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“We’re Not Soldiers”: The Cautious Superhero Optimism of “The Avengers”…

Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea. It’s not that I needed Superman to be “real,” I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn’t have worried; Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him.

– Grant Morrison, Supergods

There was an idea, Stark knows this, called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could.

– Nick Fury, The Avengers

In hindsight, The Avengers looks like a sure bet; a bunch of recognisable characters from successful properties bound together to create a blockbuster.

It is a testament to how profoundly The Avengers has reshaped the media landscape in its image that this appears almost a given. In a world that has seen the release of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the original film in the franchise seems almost quaint. Only six heroes? Only one primary villain, and one who was previously defeated by Thor in Thor? Sure, Thor is “the strongest Avenger”, but that seems almost quaint in this era of universe-spanning crossovers that fold on the expansive casts of films like Ant Man or Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps it is an ode to the power of  the idea that The Avengers feels so small in hindsight.

At the same time, there’s a maturity and reflection in the original Avengers that is largely lacking from Infinity War and Endgame. One of the most frustrating aspects of Infinity War and Endgame is the way in which the films devolve into unquestioning power fantasies; stories about great men who wield the power of gods for their own benefit with little regard for the obligations or responsibilities that come with that power. The characters of Infinity War and Endgame never question the use of their power for their own benefit, never contemplate their right to hold the fate of four different universes in their hands. Banner never questions the appeal of living as the Hulk forever, just as Thor insists on abandoning his people to have wack adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy cast.

In hindsight, what is most striking about The Avengers is how fascinated it is with the question of what superheroes are, and what function they serve. Perhaps in keeping with the general enthusiasm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or perhaps reflecting his own affection for the genre, Joss Whedon keeps coming back to the suggestion that superheros represent an idea and an ideal. They represent an idealised manifestation of American power and identity, quite literally contrasted at the end of the film with the horror and majesty of the atomic bomb.

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My 12 for ’18: The (Black) Power of Stories in “BlacKkKlansman”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number nine.

At its core, BlacKkKlansman is a story about the power of stories. In particular, the power of cinema.

This is no real surprise. Spike Lee is an avowed cinephile with an incredible hunger and passion for the medium. Lee knows the history of cinema, and understands the historical context of cinema. BlacKkKlansman is alternately a loving homage to blaxploitation and a discussion of blaxploitation. It is a film that is fundamentally about the way in which the stories that people tell influence and shape the world in which they live.

At the heart of BlacKkKlansman is a sequence in which real-life Civil Rights icon Harry Belafonte plays a fictionalised activist. He recounts, in gory detail, the story of a horrific lynching that he witnessed as a child. He contextualises this attack by reference to the success of Birth of a Nation, which he describes using the (anachronistic) term “blockbuster.” This sequence is intercut with the induction of new members into the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, while gleefully rewatching (and cheering) Birth of a Nation.

The most interesting idea within BlacKkKlansman is the implication that it might be possible to counter-programme this. If narratives of hatred and violence can be perpetuated through cinema, then perhaps stories about collaboration and empathy can also be spread in that manner. Clever and self-aware, BlacKkKlansman feels like an attempt to construct one such narrative.

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The Great Inception, and the Movies that Made Us…

This week, the podcast I host, The 250, will be marking its one hundredth episode with a look at Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” I’m very much looking forward to it. It’ll be available on Saturday from 6pm UTC. I also have a book coming out on Christopher Nolan, titled “Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Films.” This is a much more personal (and much less detailed) discussion of Inception than the one in the book. So, if you like this piece, it might be worth a look.

I’ve always been somewhat wary of Inception.

I mean, Inception is a fantastic movie. There is a reason that it is so beloved and so highly regarded. It is perhaps one of the four core Christopher Nolan films, along with Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. It is the rare big budget blockbuster with no longstanding association to established intellectual property, and one of the few to succeed on that sort of level. Indeed, the only other comparable examples on a similar scale are Interstellar and Dunkirk, both directed by Christopher Nolan.

More than that, Inception has permeated the popular consciousness. It is a film that has become part of the broader conversation. It seems that barely a few months can go by without another hot take on that closing scene, with news coverage of commencement speeches or interviews with actors. More than that, the film itself has become something of a critical and popular shorthand. It is a stock comparison for any movie or television show with a vaguely similar concept. Maniac is the most recent example, even inviting the comparison with an elaborate hallway action scene in its penultimate episode.

And yet, in spite of that, Inception is a movie of which I’ve had a somewhat strained relationship. I still adore it, as I adore most of Nolan’s filmography. I think its reputation is well-earned, and I think it excels by every measure that it sets itself. It delivers on just about every front, showcasing Nolan as a director with incredible command of both the form itself and the audiences watching these films. Inception is a big and broad crowdpleaser that is also a surprisingly intimate and personal film, which works as both a story and as a showcase. It is thrilling, it is engaging, it is compelling.

However, there’s something underneath the surface that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. A large part of this is simply down to the fact that it’s a movie that is fundamentally about movies. This is nothing new of itself. All of Nolan’s movies are about stories, whether personal or cultural. In fact, it could be argued that the central trilogy of Nolan’s work is actually The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception, a trilogy of films that seem to be about the challenges of constructing and maintaining spectacle, arriving at a point in the director’s career where Nolan was transitioning from smaller films to high-profile epics.

Inception is the most transparent of these films, exploring most directly the mechanics of how storytelling works within a cinematic framework. There are even scenes of characters discussing in relatively clinical terms the mechanics of catharsis and how best to emotional manipulate their target audience. Inception feels very much like Nolan is stopping and deconstructing his stopwatch storytelling for the benefit of the audience, revealing how the trick is done and how the pieces fit together. As with everything Nolan does, he does this with a great deal of skill and nuance. However, it can’t help but feel a little cynical.

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Non-Review Review: Sunshine

Sunshine is a science-fiction movie. Well, duh, you proclaim, looking at the screenshots or having read the plot synopsis, it’s about a bunch of people in space flying to the sun. Of course it’s science-fiction! It’s hardly a comedy or musical! However, I’m talking about something more essential than its setting or its superficial elements. Although the story of a bunch of astronauts planning to reignite the dying star at the centre of our solar system may distract you, Sunshine works so well because it grabs the sorts of philosophical ideas at the heart of the best science-fiction: it’s an exploration of the conflict between the rational and the irrational, the logical and the emotional and the place of man and his understanding of the world around him. It’s movie that is far smarter than it pretends to be.

Going for gold...

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Thoughts on Meaning…

So what does this cartoon mean?

It shows how the depletion of our natural resources has pitted our small farmers against each other.

Yes, and birds go tweet, what else?

– College lecturer and student dissect Itchy & Scratchy, “Little Girl in the Big Ten”, The Simpsons

I had the pleasure of moving in with my better half last week, and we grew quite fond of listening to her “best of REM” CD – the excellent In Time. “Orange Crush” happened to play, and my significant other happened to remark that she greatly enjoyed the song. As we nodded in time to the music, I pondered aloud if she was familiar with the meaning of the song – she had been unaware of the origins of the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays”, for instance, or “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” on the same CD. She admitted that she was not, so I offered her a brief synopsis over the discussion as to the “meaning” and “roots” of the song:

Orange Crush was an orange flavored soft drink. In this case, though, it was meant to refer to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the US to defoliate the Vietnamese jungle during the Vietnam War. US military personnel exposed to it developed cancer years later and some of their children had birth defects.

This was met with observations that I tend to “ruin” songs be talking about such things, implying that once you know something like that about a song it becomes a lot more difficult to nod your head along and join in on the chorus. Part of me wonders if the same is a little true of movies, in a manner of speaking – does over analysing and disecting them ultimately lead us to somewhat devalue them as entertainment?

It's actually about nuclear proliferation...

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Why Inception Matters…

I spent a great deal of last weekend heavily anticipating the box office figures for Inception. Of money it makes won’t change the fact that I think it’s an amazing film, but it will affect the impact that Christopher Nolan’s latest will have on the movie industry. And that, my friends, is very important. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and suggest that Inception might be the most important summer blockbuster of the decade, and possibly longer.

More movies like Inception? Hopefully not just in my dreams...

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