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On the Failure of Superhero Movies: Can the Genre be Saved?

Thor is Not Your Friend

Why did Green Lantern and every iteration of Fantastic Four suck so bad? Why are other franchises bordering on the same kind of suckage? I think it’s because film-makers think we want to be friends with the superheros.

We don’t.

For the most part, the success of the superhero film and TV show genre is rooted in comic book nostalgia. Comics are the originary source of wonder and amazement. They made us want to fly or scale walls, though we knew we would never be anything other than a kid jumping off a couch. Indeed, it was our inability to relate to superhero characters that made them so interesting.
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This essential and unbridgeable distance between the reader and the character is captured in the superlatives we find in comic titles: The Amazing Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, and The Fantastic Four. The term ‘uncanny’ in The Uncanny X-Men literally means ‘unsettlingly strange’, and it was this strangeness that made the X-Men my favourite comic. I had no idea how Rogue experienced her world. All I knew was that she was awesome. I could not participate in the X-Men’s adventures, I could only marvel at them.

True, comic book writers tried to make characters somewhat relatable, but in any other context what would be a relatable human problem was always unrelatable for a kid reading, say, The Mighty Thor. Thor’s relationships and inner turmoil were not problems I could (or even cared to) relate to; they were the problems of a god and that is why he was so cool. All superheroes are gods in the sense that we as readers never have access to their worlds. Most characters were something like a human, but as kids we were neither attuned to nor interested in the humanity of superhero characters. We had Archie for that (though honestly, I could never relate to his problems either). A film must capture this feeling or fail.

The lives of superheroes always necessarily exceeded our experience. Even street-level superheroes without special powers nevertheless had an incomprehensible combination of wealth, intellect, athleticism, and fighting skill. Batman was human, but he was not just a man. He took on Superman, after all.8b63794f52431dd5ad831296f8c81a81

Super-Dad and his Drinking Buddies

Superhero films and TV shows are failing. They have the potential to succeed but only to the extent that they feature actual superheroes rather than super-Dads and drinking buddies. For a superhero flick to work it must re-create that essential nostalgia-inducing distance between the viewer and the character.

It was only after watching Avengers 2: Age of Ultron that I finally understood that this crucial distance was missing from the entire genre. The realization snuck up on me as I watched. As an adult, I was finding the Avengers so relatable that it took me out of the film. They are sarcastic and funny, like some of my friends. Oh cool, they’re also drinking buddies! I have drinking buddies. What is ‘shawarma’ anyways? There’s a place down the street from me. I could check it out. Hey, look! Hawkeye is married with two kids, just like me. Jeez, I hope he survives to see his family aga…wait, what? No.
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No!!

I’m not supposed to be empathizing with ‘Dad’ responsibilities in a superhero experience! As I sat there, it occurred to me that the root cause of my emerging doubt was that consumers of comic book nostalgia don’t go to these movies to feel like adults with adult relationships and problems. What we want these films to capture, as best they can, is the experience we had as kids encountering superheroes through the medium of the comic. What we want is for the medium of film to reproduce the wonder and amazement engendered by the comic book experience. And this means recreating the distance between the reader and the character. Modern superhero films have effectively closed the nostalgic gap – the space that made superheroes super in the first place. ironman2crop

Instead, they do an excellent job of making us feel like we’re flying through the clouds with Ironman, sharing yuks with Captain America, or swinging between towers with Spiderman. In the increasingly exciting and immersive 3D IMAX experience of superhero films, a key feature of our childhood wonder is being betrayed. I am not supposed to feel like I am flying or jumping off skyscrapers, and I am definitely not supposed to be attending a swanky evening soirée with Falcon. I am supposed to feel like I am bearing witness (like a kid reading a comic) to powers and feats and adventures that exceed my ability to relate and understand.

I am supposed to be amazed, not amused. This is ultimately the reason why Green Lantern was such a flop. Ryan Reynolds is your hilarious friend from college, not an intergalactic policeman. The movie made Green Lantern into a familiar dude-bro dork-fest yet and it suffered for it.Ryan-Reynolds-breaks-out-the-big-guns-in-Green-Lantern_gallery_primary

Deadpool is a different kind of movie precisely because it follows the comic book in abandoning any pretense of cultivating awe and amazement. The magic of Deadpool has always been the characters intentional bridging of the distance between audience and superhero. It’s why he breaks the forth wall: to insure that we are all aware of the gag. Green Lantern was painfully unaware that it was a gag.

I have always thought the best scenes are the ones in which superheroes use their powers in front of normal people who are appropriately Gob-smacked. We didn’t pay too much attention to regular characters in the comics because we didn’t need to. In fact, we could read a comic with no regular people at all and that would be fine because we didn’t need any reminders that superheroes are extraordinary by comparison. Our own human limitations were the comparison. In a superhero movie, we must live through the human characters if we are going to genuinely appreciate the superhuman. On the screen, regular mortal characters serve as our proxies – they function to remind us that Thor’s powers are indeed extraordinary rather than mundane.
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Like when Ma and Pa Kent watched in awe as young Kal-El lifted up the back of the pick-up truck. It was miraculous. Or when Superman takes a terrified and overwhelmed Lois Lane for a dizzying flight around Metropolis. You’ll never forget it.

The only regular people who could possibly serve as proxies in films like Avengers 2 were either inexplicably indifferent to the presence of gods or too busy screaming because their neighbourhood was blowing up. In the Spiderman franchise, regular folks always seem to form an audience to battles from behind crowd-control fences, ooing and ahhing as if watching a Cirque du Solei performance. These crowds cannot serve as our proxies because they, like us, are also amused rather than amazed. maxresdefault

We saw no one in the Avengers 2 tremble at the sight of a Norse god with a magical war-hammer come to life before their eyes and shoot lightening at a sentient cyborg. Instead, we sat and chuckled with Thor as he got tipsy with his super-buds.

How to save the genre

We occasionally see fear on the faces of citizens, but it is always from the perspective of the superhero that is trying to save them. Indeed, we’ve been viewing the world through the eyes of the superhero the whole time. We fly, swing, and battle along side the superheroes. The camera – our window into the world – always seems to be mounted on their shoulders. The effect is that the superlatives fall away from the hero and what is left is a CGI ride. A movie without proxies to help distance us from superheroes can easily degenerate into a 3-hour CGI-fest in which everyone is supposed to be amazing but the result is that no one is particularly remarkable.

Filmakers need to understand that our investment in superheroes and their stories is rooted in that character’s role in the survival of the human race, as represented in the film by the actual human beings to whom we relate.

Part of the success of Godzilla can be attributed to the way Gareth Edwards situates the audience as powerless spectators in a clash between unearthly forces of nature. The camera – our window into this world – is set at street level. We the audience are shoulder to shoulder with the film’s regular human protagonists. We, too, are looking through the clouds for a glimpse of the miraculous and immortal. The music is ominous and foreboding. The fate of the world turns on this being who remains mysterious and fucking cool not because we empathized when its parents got murdered in Act 1, but because the creature is overwhelming. More importantly, our investment in Godzilla is tied to our investment in the humanity he seems ordained to protect, for reasons that we don’t quite understand because, after all, we are merely human. Imagine if Godzilla cracked wise and ate shawarma at the end of the film. It would have been both amusing as well as a giant shit on film-goers. You know, like Transformers.image-new-godzilla-footage-plus-muto-monsters-godzilla-plot-details-revealed-world-premiere-review-mild-spoilers

I’m not saying superheroes need to be silent, humourless monsters like Godzilla. I actually think the character of Vision struck a respectable balance in Avengers 2. He was, in the end, the only mysterious superhero in the movie. What Joss Whedon seems to have missed, and he is not alone, is that we’re not supposed to care about Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch because we relate to the fragility of life and the power of familial commitments; we are supposed to care about them because they are supernatural forces who shoulder the responsibility of protecting the real human characters in the film – not love interests or screaming crowds.

Likewise, the consequences of a superhero death, disappearance, or retirement must feel existential and cosmic. The arrival of a superhero is supposed to feel like a mysterious salvation. The loss of a superhero is supposed to resonate like the death of a god. Filmmakers should not aspire, as they currently do, to the action and comedic beats we want in a buddy-cop flick. They should aspire to the wide-eyed wonder of the kid who just read a comic.

Globe & Mail review of ‘The Winter We Danced’.

The Globe and Mail had a nice review of The Winter We Danced.The Winter We Danced

Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence – “Mandates of the State: Canadian Sovereignty, Democracy, and Indigenous Claims”

CJLJ_Cover_2016_Feb2014. “Mandates of the State: Canadian Sovereignty, Democracy and Indigenous Claims” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 27, 1: 225-238.

Ethos of the Ally: Deference, Dialogue, and Distance

Revised: March 2, 2015

I have been asked many times to write about what it means to be an ‘ally’ or work in solidarity with marginalized groups. I am not fond of the term ‘ally’, nor do I think a ‘rule-book’ for aligning oneself with marginalized groups is a good idea. And so I have always declined and referred to what has already been written on the topic by those who have more relevant insight and experience. I won’t rehearse what these activists and writers have already brought to light. There are many common themes running through the various accounts, but where the prescriptions appear to be in tension with each other I have nothing to add other than my commitment to critically engage with them.

Critical Solidarity

This is one of the biggest responsibilities of someone who wishes to do anti-oppression work: to think critically about the diversity and disagreement that naturally occurs within and between groups, and to make judgements about how to proceed given the inevitability of those disagreements. It is inevitable that someone in a group with whom you work in solidarity will ask you to be silent. It is also inevitable that others will ask you to speak up. The worst thing one can do is let a diversity of perspectives paralyze you intellectually or physically, rendering you unable to do the work. Many simply walk away from the role because they assume  disagreement within a marginalized group signals some kind of unreadiness. I think this is a complete mischaracterization of diversity, as I shall explain further. But for now, let us turn to perhaps the most common strategy that allies employ in the face of diversity: uncritical deference.

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Moving Beyond the Indian Act – The Agenda (TVO)

I participated in TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paiken, ostensibly on the topic of alternatives to the Indian Act. Unfortunately, Skype is a terrible medium for remote participation. Worse, the conversation devolved into hearsay regarding Chief Spence.

 

 

The Unnecessary Distinction between Reason and the Passions

David Hume (1711 -1776)

The philosopher David Hume famously proclaimed that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. Hume was working through the classic dichotomy and philosophical opposition between reason and passion, ideas and emotions. He concluded that belief by itself was insufficient to motivate action; some affective attachment was required in addition to the idea in order to motivate the subject to act. What we call the ‘will’ is merely the experience of this confluence between belief and action.

I happen to think that Hume is on the right track in his portrayal of abstract thought, or what he calls ‘demonstrative’ reasoning, reasoning about relations between ideas. Without some affective attachment to the nature or consequences of information and ideas, our conclusions take the form of idle data and inert propositions. Hume describes another form of reason, probabilistic, which plays a role in action insofar as it determines whether courses of action will result in pain or pleasure. Still, for Hume, it is the aversion to pain and the attraction to pleasure which ultimately motivate us to act on the determinations of probabilistic reasoning.

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Literature and culture, a humanizing force?

My dissertation on democracy, language, and colonialism will likely be prefaced by the following quote:

We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct? Moreover, it is not only the case that the established media of civilization – the universities, the arts, the book world – failed to offer adequate resistance to political bestiality; they often rose to welcome it and gave it ceremony and apologia. Why?

George Steiner, Language and Silence.

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Practices and intellectualist fallacies in social science

Charles Taylor’s well-known essay “To Follow a Rule” offers social scientists and theorists an indispensable but still neglected perspective on human agency and norm governed life. The arguments have much in common with those made by James Tully in “Wittgenstein and Political Philosophy”. Like Tully, Taylor’s main resource is the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which he deploys in order to deconstruct a number of persistent intellectualist fallacies. The gist of the argument is that one’s understanding of a norm or rule, as well as deviation from the rule, is in the first instance a bodily understanding of appropriate ways to move and act in relation to others. There is no intellectual formulation – no representation of a practice – that is required for our practical understanding. What follows is a summary of the article. I conclude with a minor point that in addition to bodily know-how being the grounds of following a rule, it is also the grounds of contesting a rule.

Taylor argues that for any principle or justification we do end up articulating in order to explain a rule to someone there are an “indefinite number of points at which, for a given explanation of a rule and a given run of cases, someone could nevertheless misunderstand” (166). Misunderstanding the character of a practice occurs when our interlocutor does not share the appropriate background: “Understanding is always against a background of what is taken for granted, just relied on. Someone can always come along who lacks this background, and so the plainest things can be misunderstood” (167).

What is the nature of this background? Taylor quickly dismisses the notion of an infinite catalogue of resolutions that qualify every possible instance of rule conformity and deviation. No one possesses such a mental compendium. For after all the inevitable exceptions and qualifications that we admit during an interrogation of the principle we’ve mustered to explain or justify, we eventually hit a point where we are unable to provide any further account. In such cases, as Wittgenstein observes, my justifications “have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned” (167). At this point I can only offer that “this is simply what I do” and continue on acting, as it were, “without reasons” (167). Taylor concurs, observing that “reason giving has a limit, and in the end must repose in another kind of understanding” (179).

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The Master’s Tools Cannot be Used

When Audre Lorde agreed to participate in a feminist conference at NYU in 1984, she was dismayed to find an almost complete absence of black and lesbian participants other than herself. In Lorde’s now famous rebuke to her audience of white heterosexual feminists she demanded that feminism begin acknowledging the practical and experiential differences that exist between different groups of women. A failure to do so condemns feminism to reinscribe patterns of exclusion and domination. For in this failure to recognize, nurture, and benefit from the diversity of female experiences, she charged that white feminists were deploying the very racist and patriarchal ‘tools’ of exclusion they sought to challenge:

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.

In excluding the experiences of black and lesbian women, academic feminists were subverting their own goals of democratic inclusion. Lorde issued her now well-known caution, arguing that systems of oppression cannot be challenged by woman’s participation in those same systems:

the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

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Thoughts on Paul Nadasdy’s ‘Hunter’s and Bureaucrats’…

Paul Nadasdy, an anthropologist, published a book in 2003 titled Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal State Relations in the Southwest Yukon. The book presents an analysis of the ways in which the Canadian state and its bureaucratic structures impose a transformative context on negotiations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, a context that distorts and displaces the meaning of aboriginal accounts. Using his experiences living with and aiding the Kluane First Nation, settler-born Nadasdy explores the subtle power of the state to structure the terms of dialogue such that the demand for a public accounting of traditional practices and ways of knowing leads to these forms of life being excluded or disfigured in translation.

Nadasdy employs the work of a number of theorists to illustrate just how ‘contexts’ delimit what it is possible to say, do, or even think. Referring to the work on ‘symbolic power’ developed by Pierre Bourdieu, he argues that speech acts are situated within certain “linguistic fields” that may or may not be amenable to the particular ‘linguistic habitus’ of an individual. In certain contexts, particular modes of speaking may be discredited or excluded while others are recognized as ‘official’ or ‘formal’. Likewise through the work of Michel Foucault we see that knowledge is always imbricated in relations of power that do not rely on coercive force but nevertheless shape discourse, what Eric Wolf has referred to as a ‘structural power’ that defines the basic conditions of admissibility and intelligibility (10).

What this means in practice is that we cannot simply depend on dialogue to forge mutual understandings, if for no other reason than the meaning of words is derived from and supported within certain forms of life that may be absent from the context of the negotiation. Nadasdy offers the word “respect”, upheld as a guiding principle of traditional life, as an example. He writes that it is not enough to simply agree with aboriginal peoples on the importance of respect because we’re probably not talking about the same thing.

 We cannot simply assume that the English word “respect” stands for a distinct and coherent set of First Nations beliefs and practices; rather, we can only hope to understand what First Nations peoples mean by the term if we examine it “in action.” In other words, we must observe its use within specific social contexts. (80)

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