Age of Ultron and the Impending Collapse of the MCU

We all know the MCU is inevitably going to collapse, right? It’s a shared superhero continuity, an attempt to force an ever-expanding number of stories into the straitjacket of continuity nitpickery. It is not only deliberately encouraging the paranoid reading style and gossip about imaginary people, it wants us to see Guardians of the Galaxy and Daredevil as two windows into the same world.
So of course, sooner or later, it will do what the comics always do, and implode. The need for ever-more obscure references in order to build ever-more elaborate conspiracies for viewers to unravel, combined with the unrestrained growth of constantly adding new characters and new media–so far, in order to fully follow the MCU, it is necessary to watch two network television shows, a web-series, and five film series–and those numbers are growing allm the time.
Now of course it’s possible to follow and enjoy an Avengers movie without knowing what’s going on in Agents of SHIELD (says the person who hasn’t watched any Marvel TV shows). But remember, it is the nature of a conspiracy theory to grow more convoluted and complex with time, and a shared continuity is essentially a conspiracy theory about a group of fictional works. Right now, the MCU films spend relatively little of their time laying clues for future films or paying off clues dropped in other series–but that amount is growing.
There is a particular minor subplot in Age of Ultron (if you have seen the film, you know which I mean) which serves no purpose except to bring Age of Ultron‘s own story to a screeching halt so that it can spend a few minutes congratulating us nerds who recognized how Captain America, Thor 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy were building toward Avengers 3. (To his credit, Whedon apparently fought against including these scenes, and had to be forced into it by executives threatening to cut a major character-building sequence. But not too much credit; that sequence includes Black Widow suggesting that being unable to have children makes a woman a monster.)
This kind of thing is only going to keep getting worse. How long until plot threads introduced in Agent Carter get resolved in Ant-Man 3? Until we get entire films that exist solely as set-up and teaser for the next big crossover? Until the whole thing is just the same mess of conflicting reboots, alternate universes, and continuity lockouts as mainstream comics?
(Rhetorical questions, but I’ll answer anyway: No later than Avengers 4, and possibly much, much earlier.)

The Book of Life, super-brief review

Visually stunning, extremely cliché story, serious case of Strong Female Character Syndrome (though she gets a *tiny* bit of autonomy at the end), doesn’t trust its audience, frame story/narration is annoying and adds nothing.

If forced to give it a letter grade, probably a C. It is a watchable way to pass some time, but no better than that.

I am really sick of being commanded to like things by the Nerd Hivemind

I can already see that Guardians of the Galaxy is going to go, for me, the same route as Pacific Rim:

World: Hype hype hype hype hype.
Me: …What is everyone so excited about? I don’t see what’s particularly special about this.
*movie actually comes out, I see it*
Me: Eh, that was okay, not great.
Everyone I say that to: How dare you? Anyone who considers this less than the absolute pinnacle of human achievement is a horrible person!
Me: *sighs, enumerates the flaws I saw in it*
Them: But raccoon with a machinegun/giant robot punching kaiju!
Me: …yes, and? I’ve been an anime fan for twenty years, neither of those even registers on the novelty-meter.
Them: [accusations regarding my character, statements that I “hate fun,” etc.]

Repeat for several months, during which “okay, not great” steadily devolves into outright hatred.

Admittedly, Guardians of the Galaxy was WAY more entertaining than Pacific Rim, but it was still ultimately just another disposable popcorn movie that should have been about the female lead and instead shoehorned in a vastly less interesting Whitey McManpain to be the main character.

(No but seriously everything wrong with Guardians of the Galaxy would be fixed if Gamora were the main character and her journey the main focus, and Starlord reduced to comic-relief sidekick.)

The Nutcracker, the Mouse King, and the Puella Magi

The following is the record of a conversation I had with 01d55 regarding further resonances between E.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. 

[14:55] <Froborr> You wanted to talk Nutcracker and Rebellion?
[14:55] <Arrlaari> Yeah
[14:55] <Froborr> Is it okay if I log this and use it for Wednesday’s post?
[14:55] == FoME [442704d2@gateway/web/freenode/ip.] has quit [Quit: Page closed]
[14:55] <Arrlaari> Of course
[14:55] <Froborr> Cool.
[14:55] <Arrlaari> I think I’ll start by talking about Pirlipat and Marie, but first  I gotta look up how to spell Pirlipat correctly
[14:56] <Froborr> lol
[14:58] <Arrlaari> Dang, I got it right by memory this time. Here’s the translation I’m using
[14:59] <Froborr> Okay.
[14:59] <Arrlaari> So, I’m going to call the Nutcracker “Prince Drosselmeier,” and his uncle “Judge Drosselmeier”, because Prince Drosselmeier is not the only Nutcracker in the story. Princess Pirlipat, like her destined prince, was a Nutcracker.
[14:59] <Froborr> *nods*
[14:59] <Arrlaari> She was born with a full set of teeth, and the clue that led Judge Drosselmeier to the ritual to remove her curse was how happy she was cracking nuts
[15:00] <Arrlaari> So Mouserinks’ curse didn’t turn either of them into Nutcrackers – they both always were and remained that – but it made them ugly, giving them the appearance of a toy Nutcracker
[15:01] <Arrlaari> When the curse is transferred to Prince Drosselmeier, Princess Pirlipat is repulsed by his ugliness and her father reneges on the promised reward (marriage into the royal family) and instead punishes Judge Drosselmeier, Prince Drosselmeier, and Gilder Drosselmeier with banishment
[15:01] <Froborr> Now, when you say they were Nutcrackers, do you mean the physical object, or do you just mean that they enjoyed cracking nuts?
[15:02] <Arrlaari> They were Crackers of Nuts
[15:02] <Froborr> Okay.
[15:02] <Arrlaari> Not simply that they enjoyed it, but they had notable talent for it
[15:03] <Froborr> Okay.
[15:03] <Arrlaari> Even though it was the King who decided to punish them instead of compelling them to accept a different reward, the story rather problematically condemns Pirlipat for rejecting Prince Drosselmeier and aggressively contrasts her with Marie
[15:04] <Froborr> *nod*
[15:04] <Arrlaari> In particular, Prince Drosselmeier himself asks the princesses of the Kingdom of Sweets if Pirlipat can compare to Marie, and they all immediately agree that Marie is way better
[15:05] <Froborr> Yes, it’s the “how dare you have physical standards, person whose entire society treats ugliness as a terrible curse” thing.
[15:05] <Arrlaari> This website deliberately makes it hard to copy and paste from it
[15:06] <Arrlaari> The last time Pirlipat is spoken of, it is the Prince calling her “the cruel Princess Pirlipat for whose sake I became ugly”
[15:07] <Froborr> Urgh.
[15:08] <Arrlaari> But there’s something interesting that happens much earlier: Marie sees a face looking up at her from the water of a lake in the Kingdom of Sweets and says that it is Pirlipat, smiling up at her. Prince Drosselmeier tells her that it is not Pirlipat, but Marie’s reflection
[15:09] <Arrlaari> And Judge Drosselmeier tells Marie that she was born a princess like Pirlipat, to which her mother replies that she thinks she knows what the Judge is talking about, but can’t explain why
[15:10] <Froborr> Huh.
[15:11] <Arrlaari> A buddhist reading is clear: Marie is Pirlipat’s reincarnation (it is implied that a great time passes between the tale of the hard nut and the events of the story), but Prince Drosselmeier does not want to forgive Pirlipat and therefore committs himself to the illusion that they are different people
[15:12] <Froborr> Wait, when did Pirlipat die?
[15:13] <Arrlaari> It’s not explicitly said, but it’s implied that Judge Drosselmeier, a wizard, outlives all the other characters in the Tale of the Hard Nut except the Prince, who is ageless as a Nutcracker doll
[15:13] <Arrlaari> This might be a tenditious reading but I think it works
[15:13] <Froborr> All right.
[15:14] <Froborr> (I am no stranger to tenuous readings, you may have noticed.)
[15:14] <Arrlaari> And now I turn to Madoka magica. Madoka is Pirlipat and Marie (who are the same), and the moment Homura “becomes ugly for her sake” is when she, at roughly the same time, reverts the timeline in which Madoka killed Mami but killing Madoka herself.
[15:15] <Froborr> *nods*
[15:15] <Arrlaari> Where the Prince commits himself to the illusion that Marie is not Pirlipat, Homura commits herself to the illusion that Madoka is blameless for the self-loathing that she feels for this
[15:16] <Froborr> Ahhhh I think I’m starting to get it.
[15:16] <Arrlaari> The idea of Madoka’s innocince (I know I mispelled that) becomes next to sacred for her
[15:17] <Arrlaari> Note that this moment is when Homura suddenly changes her self-presentation, which subsequent iterations of Madoka finds frightening and off-putting
[15:18] <Froborr> yep!
[15:18] <Arrlaari> The last episode of the series, when Madoka suddenly rescues Homura from defeat at the hands of Walpurgisnacht, parallels the end of the battle between the Nutcracker & dolls against the Mouse King and his army – in the book, this is not when the Mouse King dies, and in the series, Kyubey basically escapes unscathed
[15:20] <Arrlaari> Afterwards, Marie is bedridden because she cut herself putting her had through the glass doors of the toy cabinet (nitpick time: in Against Homura you write that Prince Drosselmeier leads that battle from a clockwork castle. In the book, the Nutcracker and Dolls sally from the toy cabinet, and all but Drosselmeier retreat to the cabinet by the end)
[15:20] <Arrlaari> While Madoka becomes an existence outside of time and space
[15:21] <Arrlaari> Judge Drosselmeier tells Marie the story of the hard nut while she is convalescing, and also repairs the Prince’s jaw. Madoka can see Homura’s past from outside space and time.
[15:22] <Arrlaari> But shortly after she recovers, Marie wakes up in a state of sleep paralysis, and the Mouse King emerges to threaten the Nutcracker’s life, demanding Marie’s candy in return
[15:23] <Arrlaari> The Mouse King’s mother, Mouserinks, came into conflict with Pirlipat’s family over fat (which was to be used in sausage), and the Mouse King demands candy. Sugar and Fat are known for being more or less “pure calories” – and calories are a unit of energy. The mice want energy, just as Kyubey does.
[15:24] <Froborr> Bit of a stretch, but I’ll go with it.
[15:24] <Arrlaari> And so Kyubey threatens Homura’s life (or afterlife), effectively demanding additional energy from converting magical girls into witches
[15:27] <Arrlaari> Marie gives into two nights’ worth of the Mouse King’s demands before the Prince asks that she instead give him a sword, and he uses it to slay the Mouse King off camera. As he reports his victory to Marie, he invites her to tour his Kingdom. Madoka gives Kyubey nothing, instead breaking Homura out of the seal. Homura takes Madoka to her own Kingdom of Sweets (named by the signage in the last shot before the credits) without
[15:27] <Arrlaari> while the universe is being rewritten, conqueres Kyubey decisively
[15:28] <Arrlaari> It’s a little bit out of order but basically fits
[15:28] <Froborr> A bit, yes.
[15:28] <Froborr> And arguably Madoka actually does give Kyubey something–the Incubators still get to collect their energy in Madoka’s new timeline, it’s only after Homura resets it that they’re cut of.
[15:29] <Froborr> *off
[15:29] <Arrlaari> The Incubator’s decide to cut themselves off (too dangerous!), but Homura insists that they continue to collect the curses that have been spread about the world – so she isn’t yet cutting them off
[15:30] <Arrlaari> Although she later implies that Maju, and hence the cubes, are finite
[15:30] <Arrlaari> It is significant that the movie ends on this note, because The Nutcracker does not. The death of the Mouse King does not break Mouserinks’ curse, and Homura’s triumph over Kyubey does not break the self-loathing that is her curse.
[15:32] <Arrlaari> After the tour, Marie returns to her home, and it is from there that she does break Mouserinks’ curse, whereafter Prince Drosselmeier appears in his true form to ask to be engaged to marry her. Only after that, plus an unspecified delay (Marie is nine years old) does Marie come to permanently reside in the Prince’s kingdom.
[15:33] <Arrlaari> Reading Homura’s life as a retelling of Prince Drosselmeier’s therefore leads us to predict that Madoka will indeed escape as she threatened to do in the hall scene, but also suggests that there is hope that this could lead to a true healing experience for Homura.
[15:34] <Arrlaari> So I got this far and I haven’t even mentioned Sin, which is a big part of my thinking on this
[15:34] <Froborr> Okay. So let’s talk sin.
[15:36] <Arrlaari> You’ve associated Homura with a form of Care Ethics, as that’s the system that justifies Homura’s decisions. For exactly that reason, Care Ethics cannot be the system to which Homura conciously subscribes. Homura does not believe herself to be justified, even before she declares himself a demon and the embodiment of evil.
[15:36] <Froborr> An excellent point.
[15:37] <Arrlaari> Homura appears to subscribe to the Christian value system in which Virtue is opposed to Sin. When thinking about the illusory world she has been trapped in, she thinks, in regard to forsaking their duty to hunt Maju, “such a sin should be unforgivable”
[15:39] <Arrlaari> One of the key elements of the idea of Sin is expressed, imprecisely, in “whosoever lusts after his neighbor’s wife, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The idea can be clarified with a story about stealing an apple.
[15:40] <Arrlaari> Four people pass by an unguarded apple cart. The first is not hungry, and gives the cart little notice.
[15:40] <Arrlaari> The second is hungry, and thinks “I would like to take one of those apples and eat it, but they do not belong to me, therefore I have no right to take one.”
[15:41] <Arrlaari> The third is likewise hungry, and thinks “I would like to take one of those apples and it eat, but I may be caught and punished as a thief”
[15:41] <Arrlaari> The fourth thinks “I would like to take one of those apples and eat it”, and then does so
[15:42] <Arrlaari> The first man is innocent. The fourth man is guilty of theft. The second man has resisted temptation through virtue, and the third is no less a thief than the fourth – he has stolen the apple in his heart.
[15:44] <Arrlaari> And so even though Homura has reversed the timeline in which she shot and killed Madoka, she still believes that she carries the sin of murder in her heart. In Rebellion, there is a scene where she says that “she thought she could bear any sin” – and because she is willing to do anything for Madoka’s sake, she has, “in her heart” already done everything
[15:44] <Arrlaari> Including, for example, murdering  Sayaka in cold blood.
[15:45] <Froborr> Wait, when’d she do that?
[15:45] <Arrlaari> She didn’t – but only because Kyouko prevented her from doing it
[15:46] <Arrlaari> Therefore, by the standards she believes in, she had already killed Sayaka “in her heart”
[15:47] <Froborr> Ah.
[15:50] <Arrlaari> On the other hand, Homura thinks of Madoka as being purely innocent – she not only would refrain from murder (or any other bad act), she would not even think of it. Only the horrible circumstances of being a magical girl could spoil that innocence and cause her to kill Mami, and Homura believes she erased that timeline
[15:51] <Arrlaari> But after her ascension, Madoka can percieve that the distinction between things that did and did not happen is an illusion – as a Goddess she is no less the person who killed Mami than the person who merely witnessed Mami’s death, or the person who never met her
[15:52] <Arrlaari> That is something Homura, so far as I can tell, never processes. She thinks of Madoka Law of Cycles as being sacred like a god, especially pure.
[15:53] <Froborr> It likely helps that Madoka is not Christian and therefore has not been subjected to this particular brand of bullshit.
[15:53] <Arrlaari> More importantly, Madoka is the person who asked Homura to kill her even though that timeline was about to be reverted. She is cruel Princess Pirlipat, for whose sake Homura became Sinful.
[15:54] <Froborr> Ahhh, that’s how we get back to the Nutcracker.
[15:57] <Arrlaari> And if Homura’s curse is to be broken, it will have to be through forgiving Madoka – but that cannot happen while Homura denies Madoka’s responsibility, and therefore also her agency.
[15:58] <Arrlaari> And that also leads to the prediction that before that, Madoka will escape her current circumstance.
[15:59] <Arrlaari> As far as I can remember, that’s all, except for a very tenuous reading of Judge Drosselmeier
[15:59] <Arrlaari> Which is tangential to the themes
[16:00] <Froborr> Go for it, though, this is very interesting stuff.
[16:01] <Arrlaari> Alright. It’s hard to map the Judge to any of the characters who appear in Madoka Magica or Rebellion. As the one who leads Prince Drosselmeier to get into trouble in an attempt to rescue Pirlipat, he lines up with Kyubey, but afterwards he works to get the Prince out of his predicament – and Kyubey is already the Mice.
[16:02] <Arrlaari> Furthermore, he’s a blood relative to the Prince, but Homura appears to have no relatives.
[16:03] <Arrlaari> However, there is a figure who is metaphorically related to Homura. To contrast Madoka and Homura, Gen Urobuchi once said that Madoka is an “Ume Aoki character”, while Homura is a “Gen Urobuchi character.”
[16:05] <Froborr> Hmm.
[16:05] <Arrlaari> Judge Drosselmeier is described as a clockmaker as well as a judge, but it’s clear that Judging pays the bills and clockmaking is a passion – he’s simply a gear geek. There is a clockwork castle in the book, but rather than being the Prince’s castle, it’s one of the Judge’s works of art
[16:05] <Froborr> So the Judge is Urobuchi?
[16:06] <Arrlaari> When Fritz and Marie ask him to make the people in the castle move differently, he tells them that “once it has been put together, it only goes one way” and when they lose interest, he sulks until their mother asks him to show her how it works, which cheers him up.
[16:07] <Arrlaari> And yes, The Judge is Urobuchi – when he is about to begin telling Marie the story of the hard nut, their mother says “I hope, dear Mr. Drosselmeier, that your story won’t be as horrible as the ones you usually tell.”
[16:08] <Froborr> Heheh, which of course draws this and Princess Tutu inexorably closer together.
[16:09] <Arrlaari> The Judge is the one who brings the Prince to Marie, but he also brings the Mouse King to the both of them – he stops the Grandfather clock from striking twelve, which is implied to have either summoned the Mouse King or prevented the chime from warding him away
[16:10] <Arrlaari> Also notable: The Prince clearly resents the Judge. When Marie tells him that the Judge will fix his jaw, his eyes shoot green sparks. During the tour, when Marie recognizes the lake as being like one the Judge once promised her, the Prince dismissively says that she is as likely to make such a lake as the Judge
[16:13] <Arrlaari> The Judge knows that only Marie can break the curse on the Prince, and manipulates the circumstances to bring that about, just as Urobuchi knew that only Madoka could break the curse on his works, represented by Homura
[16:15] <Froborr> Innnteresting.
[16:16] <Froborr> And again, the fact that Drosselmeyer is the main villain of Princess Tutu and his primary motivation is a preference for stories that end in tragedy makes this whole interpretation hilarious in the best way possible.
[16:16] <Arrlaari> I didn’t know that about Princess Tutu, which I haven’t seen, but that is pretty great.
[16:17] <Arrlaari> I brought up the Judge’s gear geekery for two points – one, Urobuchi is evidently a firearms geek, two, the line about “once it has been put together, it only goes one way” suggests fatalism.
[16:17] <Froborr> You should! Drosselmeyer is the main villain. He is more than a little bit implied to be the same character as from the Nutcracker, though more the ballet than the book.
[16:18] <Froborr> Plus there’s all the clockwork imagery associated with Homura.
[16:18] <Arrlaari> Yeah. In the book, the clockwork castle goes on the top shelf of the toy cabinet, with the rest of Drosselmeier’s “works of art”
[16:19] <Arrlaari> I found that element of his characterization quite endearing
[16:19] <Arrlaari> Perhaps mostly because I am favorably inclined towards geeks, even of things for which I am not myself geeky
[16:23] <Arrlaari> But I think it’s really cute how this man, who is an ancient wizard, goes into a childish sulk when children don’t appreciate his clockwork castle, and then cheers up as soon as he’s asked to explain it
[16:24] <Froborr> Fair enough.
[16:26] <Arrlaari> I think that’s all I’ve got. Do you have questions?
[16:26] <Froborr> Nope. This was a really interesting interpretation.
[16:26] <Froborr> I clearly need to actually read the Nutcracker now.
[16:27] <Arrlaari> Oh, one observation: When Kyubey is explaining the experiment to Homura, she is standing in a glass cabinet
[16:28] <Arrlaari> After reading the translation I linked above, I was able to see several visual callbacks that I hadn’t associated before.

Good movies can be problematic too

I dunno what’s wrong, I just can’t make my brain do fiction today. Since I already had this post queued up for Monday, I’m moving it up, and I’ll swap Fiction Friday to Monday.

So, I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Edge of Tomorrow. Both are quite entertaining high-concept action movies, and I recommend them both.

That said, holy crap are they incredibly white. HTTYD sort of has an excuse, in that it’s in a fantasy setting with Vikings… except not really, because they’ve already given the Vikings fucking dragons, having some variation in skin tone wouldn’t be more of a departure. Plus, I do think it says something that most of the escapist fantasy worlds our culture provides, from Leave it to Beaver to, well, How to Train Your Dragon,  are suspiciously monochrome.

Edge of Tomorrow, meanwhile, depicts a massive multi-national fighting force, in a world where continental Europe has already fallen (that’s not a spoiler, it’s established in the opening montage), and it’s got maybe three black guys and one Latino. Most notably, apparently no one in all of Africa and the Middle East is paying any attention whatsoever to the massive alien army knocking on their gates, since there’s no mention of them being involved on the Mediterranean front.

And again, yeah, we only see the forces stationed in Britain, but the accents imply that most of the forces there are American. The American military is nowhere near that white–but of course this is an escapist action fantasy, and apparently part of what filmmakers and audiences want to escape from is the existence of people of color.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Spoiler-Filled Review

Apologies for lateness.

Spoilers below the cut!

Captain America, within the Marvel universe, is a living relic of World War II. He signifies that war’s position within American pop-cultural history as “the good war,” the war in which the enemy was clearly evil and Manichaean logic can therefore declare the U.S. good. 
By contrast, the name of his opposite number in this movie, the “Winter Soldier,” clearly refers to the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971, in which the organization Veterans Against the Vietnam War sought to expose American war crimes in Vietnam, and to demonstrate that these were not isolated incidents, but a direct consequence of military policy. 
In its title alone, then, Captain America: The Winter Soldier represents a transition from a world in which fighting “the bad guys” makes you good to one where how and why you fight matters as much as who you fight against, and it takes more than a team affiliation to be one of the good guys. 
Captain America, of course, is always going to end up one of the good guys. He is the moral center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as he often is in the comics as well); where Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor struggle with impulses to self-indulgence or violent temper, and Black Widow has a checkered past and a ruthless streak a mile wide, Captain Anerica’s only flaw is a lack of information. Sometimes he’s lost due to missing most of the 20th Century; other times it’s because he doesn’t know who to trust or all the details of what’s going on–but given the information, we can presume that anything he does will be treated by the film as morally right. 
Case in point: Hydra’s plan is to kill millions to save billions. This makes them villains. Cap’s team kill thousands to save those millions; this makes them heroes. Of course the two are not equivalent; Hydra is seeking to kill millions, mostly civilians, in order to establish an authoritarian rule by fear. Captain America and the Shield loyalists kill thousands, mostly Hydra operatives, to maintain some semblance of freedom. But that’s the point; the difference between good and evil is not, as in the theme park version of World War II from which Captain America hails, a matter of killing members of the opposing team; what matters is why and how and when. Killing someone because an algorithm suggests they might someday upset the status quo of orderly society is evil; killing someone because it’s the only way to stop them from doing far greater evil is, broadly speaking within this movie’s moral universe, good. 
The film’s criticism of the Manichaean worldview is vital, because that worldview underlies the post-9/11 security-and-surveillance culture which is the film’s main target. Much has been made by critics of this heavy-handed, but bold and extremely welcome attack on the way in which terrorism and the fear of terrorism has been used as an excuse by multiple world powers to undermine the civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy of their own citizens.
In this sense, the film builds on Iron Man 3, in which the alien attack on New York in The Avengers is framed as equivalent to 9/11, with people referring to it obliquely as “New York” and Tony Stark being told he needs to move past it and get on with his life. In Winter Soldier, the comparison becomes blatant; the attack on New York is explicitly stated to be the impetus for Shield stepping up its surveillance efforts and taking a more “proactive” (read: authoritarian) role.

Interestingly, there seems to have been little attention paid to perhaps the most interesting use of 9/11 imagery in the film, namely the collision of an aircraft with the tallest building in the city, destroying both. In many ways this is an inversion of the normal depiction of 9/11, in which both the airplane and the building are filled with innocents, but evil people caused the plane to crash into the building. By contrast, the Helicarrier is part of Shield’s plot to control the world, which in turn is a front for Hydra’s plot to control the world, while the Triskelion is equally a center of Shield and Hydra corruption. Notably, the Triskelion is literally above the law–the view from the glass-walled elevator positions it directly across Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway from the Watergate Hotel, which is to say within D.C. city limits, and at 41 floors it is therefore in violation of federal law limiting the height of buildings in D.C., specifically the Height of Buildings Act of 1910. Debatably, the sub-orbital position of the Helicarriers also puts them literally above the law in the sense of being outside any nation’s airspace; however, they never actually reach that height.

Examine more closely, however, and the imagery isn’t quite so clearly a reversal so much as it is a reclaiming. To understand this, consider the hydra. In the movie, the significance of the hydra is in the organization’s motto: “destroy one head, and two grow in its place.” In regards to the Hydra organization itself, the hydra represents the futility of violence as a long-term solution to terrorism; even where a military response succeeds in stamping out a terrorist organization, it breeds the conditions of poverty, resentment, and powerlessness in which terrorist organizations grow. But there is one enormous difference between Hydra and real-world terrorism: Hydra is a single organization that is behind everything.

It is thus very easy to give Hydra, and by extension the film, a paranoid reading. Already fan speculation is rampant on whether the villains of the previous Iron Man films might have been Hydra members or splinter groups. The problem with this reading is that the film is clearly concerned very much with the real-world issues of government secrecy, surveillance, and authoritarianism, and a too-literal paranoid reading of Hydra leads to “9/11 was an inside job”-style conspiracy theorizing.

More interesting is to consider the other major feature of a hydra: that it is multiple independent entities which, deep under the water, connect in a single body. Shield does not know that it is a branch of Hydra; it believes itself to be an independent creature. This is key, because in real life, al-Qaeda and the NSA do not believe that they are part of the same phenomenon, and the suggestion that they are fundamentally connected, that they need one another to survive, is generally seen as absurd.

But both are organizations that thrive on fear. Terrorist organizations are Hydra in its overt mode, killing people and spreading panic and destruction. The security sector is Hydra in its subtle mode, watching, collecting data, silently and without legal or moral restraint taking out key individuals, all of it justified under the mantra of “protecting” people. Without overt Hydra, subtle Hydra has no justification for its surveillance and attacks; without subtle Hydra and the establishment it represents, overt Hydra has no autocratic powers to target. The difference between the movie and real life is that Hydra knows it is a single beast, and so coordinates the fighting between its heads in a grand show designed to keep the populace docile. In real life, the heads of the beast are fighting in earnest, and there is no conspiracy to dupe into people joining terrorist cells or voting in favor of more “security”. That’s what makes conspiracies so popular; it’s more comforting to imagine that someone is deliberately manipulating the system than to acknowledge that there are problems inherent in the system itself.

Ultimately, the movie rejects the conspiracy theory model and acknowledges that the system is the problem. Black Widow emerges as the real hero of the movie, striking the most important blow out of all the characters by exposing both Shield and Hydra–both the security sector and the terrorists–to the light, destroying secrecy and thereby breaking the power of fear. That this is the most heroic act in the movie is made clear by two factors, first that it is framed as a major personal sacrifice on Black Widow’s part, and second that she is the single character who changes the most over the course of the film.

Of course the ending of the movie shows that the system still endures. A blow has been struck against it, certainly, but it is not yet destroyed; the CIA still exists, as does at least one Hydra cell. The threat remains; cut off one head and two grow in its place. But lives were saved, and for now at least, those who put themselves above the law have been brought crashing down to Earth.

I have little doubt that the next several Marvel movies will fail utterly to pick up this particular ball. It’s simply not an appropriate topic for a silly CGI-fest space romp or a big crossover superhero “epic.” But it would fit well with a Black Widow movie, and Winter Soldier‘s writers and directors are already confirmed for Captain America 3, so there is hope that a couple of years down the line we will see a bit more of this kind of revolutionary impulse and anger.

Hopefully by then a little will have spread out into the real world. Don’t hold your breath.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Spoiler-Free Review

I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier  last night. Here’s what I can say without spoiling it: All that relatively subtle poking of the post-9/11 security-theater world in Iron Man 3? “You have to forget about New York” and all that?

Yeah, they’re not being remotely subtle anymore, and it’s glorious. There’s even a largely successful attempt to reclaim iconic 9/11 imagery as a symbol of resistance to the surveillance state. I’ll talk more tomorrow when I get spoilery. As any good Captain America story should be, this is about the ghost of our grandparents looking at our world, and finding it insufficiently progressive.

Also cool action sequences, an update of one of the last Marvel heroes I was expecting to see in a movie, and a mostly predictable but still entertaining conspiracy-thriller plot. (Oddly, the thing I was surprised by was played as being not particularly revelatory, while I saw the Big Twist coming miles away.)

None of the warmth of the first Captain America, and that’s most definitely intentional. This is an angry movie, and rightly so. One of the best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

I saw Muppets Most Wanted as well. Amusing, also lacked the warmth of the previous movie, and suffered terribly for it. Probably worth a rent if you like the Muppets (which I very much do, rather predictably), but not worth the cost of a movie ticket.

Corpse of Milk: Themes of Putrefaction in Madoka Magica 3: Rebellion

 The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
G.K. Chesterton

What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?
Bertolt Brecht

I had some more thoughts on Madoka Magica: Rebellion that I never found a place for in the spoilerful review, so here’s a second article. Spoilers below the cut!

One of the most prominent themes in Puella Magi Madoka Magica is decay. Entropy, obviously is a form of decay, and thus the magical girls/witches are presented as a weapon against decay. However, there are other forms of decay at work: the city steadily degrades over the course of the series, from the bright clean spaces of Episode 1 to the crumbling ruins of Episode 12. Most notably, the mental states of the magical girls themselves decay. This is most pronounced with Sayaka’s descent, but there’s plenty of hints that the other magical girls suffer from severe depression, such as the fountain of Prozac when Mami and Madoka have their heart-to-heart or the way Kyoko constantly eats her feelings. The entire point of the witch system is to get the magical girls to decay emotionally until they become witches; in a sense, all that Kyubey’s system does is shift entropy from the physical decay of the universe into the emotional decay of the girls.

This constant presence of decay ties neatly into the series’ Buddhist roots. The first of the Four Noble Truths (the core philosophical tenets of Buddhism) is the inevitability of dukkha, which translates roughly to suffering. There are three kinds of dukkha, the ordinary, obvious dukkha of illness, aging, and death; the anxious dukkha brought about by trying to hold on to things that are subject to time and therefore constantly changing, and the underlying dukkha inherent in all material things caused by their transience.

This last corresponds more-or-less directly to entropy, the principle that all material things must inevitably wind down. This inevitability of decay sounds like it ought to be a source of despair, but there are solutions. The primary Buddhist solution is detachment–to escape from this world is to escape the karmic cycle of inevitable despair. This is the door Madoka, in her role as the boddhisattva Kanon, opened for the magical girls at the end of the series. But is it the only solution? Is there no way to be happy within this transient world?

Western culture initially answers “no” as well. Christianity offers escape from this world to Heaven as its solution, with the added notion that at some future point God will destroy this world of suffering and replace it with a better one. However, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance a concept arose which gives an alternate path out of decay and despair: putrefaction.

Putrefaction is an alchemical concept, an alternate term for fermentation, but it came to refer to the way in which death and rot bring forth life. Consider a rotting piece of fruit. It is revolting to human senses, black and ugly and foul-smelling, but it is also a riotous explosion of new life such as mold and maggots. These in turn serve as nourishment for “higher” forms of life (remember that European alchemy takes the Aristotelian Great Chain of Being as a given), until ultimately even the most exalted creatures depend on rot for their existence.

This is more than just the life cycle of biology, it is one of the most profound spiritual teachings of the alchemists: Death brings forth life. Rot and creation are one and the same. Decay is evolution.

Or put another way, flowers bloom in cemeteries. One such flower is the red spider lily, a crown of which adorns Homura’s witch form. Because of its red color and the fact that, unlike most flowering plants, it loses its leaves before blossoming, it is associated with loved ones separated by fate and death, and frequently planted in cemeteries in China and Japan. The connection to Homura’s pain, separated from her beloved Madoka, is quite obvious.

However, the act of planting the flowers shows that one still acknowledges the lost loved one; love can endure where material existence has decayed away. Indeed, it is that love–originating in a destroyed universe–that brings Madoka back to Homura’s illusory world. With her she brings two other beings, Charlotte and Sayaka. Both return out of duty and loyalty to Madoka, but later state additional motivations.

Unsurprisingly, given that she has been obsessed with cheese throughout the film, Charlotte comes back for cheese. Cheese is an excellent symbol of putrefaction, being a delicious and nourishing substance that is at the same time essentially rotting milk.Charlotte is not alone in her motivations for return; all three of Madoka and her servants have returned for something valuable that emerged from decay. In the case of Madoka, it is her relationship with Homura, which evolved over the course of multiple timelines in which Madoka decayed from a bright, cheerful magical girl to the largely passive figure of the timeline showcased in the series, while Homura decays from timidity to being completely shut off. Sayaka, on the other hand, comes for her relationship with Kyoko, a relationship rooted in Kyoko’s attempts to reach Sayaka when the latter’s mental state was decaying rapidly. 

The products of putrefaction, in other words, can be valuable. Decay is not an unmixed evil. 
What, then, to make of the fact that Madoka’s perfect, decay-free nirvana necessarily contains no cheese, both because there is no way of making it and because Charlotte would have no reason to leave otherwise? In a world free of decay, free of putrefaction, none of the beauty and life created by rot can exist. Neither cheese nor fire-forged friendships exist in Madoka’s realm, so it cannot be considered an adequate solution to the problem of decay. 
Only time and the inevitable sequels can tell if Homura’s solution is any better. 
A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what’s cheese?
-James Joyce

Spoiler-Filled Review: Madoka Magica 3: Rebellion

This is a spoiler-laden review and initial analysis for a movie that so far has had only a limited theatrical release in English, and as such I am operating on the assumption that someone reading this both wants to see it and has not. As such, the actual review is behind a cut. As I said, it is spoilertastic. Consider yourself warned.

In Gnostic myth, the demiurge Ialdabaoth traps its creator, the divine spirit of wisdom Sophia, in the prison we know as material existence.

In Buddhist myth, the demon Mara uses the illusions and temptations of material existence to try to ensnare the would-be Buddha, and prevent the attainment of enlightenment.

Why do they do this? Normally it is assume d that they are simply evil (or in the case of Ialdabaoth, so wildly incompetent as to amount to the same thing). But maybe they have motivations, one that we might find sympathetic if only we could understand the feelings of such vast, cosmic beings. Maybe their motivations are even something we smaller creatures can understand, feelings we ourselves share.

In short, maybe they’re in love.

Throughout the first half of Rebellion, the main characters and their supporting cast are in what seems to be a far better world, for them. They are all happier than they were in the series: all five magical girls are alive and working together to easily take down Nightmares, Mami and Kyouko are no longer alone, Madoka and Homura are able to be friends as they were in the first timeline, and Sayaka is at peace with not getting the boy.

The downside is that no one outside this group is real, which makes sense for a world created by Homura; as I’ve argued before, she is the representative of in-group care ethics in the series, so of course her world only contains her in-group and a bunch of ciphers. Since the series is, arguably, Homura’s story, her in-group neatly maps on to the main and supporting characters from the series (though admittedly, she probably only drew in Madoka’s family, Hitomi, and Kyousuke because of their importance to Madoka and Sayaka).

The movie thus functions as a critique of that care ethos, balancing the critique of consequentialism in the series. Just as, in the series, Kyubey’s excessive consequentialism led him to be willing to torture and sacrifice young girls to stave off the heat-death of the universe, so is Homura willing to ignore the entire rest of the population of Mitadake City to make her friends happy–and that’s only in the first part. Depending on how one reads the remainder of the film after the battle with Homura’s witch form (apparently named Homulilly in supplementary materials), she may be risking the entire universe and overriding Madoka’s own choices in order to keep Madoka in the world she cherishes.
Put another way, Homura’s actions and descent into becoming a “demon” by the end of the film are based entirely on love. She takes care to craft the new world into one where the five magical girls can be happy, and in particular making it match as closely as possible the world Madoka treasures. She is acting entirely in accordance with her care ethos–but in the process is willing to become the living incarnation of evil, destroy the universe, and override Madoka’s preferences and choices for what Homura sees as Madoka’s own good. Just as Kyubey’s actions were correct from a consequentialist perspective and utterly monstrous from a care ethics, virtue ethics, or deontological perspective, Homura is acting correctly from a care ethics perspective and committing the worst possible violation of the others: risking universal catastrophe (consequentialism), becoming evil (virtue), and violating Madoka’s right to self-determination and agency (deontology).

This counterbalances the villainization of consequentialism in the series, because it is not that consequentialism is inherently wrong; rather, it’s that no meta-ethical approach is complete in itself. Excessive adherence to any one leads inevitably to becoming a moral monster in the eyes of the others; balancing them is the key to true morality.

This concept of balance is, of course, yet another way in which the series is intensely Buddhist. In the series, the Buddhist symbolism was mostly given to Madoka, whose story is that of the Bodhisattva Guan-yin (Japanese Kwannon (archaic) or Kanon) even as Homura’s story follows Goethe’s Faust (hence Homura being a transfer from a Christian school at the story’s beginning). In the movie, however, it is Homura’s turn to stand in for a Buddhist figure. As a weaver of illusions who creates a world to trap the Bodhisattva and make her forget her Buddhist nature, Homura is quite clearly the demon Mara, who attempts to do exactly that to the Buddha.

Like Mara, Homura fails; Madoka and the other magical girls ultimately break free of her barrier and return to reality, where Madoka reconnects to her ascended self. Here the series turns away from Buddhism and back to Christianity, and more specifically to the (now regarded as heretical) mystical system known as Gnosticism. Madoka now becomes identified with Sophia, stripped of her power and trapped within the material world by her own creation Ialdabaoth (admittedly, Demon Homura self-created, but used power stolen from Madoka to do it). As Ialdabaoth, Homura has taken up the role of guarding and sustaining the material universe by becoming the mistress of the Incubators.
But is Homura truly villainous now? Ialdabaoth certainly is, being ultimately responsible for all evil and suffering in Gnostic mythology. Gnosticism, however, is firmly world-denying; it opposes Ialdabaoth to Christ, who in Gnosticism is a purely non-human entity from outside material reality who enters it with the goal of liberating Sophia and all human souls from Ialdabaoth’s trap. Or, looking at it another way, he’s an inhuman alien being from an incomprehensible plane outside our universe that wants to destroy the world, rip out all our souls, and carry them back to his realm. In other words, if one regards the material universe as completely corrupt and worthless, Ialdabaoth is a cosmic evil; if one regards the material universe as being good, Christ is a Lovecraftian horror and Ialdabaoth our only protection from it.

Is there any hint that the movie might lean toward the latter perspective? To an extent there is. First, there’s the fact that the new reality is just that, a reality. The series has habitually used changes in art style to denote the illusory realms of the witch’s barriers, and the first half of the movie is no exception–even before Homura begins to figure out that the city is a fake, there are quite a few intrusions of other art into the false city. Despite that the new reality is shown as forming when Homura’s witch’s barrier expands to cover the entire cosmos, it is depicted consistently in the art style of the characters, with the few appearances of witch’s familiars only appearing at Homura’s command and self-erasing almost immediately. It is thus a real thing that Ialdabaoth/Homura is working to protect.

Second, Homura has had extensive character development by this point. Despite her declarations that she is now alone and taking on the role of everyone’s enemy, it is clearly just a role–she still arranges the new reality to be kinder and better for them than any previous universe. She worked alone throughout the series, but at the climax of the movie she demonstrates that she has learned to trust others–she knows that becoming a witch in close proximity to a depowered Madoka will not put Madoka at risk, because she trusts Mami and Kyouko to kill her. This is a Homura who can trust and work with others, who tries to bring some happiness, who has even managed to expand her in-group beyond Madoka to include other friends and allies–she is neither a monster nor a mindless gibbering incompetent, the two traditional depictions of Ialdabaoth. She is, in her interactions with Madoka, once again much closer to Mara, deliberately acting to keep Madoka focused on the world and away from connecting with her Buddha-nature.

Homura, in other words, has not fallen. She is not Lucifer, trying to usurp the power of God and as a result transforming into a creature of pure evil. Homura is a complex character, not a cosmic force such as Madoka became at the end of the series; she is not the incarnation of Love or Evil or anything else, but a person, who has made choices good, bad, and arguable, and now must live and work with the consequences of those choices.

Despite that she has done everything wrong from the perspective of most moral systems, she has also done everything right. From a consequentialist perspective, yes, she destroyed the universe, but now she is the universe’s protector. From a deontological perspective, yes, she overrode Madoka’s choices from the end of the series, but at the same time she has kept the goal Madoka sought intact while allowing Madoka to continue to exist as an incarnate person–she has, in other words, enabled Madoka (and Sayaka and Nagisa, for that matter) to regain their lost agency and capacity for self-determination. In terms of virtue ethics, yes, she embodies Evil now–but also she embodies Love, which most systems regard as being a virtue worth cultivating. And finally, from a universal care ethics perspective, she is helping to maintain the system Madoka established and holds the Incubators in check.

Devil and saint, good and evil, concept and character, demiurge and struggling young woman; Homura is an embodiment of contradictions and opposites, proving ultimately that all these seemingly disparate concepts are really one.  It’s hard to get more Buddhist (or, for that matter, postmodern) than that.