Thor: Hela Hath No Fury Like Cate Blanchett Scorned

When I was little I was always rooting for the baddies – Scar was just so much more fun than moralistic Mufasa and his arrogant son; Jafar was fab, even his facial expressions were more interesting than anything cocksure Aladdin did, and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is fab. In hindsight, I think it’s because these characters oozed rebellion and camp, giving two murderous fingers to all those endless cis, straight men who ruled their worlds awfully but called themselves Gods, Kings and heroes while they were at it. Twenty odd years later and nothing has changed – boy, did I want Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Goddess of Death, to skewer Thor, God of cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy and smash his home planet of Asgard into smithereens (spoilers). And she almost succeeded.

I went to the cinema for dramatic and colourful escapism and I got it – there were more rainbows in Thor: Ragnarok than in a well-lit museum of prisms and we got a fair few shots of Chris Hemsworth’s buff chest. Cate Blanchett’s arrival was epic – she crushed Thor’s hammer-penis-ego-extension thing with one hand. There was some funny bromance between Thor and the Hulk (tbh, Chris Hemsworth is really funny), Tom Hiddlestone grinned his way through one of Marvel’s only memorable villains – Loki, and Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, was an alcoholic, gambling warrioress who kicked butt on her own terms and answered to no man (until she suddenly changes her mind and acknowledges Thor as King at movie’s end). Of course, this is Hollywood and all the usual failings are there – why is there only one well-rounded female character in the group of male heroes, why not two or three (or y’know, the whole fucking group), and any trans or nonbinary heroes…nope. Why is the Grand Master of the bizarre planet of Sakaar a man, albeit a hilarious, exceptionally camp Jeff Goldblum? Why is Hela’s assistant a man? Why was the one scene that would confirm Valkyrie’s bisexuality cut? Why was Korg’s (a male warrior made from rocks) first love not mentioned, a first love who was a man? Why was Loki’s gender fluidity and probable pansexuality unmentioned? Of course, we know why and it’s going to be years before diversity triumphs over patriarchy.

But something I did enjoy was Cate Blanchett’s unashamed villainy. She is Thor and Loki’s elder sister and firstborn of idiot patriarch Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins). She reveals the sordid truth behind Asgard’s glory – that all the gold and treasure was gained through bloodshed and annihilation, with her being her father’s executioner (maybe an allusion to the US and its legacy of slavery and militaristic imperialism often papered over by photographable presidents…until Trump, who is just plain awful and too stupid to be considered a super villain). Yup, Odin trained his own daughter to be a psychopathic mass-murderer then banished her when her power grew more than his. So, whilst it’s hard to root for her genocidal intent I did get where she was coming from and struggled to see her out-witted by a group of men and a token Valkyrie (who doesn’t get an actual name beyond her race). But at least when Hela gets destroyed, Asgard, planet of sociopathic, patriarchal monarchy, goes with her. Unfortunately, the film still ends with Thor taking the throne because Hollywood isn’t ready to give up on white men running everything. But times are changing, incredibly slowly, and Raganarok – the death of the Gods in Norse mythology – isn’t over yet. The heroes of colour are amassing as are the female heroes and the queer ones – soon, cis, straight, white men will be the disposable, comedy sidekicks and we’ll get the rainbow warriors we deserve. Now here’s Jafar owning Genie, because even though that movie went straight to video it was still one of my favourites (although this was before I learned about post-colonialism and cultural appropriation).

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Wonderful Woman

There’s something about watching demi-goddesses beat the living crap out of each other and not even get a scratch that is really quite exciting (btw, spoilers!). Yup, the first twenty odd minutes of the new Wonder Woman film are dedicated to the all-female clan of Amazon warrioresses created by the gods of Mount Olympus to protect humankind. Needless to say humankind swiftly became mankind, which quick got to relentlessly killing itself and so the Amazonians retreated to the hidden island of Themyscria where the eponymous heroine of the film is born. Unfortunately for Wonder Woman, aka Diana (played by Gal Gadot), WW1 blasts its violent way into her peaceful life. She chooses not to take things lying down and teams up with US spy Captain Steve Trevor to go and put an end to the war. Cue trenches, machine guns, mustard gas and a host of nefarious villains.

There are so many things to praise about this film. It passes the Bechdel test without being a film that tries to pass the Bechdel test because it is inherently a film about women (well, one woman to be precise). It also features a Native American smuggler, a marksman with PTSD and a Moroccan spy who are all given enough wiggle room to express characterhood without being reduced to stereotypes. A few hurdles it falls down at are lazily equating facial scars with villainy as Isabel Maru, a chief villain who loves gassing people to death, wears a mask over part of her face and doesn’t get to do much other than be a ‘deformed’ psychopath. It also completely buys into conventional representations of ‘beauty’ with a ‘golden couple’ at the heart of the film. Also, given that lady-on-lady romances would abound on Themyscria why not just come out and say it? And, even if Hollywood is desperate to have a man-on-woman romance, why not make Diana proudly bisexual?

One area in which I think the film excels is in the portrayal of Diana’s relentless optimism. Her chief goal in the film is to find Ares, god of war, and slay him, believing that in killing him the war will end as will mankind’s belligerence. At first she’s a bit naive about this, assuming that human’s are inherently good, but as the plot progresses she comes to realise that humans are neither inherently good nor bad but that they have the ability to choose how to behave and can be encouraged to choose good. I like the nuance and I like the shots of troops from the Allies and Central Powers shaking hands once Ares has been slain (fyi, Ares turns out to be a British politician and not the nasty German general proving that all countries were complicit in the atrocities of WW1). And this links to a fascinating bit of history that during 1918/9 there were an abundance of strikes and revolutions in Europe (including Britain!) as soldiers and civilians alike got so fed up of fighting the establishment’s war. These strikes often failed or ended with another bunch of bastards taking political control but they prove the moral shades of grey at the heart of the ‘war to end all wars’ and that the capitalist elite’s exploitation of workers transcends national borders. Imagine a sequel that goes from here rather than just introduces a new super baddy and rehashes the same plot, maybe in WW2. In summary, there’s so much to like when it comes to Wonder Woman not least its breaking of boundaries and box offices. Of course, what is not to like are Gal Gadot’s seemingly naive views on the Israeli Defence League and the huge number of civilian deaths in Gaza (giving more than enough reason for many people to boycott this film). Diana constantly reminds her fellow characters that war is wrong and not inherent to human nature, now let’s apply that logic to the real world.

Fantastic Fascists And Where To Find Them

Yup, finally got round to watching the new Harry Potter film and, boy, does that franchise keep shamelessly chundering on. At least it was sufficiently entertaining and now for some spoilers. Ok, so the plot’s simple: Eddy Redmayne does his trademark stuttering and blinking thing whilst travelling to New York with a bunch of magic creatures in a suitcase. Turns out New Yorkers aren’t very keen on magicians so the magic crew all live in secret and there’s a bunch of outspoken religious loons who preach against witches. There’s also this weird black hurricane mist thing that’s going around terrorising US citizens and trashing buildings. Everyone thinks it’s one of Redmayne’s magic beasts because he spends most of the film letting them escape and having to find them (seriously, buy a new fucking suitcase with a padlock). However, it’s actually an Obscurus. A what? That’s right, it’s the new magic plot device and it turns out that if a kid is forced to suppress their magic, perhaps because their Mom is a quasi-Mormon, witch-hating loon, then all the pent-up magic becomes a ball of dark energy. Fyi, big spoiler ahead. Whilst we spend most of the film thinking the Obscurus is a little girl it actually turns out to be a teenage guy with a bowl haircut. Now for the analogy with fascism.

The young guy and his pent-up aggression are a metaphor for the rise of the alt right, aka fascists. It’s the slow build up of tension as those who’ve ridden off the back of a certain amount of privilege – namely being white and male – are made to feel increasingly angry for the things they don’t have – like lots of money and jobs – and are encouraged to direct that anger at convenient scapegoats – for example, women, people of colour, Muslims, LGBT folk or Muggles. And they are manipulated by those similar to them in appearance, namely white and male (in the case of the film it’s Colin Farrell), but who actually have far more power (Farrell turns out to be Grindelwald, an evil uber-wizard, not to mention the odd homosexual undertone between Grindelwald and the teenage guy because aren’t all older gay men just manipulative perverted villains, cheers JK). Then before you know it all that rage explodes and the young guy’s off on a killer rampage around NY blowing things up. None of this is new though, the fascists have been around for a long time, unleashing violence and hate at whim, and both Brexit and Trump have just emboldened them (curiously both Trump and Grindelwald have bottle dye blond hair).

Apparently Rowling has planned four more Fantastic Beasts films and I guess we’ll just have to watch as magical movies start to reflect real life a little too closely as the alt right fascists (seriously, “alternative” right, there’s nothing alternative about being an utter twat) continue their rise to power, playing on those age-old prejudices that just will not go away. Of course, we could learn our lessons and realise that capitalism is inherently exploitative and unsustainable and rigged in the favour of an elite few. Perhaps all that suppressed rage could be channelled into building a new system because when this one comes crumbling down, as it’s already doing, there won’t be wizards at the end to wave a magic wand and fix all the damage. No, many of us will be dead, beaten up or bereaved and another Fantastic Beasts movie won’t make any fucking difference. Also, it’s 2016 – why are we still watching four white, straight, cisgendered leads steal the show? Come on JK! Other than that I quite enjoyed it.

Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation: Over-Hyped

If, like me, you just spent two hours and forty-six minutes watching HyperNormalisation, the new Adam Curtis film on BBC iPlayer, who might be despairing at the state of the world. Terrified that the world is run by either nefarious villains who arbitrarily play the system and court paradox with the aim of confusing and alienating the populous (e.g. Trump and Putin) or ardent capitalists who pretend to have values whilst selling out to the highest bidder (e.g. Reagan, Blair, Bush etc). Terrified also of the monsters that thrive in the wake of these superpowers such as terrorists unafraid of killing civilians in a bid to create chaos. Meanwhile, the rest of us, powerless and paranoid, decide to retreat into a world of cyberspace where nothing is real, no one is really listening but we are being watched by nasty megacorporations who just want to sell us more crap. Yup, it’s a horrible world according to HyperNormalisation and even those who attempt to fight it – Occupy, the Arab Spring – end up dead, defeated or defecting to the baddies. But I’m not one for relentless pessimism and I kind of felt much of this has been said before.

Take Guy Debord, one of many 20th century French philosophers with a difficult surname to pronounce. He wrote a book called The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and it focuses on how social life has become increasingly self-reflexive. He wrote that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” and what I understand him meaning by this is that we spend far more time looking at representations of the world rather than at the world itself. For example, rather than go for a walk outside we play a computer game about going for a walk outside. Life becomes increasingly virtual as we watch endless TV, surf the web and monitor our online profiles, all the while losing touch with what’s authentic. We get lost in a world of representations, spectacles and signs, and lose our ability to figure out what’s real (the hyperactivity of the world becomes normalised). In HyperNormalisation Curtis picks up on this theme and explores how increasingly surreal politics have become. For example, Western superpowers create convenient supervillian baddies (aka scapegoats) in the Middle East to justify their continued wars waged to maintain the capitalist military industrial complex rather than actually deal with the genuine complexities of a globalised world. I see this as forming part of the larger postmodern critique of modernism – i.e. that those grand narratives so beloved of the US and UK such as Progress, Civilisation, Enlightenment and Happy Endings are a bunch of bullshit facades used to sugarcoat vicious and corrupt political systems that make a bunch of people rich.

However, the problem, and this is one of the problems I think Curtis’ film suffers from, is that the postmodern critique can only go so far. It takes the premises of modernism (i.e. those big narratives), finds them very wanting and then flips them on their heads. But once you’ve flipped a shoddy grand narrative on its head there’s not a lot you can do with it other than get cut amongst the broken pieces. And that’s what HyperNormalisation is – a lot of broken pieces fused together to form their own grand narrative that itself is much too simplistic and keeps reiterating the point that we’re doomed and there’s no alternative. It does this by juxtaposing endless clips from pop culture with pictures of mass destruction and dead bodies. It’s shocking, desensitising and a product of the very HyperNormalised world it tries to critique. Like the conniving politicians who try to bamboozle us into submission with paradoxical messages the film leaves us confused, devastated and gasping for air without offering any hope.

But I call bullshit to a hopeless future. Whilst money and banks are referenced there’s scant economics in this film – namely the economics of consumer capitalism and how it fuels so much of the conflict charted in the film. There’s also little time spent on examining alternatives – steady-state economies, sustainability, gift economies and the like. And whilst Curtis looks at various forms of terrorism and the West’s grand narratives as important systems of belief he doesn’t look at other more peaceful ones, for instance, CND, Quakerism and environmentalism. In essence, Curtis just contributes to the agenda of doom, despair and nihilism that has ravaged so much of our culture and caused the death of so many. He’s a documentarian of apocalypse and whilst he’s certainly created a spectacle that is at times informative and entertatining it’s also incredibly overwhelming and anxiety inducing. It floods us with highly selective information without providing any tips on how to use this information. Now here’s a picture of a banana with a condom on it because, hey, everything’s postmodern these days and doesn’t need to make sense…

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X-Men: Apocalypse – Does What It Says On The Tin

Found my seat in the dark, cracked open my gluten-free snacks and prepared myself for two hours of explosive, crass and unsubtle storytelling. Yup, X-Men: Apocalypse, part 3 in the latest outing of the mutant franchise. A few genetic alterations and people are freezing time, firing lightning bolts and flying. I shan’t bore you with the plot as it’s basically X-Men 2 (2003) all over again but rebooted for the current generation of teens. Onto the highs and lows. Spoilers.

Highs: En Sabah Nur (the main baddy). Marvel is not renowned for doing interesting baddies. Asides Loki, The Avengers series has been plagued by an underwhelming line of talking robots, aliens and cardboard cut-out evil human stereotypes. However, the latest X-Men series can boast Kevin Bacon and Tyrion Lannister as some half-decent snarling villains. But when X-Men: Apocalypse begins in ancient Egypt at a huge ceremony for the all-powerful mutant En Sabah Nur you know things are going to be epic. He’s betrayed by some of his worshippers and trapped underground for a couple thousand of years until he’s reawakened in the 80s, and boy, are his motivations simple: power and destruction. He pursues these with ruthlessness and sure, whilst there isn’t much more depth to him, I felt his power was genuinely menacing. Unlike Bacon and Lannister I genuinely thought he might beat the X-Men. Of course, I knew he wouldn’t because I understand how these films work but he put up a damn good fight. Hats off to En Sabah Nur. Although one problem: when it came to dressing his henchmen in cool, new body armour he did have a habit for covering the guys up but keeping the women largely exposed. So nothing like the below…

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If superheroes were dressed like superheroines

Low: Character Development. Ok, so the main baddy is just a really powerful psychopath hellbent on world destruction/domination and it doesn’t fare much better for the other characters. Since the last movie Magneto has retired from evil-doing to go live in the woods with his wife and daughter. Yup, as soon as we see those two innocent, female clichés we know they’re going to die. And they do. Cue Magneto’s motivation to turn bad again and join En Sabah Nur. Xavier is still irritatingly smug and morally righteous. Meanwhile, Alexandra Shipp plays Storm (the weather controlling one) and starts life as an Egyptian street orphan living with a gang of thieves getting chased by Egyptian male stereotypes. Yup, non-American cultures don’t come off too well in this movie and just when I thought there was going to be a female Muslim character she rips off her veil to reveal she’s actually Moira MacTaggart, the white, CIA agent. And she’s also the one that accidentally causes En Sabah Nur to wake up. Yup, just like in the last movie we have a woman to blame for all the world’s problems.

High: Quicksilver. Let’s face it, the five minutes of Quicksilver larking about listening to ace music whilst the rest of the world moves in slow motion are some of the highlights of these movies (see below). This one doesn’t disappoint as he rescues all the mutant kids from Xavier’s school as it blows up – serves Xavier right for allowing a highly explosive war plane to be built-in his basement. What I also like about Quicksilver is that because he hasn’t studied at Xavier’s school yet he hasn’t become a self-righteous, entitled doofus. Sure, he’s one of the good guys but he gets the job done without fuss and no pompous speeches. And he lives at home with his Mom and likes playing video games yet is happy to stand up to world-destroying megalomaniacs. He’s also great at saving people rather than killing them. A true hero.

Low: Mass Destruction. Sometimes all it takes is a shadow on a floor to create suspense and other times real drama can come from such seemingly mundane events like a row over breakfast or being late for a meeting. Of course, none of this applies when the word Apocalypse is in your movie title. We have crazed demi-gods building pyramids out of modern-day Egypt, we’ve got Magneto tearing Auschwitz to pieces (I really don’t think unsubtle superhero movies should tread into sensitive terrain like this, mainly because they don’t tread, they stampede) and we’ve got Magneto basically destroying the entire world by ripping up all its metal. The sheer number of people killed in all this would be astronomical. Yet come the end of the film Magneto casually goes home and Storm, who also assisted En Sabah Nur in trashing loads of stuff, just joins Xavier’s school as if she’s not a mass murderer. I know we want to watch cool graphics and special effects but bigger really doesn’t always equal better, especially when the actual amount of damage caused, not to mention the death toll, would take decades to mend. Maybe just a tiny bit of realism please in and amongst the flying and mind control.

So, providing you can turn off your feminism, racial-sensitivity, snobby-Charles-Xavier-hating and general-common-decency filters then you’ll love this. Lots of things blowing up, Quicksilver doing his hypersonic speed thing and even the odd joke. One pack of gluten-free chocolate biscuits later and I was suitably entertained.

Inside Out: The Highs And The Lows

I just watched Inside Out for the first time. It’s brilliant, easily my favourite Pixar film to date, up there with Toy Story 3 and WALL-E (although I’m yet to see Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, I’m a bit slow on the uptake). What a fantastic way to represent the inner workings of the human mind and brain, inspired. And what a great way to remind us that our emotions are a crucial part of our identity and form who we are. However, because I like to over-analyse things there are a few bits about it that I find a little concerning. So what follows is a brief review of the highs and lows.

High: Our Emotions Matter! Have you ever met one of those uptight people who are convinced emotions are the enemy – the sort of person who worships economics and thinks feeling should be expunged from the human condition. The sort of person who tells us that we should be as rational as possible and act like cost-benefit maximising automatons, thinking always what’s best for us in an objective and compassionless manner. Well, despite a mountain load of scientific evidence to the contrary now Pixar is on the case, showing us quite how wrong economists can be. I’ll let one of the scientists who advised on the film hammer home this point: “…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Low: Memories Are Not Objects. The film depicts memories as little multi-sensory orbs that display the events of the memory like a film. Each orb is coloured with the predominant feeling of that memory, e.g. yellow for happy, blue for sad etc. However, one current theory is that memories are not equivalent to discrete objects stored in our head – e.g. a neuron per memory – but are actually engrams – unique and distributed series of neurons that correspond to multiple-facets of that memory (e.g. the visuals, the sounds, the feelings). So, rather than an orb, imagine that a memory isn’t a single item but a series of neuronal connections throughout the body. This will include the different sections and layers of the brain (of which there are many) and our internal/external organs (which are also connected via neurons to our brain/central nervous system). In other words, it takes the whole body and the world beyond to make a memory (but trying to represent this as a visually satisfying metaphor in a kid’s film was probably not Pixar’s aim).

High: Sadness Is Important. Spoiler alert. At the end of the film the emotion Joy (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the positive side of everything…everything) comes to realise that Sadness (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the negative side of everything…everything) is vital to a healthy, emotional lifestyle. Sadness is crucial in helping us deal with the difficulties of the world – the loss we may experience when moving home or, indeed, the loss we may feel when we lose a loved one. Whilst it’s seemingly easy to pretend everything is ‘fine’, the tougher thing might be to admit it’s not. But by being vulnerable and being sad we make it more likely that we will heal and be supported in the process.

Low: The Brain Is Actually Organic. It’s fascinating that the brains behind Inside Out chose to represent the brain as a hi-tech HQ full of fancy equipment and flashing buttons resting above an arid desert. Even Riley’s ‘memory islands’, places that represent core facets of her identity such as the Family Island and the Goofball Island, are just uninhabited theme parks full of statues and machines. Now, it’s a great metaphor and it’s brilliant when key emotions Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s mind but it’s worth stating that the brain is an organ in our body and like all other organs it’s organic. It’s full of blood, veins and gooey grey stuff, and forms a vital element of our body’s ecology. It is by no means artificial or ‘unnatural’. So perhaps a more true metaphor would be something more ecological – ‘memory forests’ instead of built-environment memory islands that can grow greater diversity but are also prone to fires and being cut down. My concern here is that Pixar’s representation of the brain as mechanical could only arise in a time when humans are rapidly trying to distance themselves from their biological nature. But, at heart and head, we are animals, just animals with a profound capacity for intelligence and stupidity.

So, highs and lows aside, Inside Out is a fantastic film that reminds us our emotions form a vital part of who we are and how we understand the world. But the vivid nature of these emotions should surely also remind us of our animal and biological nature, one prone to great highs and great lows, rather than imply we’re just walking, talking machines.

The Big Short: Another Film About Bankers

Some big spoilers on the way for the new film The Big Short – perhaps the biggest is that the 2008 housing crash and ensuing financial crisis happened and, as Ryan Reynold’s character reminds us at the end of the movie, it was immigrants, poor people and teachers who were blamed for it rather than bankers, regulators and hedge fund managers.

The Big Short is another film about bankers. Following closely on the heels of The Wolf Of Wall Street this film doesn’t set out to glorify the world of finance instead it explains why the financial crash happened. And it did this brilliantly. Some of the best bits came when the camera suddenly panned to a random celebrity who explained some complex financial instrument using a simple metaphor. Mila Kunis placing a bet at a poker table was used nicely to explain that the housing market was basically a series of increasingly risky bets placed on whether people would be able to pay off their mortgages (yup, bankers will find a way of making money from anything). Of course, given that the housing market was fraudulently and corruptly regulated and so many people who couldn’t afford to were being sold houses, it was only a matter of time till it collapsed. And this resulted in a simultaneous financial crash because so many ‘crafty’ bankers had been betting on the aphorism “safe as houses” remaining true. Turns out houses weren’t that safe at all.

The Big Short is about the men in the middle of it all – the few men who bothered to do their research and uncovered a system of corruption, fraud, greed and stupidity. And what did they do then? They bet against the housing market – they hoped that houses wouldn’t prove safe – and they made a lot of money. Of course, housing crises have more than financial repercussions – evictions, homelessness, unemployment, debt, social unrest, poverty and suicide are just some of the consequences. The film mentioned these things in passing but was more interested in telling a story of a bunch of wealthy, predominantly white, male hedge fund managers (another word for banker really). They even try to paint these men as morally superior because so many of them were shocked at how corrupt the system was, the system that they made lots of money from when it collapsed.

Yup, the film tried to make heroes out of hedge fund managers – people who get rich and get their clients rich by making money from money, by betting on the market. People who are rich enough themselves that they don’t need to worry about the implications of a housing crash. But they do, as do we all. Because after the crash governments around the world used public money to bail out the banks and didn’t do much to regulate them. So we can be expecting another housing crash anytime soon. And it’s not just houses at stake it’s the whole of society too – as public services are cut, as immigrants are scapegoated, as poverty and unrest rises, as extreme right-wing groups like the Neo-Nazis return, so darker days are coming. Remember what happened a decade after the huge financial crash of 1929…World War 2. I don’t know if we’re due another huge war but I do know that The Big Short barely scratched the surface of the issue. It explained the financial crisis very well but it could have done this in half an hour, but, like so many films today, it chose to focus on the actions and faces of white men with the occasional shot of a topless woman. It is a shame to realise that so many uninspiring, greedy and fairly stupid men were involved in bringing the world’s economy to its knees but do we really need another film about them?