Post-9/11 Rhetoric and Pop Cultural Dissent Through Billionaire Superheroes

Estimated Reading Time: 48 minutes

A friend convinced me to take my “fake PhD” and actually apply to a Media Studies PhD program. I discovered that I had a woeful lack of suitable material for a writing sample. My brilliant idea? To write a new article completely from scratch. The following is my 9000+ word piece written in one month with only public library database access and an actual mental breakdown thrown in there for kicks. For future purposes, consider this a draft version of any subsequently published material. First completed December 1, 2015.

Spoilers for: Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and basically the entire MCU. Additional warning that this is in serious academic-speak.

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The official Bush Administration rhetoric contextualized the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a large-scale battle between the forces of good and evil, and freedom and oppression. The American public was content accepting that narrative for a time, but as doubts began to form it increasingly processed the national trauma of 9/11 through fantasy and popular culture. During the 2000s, the superhero film genre flourished, breaking box office records and providing a platform for both complicity in the official good vs. evil narrative and dissent from such a simplistic worldview. Two of the most popular and complex characters to launch into the public consciousness were DC’s famous tycoon Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel Studio’s answering billionaire arms dealer: Iron Man. Nolan’s Batman films religiously adhere to the heroic traditions of moral simplicity and a battle between good and evil while rigidly maintaining the comic book conventions of lone men, hyper-masculinity, and secret identities. The Iron Man films intentionally toy with and discard all of these conventions, preferring a more nuanced narrative that exposes the underlying imperialistic intentions of the American capitalist and questioning the demonization of foreign peoples. Both film series are in dialogue with the prevailing political narrative, offering audiences the chance to process the 9/11 attacks while also providing an avenue of dissent in a cultural climate that had silenced all objection to nationalistic war.

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The Line Between the World and the Much Weirder World: The Two Faces of Agents of SHIELD

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

(This essay is #1 of 9 in a series about Agents of SHIELD.)

I have a deep and abiding love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has veered wildly into obsessive territory. So much so that I have what I refer to as my “fake PhD”—a meticulously outlined media studies research thesis related to media franchises, cult television, cultural history, science fiction, and a multitude of other nerdy things. Consider this series of posts the colloquial, abridged, and topically focused version of my fake PhD.

My favorite thing to talk about, if not possibly my actual favorite thing, is Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD—the first of Marvel Studio’s television endeavors which began airing in fall of 2013. Now, there are two separate but simultaneous love affairs going on here: my love for Agents of SHIELD itself and what it does with transmedia storytelling and cultish convention; and my love for the characters Fitz and Simmons which is another beast entirely. I’ll get to it all, but it’ll take a lot of words.

Agents of SHIELD was originally backed by Joss Whedon, geek royalty extraordinaire. While the show was developed in response to fandom outcry at the death of fan favorite Phil Coulson in The Avengers, Whedon’s premise was that Agents of SHIELD be a series-length version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Zeppo”—an episode which follows a peripheral character through an apocalyptic event. If Agents of SHIELD was intended to be about the people behind the scenes of the superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what they first served up was an emotionally lifeless series of low-stakes jaunts around the globe that couldn’t decide if it was a children’s adventure show or a more serious exploration of what being powerless in a world with superpowered individuals would actually mean. Trust me: they fixed it later.

Because Agents of SHIELD objectively sucks for the first fifteen episodes of the series, I’ll start there. This isn’t quite as intellectually rigorous as the topics to come, but it needs to be addressed before we can go on. (I wrote a similar article before Season 2.)

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Spoilsports: a conversation on spoilers between friends

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

I loathe spoilers with every fiber of my being, but my best friend Rachael adores them and actively seeks spoilers for everything. I figured the best way to get a balanced view on spoilers was for me and her to have a conversation, featured below.

Spoiler warning for: Stars Wars EU: Fate of the Jedi, Agents of SHIELD, Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, A Song of Ice and Fire.

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Black Mirror’s Virgins and Whores: Science Fiction and the Woman Problem

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Yesterday, at a loose end and with a few hours to kill, I decided to give Black Mirror a go. All I knew about it was that it was “weird” and one of the episodes had Hayley Atwell. Cool.

Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology series with a new story every episode. The most accessible comparison is that it’s like Twilight Zone. Every story in Black Mirror is a fascinating exploration or deconstruction of modern technology and society’s reliance on it. The basic premises are intriguing and the stories are quite good. I enjoyed it. But the thing that kept me from adoring it is the same thing that keeps me intellectually detached from a lot of classic science fiction. Women in these stories are archetypes who exist almost solely as plot points for men.

Women are more than just love objects and baby incubators. Yes, miraculously, women have their own internal lives. No, they aren’t wandering wombs desperate for insemination. And no, they’re not constantly out to screw you in every capacity.

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The 50-Point MCU Ratings System

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

I have a bit of an addiction to the MCU, which is the understatement of the year. I am basically constantly thinking about it in one capacity or another. When I’m feeling gracious with myself, I like to say “it’s like how Tolkien scholars are about Tolkien stuff! But for Marvel!” When I’m certain I’m being an overbearing crazy person I tend to opt for “I’m sorry, you can tell me to shut up anytime!”

Before this obsession/addiction/whatever was as fully formed as it is now, I used to rate Marvel Studios’ films on a spectrum of “fluffy” to “nirvana.” Daredevil kind of screwed up my MCU spectrum. It was neither fluffy nor nirvana and frankly I didn’t like it that much. But it didn’t go in the Time-Out Corner with The Incredible Hulk either. It wasn’t bad it just wasn’t for me. Cue months of reformulating how I watch, evaluate, and think about Marvel.

My spectrum from before Agent Carter. Things got messy after that.

What I came up with (after many months of thinking way too hard about this) was a fifty-point system with five ten-point categories. I made this up as a tool to investigate my own enjoyment of the media franchise and not as any objective measurement of  a work’s merits, worth, success, etc. etc. This is how I figure out if something is successful for my purposes. These categories also work on the filmic level, the series level, and the episodic level.

Here are my categories, followed by explanations and things that points can be awarded for:

  • Science (Fiction) 10 points
    • Hardcore, down-to-earth, semi-realistic sci-fi science is what drives the MCU, so every story needs science as an integral element.
    • When the logistics of the science itself are both a plot catalyst and a plot device—i.e. they don’t just forget about science once it gives people superpowers—that’s my favorite. Best examples: Ant-Man, Jessica Jones.
    • Special note: this is how Fitz and Simmons on Agents of SHIELD have become 10,000% my favorite characters in the entire MCU. Their whole function is to serve us the science that makes the world-building conceit work. (Lots) more on them at a future date. (Seriously. Lots.)
  • Action 10 points
    • All of these movies are action movies. On the whole, most people go see them for the thrills. Points awarded for spectacle and grandiosity out of principle. When I like the action is when it furthers the plot, when it fits the story being told, and when it makes sense. This is my least favorite category because it gives almost full marks to things like Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Incredible Hulk, which get pretty much no other points from me. This is the easiest box to tick and the most basic.
  • Meta 10 points
    • Genre Savvy – most MCU movies are some other genre in addition to being sci-fi. Genre savvy is how aware they are of, not just science fiction conventions, but the conventions of the other genres they’re playing in. Captain America: The Winter Soldier as spy thriller; Ant-Man as heist film etc.
    • Actual Meta – the work is acutely aware that it is an adaptation of a comic book, is a film/TV show, or furthers the conceit that the story takes place in reality. Best examples: selling actual Captain America comic books in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Smithsonian exhibit in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Mandarin videos in Iron Man 3.
    • Transmedia storytelling – characters, events, or themes from another entry crossover, effect, or are referenced in this one. Best example: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the back seven episodes in the first season of Agents of SHIELD.
    • Commentary – the main point of sci-fi is to use another world to comment on our own. The MCU is essentially the universe next door and has no problem telling us about ourselves. Best examples: Iron Man and culpability in Middle Eastern conflicts; Captain America: The Winter Soldier and mass surveillance.
  • Plot/Character 10 points
    • These go together. If the characters are great but the plot sucks I don’t care and vice versa. For the TV shows, the episode plot has to be compelling and make sense but the characters also need to act in-character and experience growth.
    • Drama for drama’s sake will not be tolerated and may lead to angry meltdowns and negative points. I reserve the right to throw temper tantrums.
    • Something must definitively happen and the status quo must definitively change. Characters (and we) must discover new information and move forward, and their actions in the plot must legitimately effect the story and the world.
  • Aesthetics 10 points
    • The shit is pretty.
    • I mean it. It’s visually stunning, aurally stimulating, etc.
    • More than that, the aesthetics match the overall story. Agent Carter is a perfect recreation of Golden Age Sci-Fi aesthetics. Guardians of the Galaxy looks like a neon ’80s acid-trip. Jessica Jones is neo-noir as hell.

*Completely nebulous Bonus Points may be awarded at my discretion. Examples of things that get bonus points: classic sci-fi nerdgasms (think Agent Carter), Fitz and/or Simmons being cute and/or nerding out over science (like all of the above in 3×02 “Purpose in the Machine”), serious meta shit. Things can end up with more than 50 points when I do these evaluations.

And my examples make it painfully clear what my favorite bits are.

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On Star Wars: The Force Awakens: But Is the Damn Thing Any Good?

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

I think it’s appropriate to inaugurate my sci-fi/cult-ish/whatever blog with my thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, yes? Here goes. 2000% SPOILER-FREE, I ASSURE YOU.

I have complete apathy for any upcoming installments of Star Wars. Ever. I do not care.1 If I cared any less I would probably turn inside out and become a black hole of uncaring. I am not moved by the marketing, I am not swayed by the nostalgia. I actively dislike J.J. Abrams in general. I have no emotional investment in this endeavor, be it positive or negative. I am very interested in film/TV narrative franchises, however, so the mechanics of the thing are fascinating to me. Additionally, my soul revolts at the very threat of spoilers. So I figured, hey, no one will tell me if this movie is actually any damn good irrespective of all the hype. I might as well go and see it before it gets spoiled.

There is nothing particularly special about this film. Overall, when you subtract Luke, Han, and Leia, what you’ve got is a basic, uninspired space opera. Essentially, it’s fan fic. Now, this is by design. The original Star Wars is the quintessential space opera. The space opera to begin and end all others. The original formula of the original films is invoked in full force precisely because it worked, because it is familiar, and because that’s what people are paying to see. But that still means that, every beat the film hits, every homage, and every plot point is laid out and inevitable within the first five minutes of the movie. It’s not even a matter of guessing what’s going to happen: you know. It’s almost categorically impossible to legitimately spoil anything. It’s all a forgone conclusion. (That said, I do not spoil. May I be struck down from on high should I ever spoil something without a warning.) Additionally, at times The Force Awakens almost willfully ignores the fact that the three prequel films happened, thank the stars. It’s a complete return to the atmosphere of the original trilogy which is why, even as inevitable as it is, it works.

It might be predictable, kind of trite, and a bit boring as far as plot, but the movie is still a treat to watch. The special effects aren’t obtrusive but are used in cool ways. The old aesthetic of the original trilogy is back with a vengeance and that’s what lends the film about 80% of its charm. There are Chosen Ones and Saviors and those Seeking Redemption and so-on and so-forth, but even as each character fits snugly into their prescribed role, it’s still fun to watch them in their trials and battles. It’s not ’80s high-camp, but it leans that way.

I’ve seen a lot of kerfuffle over whether Rey is a Mary Sue or not. Let me unpack the term “Mary Sue” a bit. There are two schools of thought: one is that it simply describes an improbably flawless, hyper-competent character (male or female, though “Gary Stu” is an equivalent male version); the second is that it’s sexist vocabulary used to invalidate female wish fulfillment fantasy characters. To my mind, Mary Sues are intentionally and necessarily constructed to have no flaws and very little conflict that they cannot immediately solve. Most Mary Sues that I come across are half-assed attempts at “strong female characters”—the lazy kind who are empty functions that shoot machine guns and blow up bad guys without any motivation, conflict, or personality. The kind you get when writers think they are being asked to include “badass” women when really what people want is fully-formed, well-realized characters who also happen to be female. That’s it, y’all.

Rey is flawless with very little conflict but, in the context of the film and her function within it, I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue. Both Rey and Finn exist as audience projection fantasies. Neither is particularly developed nor conflicted. Revisiting such an iconic mythos requires that these characters not be too defined. Because we are projecting onto them, to give them too much personality risks alienating the paying customer. As Rey and Finn discover the quirks, references, and homages to the original, culturally omnipresent works, it’s as if the viewers themselves are plonked down in these iconic situations like they’re running around a theme park. Neither character actually has that much conflict, that much background, or that much interest individually. I really loved Rey and Finn’s rapport, their friendship, etc. But the fact remains that, while they’re sometimes goofy, and while they do mess up a few times, they are still blank canvases for all of us to cast ourselves onto. I’m sure there’s a TV Tropes-style term for that, but my encyclopedic knowledge of TV Tropes is failing me at the moment.

I promised no spoilers so I’ll forego the rest of my commentary for now. I will say that I instantly fell in love with Poe Dameron. Every time he was on screen I was grinning like an idiot. But Poe also asserted a definite persona right from the start. Overall, I’d say I still have complete and total apathy for any future installments in the Star Wars franchise. There’s just nothing here that I really care about. That said, I’m sure I’ll go back in the future. Just out of curiosity.

(My actual favorite part: the Captain America: Civil War trailer before the film rolled. You will quickly learn that this blog will mostly be a dumping ground for my Marvel Cinematic Universe rants.)

1 I do feel obliged to mention that one of my best friends is a massive Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) fan and once ceremonially burned Mickey Mouse in effigy to express her displeasure with the erasure of the EU. Personally, however, I have no real interest or vendetta.

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Hugo: Among Others (2012)

Among Others by Jo Walton
Read April 28, 2015

Premise: After a mysterious accident, a teenager runs away from her controlling mother to her father she has never met and is sent away to boarding school. There are fairies, magic, and a late-’70s science fiction book club mixed in.

Verdict: I devoured this novel in one day. For a start, the descriptions and philosophies of magic are so close to my own that it was a bit like reading my own ramblings.  Magic in this novel is easily dismissed as chance or coincidence, but it has far-reaching consequences and implications. The fairies can be real or can be her adolescent over-active imagination. The narrator, Mor, is sent away to a crappy boarding school and has to deal with being an outsider. And then, in a desperate effort at connection, she finds a science fiction book club in the local town and basically keeps notes on her lit crit activities for a huge list of classic sci-fi. This book is pretty amazing. There’s the sort of wish-fulfillment you’d expect from a novel about an outcast nerd, but there’s also plenty of self-empowerment and coming into one’s own. Mor was recently crippled in a devastating accident, and there was a line in there about this story being what happens after the adventure novel ends and is the boring stuff you’re not supposed to see. I liked that. I also loved the way blood relationship was presented as not really that important when it comes to forming close bonds. Just sort of generally, I’m curious if the prevalent (and gross) idea that “family” cures all and loves you in a disgustingly simplified, pervasive, and simultaneously dismissive way is a cultural wish fulfillment of its own? This is one of my pet peeves so I was really thrilled that this novel was like “you know, these people might be related to me but they really suck and I need to be away from them.”

Holy crap, this was amazing. Please read it (and every book mentioned in it) and let us discuss.

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Hugo: Ancillary Justice (2014)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Read April 17, 2015 – April 19, 2015

Premise: An artificially intelligent warship whose consciousness is housed in a human body becomes embroiled in intergalactic imperial politics. And if I told you anymore it would give away way too much.

Verdict: All my love for this novel. All of my love ever. This is imperialistic space opera at its best. The politics are presented but never preached. The world is well-built but not laboriously over-described. The characters are startlingly relatable given that the narrator is a piece of a the aforementioned artificially intelligent warship’s hivemind. Aside from the stylistic elements that I’ll get to shortly, it doesn’t even hammer home weird messages of gender, sexuality, and reproduction (glaring at you from across the playground, Bujold.) One of the (innumerable) things that I love about sci-fi is both figuring out the perimeters and premises of the speculation and then tracing it over the course of the novel to see where it goes. Ancillary Justice never falters once. I’d hold it up as an example of how space opera and even military sci-fi should be in my ideal world.

On the purely stylistic side, it subtly challenges the cultural default to imagine anyone whose gender is not specified as male. Gender is unimportant in the Radch and Esk One is terrible at reading gender markers so she just blanket refers to everyone as “she” in narration. This has the effect of rendering the entire universe default female until someone mentions specifically that a character is male—and usually the narrator continues to ignore male gendered pronouns even then. It’s delicious, and unsettling simply because it forces you to realize just how ingrained looking at the world with a male perspective is. I loved it.

I also loved that the entire impetus of the plot is a grudge Esk One has because the ships harbor intense affection for certain people/officers exactly the same way a human would. The affection is presented extremely well, and Leckie most definitely demonstrates it rather than just explaining, so that man, I felt everything the ship felt. The incredibly large amount of perspectives just from the one character are also woven together so seamlessly (in places sometimes three or four things are going in in different places at exactly the same time) that I really felt like I too was a ship with an enormous omniscience and two-thousand years of experience.

As far as politics go, it questions individuality v. collective on top of the rigid social casting system of the old Radch. It manages to do this using two of the main ship’s former officers: an aristocratic one from a thousand years ago and a more recent one from a common family. The interweaving of time, stories, and motivations is superbly done. I basically read this thing in one long wallow because I didn’t want to put it down.

Love. Love love. Throwing confetti and dancing I loved this book so much.

Next time someone gives me the same bullshit about sci-fi being shallow, exclusionary, and poorly written I’m just going to hand them Ancillary Justice and shut their ass up. This is everything I love about science fiction and the potential for science fiction as a storytelling device all wrapped up in one well-reading package.

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Hugo: Redshirts (2013)

Redshirts by John Scalzi
Read March 23, 2015

Premise: A group of ensigns on an exploration starship in the distant future try to find a way around the certain, brutal, pointless deaths that plague the peons on the crew. It is, basically, what is says on the tin and very meta about it.

Verdict: I’ve been trying to get my hands on this book for at least two years so reading it was a pleasure. I will say, however, that while the first half chugs along hard at all my favorite tropes, and meta storytelling styles, once it actually gets into the why/what/where/how of the thing it gets less interesting. The logic of the plot is a bit hand-wavy, but given the nature of the story that’s possibly another meta feature. This whole book is basically Star Trek meets Stranger Than Fiction meets a little bit of Kilgore Trout. At the end it even starts fighting with itself (including a debate about whether Final Draft or Scrivener is better, so even when it’s off on its tangents it still kept me rolling. It’s very funny throughout.) It’s fairly obvious why this won a Hugo. Hugos are a fan-voted award and this is just enough of a high-camp send-up of sci-fi and fandom combined with a relentlessly logical intellectualism to appeal to the kind of people who would vote in such a thing. That’s not a strike against it; all that crap is what makes it so fun. But I’d say, if you’re not a geek maybe don’t try this or you’ll be confused. Since I personally found it overall a bit weak, I’m not nearly as enthused about it as I was earlier today when I started. But it was truly a joy to read. Kudos.

This book is fun. Read it. Enjoy.

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Hugo: Blackout / All Clear (2011)

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Read from December 16, 2014 – January 2, 2015

Premise: Three Oxford historians time travel to their assignments during World War II only to find themselves stuck with no way to return to the future.

Verdict: Hey ho, friends! I have returned to my Hugo Project after such an obscenely long break that it should be criminal negligence. I’m still here, reading away! But, you know, life-stuff happens. I also read a ton of other random books over the past two years, but ironically not a single Hugo winner.

Anyway! Let’s talk about Blackout/All Cleara one-story, two-book time travel adventure set during World War II. I read both of these novels the day they came out, so re-reading them was an interesting experience. I re-read the entire Oxford Time Travel series as a winter treat to myself, remembering how much I adored Doomsday Book and how struck I was by To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was one of the first books in this entire project when I started it a lifetime ago. Reading the entire series straight through reveals all the nods and connections in this book to all the others in the same universe. But you don’t have to read these books to understand the others, or read any of them in order for that matter. They all stand up well as separate stories.

That said: Blackout/All Clear was way better the first time. The thing with this novel is that about 70% of it is the main characters running around just missing meeting each other or the people they’re trying to find. Most of the suspense comes from those missed meetings, so when you know what happens already it gets tedious as hell. Even the characters who I remembered loving and the relationships I enjoyed were a bit strained, just because I felt like I was wasting a lot of time reading about everyone dashing here and there and groaning about it being futile “because time travel” and obviously if they’d made it they’d already have been rescued etc. It’s all very dire. If you don’t know what happens. The rest of the novels (and the novella Firewatch) stand up much better to re-readsparticularly Doomsday Book which is a frickin’ masterpiecebecause their plots are much more character focused. This go around, however, all the time travel elements made a whole lot more sense.

Annoyances aside, this novel (and the extreme length of it) is testament to Willis’ fixation with World War II (which comes through in all the other novels in the series as well) and she plays it out in pretty much every possible scenario. They’re also long enough that Willis can weave together her classic humor and her penchant for emotional devastation into one seamless work. The setup of the multiple storylines is fun, playing out like the mystery novels the characters love so much, but once you figure out even that you just want her to frickin’ spit it out already and get on with it. The first time I read these I was wrenched horribly. This time they feel bloated way out proportion.

All that said: I still enjoy them. Alf and Binnie Hodbin (two street urchin terrors) are plenty entertaining; Willis’ portrayal of gentle clergymen always gets me where I live somehow; and the three main characters are truly wonderful and make insightful observations related to whatever thesis they were working on as a history assignment. The relationships they all form with the contemps are appropriately heart wrenching, as I’ve come to expect. And, as ever, I am madly in love with Mr. Dunworthy. It’s just that the whole thing is so damned drawn out.

If you like this series, go for it. As an entry into Connie Willis, I wouldn’t suggest it. Go with Doomsday Book.


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