Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Andrew Garfield on Spider-man, me on Garfield's portrayal of Spider-man

This is what Andrew Garfield recently said about Spider-man and how he needs to be updated in order to remain relevant. Good points, all of them:
"...what I believe about Spider-Man is that he does stand for everybody: black, white, Chinese, Malaysian, gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. He will put himself in harm’s way for anyone. He is colorblind. He’s blind to sexual orientation, and that is what he has always represented to me. He represents the everyman, but he represents the underdog and those marginalized who come up against great prejudice which I, as a middle-class straight, white man, don’t really understand so much. And when Stan Lee first wrote and created this character, the outcast was the computer nerd, was the science nerd, was the guy that couldn’t get the girl. Those guys now run the world. So how much of an outcast is that version of Peter Parker anymore? That’s my question."
If you've read my blog at any length, you'll know that I'm in complete agreement with a lot of this. The superhero-as-outsider metaphor has always been a bit of a stretch, given that most of the heroes are themselves white men, and that the outsider who identifies with Spider-man or the X-Men is often still white, male, middle-class. But it's become additionally problematic recently, what with the mainstreaming of super-hero culture and the generally increasing economic and political clout of geeks.

In short, Spider-man's ability to represent the underdog or the marginalized, while always a bit suspect, has become pretty much an impossibility.

The irony in these comments, of course, is that Garfield's Spider-man is probably cooler and less marginalized than any other version we've seen in the comics or movies. This is a Spider-man who skateboards, who is snarky rather than awkward, and who just oozes hipster cool. If he's an outsider, it seems like he's an outsider by choice. So even if Garfield's words ring true, his performance seems to be moving in the total opposite direction.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A quick blog about Trayvon Martin and racist non-sequiturs

So, I get a lot of emails from PR folks. Like, a whole lot. I was tempted, if I was stuck with nothing to do this summer, to actually attempt to respond to all of them, as a sort of absurdist writing project. Why absurdist? Because, for whatever reason, the PR folks who get my name are employed disproportionately by writers and politicians on the right-wing. This would not have been a sincere project at good journalism.

But why am I telling you this? Because this is arrived in my inbox a couple days ago, courtesy of the folks who rep Carol M. Swain, a Professor of politics and law at Vanderbilt:
"The people who are complaining about the Trayvon Martin verdict should turn their attention to the unacceptable levels of black-on-black violence that cripples urban communities. We should not be second guessing the jury. The jury examined the evidence and decided not to convict, despite the presence of a judge that seemed biased towards the prosecution. Folks, its time to move on to the real problems facing black communities. It's what we [black people] do to ourselves. It is imperative for the police to police in situations where disgruntled people are threatening violence over the not guilty verdict."

Wow. This is just... gross. Now, I'm not just using this blog to pick on Professor Swain. (Though I may want to use it to challenge the fact that the PR firm is representing her as a "race relations expert." Because no.) Because this is not the only time I've seen the black-on-black violence card played - I've seen it on Facebook, I've seen it in letters to the editor. But this blurb does make for an easy target, so there you have it. Carol Swain, you're guilty of deploying racist rhetoric, sure, but you're also guilty of being a convenient target, delivered straight to my inbox by the people who you're presumably paying.

I said this would be quick, so I'll try to keep it that way. This is why Carol Swain's little paragraph is, in a nutshell, emblematic of everything that's wrong with the response to the verdict in the Zimmerman case:

  • We should second guess juries. Of course we should. We should second-guess every decision that's made at every level of government, even those made by people who are effectively conscripted. It's how a responsible citizenry accords itself. It's why we're empowered as citizens in the first place. Because mistakes are made by everyone, at every level of government, all the time.
  • There's the implication that this case was a distraction - black people "should turn their attention", as if Trayvon Martin and raising awareness about racism wasn't worthy of it - from something more important. It's an insulting gesture, and it's in poor taste.
  • The "real problems facing black communities" bit is a complete non-sequitur. The Zimmerman case had nothing to do with black-on-black violence. At best, this illogical jump is opportunistic sleight-of-hand; at worst, it's purposely deceitful. She might as well have said that the real problem isn't men hurting men, but men hurting women. It would've made just as much sense.
  • Lastly, while Carol Swain is a black woman and this might strike some as unintuitive, I'd like to suggest that the argument she's making in that paragraph is also racist:
    • The first obvious implications is that black-on-black violence has nothing to do with white-on-black racism. Without going on at length, it does - the criminalblackman is a white supremacist myth that has, to some extent, created what it had first imagined. You can't solve that problem without first addressing the root cause, which is the internalization of hundreds of years of racial hate and white-on-black violence of all kinds.
    • The second second implication is less obvious, but still fairly clear. Swain's logic suggests that so long as black Americans don't value their own lives - after all, they can't be bothered with addressing the "real problems", right? - we shouldn't be surprised (or be outraged) when white Americans don't value them either. In essence, non-black folks get a free pass because she thinks the black community is worse. It's an idiotic line of thought. It's also surprisingly prevalent.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Star Trek, old and new

I saw Into Darkness a few weeks ago and just never got around to writing about it. Just before, I re-watched Wrath of Khan. Just after, I watched First Contact. So, having finally found the time to write something, I want to write about it it relation to the second iteration of each of the other two Star Trek movie franchises.

I liked Into Darkness, and I liked it for largely the same reason that I liked Abrams' first Star Trek: it was a really good Star Wars movie. Lots of stuff blew up, it was really exciting, and Cumberbatch's voice boomed with deep, sexy authority. I left wanting to jump from flying car to flying car like some genetically-modified superman. And that's just about all the response that it inspired.

This is actually from Star Trek: Insurrection, but I thought it looked hilarious.

Now, you might be thinking that my Wars/Trek distinction is splitting-hairs. And, sure, there's a lot of overlap between the franchises, especially the pre-1987 versions of each that seem to be the most resonant versions. Both imagine outer space as a basically lawless Wild West frontier, and imagine that cowboys and Zen masters are probably the archetypes best-suited to wrangle it.

But there's still a difference, and I'll go to Star Trek itself to help put a name to it. When, in The Next Generation, Jean Luc Picard locates an AWOL Ambassador Spock behind enemy lines, he refers to his actions (and, implicitly, that of the original Star Trek crew) as "cowboy diplomacy [that] will not easily be tolerated anymore". In Star Wars, cowboy stuff is the subject of the series - though, admittedly, it does cowboy stuff really well. But in the original Star Trek (TOS), "cowboy" is just an adjective, dressing for the deeper political and philosophical questions that it's trying to raise. It often asked the wrong questions or raised them in cheesy ways, sure, but the cowboy stuff was largely a vehicle to sell that higher purpose.

Anyway, and TL;DR: Star Trek Into Darkness is not really a Star Trek movie.

And not only is it not a Star Trek movie, but, contrary to the buzz on the internets, it's not even the best Khan movie. And among the Into Darkness, Wrath of Khan, and First Contact trifecta of Star Trek sequels, it's not even the second-best of the bunch.

In no particular order, then, here are the things about Into Darkness that give me pause. I'll elaborate more afterward.
  1. Like Wrath of Khan, it tries to build its emotional center on the Kirk-Spock friendship. It doesn't work.
  2. There's paying homage, and then there's just straight-up repetition...
  3. ...and when it does something that a previous Trek also did, it does it worse.
  4. When it acknowledges the post-TOS franchises, it misunderstands and mangles them.
  5. When it tries to show us growth and change, it fails.
  6. Khan is white.  Khan should not be white.

*     *     *

1. "You are my friend"

Kirk and Spock weren't friends in the first film. They don't seem to particularly like one another in this one, either. And where the friendship is forced to work... well, it's forced and doesn't work.

Take the scene where Spock looks shocked that Kirk has requested that the former be re-assigned as first officer under the latter. He should be. The movie has given us absolutely no reason to think Kirk should trust Spock, much less like him. The motivating force for their friendship seems to be destiny - they should be good friends because they were best friends in the original series, and Kirk knows this. That's weak. The movie wants that emotional pay-off when Kirk dies, but it hasn't done the work and doesn't earn the right.

2. Homage/repetition

I've been involved in a lot of arguments about the usefulness of homage and repetition in serial storytelling. I don't think I'm alone in suggesting that there's something lazy about reboots, though that doesn't necessarily mean that they're boring. The same rule applies to remakes, though I think these edge closer to being boring by default and need to work hard to prove they're not a waste of time. Because I think that either - the reboot or the remake - can be perfectly enjoyable things. They can be fun, even if they don't cover any new ground and, so, aren't anything more than that. But fun could be enough.

But while Star Trek seemed to pay homage, to wink at the old stuff, while establishing some new story, this film simply repeats a lot of their plot points. The most egregious moment is probably the reversed death scene, where Kirk fixes the warp engine and dies of radiation poisoning while Spock watches, and Spock gets to yell the "KHAAAAAAAN!" line. It a do-over, really, but with the roles reversed, and it doesn't add to or improve the original scene.

3. The same, but worse

In fact, I'd argue that the new radiation death scene is the weaker version. There are a couple of reasons I'm claiming this, so I'll do a simple bullet-list:
  •  In Khan, the death scene follows Khan's defeat. It is the sole occupant of our attention, and its placement in the story is a textbook demonstration of how you tell the story of a pyrrhic victory - the dizzying high, the devastating low. But Kirk's "death" in Into Darkness lacks the emotional weight because we know he isn't actually dead. It also has to be timed to happen before Khan's defeat, so we can't even linger on the moment.
  • In Khan, Spock calmly enters a clean, white, and eerily 2001-esque engine core room and seals himself behind a glass door while the engineering team watches in horror. It's a slow, banal exercise that grows slower and visibly painful as he starts to die. And it's almost totally silent. By comparison, Into Darkness's version shows that less is, indeed, more. The engine room is hilariously monstrous and inaccessible, and Kirk's attempts to climb the tubes/pipes to reach the engine is the real source of drama, here. Kirk's subsequent efforts to re-align the engine by hurling himself against it thusly becomes an apt metaphor for what his movie is trying to do with the source material - hit it really hard and hope everything falls into place.

4. Misreading and mangling

I'll keep this one short. I though it was really cool when the Admiral made a reference to Section 31, the cloak-and-dagger department we were introduced to in Deep Space Nine. Existing outside the official command structure of Starfleet, 31 was so secret that only top-level admirals seemed to know that it was a real thing - and even Admiral Ross would only confirm this when it was a) absolutely clear that Captain Sisko knew 31 was real, b) he had no choice.

Anyway, the novelty of the reference is lost almost immediately, when you realize that Admiral Marcus a) shouldn't know why 31 was using Khan, b) shouldn't be involved in the command structure of 31, c) 31, itself, shouldn't have a command structure, and d) he sure as hell wouldn't be talking about any of this with Kirk.

So, basically, they wanted to drop the name that would earn them cred with the hardcore fans, but without actually making any effort to represent the organization accurately. Super. And par for the course, really.

5. When character growth isn't actually character growth

I'm losing patience as I write, so I'll try to be even shorter. In the supposed climax, where Spock should be demonstrating what he's learned in order to out-fox Khan, the screenwriters take the easy way out instead. He just asks Old Spock what he should do. And then, presumably, does it. Weak.

6. White Khan

I'm not the first to say this, but I'll say it anyway. Khan isn't white, he shouldn't be white, and this constitutes an epic failure on the part of the people who wrote, cast, and produced the film.  (It's telling that no one seemed to think it mattered until the casting decision started to get criticized. Star Trek, it seems, engenders post-racial delusions in the mind of people who don't experience racism.)

Ricardo Montalban played the original Khan. Montalban, it should be said, was a white Mexican - though he passes convincingly as a person of color, so much so that John Cho (Sulu) referred to him as such - and his Khan was styled so as to appear at least somewhat Aboriginal. But we're also told that he was a benevolent dictator who conquered Asia and the Middle East, so it may just be that the producers thought he was close enough to South Asian to pass. (That is, they assumed that 'not white' was good enough.)

Also, his name is Khan Singh. Let's not pretend otherwise: the dude was obviously supposed to be Indian. And for this film, they cast a white, blue-eyed, English guy. And never bothered to explain why. Um, no.

*     *     *

I just realized that I promised a discussion of First Contact - because I claimed it was a better Star Trek film - and that never happened. Next time...