this decade was in relation to the last. The bubble has broken and we are in a wet spot. Anti-heroes are our heroes, and idealism is replaced by cynicism and regret.

Michael

P.S. Happy New Year from the Noumenal Realm team 🙂

The farce of (Social) Class

The other day I was channel surfing to find the latest episode of some television show on my set top television box, and while browsing, I saw one of those inumerable television programmes where a television presenter is assisting a married couple to buy a home somewhere nice and rural.This made me painfully aware of class. Today in Britain we are living in multiple and often separated social-historical narratives. The Olympics have shown that determination can show that anything is possible, but the evening news shows there’s a lack of opportunity. The Paralympics showed that disabled people can demonstrate feats of amazing endurance, mental fotitude and physical ability, but have severely limited job prospects or financial stability to live independently, irrespective of their condition. If we believed in the narratives of the media and other social forces around us: the right qualifications, training and hard work can take you up the ladder; but the audience is always right and people who go ahead are those that ultimately we as a whole pick, like a talent show winner or the one who is most popular.

I see these as crass contradictions tearing apart the consistency of a culture. We are all familiar with some or all of these kinds of narratives, the thing is, we may accept some and not others, or we occupy a space in which some of those don’t apply. Culture is a mass, different worlds occupying different spaces, these spaces are ideas and ideologies. Living in multiple social bubbles suggests a sense of separation from others, which can happen but we also can come across in our workplaces and other social spaces those of difference. This painfully aggrivates that there is a notion of class at play.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways in which some psychologists and to another extent, some philosophers have pointed out the roles of cognitive bias as a way of affecting our decision making. There has been helpful highlighting of gendered prejudices against women through the research on Implicit bias led by a few philosophers (Saul, Stitch inter alia) which shows how cultural prejudices come into play in our decisions and beliefs. There’s recently a word that has come into awareness of how men in academia behave in a patronising way to women, presuming the former’s correctness, its’ called ‘mansplaining’.

Until maybe about a year ago, the notion of priviledge was something I never considered. There seems to be this discord that I can’t quite put my finger on, about how people these days speak of equality because they fail to accept that in some fundamental sense, it is unthinkable to accept that the reality is a tyranny, a tyranny of politeness and affable discrimination. It’s not the kind that is obvious in everyday face-to-face, but its the kind that is shown by statistics when we look at gender and ethnic representation in senior management. Its the kind we see through bivariate and multivariate analysis of factors like income bracket or what kind of degree a person has. There’s something deeply wrong and uncomfortable about the narratives we play by where people speak of ideals and values but how they act and how social facts do not accord with that reeks.

One of the recent cultural jokes in the country is how the Chancellor of the Exchequer highlighting the importance of changing government spending uttered a phrase  which suggests that class has a real presence in Britain today, and the doublespeak involved with our discourse on aspiration and equality. The phrase uttered was ‘we’re all in this together’, which was interpreted by many as a farcical notion that there is little confidence in the Government because some are better off than others. It was even used as an ironic slogan in a tube advert a few months back.

I’ve presented a meandering of thoughts, a musing, hardly a systematic presentation of thoughts. I normally leave that to Michael and Antisophie to be more organised with writing things. There is something that smells and it lingers in British society. Something that seems deeply inconsistent, highlighting rhetoric against reality. The reality becomes obscured if it is indistinguishable from such rhetoric, and I am beginning to find reality difficult to identify with so many differing constructed social messages. Something seems deeply wrong with the notion of class. I haven’t even touched upon cultural capital. But I’ve pondered enough for now.

Sinistre*

Celebrations in Austerity Britain

Britishness is very much in vogue lately it seems. Nothing says British cultural identity like losing in competitions (Eurovision, the Euro football tounament, Oscars and even British book awards). Mortifying embarrassment compined with a pretense of social reservedness, rainy days and long queues are the superficial things that many people identify with Britishness.

I don’t care much for what the Jubilee represents, nor am I terribly excited about it. Perhaps its telling that there isn’t really a strong countercultural presence that is visible about an issue like this. I was forced to write a piece about the Diamond Jubilee because as Michael said: ‘Nobody else wants to write one, and we should think of austerity- I, I mean, posteriority’. I included his Freudian slip because austerity seems to be the name of the game for many people in the country.

I am in the technical parlance, broke as shit at the moment, I’m working this weekend simply because I can, and because it will pay me. For my family we aren’t doing too much, although there are talks of a few spontaneous barbeques and my older relatives have spoken fondly of their experiences of street parties during the 1977 Jubilee. I’m happy that lots of people are going to enjoy 2 extra days off, some public sector friends of mine will have 3 days off, so including the weekend, that’s a 5 day holiday. I suppose that’s a reasonable price for a reduced pension.

I’m too busy do celebrate the Jubilee. I won’t be completely miserable about it, although perhaps reserved is a more apt term. I appreciate the positive values of modern Britain. I appreciate the fact that the monarchy is a cultural institution bigger than many things, bigger than football, horse racing or TOWIE. There is something somewhat assuring about tradition. I care not for the divine right of kings and queens, but I find the modern royals relatable, especially when they have scandals and family problems, because what family isn’t without failing relationships, substance abuse and very uncomfortable allegations? The sentimentality of a shared living memory of the Royal family is something very special to the British consciousness, consider the royal wedding last year where Canadian, Portugese, Indian  and Israeli friends of mine seemed to find the novelty of royal families eccentric and fabulous.

Having a shared cultural identity is pretty nice after all. I think its great that strangers who live near each other as neighbours can come together and raise a toast to the Queen. The way I see it is this: when you are in a pub or bar, and the alcohol is flowing, you will toast to anything so long as the conditions are correct for inebriation and/or joy. I’ll raise a glass for the Queen, if the wine is free, and that’s it really: a public holiday is our figurative Chablis. Who would say no to a day off? As it happens, I would, as I can’t afford it right now.

Having something to celebrate is an important thing in difficult times. Although in difficult times, it doesn’t matter what you celebrate sometimes. It’s nice to see the eccentrics come out this weekend to celebrate, eccentricity is the pride of Britishness for me, not to mention its multiculturalism and liberal democratic tendencies. So for me, the Jubilee means in this period of Austerity Britain: a quiet smile for those having fun, getting on with things in a way that doesn’t actually change anything significant in my otherwise dire life and lastly, being obliged to write this blog post.

Now if you will excuse me, I’ve got work tomorrow.

Sinistre

The Audiobook

I love audiobooks. During a period between my undergraduate finals and throughout my postgrad days, I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. I estimated that I typed between 20,000-25,000 words a day, and that’s just on notes, not to include googling, IM conversations, emails and button bashing playing a game or such. I was forced to think of alternatives to my regular methods of note-taking and I was assisted by the university to think about alternative ways of learning to sitting with a book between my knees and moving my neck between the screen and the two pages beneath me.

During this period of time I developed a lot of new rituals, all of which were with the intention to increase my efficiency while doing physically less. It was simply not an option at the time to force myself to take less notes. This was the start of a story that got me into book chairs, and perhaps more pertinently, audiobooks.

At the time I only read for learning and reading in the exegetical way of interpreting philosophy texts and journal articles is a very specific form of learning. I had very little time for any other kind of reading, and that includes the fun stuff. Audiobooks for me represented a departure and radical alternative to taking in information through books. I’ve spent years reading as a way of memorising every detail and nuance of a piece, to some extent I still do this and it’s a habit that has its benefits and curses.

The audiobook is an aural experience. Reading can be an aural experience, it is often good for one’s comprehension to read aloud what one is reading, this was a habit that James Mill taught his genius son. Reading is also a tactile experience, feeling paper, its texture, the thickness or smoothness of a page. Reading can also be an olfactory experience, an old book has a distinct smell, a wet book as well. A new book has a satisfying chemical odour to it. I can find these things distracting for reading ordinary things. I find it more difficult to turn pages than most people for example, partly due to RSI and mostly due to dyspraxia. Associating multiple sensations can help me memorise things, but they can also be distracting. My favourite association is when I play my old piano repetoire and I feel like I am psychically re-living when I was learning these pieces in the early 2000s as a teenaged younger me. Dry and dusty books also remind me of Kant, perhaps because the B1xxx section of the libraries around the world don’t tend to be visited very much.

Audiobooks have become very much in vogue in recent years. Often when I tell people that I enjoy audiobooks, you can tell on the basis of their age the kind of cultural connotations it has. Some people think its an easy option for reading as reading is often hard work, others think that its an intellectually lightweight option, normally because audiobooks have been for simple or accessible audiences. A few others have bought into the recent marketability of a certain audiobook provider that is very good right now and sponsors many of my favourite podcasts.

Audiobooks have become a market in a similar way to the ebook. Many major publishing houses and publications appeal and open themselves to the audiobook market. There are unique reasons for the appeal of the audiobook. Some audiobooks have ‘secret’ content specifically for audiobook format compared to say, printed format. Some newer audiobooks are read by the author, and what an interesting experience it can be to physically hear the author as if they are thinking those thoughts. Christopher Hitchens’ biography is a notable case in point, I read Hitchen’s biography around the time he died and I recall the haunting nature and significance of not only reading an author who is no longer living, but listening to his voice. Hitchen’s autobiography also includes a post-book interview in audio format where he describes his changing views on the audiobook as a medium.

Accesibility is a very important aspect of audio reading for me. I find it intellectually difficult to read anything, including children’s literature or fiction, because my mind is always working several different angles that would be apt for reading Adorno, but not Doctor Seuss. Reading an audiobook allows one to choose their degree of commitment to a text. I can read an audiobook while I’m working on something, while I’m at the gym. I can by contrast, spend full attention to an audio text as well. One of my most intimate audiobook experiences was one day when I was down with the flu, and I read the whole of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar while laying in bed, the experience was like living the life of Esher Greenwood and that book will always have a special place from my experience of listening to it.

Accessibility has many manifestations. Audiobooks I presume were initially made for the visually impaired. When I absorb an audiobook, I have found that my comprehension level is distinctly different to the tactile experience of reading a book, or even the visual experience of an ebook. Audiobooks (and for the same reason, podcasts) have allowed me to enjoy literature again and I have discovered the comedic monograph as well. George Carlin’s series of essays ‘Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?’ is a personal and hilarious collection of essays which is highlighted by the medium of audio. The sonic experience of a book has its aesthetic merits.

As with many things, I think the audiobook brings us closer to Homer. What I mean by this is we so often emphasise texts as the archetype of knowledge or communication. Namely through books or articles and word-representation. It is anachronistic to think of a great tale as the Iliad as a book, for its origins were as an oral poem. There is something powerful about the oral story and the diversity of ways a message can be communicated. The pre-eminence of the text can be a distraction, when what matters is the message it has. Audiobooks can be liberating in that way and also allow for a wider range of experiences in ‘reading’. I’m really glad that audiobooks are a bit more in vogue.

Michael

Closing reflections on Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital’

I know this blog post is about a week later than I intended it. I’m ridiculously busy and spending half the time enjoying my last few weeks of being 25. Doing this book review has reminded me of the importance of sociology as a discipline, including how it can be informative towards feminist and wider gender issue discussions. I have a few specific points I’d address that sum up aspects of my thinking on this book:

What informs our understanding of gender?

Such a general question: what informs gender notions? One of the things about working in a sociological area that hits close to home is that the researcher will have some personal stake or experience in this issue. Gender is arguably one of the few issues that people can escape for better or worse.

Hakimappeals to a variety of sources to create her notion of femina sociologicus [note: Destre told me not to say ‘homo feminis’ due to the absurdity of it] by a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources:

  • Interview histories: some of which Hakim admits details are ‘changed’ for dramatic effect, as well as the standard ethical anonymity reasons. Some of her interviews often tell a story, but seem so contrived and suggestive I feel they are unhelpful. For example, Hakim’s examples of the two sisters (one ugly, one attractive) where one predictably has self esteem issues and is an underachiever, and the other is a social climber.
  • Cultural references: Hakim references a bit of erotica such as ‘The Story of O’ and ‘Secret diary of a call girl’. The point of these references are to establish a sense of zeitgeist of how real people live. Cultural references are a good resource for getting insights on social perspectives and issues, but methodologically speaking lack the rigour of strong operationalism
  • Public health data: This is really the meat of the research that backs up Hakim’s conclusions. One may quibble about the comparison issues of say USA and Finnish datasets or the measuring and melding of the data, but I see this as immaterial to the conclusions made which were coarse grained. The data gives an indication for instance that more male men report a lack of sexual satisfaction than females in the data. When looking at massive datasets, we may entertain exceptions from personal experience or testimony, but as social scientists, one should know better than to regard personal or anecdotal testimony higher than the wider dataset. I thought this point was unhelpfully highlighted when incumbent London Mayor Boris Johnson reported in the Mayoral debate that crime in London was down significantly and a person in the audience reported she’s never seen so much knife crime around her before. This point may have made Boris red in the face, but the data is dispassionately more comprehensive, even if it tells us things we don’t want to accept

Lemma: Ideology and prejudice

I’d like to talk a bit about prejudices now. Prejudices can take a whole variety of forms. A few months ago I was making a music suggestion to someone who will remain nameless of a band they would like. I made this decision on the basis of knowing their interests and wider outlook on life. However it was because I biased the conversation by talking about Black Metal in the same sentence that primed her to say she would immediately not like it. Months later a facebook post magnanimously accepted the bias involved in her initial judgment. Cognitive bias 1, passive aggressive okayguy.

There is currently a book review of Magnanti’s book on Sex Myths which would also point to a greater commitment to ideology than actual facts. Note how few of the empirical points or the methodology are critiqued, and how the review reads as the immortal: ‘it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it’. Hakim embarrasses feminists. Which feminists, you might ask? As I’m sure Hakim would identify with the advancement of womankind. The ones who are committed to being a vague unspecified feminist. The kind who is like the Christian who refuses to acknowledge that denominations exist and genuine disagreements and disputes can and should exist even among people who are supposed to be allies. It’s one thing to acknowledge your opponents, its another to misunderstand your detractors.

The commitment to an ideology undercuts the commitment to facts, conclusions, or the revision of said ideology. This was a big problem in Adorno’s work where his view on social research was basically anti-methodology and all theory, and even ventured to essentially say that ‘research’ is an undermining conspiracy against his agenda. Antisophie said in a comment earlier this month how when anyone says ‘I believe’ it immediately smells fishy. Nobody should be allowed to say ‘I believe’ in an argument, you either justify your conclusions or you don’t contribute constructively to a discussion. Feminism as an ideology with propositions is definately a bad idea. The immunity to criticism is also really bad. Liberal men have spent hundreds of years adopting this position of engaging in amicable disagreement about the most fundamental notions. It upsets me when there are politicos who refuse to accept a conclusion contrary to their own, solely on the basis that it is not their own. This is dogmatism, and challenging notions such as whether sex work is always criminal, or whether sex work is ‘oppressive to women’ needs to be challenged, opened up and critically considered. Dogmatism has no place in decent social thinking.

The Ski Jumpers

One objection about subcultural research is that it overemphasises the deviants of society. What about people who are boring and not part of a subculture? If we judged solely by media representation the year of 1977 most Londoners would be savage punks opposing the Queen or protogoths in the early 1980s. The point about the Ski Jumpers is that while there were movements of social ‘cool’ credibility through things like subculture, it didn’t affect everyone. In fact, most people wish to overlook the naff fashions of yesteryear, like the Ski Jumper. Likewise, we might think that Hakim is overemphasising erotic capital, even if we concede the data about sexual focus between men and women, or her points about how sex work should be considered a legal enterprise, perhaps for most people it would not change their mundane lives.

Is Hakim overemphasising the place of Erotic Capital for women? My initial thought was that this may only apply to something like the upper 2-4% of attractive women. However Hakim would have a reply to this, in the idea of upper class ideals and virtues filtering down social classes. Hakim links this to the idea of Elias Norbert’s take on the historical process of social etiquette which was initially held by aristocratic classes that was then filtered down to other social classes through guidebooks. Erotic capital could also have a ‘filtering’ process, it may be the upper percentile of extremely attractive women who provide the recipe of success that can in some ways be replicated such as good manners, social attractiveness, improving coded signifiers of attractiveness like jewelry, hairstyle, fitness etc. In that way, highly attractive people who use erotic capital successfully act as trendsetters or shepherds for others to follow as a guide of erotic capital’s successful execution. My initial critical thought is therefore addressed.

I also think it is fascinating how Hakim links Hoschild’s work on ‘The Managed Heart’ as a piece of microsociology to the macrosociological theme of Elias’ social filtering. Methodologically speaking, Hakim tries to breach the qualitative/quantitative gap, as well as the micro-macro in the social. feminis socialis is both homo sociologicus and homo economicus.

Phsyiognomy, the worrying conclusion

Hakim alludes to Erotic Capital as if it were like the process of Shaw’s Pygalion, transforming from a peasant to a queen. If there was a 19thC English writer that I’d allude to with Erotic Capital, it’s Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a story of a man trapped by his beauty, but also simultaneously blessed by his beauty. The world of Hakim’s erotic capital is quite a cynical one. A world that says that the pretty candidate gets the job in an interview; the most attractive barrister wins the case and that your looks will be an asset or a discredit in the same way that say, your economic background or education might.

In essence I think that Hakim has not discovered a new way of female emancipation from men by manipulating their sexual urges to benefit the former. Rather, she’s unveiled a new form of discrimination. There’s no legal opponent for not discriminating on the basis of one’s looks, and in the most intimate of competitions (sexual), that is the truest of judges.

I put forward the normative question: is that really how we want to judge society and our values as modern people of today? Hakim would say yes, and point to how private sector employees tend to have a beauty premium over those in public sector, where looks are valued in commercial ventures. The problem with Hakim’s world is not that she’s given us the wrong depiction of the social reality, the problem is that it looks like she’s right. More than anything this is the worrying concern. A similar problem with Goffman’s ontology, where is the authenticity of the social in the interaction-based world of erotic capital? How much of the real person is behind all that flirting and nice presentation for others?

When Goffman shows intricately the ways in which the ‘front’ stage of social performance permeates so much, I think how in the early 21st century the personal has become commodified: people can talk about what they’ve had for breakfast on Twitter or Facebook and even though these experiences are immensely personal (and mundanely boring), they immediately lose rights to those thoughts and ideas, as they become official data owned by Facebook and privacy is diminished. The cultural focus on the personal in television programs such as documentaries which try to document how people feel in their experiences, or the proliferation of 24 hour media even further limit the scope of privacy or authenticity for public officials and significants, for they are always on ‘stage’. So too is the social presence to want to be these celebrities. We are always on the front region of Goffman’s stage and Erotic Capital shows how one of the most personal worlds we inhabit (our sexuality, attractiveness and set of social intentions) are essentially a commodity.

Perhaps many women may read Erotic Capital as a guide to social and economic advancement, I read it as a pessimistic reminder of how authenticity is under attack.

Michael

“Mewling Quim”: Watching Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

(Some possible spoilers ahead)

I saw a film that surprisingly impressed me this weekend. That film, you might reasonably guess correctly is ‘Marvel: Avengers Assemble’ (long UK release name henceforth referred to as Avengers). I grew up with animated series like X-Men, as well as the Marvel Action Hour in the early-mid 1990s and although X-Men has not been as impressive in its film incarnations, I have always been drawn to characters like Iron Man and Captain America. I think Marvel Studios and the Marvel Empire at large recognise that a good amount of money can be made from fanboys.

So why was this film so awesome? There were many elements, going to see the film with friends who mutually appreciated the Marvel Universe did help. Seeing the overweight nerd men with bald heads and their Captain America and Thor paraphernalia did make me feel at home, of course I’m nothing like them (I was wearing an Iron Man t-shirt). The question of ‘who’s your favourite?’ came up. There is something about ensemble films that are immensely attractive to the public consciousness, I suppose that is why so many people enjoy films such as The Godfather.

I was thinking of the Marvel Universe earlier last year when I was reading through the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft? Why, because there is a sense that I feel that Lovecraft had an earlier notion of a grand narrative unifying many stories through the same universe in the same way that the Marvel comic universes do. There is something almost operatic about creating imaginary worlds and entertaining creative space within them. For too long people have undermined or scoffed at these media forms as either lowbrow or base or childish, the same is said for computer games as an artform; comics and the graphic novel as a literary form.

Getting into superheroes got me into Homer. If you want to call superhero mythology base, then consider the pages of gruesome violence in Homer’s Iliad. Consider the use of supernatural imagery in the likes of Milton’s Paradise Lost when you consider super powers and demigods as childish.

Thinking with more critical lenses lately, I was thinking about the nature of the characters in the Avengers film. It was notable for instance that it was an almost all male affair, however the presence of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is not an obviously feminine or trope-like character. I thought that it was of note that her character showed the most vulnerability which seemed linked to her gender, but I am willing to be convinced that the depiction of vulnerability may have been set up as a ruse in one scene with Loki, or when she was present with Bruce Banner’s character, she had a genuine sense of fear that anyone would at the power of Banner’s alter ego. It’s also fair to say that many of the male characters showed a sense of vulnerability, especially towards the endgame of the film. There was a sense of futility and hopelessness among all of them which also served as a bonding moment between the characters, as well as between us (the audience) and the characters.

After I saw the film, I noticed an online discussion about one specific issue. The character of Loki uses an antiquated expletive in the scene with Black Widow where he refers to her as a “Mewling Quim”. I really don’t know what to think of this. It has been argued by the critic Mark Kermode (who surprisingly rates the film quite well). I didn’t notice this or know about this word when I saw the film, however it seems of note that a small number of (adult) viewers discovered this slight. This term requires a bit of context and apparently has regional significance. I was listening to a podcast last week on Radio 4 by Will Self who talked about the philistine trend of critiquing books for using words that are considered verbose or that many readers are not familiar with. The use of unusual or difficult language should be applauded, although there is some real power to the insult that Loki says which distinctly symbolically feminises Black Widow as a way of undermining her.

I might say a bit about the portrayal of vulnerability in the other male characters. Robert Downey Jr’s ‘Tony Stark’ shares his experience of mortality with Bruce Banner (well played by Mark Ruffalo, who was once better remembered by me in the lame film ’13 going on 30′) and both characters address how their special powers are also a source of difficulty and pain for them. The power source of Iron Man is also the very thing that keeps him alive and dependent, and Stark speculates that Banner’s Hulk is similarly a source of self preservation as well as destruction. A caring side is shown in the characters which gives wider dimensions to them. Stark has his lover Pepper Potts, Thor shows some concern for his friend Jane Foster and Agent Coulson is a beloved character to all of them. It may be that I am overplaying the femininity of Black Widow’s vulnerability in that many of the other characters show moments of emotional turmoil or depth. I wonder if this film passes the Bechdel test. Considering that there were only two main female characters in the film I suspect not, but there is hardly an emphasis on romance or sexuality. I noticed in one billboard appeared the actress for Maria Hill, the agent working under Nick Fury, even though she was not as prominent a character in the film, it was nice that an important supporting character was featured.

This was a film that had it all as far as a fanboy as myself is concerned. The drama, pathos, comedy and action elements of the comic and cartoon world put in a film experience. I’m really glad that the film impressed me as it did, as I have quite low standards for films after many disappointments, many of the films leading up to the Avengers, for instance were hit and miss. There is a sense in which this film seems to capture a mindset of the status quo. The plotline of the tesseract as a form of ‘clean’ energy is an interesting one of contemporary relevance. The clandestine behaviour of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their borderline unethical plans reflect a distrust of institutional authority. The coda of the film where various talking heads talk about the Avengers and the range of opinions about them reflect a media age where criticism and a variety of views and fears are addressed, some of these threads of discussion in the coda are addressed in the comic and animated incarnations of the Avengers and wider Marvel comics (such as the Civil War story arc).

What more can be said of this film? Awesome actors, great action and a genuine sense of surprise about much of the plot: I didn’t expect one Avenger to be so noble and powerful compared to everyone else (the one who ‘defeated’ loki). The comedy mixed in well, plus I did the embarrassing thing of jumping at cinematic moments of surprise. I don’t think anybody noticed though. A great soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, who is also known for such great films soundtracks as Predator. A film soundtrack is as important as the plotline or dialogue. I saw the film in 3D IMAX, and I must say that I don’t think I noticed a specific 3D or IMAX scene, as it seemed indistinguishable to the rest of the film. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.

One thing is certain, if and when a sequel of this film is made (sequels are the name of the money making cinematic game), it has a lot to live up to, and sometimes past success is the most difficult marker of critiquing a sequel. I normally expect about one good film a year, but seeing The Hunger Games makes 2012 a year of prospective positive expectations. I’m quite looking forward to the coming Ridley Scott ‘Prometheus’ film, as well as (excuse my primal tendencies) Expendables 2. However having met the quota of good films already I have no expectations.

Michael

I liked ‘The Hunger Games’ (I don’t normally like films, but when I do, I blog about it with a most interesting man in the world meme reference)

Gene Wilder speaks the truth

Last weekend I was out with a friend to see a film at the cinema and an obligatory pint afterwards. It has become a ritual with a few university and sixth form friends that we have to meet up every 3-6 months and catch up over some beverage. That in itself is a subject all in itself, but today I would like to sing praises about a film I saw last week: The Hunger Games, which is a ‘Young Adult’ (I don’t qualify as YA by the way) piece of fiction based on a book, and book series of the same name by one Suzanne Collins, who had the esteem of working on a few children’s shows between the 1990s and 2000s.

As far as popular book/franchise fictions go, this has quite a favourable response from me. I haven’t (yet) read the books, but it has led to a lot of people in the meme generating world to go all hipster and say how lots of people read the books before it was cool, or also go hipster and say ‘they preferred the book’ &c. I’m a Johnny-come-lately and a casual film goer and as far as my fandom goes I am striclty a star wars/RPG type of person so I’m definately not informed about The Hunger Games.

The things I really liked about the film are as follows:

  1. Lenny Kravitz plays an effete yet sympathetic stylist. Nuff said
  2. The protagonist is female, and very strong, assertive, self-determined and also has a caring dimension too.
  3. Female protagonists are pretty rare, and it’s great that she isn’t defined by how she likes boys or the typical trivialisation about women. There is a relationship storyline, but she is in some respects a reluctant party and her participation in it is nuanced and complicated (something that also promises for plotline in the sequels)
  4. There is a distinct ‘political’ message about the book, what it is exactly I am still not sure about. I think the story gives a picture of a totalitarian world but also combined with the contemporary fascination with global media and the voyeuristic nature of how people feed of tragedies or personal problems. Consider for instance the fascination with natural disasters, violent crimes, or even the way how people in game shows/televisual competition shows like ‘The Apprentice’ or ‘X Factor’ give sob stories about how it was their dying aunt’s dream that such-and-such a competitor sung whitney houston on live television.
  5. The film would pass the Bechdel Test. You would be surprised how many films don’t.
  6. I’m an action hero fan by heart and that probably won’t ever change, and the film definately had a lot of violence in it for gruesome violence voyeurs like me. Much of the violence wasn’t actually shown but more insinuated (after all, it is a film about children killing each other). The use of suggestion instead of actually showing violence is very dramatic, and for a younger audience to watch a film like this, gives a great amount of shock and disgust to the audience. A film like this is probably more adult than a crappy rom-com rated higher than this in terms of the disturbing themes.

I have become quite discerning about what I call a good film and this is one of them*. The Hunger Games has been the best recent film that I’ve seen since Inception. Bravo to Lionsgate (who are better known for their lowbrow action films) for making such a bold decision to make a teenager-oriented film, and for giving teenagers something more interesting than Twilight and Harry Potter. I kind of wish I had something that cool when I was a teenager.

Michael

Lemma*: There are by contrast, films I enjoy watching over and over again that fail to be good films, such as Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Commando, Crank 2, The Expendables (only for that AA-12 shotgun scene) or Revenge of the Sith.