Category Archives: Musings

My Superman vs Batman film

So I recently launched a bit of a rant on my Twitter and Facebook about the new Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice trailer.

I had a few problems with it, specifically:

I was grumpy

I am not the only one who has had a problem with this trailer, and I didn’t even pick up on my first viewing that Batman has a gun in his hands. A gun. Batman.
Now these represent a kind of frivolous ranting, I understand that. A friend tweeted me a rejoinder from Purple Hippo against which I offer no defence.
Hippo Tweet

Another friend, an unabashed DC fan, challenged me to be more positive about it, and this challenge did strike a chord. It is easy, after all, to be critical from behind a keyboard and launch barbs against the creative endeavors of others. Too easy perhaps, such that one falls into the role of the vandal too easily, tearing viciously at art they do not appreciate. I haven’t even seen the film (obviously), and no doubt my general distaste for Zac Snyder’s films and my bitter disappointment at the last half of the previous Superman tainted any objectivity I may have had. That said, the previous (shorter) Dawn of Justice trailer actually had me pretty hopeful for what this film could be. This most recent one burned that hope to ashes.

Superman is a difficult character to write into a compelling story because so much of narrative depends on conflict and stakes. For Superman, there can be no meaningful external conflict. He can defeat any enemy at will and is impervious to any attack. What threats can he be made to face? And what can be at stake? Not his own life, so must it be those he cares about, must we perpetually have Lois Lane endangered to give Superman a reason to act?

The response to this has either been even more incredibly super-powered enemies (a narrative arms race which quickly succumbs to absurdity), or weakening Superman with kryptonite. This latter approach is the better, but fraught, because if the enemies use of kryptonite becomes inevitable in every Superman tale, it moves from his one vulnerability to a hackneyed deus ex machina.

An alternative approach is to focus less of Superman’s external conflicts, and more on the internal. This is the truly fascinating question of Superman, for me. ‘If I had unlimited power, how would I use that?’ Superman should lead us to ask how we could decide when to act, and in whose interests. We should questions how we would manage the competing urges to altruism and self? He should be forced to choose, for instance, whether to save Lois Lane (a single life he cares greatly for) or the passenger jet about to crash (hundreds of strangers). He should have to agonise over which disasters he prevents, and which he allows. How, after all, could he justify intervening in a bank robbery in Metropolis if he could instead prevent an African warlord from slaughtering a village, or a drone strike destroying a hospital, or a suicide bomber in a football stadium, or a gunman in woman’s health clinic, or a drug cartel kidnapping the wife and child of a good cop?

The best story of Superman, would be one of these moral conflicts. Red Son exploited this by having Superman raised in Stalin’s Russia, and asking how we would feel about his powers if they were in service to that ideology.

Snyder seemed ready to offer us this film in ‘Man of Steel’ (such as when Kevin Costner questioned whether it was a good thing for young Clark to have saved the bus), but then reverted to Supes punching people through buildings for 30 minutes.

So in the interests of positivity, here’s my attempt. I have assumed a few elements as required. The central trio of Bats, Supes and Wonder Woman. That Lex and Doomsday appear as villains. That this follows on from ‘Man of Steel’ so that the events of that film are present as background to this, the characters in this must act consistently with a world post-‘Man of Steel’, a world in which Kryptonians have fought their way through Metropolis, and in which Superman broke Zod’s neck. I think the casting of the film is pretty good, I have no particular problem with Batfleck, Cavill is a good Supes, Gadot perfect for WW, Adams as Lane, Eisenberg should be a good Lex, for all he annoyed me in the trailer. If I needed to cast Catwoman, Emily Blunt would be amazing. I have added a few elements, and considered how this would set up subsequent films on a trajectory toward Justice League.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent have come to Gotham to attend a journalist award ceremony. She is being recognised for her work on an investigative feature for the Daily Planet exploring issues arising from the revelations of extraterrestrial life life, particularly Kryptonian. She will later speak at the UN about the issue.
At the award ceremony she and Kent meet Bruce Wayne, who is a corporate sponsor of the event. Wayne Enterprises owns the hotel they’re staying in.
When they return to their (separate but adjoining) rooms they find they have been ransacked. It soon becomes clear that this is true of several attendees to the award ceremony. Lane reports the theft. Wayne excuses himself, deferring Lane to Lucius Fox, who promise that action will be taken. Wayne, as Batman, follows a trail of clues from the building across Gotham’s rooftops. Kent, as Superman, is unseen above. He follows Batman, suspecting that he is the thief. He closes the distance, but Batman senses him and escapes. Supes returns to the hotel, and as Kent begins his investigation into the Gotham vigilante.

Batman returns to the batcave, his pursuit of the thief interrupted by Superman. He begins his own inquiries into the Kryptonian, which lead him to Lexcorp, a private contractor for space-faring tech which has been brought in on a private consultancy with US govt on the matter of Zod. He knows Lex Luthor’s reputation in corporate circles: a young entrepreneur with an air of the eccentric genius. He shares with Alfred his concern at seeing the Kryptonian in Gotham’s skies, and decides to prepare a defence. But first he returns his attention to the theft from his hotel. He has a suspect. On the screen we see a shot of Selena Kyle.

Lex is still in Metropolis. We see him reporting to government agents on what he has learnt from his study of Zod’s corpse. He has become fascinated with Krypton, and has been searching everywhere for more signs of their presence. He reveals that he has detected an asteroid with traces of Krypton, likely a fragment of that planet, having traveled through space since the planet’s destruction. But when he plotted its trajectory, he saw that its approach to Earth is too perfect to be chance. He plans to intercept it as it approaches Earth’s atmosphere.

At the UN Lois Lane gives her speech to the assembled world leaders. Among them is Diana Prince, an employee of the UN. She requests a private audience with Lane, and there asks how Lane knows Kryptonians can be trusted. Lois tells her tale, and Diana tells her about the asteroid Lex is tracking. She is worried that the US gov’t, and that a private company in Lexcorp, will keep the study of the asteroid from the rest of humanity. She’s concerned that it may be weaponised, either by the US, or by Lex. Lane sees a story in it and decides it’s worth investigating.

Batman has tracked the theft back to Selena, and he confronts her. She tells him that she has sold what she stole on to Gotham underworld. Batman is about to let her go, on the promise that she will leave town, but Superman descends from above and insists that she face justice. Batman challenges Superman’s idea of justice. He accuses him of being a tyrant. Calls him an executioner for breaking Zod’s neck, blames him for the damage to Metropolis from the fight. Superman calls Bats a vigilante, accuses him of disregard for the rule of law. Batman argues that he does so to ensure order, that law is not always the moral good. Superman says that people as powerful as he and Bats can’t afford to think that way, that they become tyrants if they consider themselves above the law. They fight: Superman alone vs Bats and Catwoman as a team. Bats pulls a trick, escapes with Selena.

Superman briefly pursues, but allows them to escape because Batman’s criticisms have touched him and he decides that he doesn’t want another fight, as with Zod. Instead he decides to use more official channels. He has, through his super senses, established that Bats=Wayne. He goes to the DA, Harvey Dent, and together they hatch a plan to bring Bats in legally. He doesn’t reveal Bats’ secret identity, because he doesn’t want to prejudice Dent’s investigation.

Later, Lois tells Kent of Diana’s fears about Lexcorp. He is supposed to be meeting soon with Dent to enact their plan to catch the Bat, but he decides that it is more important for him to stop this fragment of Krypton falling into Lex’s hands. Once away from Lois, he becomes Supes and flies into low-orbit to interfere with Lex’s plans. As a result, he’s not present when Dent needs him.

Dent follows through with the plan he had to catch Bats, but without Superman’s assistance, it back-fires disastrously. He is badly wounded in an explosion. Batman saves Dent’s life, and takes him to hospital. He makes his way to the roof, worried that his efforts to do good in Gotham have inadvertently hurt one of the city’s good guys. He sees shooting stars above.

In the upper atmosphere Supes is trying to stop Lex from getting to the meteor. He gets caught in a dogfight with Lex’s aircraft and with US Air Force fighters. He defeats them, breaking away in one instance to save a pilot whose ejector seat fails. When he gets close to the meteor, in his attempt to deflect it back into space, the Kryptonite it contains robs him of his powers. He falls, with it, but away from it, and as he falls farther from it his powers regain, so that he survives his landing in a Gotham park. Some blocks away, the meteor has also landed. It is a capsule, the same sort as the one by which he, as Kal-El, escaped Krypton. Doomsday steps out.

Superman is still weak, and is weakened as he gets closer to the capsule, but he still tries to fight Doomsday. As it seems that he has been overwhelmed, Batman (in his anti-Supes suit) comes to his aid. When Doomsday gets the better of Batman, WW arrives as well and joins the fight. Between the three of them they subdue Doomsday.

Afterwards, Lex reveals to the media that Superman actively prevented him from intercepting Doomsday’s pod in orbit. Lex blames Supes for Doomsday reaching Earth and for all the damage done, first to Metropolis, now to Gotham. Public backlash against Supes increases. Lois Lane is an increasingly isolated voice in a media calling for increased accountability and regulation of Superman’s actions. 

Batman returns to the batcave, badly beaten and facing a crisis of confidence. He tells Alfred that he must upgrade his defences. He needs Kryptonite, because of what might yet come down from space, and because he needs to be prepared in case the Kryptonian already on Earth turns bad. He knows now that there are greater threats in the world than Gotham’s criminals.

Dent awakes, as Two-Face, blaming Batman and Superman for the injuries he sustained. He swears revenge on both.

A scene with Selena and Diana reveals that she was the recipient of the info Catwoman stole from Lane. She returns to Themyscira, knowing more now about the Kryptonians, and determined to prepare her people against them.

The final image is of Doomsday in restraints being delivered to Lex, who has been working with the Kryptonite salvaged from Doomsday’s pod. He slots one of the green crystals into his mech suit, climbs in, and lifts Doomsdsy easily.

So there it is. My attempt in the space of a few hours of my spare time to outdo the combined efforts of several professional script-writers and film-makers who have been at work for months on a multi-million dollar budget. What ridiculous hubris I have.
Please feel free to endorse my vision, or to feed me a taste of my own medicine by way of scathing comments below.

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Genrecon 2015

So this is long overdue. Just insert your own joke about neglected blogs and tumbleweeds and author platforms and such. I made the point at the con that I happily prioritised my writing over my blogging, and here I am, walking the talk.

But Genrecon 2015 could not be allowed to slip past unremarked.

GenreCon2015Banner

 

Indeed, many others have already remarked upon it at some length, doubtless more thoroughly and eloquently than I shall here:

Peter Ball, organizer extraordinaire, collected his thoughts on the massive project he has undertaken, to deserved acclaim, and had some interesting statements to make on the line-up.

Kat Clay shared her detailed notes and images from the con.

David Witteveen tweeted heaps and storified and shared and gathered together a wealth of knowledge and experience. He has continued to interview attendees. Have a little browse through his Twitter.

Lisa L Hannett found joy.

Angela Savage came as a guest and found herself a learner.

From that sampling (and it is merely a small sampling) you can follow down the various rabbit holes of the multi-faceted experience of Genrecon, but it is these which most resonate with me. Genrecon was well-organised and well-run, it was such a full program that you couldn’t possibly see everything you wanted to see, it was a weekend of fun and joy, and it was a weekend that taught me so much.

This was my third Genrecon. The first, in 2012, was in Western Sydney. 2013 and 2015 have been in Brisbane. I came to the first because I had reached a stage in my writing where I had become prepared for some select few others to know that it was something I was doing, and I was encouraged by the partner of an old friend to contact Peter Ball and seek advice. He was generous with his advice, and he mentioned Genrecon. I heard that there would be the opportunity to pitch to a NY agent, and then heard that Joe Abercrombie would be the guest of honour. I am a big fan of Abercrombie’s work, and so I was sold.

I came to the second Genrecon invigorated by the first, pitching the same book but now much improved. Again the guest of honour was a writer I greatly admired, Chuck Wendig. I had actually tweeted at Peter to invite Chuck, so I will boast that I inspired the choice—the truth be damned.

In both cases what impressed me about Genrecon was the sense of community. It was a family, made up of disparate and quite different parts, but coming together in a mutually supportive whole. Before my first Genrecon I had a clichéd and dismissive attitude toward Romance. That shames me now. It was naïve at best, and certainly ignorant. The Romance writers I have met at three Genrecons have been among the most forthcoming, encouraging, supportive and savvy writers. An author with dozens of published books to her name will happily sit with a doe-eyed ingénue like myself and talk about plot and character conflict, and painstaking research of history, and the importance of a good contract, and the frustrations of bad cover art (or the elation when it is good). Romance is the biggest genre, the best-selling genre, and a genre in which talented writers work damn hard on their craft and their business. I have enormous respect for their work.

Likewise Crime, which I once had associated with airport newsagencies and the dusty bookshelves of late-middle-age. These assumptions were shredded by several crime fiction writers, and a coup-de-grace delivered by John Connolly in 2013, who held an engrossing hour-long conversation within the Genrecon program, and with whom I had an engrossing and increasingly drunken conversation well into the early hours of Sunday morning at the hotel bar.

This year it was karaoke (where Alan Baxter channelled Lemmy and Patrick O’Duffy left a lasting impression) and laser-tag. It was talking to CS Pacat (whose website is a work of art in itself!) about her growing awareness of the power in the story she was telling, and of the value in the words she wrote. It was conversations with Mary Robinette Kowal about dialect, accent, phonology and puppetry. It was talking with Nathan Farrugia about martial arts, or Justin Woolley about zombies, Steve Vincent about the Hoover Dam control room, Emma Osbourne about growing up in a small town in central Victoria.

Photo credit to Lisa L Hannett

Me, on the right (Photo credit to Lisa L Hannett)

I volunteered to chair a panel this year, and I’m so glad I did. I was fortunate enough to be on stage with three extremely warm, wise and intelligent panelists. Kim Wilkins I knew from previous Genrecons (Genres-con?), but I hadn’t met Keri Arthur until I sat down beside her at lunch one day and after some minutes chatting she mentioned that she would be on a panel, and I mentioned that I would be chairing one. ‘Which one?’ she asked, from which we discovered that it would be the same one. Angela Slatter (now ‘World Fantasy Award Winner’ to go along with the many other well-deserved honourifics in her bio) I didn’t meet until we were onstage together and the crowd was filing in. The nerves were short-lived though, and the panel soon became an open and easily moderated conversation, from which I learnt a great deal.

I also pitched my new novel to Alex Adsett, whose reputation as an agent of genre-fiction in Australia is unsurpassed. It went well, despite my feeling that I rushed a little and fumbled over words. Alex was very enthusiastic and requested the full manuscript, which I happily submitted. I could not have hoped for a better outcome from the pitch, but now the waiting game to see what comes of it. A good pitch is a helpful thing, but it doesn’t matter unless there’s a good book behind it.

The next Genrecon is 2017, and I can’t wait. I will definitely volunteer to be involved again, in whatever capacity I can be. It is a wonderful convention, where the unpublished can rub shoulders and raise a glass with NY Times Best Sellers, and where International guests are scribbling down notes and advice given by authors whose debut is not yet on shelves.

If you are in any way connected to the Australian genre writing community, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A huge thank you, and a congratulations are due to Peter and all his many helpers, to the State Library QLD and the Australian Writer’s Marketplace, to all the guests and panelists, and to everyone who made it possible.


Mad Max and the Monomyth

Last month I saw Mad Max: Fury Road (and posted a review here).

It got me to thinking about narrative structure. Even as I was watching it I could see the moments of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, The Hero’s Journey, in the plot.

Miller has spoken before about how Mad Max’s success was international because it had the ability to tap into a wide variety of existing cultural mythologies. Through this he discovered Joseph Campbell’s theories of the monomyth and these were significant in his development from that point on as a story-teller, and significant in the development of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

In Australia, Max was the bushranger, the anti-authoritarian, standing up for the under-dogs.

In the US Max was the familiar cowboy frontiersman, Master-Blaster and his enemies were the ‘Injins’ in the same savage way of so many 1950s Hollywood Westerns.

In Japan, Max was a Ronin, a fallen samurai without a home, fighting for the honourable cause in a dishonourable world.

In this way Max was different things to different people, but at his core he was a familiar figure. A wayward loner. Lost. Wandering. Like Odysseus cast adrift on cruel seas, the victim of capricious fates.

So I applied the structure of the monomyth to Mad Max: Fury Road. It is a good fit.

Spoilers in the image below

(Click the image to enlarge)

Max's journey (Fury Road)

This shows us how a writer can do new things with familiar structures. Miller has used universal themes, characters and plot structure, but created something which is being hailed as a new and groundbreaking moment in action film-making, and a refreshingly fresh take on many of the tropes and expectations in the familiar post-apocalypse milieu.

Indeed, as Leah Schnelbach wrote for Tor.com, Mad Max: Fury Road subverts many of these heroic tropes and conventions.

So let’s unpack Miller’s use of convention and subversion a little (be warned, if you proceed, I do so at some length, and with every spoiler I can summon to mind):

The Opening

Max is alone, a wanderer in the desert. The film opens with his voice-over narrative. He tells us of his world: “Fire and Blood”. He is connected to his past (by the Interceptor and his Jacket, and by his memories, his PTSD, his ‘madness’). Quickly he is caught, captured, robbed of his identity and reduced to a ‘blood bag’. Immortan Joe (and his war-boys) treat Max as an object, as a resource. This is to become a major theme.
As with the previous films Mad Max films, Max is anonymous to those he helps, and to those he opposes.

(source: http://www.etonline.com/movies/148795_tom_hardy_in_gritty_new_mad_max_fury_road_poster/)

(source: etonline.com/movies/148795_tom_hardy_in_gritty_new_mad_max_fury_road_poster/)

The call to adventure

In Campbell’s monomyth structure the hero is called to adventure. Often the hero resists this call, intitally, only to be convinced, or later decide, to accept the call. Here, Max is not so much called to adventure, as dragged to it. Having been taken by Immortan Joe he has been reduced to a body, even further in fact, to a mere bodily fluid. Like The Wives we are yet to meet, and like the Milk Mothers we glimpse, Max has been made an object. He is valued not for his self, but for the bodily fluid he provides. The Wives are reduced to wombs. The Milk Mothers are reduced to their breast-milk. Max is reduced to a ‘blood bag’. This is a central theme of the film, and Kameron Hurley writes well about how Joe controls the means of production in a post-apocolypse where resources are scarce.
It is not then Max who is called, but Nux and the other war boys. Nux is desperate to go on the hunt for the rogue Furiosa, desperate to prove himself, to launch himself into the promised afterlife of one who has died spectacularly in Joe’s service. He is as much reduced as the wives, the mothers, and Max. He is not a person, but an object, a weapon of war.
They are called to adventure by Furiosa’s decision. It is her agency which creates the chase which will dominate the first half of the narrative.
Max is chained, shackled, linked by blood (“Fire and Blood”) to the war-boy. In this way, strapped to the front of Nux’s car, Max’s role in the adventure begins against his will.

(source: YouTube)

(source: YouTube)

Supernatural Aid

As the pursuit of Furiosa and the war-rig progresses it seems that the arrayed forces of Immortan Joe’s armada will inevitably triumph. There are too many, and even on the war-rig itself Furiosa has no allies but The Wives. The dust storm toward which she steers her rig is the supernatural aid, something massive and beyond the control of any character. It forms a physical barrier to Joe’s continued pursuit, and actively destroys the last of the pursuing war-boys… the last but for Nux.
Within the moment of this supernatural aid Max wins his (still limited) freedom, overcoming one war-boy and stopping Nux’;s suicidal attempt at vainglorious sacrifice.

When the dust settles Max is no longer linked by blood to Nux, though he is still linked by the chain. His use of the unloaded shotgun is a wonderful call-back to Mad Max 2. As coincidence or good fortune would have it, the supernatural aid leaves Max (and Nux) closest to the stalled war-rig and the opportunity it represents.

Much has been made of the scene where Max comes upon The Wives in the desert, dressed in diaphanous rags, playing under the water, but here Miller subverts the soft-porn set-up of the scene (or “the start of a Playboy shoot” as Anthony Lane suggests in the New Yorker). We see no frolicking. Unlike Lane, or David Edelstein in Vulture, I don’t think that we (or Max) are invited to view The Wives sexually. Miller is aware of that genre expectation, but The Wives are not a harem to be ogled, they are survivors of rape and slavery. Max’s interest is less prurient and more instinctual. Max has, as he said in his opening voice-over, been reduced to a single instinct: to survive. The water, and the war-rig are the means of this survival. His attitude to the women (Furiosa) especially, is one of guarded respect for the threat that they represent to his survival. He is not interested either in freeing them (they have, after all, freed themselves, both from their prisons and in discarding their chastity belts, from sexual servitude) nor saving them. When he leaves in the war-rig he is (rather unheroically) consigning them to a return to Immortan Joe. But the war-rig, by extension Furiosa, won’t allow it, and reluctantly they are all – even Nux – joined in flight.

The Threshold

Nux is still a war-boy, and still an antagonist (though a minor one). He is ejected from the war-rig before it can pass through the threshold of the known world and into the unknown. In pushing him from the rig The Wives make it clear that he symbolises a sort of toxic masculinity which they see as the cause for the preceding apocalypse. The unthinking violence, the following of orders, the delusion desire for self-destruction, the loyalty to Joe… all of these parts of Nux make him unwelcome on the war-rig, and so when he passes through the Threshold between worlds it must be as a war-boy, as part of Joe’s crew.
The mistrust between Max and Furiosa continues, and Max refuses to give her his name. She names him Fool in response, but he is no longer ‘Blood-bag’, he is more than that already, more than a mere body, or a mere bodily-fluid.

Despite this mistrust Furiosa teaches Max the kill-switch combo, and so makes him a partner in her adventure. She drives them through the Threshold between worlds, but immediately beyond that threshold it is he who remains in the war-rig while she is not, and it is he who drives them from the threshold into the unknown while the Threshold Guardians (the bikers) turn against them and Joe finds his own way through the threshold to attack.

Mad-Max-Arches

The Unknown World

Here Max plays a role in the escape from Joe, but it is a significant subversion that he drives while Furiosa is the shooter, and that The Splendid Angharad shields both Max and Furiosa from Joe’s attacks. It is her pregnancy – the womb which is for Joe her only value – which protects them. Max is a means of their escape, but it is the women themselves who win that escape.

Nux becomes helper:
Having passed through the threshold as a member of Joe’s war band, Nux begins his transformation. He is anointed with chrome lips by Joe and sent onto the war-rig, only to immediately and embarrassingly fail. Joe’s dismissal of him is classic Australian understatement, and a crushing event for Nux which breaks down his war-boy self and leaves him vacant, for The Wives (and particularly Capable) to rebuild. As he sheds the war-paint and identity of one of Joe’s soldiers, it is through their forgiveness and acceptance that he is transformed. This is also a subversion, on the transformative nature of forgiveness, both for those who forgive and for the forgiven. This ties in thematically with Max’s inability to forgive himself, and the madness and visions that plague him as a result. This is not the action-hero paradigm of a retaliation for wrongs done. This is not bloody revenge at all costs.
As a result of his transformation Nux becomes the third driver of the war-rig, and at the scene with the tree (tree-thing) he becomes not just a helper in the physical sense, but through his ideas and his use of the chain which had once bound he and his blood-bag Max together as a crucial link in winching the war-rig to safety.

Challenges and Temptations:

The Wives’ commitment to their own freedom is challenged by the loss of The Splendid Angharad and the life growing within her. It is her own words which are then repeated, almost a mantra of motive, that they will no longer be objects. Cheedoh the Fragile in particular is tempted to return and hope for Joe’s forgiveness.

The bog becomes a physical challenge. Furiosa physically pushes at the war-rig, willing it on to higher and drier ground. The Wives and Max work with her to free the wheels from the mud, and to lay booby-traps for the armada following them.

When Max leaves the group, perhaps tempted to abandon them as he had intended to when he was first freed of his chains, Furiosa worries that he will not return. When he does it is a significant moment of bonding the group together. He is equipped now, and shares the weapons he has won. He is covered in blood, but it is not his. He bathes his face in Mother’s Milk. In his opening narration Max told us that his world was fire and blood – here the milk washes that blood away. Max’s world has been fundamentally changed.

It is in this section that we are shown a (rare) quiet moment, with Max and Furiosa together and alone – as alone as they can be on/in the crowded rig. Max – who had told us he had been reduced to a single instinct: survival – listens to Furiosa’s goal. For her, survival is not enough. She was surviving, has survived, under Immortan Joe. Her decision to depart from that life is her quest for something greater than survival. Redemption. It’s a quest Max will come to share.

The Abyss

The discovery of the Vuvalini is a false triumph. They are few, and they are – with one exception – old. They are no longer the many mothers Furiosa had hoped to find. The ‘green place’ she remembered, had promised, had become the very poisoned swamp they had passed. Her hope for her future dies, and she collapses, alone again, in the sand.
Here, things are at the lowest point. Redemption seems impossible. Max allows Furiosa to have her moment of grief, without overwhelming it with his own.

Max accepts Furiosa’s choice to leave, and elects not to follow. They are – momentarily – broken, but looking out across the salt plains Max realises that Furiosa’s goal has become his own, and he can help her achieve it. Neither can succeed alone, but together there is a chance.

He offers her the choice to return, but at no point does he order, or expect, or even persuade her. Furiosa reverts to survival and decides to cross the salt plains (the dead place of the monomyth) with no real plan any more but to keep going. The hand-shake on the salt plains is the beginning of the redemptive transformation and a return to the known world, changed and gifted.

Max and Furiosa are full-partners now, allies. Tansy Rayner Roberts writes well about Max not as feminist, but as ally, and nowhere is this better represented than while they are in the abyss.He lays out a plan, but it’s clear that she could as easily choose to keep riding across the salt and Max would go his own way, as they had been about to do.

It’s also in the abyss that they receive the gift of the goddess: the seeds. Liz Bourke posted a conversation which touched on the significance of the seeds. They are, thematically and in terms of narrative structure, the point of the return to the Citadel. Where The Splendid Angharad represented most directly – through her pregnancy – life being taken away from The Citadel, the seeds are the return of life. The unborn life was lost. The seeds are an unborn life recovered, saved, tended, nurtured, carried by the Vuvalini for precisely this opportunity, in the hope that fertile ground can be found. The Citadel is fertile ground, but corrupted by the influence of Joe. Freed of his influence, it will represent redemption.

Transformation and Atonement

It would seem that the return to the Citadel is an exact mirror of the flight from the Citadel, in that both have the war-rig at their centre and in both cases Immortan Joe and his allies are the pursuers. This is not exactly correct. Where the flight from The Citadel was a car chase, the return is a car race.
In the first instance the war-rig was the goal. If it could be stopped, or broken, the chase was finished. In the return however, The Citadel is the goal. Joe and the war-rig are not pursuer and pursued, but rival combatants. This is the first transformation.

There are also several transformations of character, but perhaps none more so than in the case of Nux. The one-time war-boy has lost  his war-paint and has come to look more and more human, less the alabaster embodiment of death. Where he was sneaking around on the war-rig as a saboteur, he is now a mechanic, keeping the rig moving where he had once sought to bring it to its halt.
His atonement for his previous acts comes as the war-rig approaches the world navel, the threshold that will return them to the known world. The canyon has been cleared and repaired since their last passing and it is clear that success relies on the war-rig passing through first, and Joe’s armada being stopped on the other side, in the unknown.
It is Nux who makes this possible. He ironically achieves the fiery self-sacrifice he had been craving as a war-boy, but it is transformed from the destructive act he intended in the dust storm of the movies opening. Now his act is his own, a decision he is making, not for personal glory, but for the good of others fro whom he cares. He has changed to much to return to the world where he had been a war-boy, but he atones in a matter befitting a war-boy changed.

Cheedoh the Fragile atones for her earlier temptation by taking on the role, again, of the wife wishing to return, but this time she transforms that role into a betrayal of Joe. This allows Furiosa to climb aboard and confront Immortan Joe face to face. She takes a moment to ensure that he sees her, that he remembers her, as surely she remembers the many years in which she was his property – years which her mother could not survive – before killing him. Joe’s death was necessary for The Wives, The Citadel, and Furiosa herself to be truly free of his influence, and with that death achieved he returns to the known world dead, defeated, overthrown.  Furiosa has atoned for the long years in which she was a cog in Immortan Joe’s wheels of power.

Max’s atonement is in accepting his role as ‘bloodbag’. Like Nux he embraces a role which had been imposed on him by Immortan Joe, but he twists and subverts the role to a transformed purpose. Nux subverts Joe’s preaching of a glorious death, shiny and chrome, and makes the act life-affirming. Likewise, Max takes Joe’s attempts to reduce him to a mere fluid, and transforms the act into one which is life-saving. He stabs Furiosa, but without violence, as an aid to her. He gives her his blood, and – perhaps as significantly – he gives her his name. He atones for what he once was, for the concept of masculine hero as a destroyer, and becomes heroic as a  life-giver.

The Return

It is Max who reveals the body of Immortan Joe, but Furiosa who steps forward to make that revelation real,and Furiosa who is raised up, with The Wives and the survivors and the all-important seeds.
Life has been returned to The Citadel, and life uncorrupted by Joe.
The Milk Mothers are free of their shackles and step forward to release the waters for the people. They are no longer the means of production themselves, but they have assumed control of the fluid that will bring life to the parched earth and its parched people.

Max, having achieved his redemption, and aided Furiosa in hers, returns to the state in which we found him in the film’s opening: a lone wanderer in the wasteland, belonging nowhere.
Max Crowd


My musings on increased diversity in comics

So Thor is to be a woman, Captain America is to be African-American, Spiderman Hispanic, Ms Marvel Pakistani (I prefer the ungendered ‘Captain Marvel’ title to ‘Ms Marvel’, but we shall press on), and other similar flippings and re-imaginings are bringing a new sense of diversity to familiar comic heroes. And to my own surprise, I am conflicted. I should be all for this… but.

CaptainAmerica

Photo Credit: Marvel Entertainment

Let me say from the outset, I want comics to diversify and tell the stories of people who are not straight, white guys. I want more stories with protagonists of colour. I want my sons to see superheroes that reflect the world they live in, populated as it is by shades of brown, by more women than men, by the rich traditions of cultures from around the globe. I’ve written here about diversity in storytelling before.

I love the idea of a female superhero flying in, swinging a hammer, sending lightning to strike her foes, in a superheroic role that don’t require skin-tight black leather, cleavage-bearing cut-outs or bikini line waxing. I was raised by Buffy. On top of this, Falcon is the obvious candidate to take-up the star-spangled shield if Steve Rogers’ serum were to fail him, and an African-American Captain America should be unremarkable in an America where Obama is president, for readers who have grown-up admiring athletes like Jordan, Shaq and LeBron.

And yet I am conflicted by these changes. For all those reasons I have to support them, something grates. I worried initially that this was some vestigial cultural rejection, that some part of me was stamping its feet and saying ‘Thor is a man because he just is dammit!’ But I don’t think that’s what this is. After all, much has been of Thor’s time as a frog, for a time Captain America was a Skrull, Superman has been a gorilla, etc. These passed unremarked, as they should have, and perhaps as these changes should too.

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I think instead that my conflict comes from concern that these well-intentioned changes don’t actually achieve the message they intend. These changes are not tokenism – as Chuck Wendig’s excellent post points out – and I don’t argue that they are. Yet it is not a true increase in diversity either. It is a veneer of diversity. I find that it disappoints me, particularly in the case of Thor, that these new heroes are presented to us only after they come to inhabit some other, established, identity – a white man’s identity.

Commercially, bringing these protagonists into the role of existing, established characters (with an existing, established readership) makes sense. Comic book superheroes are not rare. It’s a crowded space into which a new addition may make barely a ripple, but change an existing member of its pantheon, and people notice. Geekdoms landslide with approbation or applause, likely both. Either way you get noticed. You get into mainstream media. And that’s good business and I absolutely understand that.

In the case of Spiderman, and Captain America, and many others, I can see how the passing of the identity works. It has been long established. Many characters have taken on an heroic role: Azrael becomes Batman after the breaking of Bruce Wayne; the many iterations of The Flash (Barry Allen, Wally West, Bart Allen and beyond). I can imagine someone taking up the bow and purple cowl of Hawkeye, because Hawkeye is not restricted to Clint Barton (and Barton has played other roles than Hawkeye). When Pym retired as Ant-Man others used the technology to take on the role.

Thor is different, as are Superman and The Hulk. Behind Batman’s cowl anyone can dispense vigilante justice, that’s the nature of the cowl and of the secret identity of its wearer, but as Tarantino’s Bill pointed out, Superman is not a costume. Kal-El dresses up as Clark Kent, but Superman is inextricably Kal-el. Likewise, Hulk is inextricably Banner, Thor is inextricably the son of Odin. ‘Thor’ is not a title to be passed on.

God of Thunder is a role. Wielder of Mjölnir is a role.  These are roles that could be given to someone other than Thor Odinson, and at times they have, and yet when Captain America (or Storm, or Beta Ray Bill) did wield the hammer, they did not become Thor. They were able to play the same role, but not to inhabit the same identity.

Previous attempts – admirable in themselves – at gender diversity were similarly flawed or fraught: female superheroes were defined by connections with, or as counter-points to, male heroes. Batman/Batgirl; Superman/Supergirl; Hulk/She-Hulk; Thor/Thor-girl, etc. (Ms. Marvel becoming Capt. Marvel being an exception here). Marvel seems keen to head-off this criticism. Their announcement of the female Thor was couched in language as much about what she was not, as about what she was. Jason Aaron has said that “this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute – she’s now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy!”… “This is not She-Thor, This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is Thor.”

So she has become that identity entire. And this is precisely where she sends the opposite message to the one I believe was intended. Can a female superhero not exist in her own identity, as herself? Must she inhabit the identity of a white guy before she’s gifted legitimacy? Can a woman only be heroic by taking on a male role – not just the characteristics of a male hero, but the very identity? Because if the answer to those questions is a yes, that’s a crap message.

Having Sam Wilson trade in his wings for a shield doesn’t actually add diversity to Marvel, it’s just reshuffling their deck. Wilson was ground-breaking as a black superhero in 1969, and he breaks some ground now as Captain America, but it’s not added diversity. He’s not new, he’s just rebranded. Nor is he the first black man to take on the uniform. More than 10 years ago Marvel had a black Captain America in Isaiah Bradley.

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The criticisms levelled at that 2003 series ring eerily familiar this week:

“…outright racists who just don’t like the idea of a black man in the Cap uniform.”
(http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,390672,00.html)

“When we posted our first image of Isaiah Bradley – the silhouette of an African American man in a Captain America costume – the media latched onto it as a story of interest, but a lot of internet folks lined up against it, assuming, for whatever reason, that it would disparage the legacy of Steve Rogers.”
(http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=34680)

Despite Aaron’s insistence, both the ‘black Captain America’ and the ‘female Thor’ are absolutely being positioned as temporary inhabitants of these roles. Thor Odinson can reclaim Mjölnir when he is again worthy. Steve Rodgers remains in many ways the ‘real’ Captain America, training Sam Wilson in how to throw the shield and wear the stars, running the missions from Avengers mansion. An unkind reading would have this as a white master sending out his black errand boy. Both of these characters are replacements, and as such any identity they form will be in the shadows of their (white, male) predecessors, never an independently their own.

To bring them in in this way is to ensure that they are less prominent even in their role because they will always be viewed through a comparative lens. Rather than having Falcon brought to prominence in his own right (perhaps as the lead in a Falcon film where Captain America plays his second fiddle), Marvel has merely swapped the colour palate for the Captain America inking. Rather than bring Lady Sif to prominence in her own right, Marvel has merely altered Thor, making a pointier breastplate prominent. I’m sure they will do more with the characters that that, they have talented writers on hand, but the criticism is there to be made.

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And I do support that these stories are being told. I do support greater genuine diversity of the people represented as heroes. There’s better ways to achieve this. You want an African-American hero? DC could do well to leave the Ryan Reynolds disaster behind and cast a Green Lantern based on John Stewart in an upcoming Justice League film (and let The Rock play him!). What better opportunity than having a woman and an African American (I know The Rock is a Pacific Islander, stick with me here) stand alongside the Kryptonian and the Gothamite? It was a noted strength of the Winter Soldier film that when Captain America (Rodgers) needed allies he turned to two black men and a woman.

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Diversify The Avengers? Bring Falcon onto the team. Bring Rhodey on as War Machine and give Downey Jnr a rest.  Introduce Black Panther (and give him a movie of his own). Where’s Luke Cage? He has worked with Spider Man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Hulk and could appear in any number of franchises? (The Rock again? Or Idris Elba? Just don’t cast Nicholas Cage to play the Harlem-raised African-American).

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Would these suffer from the accusations or the reality of ‘side-kick spin-off’ syndrome? Perhaps. So take a character who’s no one’s side-kick.

You want a female superhero throwing lightning around and kicking arse? Storm! She’s established and portrayed in film by an Oscar winner. She’s a female of colour. She has worked with The Avengers before. If Wolverine can have an origin, why not Storm? Want a woman hitting hard with a divine hammer? Have Ms Marvel take up Mjölnir, or Brunnhilde the Valkyrie. Have Jane Foster pick up the hammer when Thor’s knocked down. Who wouldn’t want to see Natalie Portman with Mjölnir in hand? Have a new female character (Asgardian or otherwise) wield it. There’s no shortage of Norse myth to plunder.

Have Frigg and her attendants as a team of female heroes.

Gender-swap Vidar and have a Goddess who can stand beside Thor with the strength to rip Fenris’s jaw asunder with her bare hands.

Have Tyr become a one-handed Goddess of single combat.

Imagine if Nanna swore revenge instead of pining her way to an early death in grief at Loki’s murder of her husband. Powered by her need to avenge Baldr the (now former?) Goddess of Peace could oppose Loki, could ignore Thor’s calls for restraint or mercy, could be a narrative grenade tossed into the halls of Asgard and the world of men. She could renounce her reign of peace and unleash violence of divine proportions. She links to existing canon in that she is fighting an existing antagonist. She could draw on the tradition of moon goddesses, a new Diana hunting through the Marvel universe. Thor could cameo to plead with her for his brother’s safety, and she could shrug him off as a weak-willed and overly sympathetic fool. She could take Mjölnir from him, not received as a gift, but taken as her right, and in a rage she could wield it against her foes.

That’s a kick-arse female hero I want to read more about.


True Detective: masculinity, misogyny and monster myths

I have just finished watching True Detective and I intend to discuss it below in a way that will require I give a spoiler alert right here. There’s been a lot said recently about spoilers after a certain someone at a certain royal wedding met a certain fate and the internet went nuts and those people who didn’t want a 15 year old book spoiled for them were understandably upset. So though I don’t intend to deliberately spoil anyone’s enjoyment of True Detective, I’ll probably say something that might. Fair warning then. Spoilers ahead.

For a long time I have held The Wire to be my favourite TV show of all time, and I think there’s a fair stretch of daylight between The Wire and whatever is second. I thought Dexter was a challenger at around the time of Trinity, but it fell away quickly and it fell hard and by the end I hated that dead-beat, lumberjacking cop-out. Oz would be up there. I never quite caught the Breaking Bad addiction to the same extent as many friends did, but it’s clearly very good. Ditto Sopranos. Ditto Deadwood. Then there’s the next tier down where sits the likes of Lost, Walking Dead, first season of Heroes, etc.

True Detective I think is my new 2nd, and it’s closer to The Wire than any of those others came. It is the most stunningly beautiful cop procedural I have seen. The cinematography, the long-shots, the tracking shots, the aesthetic of landscape and urban decay and the people eking out lives of misery and quiet desperation… magnificent. Both leads are tremendous (and the support cast too, but more on that soon), each shed a weight of their parodied past and shouldered instead the gravitas and depth required in a series that relied a great deal on strong performances from its dual protagonists. They delivered. They delivered in spades. Harrelson is great, brooding, childish, petulant, aggressive, assured, fragile, by turns. He inhabits all of these contradictions and owns the physical changes Marty undergoes across the span of 15 years. McConaughey is astounding, and in his ’95 iteration particularly he is nearly unrecognisable but for his voice. I kept having to remind myself who I was watching, and he kept dragging me away from that guy and immersing me in the character.

That guy...

‘That guy’…

But what I feel truly set the series apart from other odd-couple, buddy cop, bromance, procedurals was the philosophical positions expounded by these characters. In his nihilism, his philosophical pessimism, his unflinching honesty-to-self, Rust Cohle brought some interesting ideas to the small screen. The most quoted – most quotable – of these has inspired Tumblrs and Sub-Reddits and all manner of internet discussion, dissection and debate. “Time is a flat circle” explores Nietzsche’s theory of infinite recursion – the thought that most terrified him, among all of the terrifying thoughts he offered. References to “The Yellow King” and “Carcosa” made an 1895 collection of short stories an Amazon best-seller.

Those whom I have read dissatisfied or critical of the series complain that after introducing this apparent profundity, this depth of philosophy and thought, this supernatural sense of myth… the finale is unconcerned with addressing those loose ends. I personally don’t think that was a problem. If this is to be understood as a story about Rust and Marty, then their story is told, and wrapped-up, in the finale. It is in some ways a surprising ending, perhaps in that it is so adherent to the buddy-cop formula, perhaps in that it draws a positive conclusion from a previously pessimist world-view, perhaps because it is so deliberately unconcerned with all those things that had the internet speculating, but it is a completion of the narrative.

Questions do abound though:
Who was the King in Yellow? Why was everyone so afraid? Why is the corpse of Errol’s father left just staked out like that? How did the murders go so long unrecognised? What was the role of the Tuttle family? What consequences await the governor? Why was this done in the first place? What religious or spiritual significance was attached to it? The spiral? The ability of DeWall to see Rust’s soul? What is the ‘mask’ Rust wears?

There’s been several articles and posts  about the conclusion. I can see why some feel the need for a more encompassing resolution to these questions, but I think that misunderstands the main theme of the show . This series was not entitled, “The Yellow King”. This was “True Detective”. Rust and Marty are our focus. It is their tale, and with the denouement in the hospital it is completed (although Lauren Davis’ examination of the conclusion as a supernatural victory for the Yellow King was most interesting).

The more complex criticism, and I suspect the more valid, is in the way True Detective treats women.
Kameron Hurley summarised the concerns as I understand them on her website, and her writing forced me to go back to the series and examine just how much I had read it through the lens of straight, white, cisgendered, male; examine just how different it might look through a different lens.

There were several occasions where the series explicitly explored the nature of masculinity. When, having seen only the first two episodes, I was asked by a friend what the series was about, “masculine roles” was my answer. In ep 2

Marty talks about how he differs from his father, how he faces his burdens – is expected to face is burdens – differently. He reveals himself as a man struggling to adapt to a world of shaken patriarchy. His concept of what it means to be a father, a husband, are shown to be hopelessly out-dated. Indeed he uses these concepts to rationalise the most egregious behaviour. His infidelities, he claims, are essential for him to maintain a healthy marriage. As the series progresses he loses control of himself, his family, his wife. The women in his life were all possessions, which he guarded jealously. His wife. His daughters. His mistress(es). He – as he tells Rust – likes to mow his own lawn. When these things are threatened he responds with violence, often shown to be an impotent violence that he knows he cannot realise, at least against those that matter. Against Maggie and Rust he backs down, or in the one fight scene with Rust he knows he cannot win – later accusing Rust of arrogance for holding back. Against ‘lesser’ men (and against boys) he gives his violence fearsome rein. Against women too, slapping his daughter, choke-hold on his wife, he is as much an aggressor as a protector. His insults against women who he feels have wronged him are all sexual. His daughter a ‘slut’, his unfaithful wife a ‘whore’, his mistress a ‘bitch’ whom he will ‘skullfuck’. Marty is a simple man, and undeniably a misogynist.

Rust is different, and less simple, but still has a deeply flawed view of women. Rust is motivated by a woman in the fridge, in this case his daughter. Subsequently he disassociates from women. He is reluctant to engage at all with Marty’s family, and surprised to find it less terrible than he’d feared. He accuses Maggie ‘what have you done’ immediately after their infidelity. He encourages a woman suffering Munchausen’s-by-proxy to suicide. He shows little compassion for the women and girls at the trailer-park ‘bunny ranch’, and what compassion Marty shows he mocks. ‘Is that a down payment?’ (That he later turns out to be correct only serves to endorse the view. Marty’s desire to protect an innocent falls away when he has a chance to be ‘despoiler’. Women, even ‘saved’ women, remain whores, to be bought).  Rust is a misogynist also, even if not as overt. He knows this. He knows that he is not a good man, but believes he is necessary to keep the other bad men from the doors of innocents (women and children – whom no one else seems to miss). He knows he is a dangerous man. He sets himself up as a protector of women and children, though he cannot have either in his own life.

Whether this means that the series itself is misogynist, I’m less certain. I can see the argument, though I’m not entirely convinced. True Detective fails the bechdel test . Maggie is given a role in the narrative (as interviewee) only after they can no longer interview the men, and then she’s only interviewed about the relationship of the men to each other (and what her role in its fracture might have been). Her own arc has some moments of strength and independence, but these are undermined by that final scene of her, with obedient daughters, showing up to offer Marty redemption. That it is too late for that, that he is not redeemed by his delayed heroism, is his tragedy, not hers. The one moment in which Maggie does seize some agency is in her decision to have sex with Rust. Even this, a brief glimpse of her as a decision-maker, as an agent, is in service to the show exploring the relationship between the men.

And yet perhaps that’s the point. Willa Paskin, at Slate, accepts that “mistresses, prostitutes, corpses, or some combination thereof…” and yet argues that this is deliberately so, that this ignorance of women is a thematic decision. If it is then it’s an important theme perhaps too subtly played out. True Detective shows the monstrous acts of men: abduction, rape, pedophilia, dismemberment/corpse display… It gives us at the end the catharsis of our (flawed) heroes pass through the labyrinth and defeat the monster at its centre. Errol is clearly a monster. His monstrosity is foreshadowed clearly by Rust in his interview.
And yet what True Detective then ignores is all of the other men in that video, all the others who allowed this to happen, the society that meant women and children could go missing unnoticed, that police would not even search for a child if the orders came from above that they shouldn’t.
It’s this monstrosity, the monstrosity of the normal male, the quotidian masculine assumptions of power and privilege, that are the truly terrifying, and I wonder if by giving us an obvious monster to kill True Detective didn’t distract us from the horror of all those ‘normal’ men who participated and facilitated. It’s something Rust is himself concerned by, expressing his regret on his hospital bed. marty though is satisfied. ‘We got ours,’ he says, and for him that’s enough.

Near where I live a woman was walking home – a short walk, and familiar, along a well-lit and heavily trafficked street – when she was taken by a man, raped, murdered, hastily buried. The man was caught and convicted, sentenced, is imprisoned for his crime. He had a history of sexual violence and that he was free to commit this rape and murder on an innocent woman sent shock and outrage through the community.
As I was drafting this post I became aware of something which the husband of that murdered woman wrote. Despite what he had suffered, despite the genuinely nightmarish monstrosity of the rapist who took his wife from him, this man still has the courage and perception to see how dangerous the myth of the monster is.
Some violence against women is perpetrated by monsters, by Childress and his ilk, but much of it – the overwhelming majority of it – is perpetrated by men like Marty, and perhaps like Rust. Manly men, who struggle to find their place in the world and struggle to understand how to relate to women, or how to cope in the absence of women, or how to curb their desires. Men with double-standards and short fuses and a view of women as possessions or playthings. These men are the real dangers.

And so the one ardent criticism I have to level at one of the best television series I’ve ever seen, is that we too easily identify with, accept, and forgive, the monstrous behaviour of bad, dangerous men.