Reviews

Guardians of the Galaxy is Pretty Good But Could…

Some thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy (both movies), and why they’re not as outside the box as they seem. Spoilers for the second movie to follow.

Heteronormativity is alive and well in the MCU, and very noticeably in the GoTG movies and their main couple, Gamora and Peter Quill. ~Feelings~ develop in the first movie for no discernible reason except that an attractive man and woman are within 20 feet of each other. This is, I suppose, a plausible, if now painfully overused reason that two people can be take an interest in each other; what bothers me more is the development of their relationship. We are shown these two characters caring about each other, nearly sacrificing their lives for each other – but with no buildup, no plausible reason why they are suddenly so important to each other – other than that they’re the only conventionally attractive heterosexual couple possible within the main characters. Quill is supposed to be something of a serial womanizer, and we see his interest in Gamora the moment he sees her. But why is she more to him than all the other women? Why, for that matter, does Gamora have feelings for him? Even if they care about each other, why isn’t it just platonic? Ironically, in following the heteronormative script, it’s not just LGBT characters and non-traditional relationships that lose out – heterosexual characters and relationships are also deprived of nuance by following the formula.

Then, in the second movie, there’s an “unspoken thing” and Gamora just needs to open up and here I am, watching, and wondering to myself who these characters are.  In the first movie, Gamora is shown to have an incredibly strong moral compass and sense of self. Unlike Nebula, who is very damaged, Gamora has an innocence about her. When she hears that Ronan is planning to wipe out an entire planet in the first movie, she rebels, no questions asked. She pleads with the other Guardians; Ronan is going to destroy Xandar, and he has to be stopped; to her, there is no other option. Gamora is passionate and caring, and to me, it makes no sense that she’s suddenly this wilting flower, denying any feelings for Quill. If anyone would have trouble with feelings, it would probably be Quill, the serial womanizer who forgets women’s names because that’s how little he cares about them. The consistency and depth of both characters gets undermined.

(As an aside re: heteronormativity – if you’re going to show a huge variety of planets and societies, maybe you might want to think about the fact that not all of them will have genders or sexualities like humans’. Why, oh why, is every planet filled with pretty girls with different colored body paint, and only marginally more variable men? Why would aliens have the same concept of gender as humans – or any concept at all? Why would straight be the default on all these planets? Just. Please.)

This is hardly the only part of the franchise that’s formulaic, just the part that irritates me the most. Ronan is also a very stereotypical and unintimidating villain – though they did a bit better with Ego in the second movie, even though the end fight was sort of dumb and all over the place. Even the main plot – Quill resolving his daddy issues – feels sort of weird, because there are all these other (arguably more important to the larger MCU plotline) plots going on that don’t get nearly enough screentime. Gamora and Nebula get a couple fights and then a weaksauce “I just wanted a sister” resolution that comes sort of out of nowhere and doesn’t address the major issues the two of them have. Mantis doesn’t get a plotline at all, unless you count being insulted by Drax, despite the fact that she suffered comparable trauma to Rocket and Yondu, and a plotline about her would have fit well into the overcoming your past/found family arcs. And because of her lack of development, her big moment where she fights back against Ego doesn’t feel big. Also, despite the fact that it passes the Bechdel test (yay, the bare minimum), every female character seen is thin and conventionally attractive, and all of them wear very similar form-fitting outfits – and in the first movie, Drax addresses Gamora as a whore for no perceptible reason except to get a laugh. Which is not only sexist, but makes zero sense because…it’s not like she’s known for being a femme fatale. She’s an assassin.

All of these problems (and more, but I can only rant so much before I get tired) spring, I think, from one major issue: the GoTG movies aren’t quite sure what kind of movies they are. They hover uncertainly between glitzy action movies, and dark, black comedy satires of superhero movies. This causes a bunch of problems. For one, there’s an attempt to give female characters more screentime and agency, but it never really follows through. (Forget about LGBT characters; we got our two minute moment in Beauty and the Beast and we better be grateful, dammit!) For another, it lowers the stakes, making the villains, especially Ronan, really ineffectual. It’s hard for Ronan killing a bunch of people to feel like a big event when all the characters (including the protagonists) cause a lot of fatalities that are played for laughs. A lot of the jokes feel out of place for the more serious, action movie plots – and the serious stuff often falls flat because it’s constantly undermined by the self-referential, self-mocking humor. But of course Disney can leave no demographic unmarketed-to, and so it remains a weird hodge-podge of genres and storylines.

But other than that stuff it was pretty good.

P.S. Marvel, please get some better posters. This is some Escher Girl nonsense:

Reviews

My Opinion on Thirteen Reasons Why is That I’m…

NOTE: This post contains discussion of suicide. If that is upsetting to you, this post might not be for you. Please proceed with caution.

Here is a short opinion post. My opinion is: a couple of the common criticisms of the new Netflix show are incorrect and are the result of either a) an inability to see nuance or b) watching the show from like two rooms away while also maybe wearing sound canceling headphones. I don’t address them all because I tried and I got too mad, so instead here are some vague talkings-about of reasons why I really like this show (sadly not 13 reasons), starting with a quote from Jay Asher (author of the book the show is based on):

“Regarding the subject matter: A close relative of mine attempted suicide when she was the same age as Hannah. Thankfully (and luckily), she survived. Over the years, we discussed the events and emotions that led her to make that decision. But she could never talk about one specific circumstance without telling me what preceded it or what followed. That idea that everything affects everything, as Hannah says in the book, intrigued me.”

The snowball effect, Hannah calls it in the book. And I’ve seen posts calling the show’s approach to depression and feeling suicidal simplistic, which I find frankly bizarre, as the main conceit of the show is to demonstrate that everything is complicated and everything had repercussions that you cannot necessarily predict. Rather than one simple event driving Hannah to the point of ending her life, it is a series of interconnected events creating feedback loops that gain immense power over her life. It’s not one person calling her a slut; it’s a reputation that, given the society we live in, suggests to some people that Hannah might be someone they can take advantage of. Someone who will be “easy”, give them what they want. And after a while, it’s a vicious cycle, the rumors feeding people her way who are not interested in her as a person, only as an object – and the same people perpetuating the rumors when they don’t get what they want. She becomes an easy scapegoat – for Courtney, the crazy lesbian who wants a threesome, shielding Courtney from having to come out, for Justin, proof of his sexual prowess, for Marcus, a psycho drama queen who wouldn’t just be chill and let him fondle her under a table (like a cool girl would). And fighting back against that just makes more people think she’s weird or dramatic.

The effects of her suicide, and the tapes, are not minimized. And the effects aren’t always good. Leaving a suicide note is certainly a striking way to get your message out, but it’s also got some pretty major flaws. No chance to change what you said; no chance to hear the other sides of the story. And no chance, no chance to help the people you just dropped a bomb on. Did Hannah want Clay to stand at the edge of a cliff, thinking about jumping off? Did she want Alex to shoot himself in the head? Did she want Jessica to have to relive and relive her rape, knowing that so many uninvolved people now knew about it? Probably not. But those were all consequences of her actions. She, after talking about the choices people make, the effects they have, becomes a reason why Alex puts the gun to his head. Being depressed, suicidal, is a strange state of mind. You get self-centered. Everything is a personal affront. One of the strengths of Thirteen Reasons Why is that it shows this clearly: Hannah is a hard person to be friends with. She’s a lot of work, she freaks out all the time, she makes everything about her. Dealing with a person who is in a dark place is hard, and people in that state of mind are not always fair or just or good, and that is a necessary part of any conversation about mental illness. By killing herself, Hannah lost the opportunity to make it right with some people. Most importantly, she lost the opportunity to make it right for herself. She deserved that opportunity.

So many writers pull their punches, and I am unambiguously glad that the writers of this show did not. The scene showing Hannah killing herself is graphic, brutal, and upsetting. And necessary. Suicide should not be hidden behind a tasteful fade to black or pan to the side, but should be shown for what it is: violence. And no less violence for being inwardly rather than outwardly directed. Here, there is no mystery, no illusions. We, the viewers, watch Hannah die, alone and in pain. We watch her face, her eyes. Is she regretting it? Does she, in that moment, wish she could take it back? I remember hearing somewhere once that many people who have survived jumping off a bridge realize, halfway down, that all their problems are solvable. Did Hannah realize that, once she had made the fatal cuts? We don’t know, and will never know. But we have to consider it. We have to witness her pain, the effort of each breath as she dies. The camera doesn’t pull away when we want it to. That’s how it is in real life; there’s no fade to black when you slit your wrists or swallow pills. Without that scene, it would be more comfortable. But it would also be less true.

In the end, Dorothy Parker says it best:

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

.

If you’re feeling suicidal or just need someone to talk to, help can be found here.

Fandom

crushcrushcrush

Because April is National Poetry Month, I decided to strike out into uncharted territory and review one of my favorite books, Crush.

Crush is a collection of poems by Richard Siken that won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2004. The Yale Series is an awesome competition where new poets under forty can submit a manuscript to be judged. If you win, and agree to the publishing terms, they publish your poems.

Crush arrived on the scene to pretty rave reviews- the introduction by the judge who chose his manuscript is no exception. She, Louise Glück, starts off by saying, “This is a book about panic. The word is never mentioned.” I’ve not been able to find a better way to describe it. The world Siken creates within Crush is chaotic and cruel, with death tucked into every corner. At the same time, I’d say that it’s also about love- at the very least, it’s definitely about desire. I really can’t emphasize enough how much I love this book- I highly, highly recommend that everyone try it out.

Now, I’m going to be totally honest- I don’t really know anything about poetry. I haven’t taken any classes on it, as I mentioned on last Sunday’s podcast, and I don’t know how to analyze it. All I know is that there is something about his poems that I find really touching. They’re raw, undiluted; they’re what I imagine you’d find if you cracked his ribs open and peeled all the layers away to see what he had hidden beneath. Aside from the very visceral reaction that his themes evoke in me, the imagery he uses is also particularly compelling. Violence, guns, cars, motel rooms, the road, two boys, desire, death.

So, the way I first stumbled across Siken was actually Tumblr. I’m a pretty big fan of the show Supernatural, and while I’m not necessarily active in fandom, I do read a lot of fanfiction. This was even more true when I first started watching it around 2010/2011. I kept seeing these gorgeous graphics on my favorite blogs: typically images of Sam and Dean, sometimes with the Impala, with words over them. Sometimes, it was a simple phrase that told an entire story-

Sam and Dean; over them, a line from “Driving, Not Washing”

Other times, it was like a description of a scene or an episode, or a whole plot point-

Sam and Dean; over them, lines from “A Torn-Up Road”

So eventually I just Googled it, and that’s how my own personal love story with Crush began. (Or, if you prefer, my crush on Crush >:) ) I didn’t actually buy a copy until 2015, but I’m glad I did. I’ve read it cover to cover several times.

Crush and Supernatural mash-ups became so popular that fans started asking Siken if he wrote Crush about the show. He did not, of course, as the book was selected to be published in 2004 (re: Yale Series), and Supernatural first aired in late 2005. But that still hasn’t stopped fans from asking. He’s discussed this a little- a lot, actually- in interviews, but to summarize, he says “[…] I think Crush and Supernatural are products of a cultural moment, not products of each other.”

But it’s easy to see why fans often equate the show and the poems- the imagery in Supernatural is very similar to that in Crush. In You Are Jeff, it starts with two brothers, riding motorbikes down a road. Soon after, there is “God in his High Heaven,” and the Devil, who we’ll “pretend is played by two men” (one of whom has dark hair and green eyes, like Dean). Towards the end, it talks about the brothers again, fighting in the dirt on the side of the road. That’s a pretty common theme for Sam and Dean, especially in earlier and middle seasons. They spent a lot of their lives being trained by their father, a military man. In this case, that doesn’t lend itself to great communication. But they sure can kick the crap out of each other.

Then we have Driving, Not Washing. (There be mild spoilers ahead, proceed with caution)

It starts with bloodshed, always bloodshed, always the same
running from something larger than yourself story

Bloodshed is pretty self explanatory- Supernatural started as a sort of monster-of-the-week show, with each episode containing a new creature to hunt and kill. But over the course of the first couple of seasons, we see a bigger plot arc come into play. The demon who killed Sam and Dean’s mom has come back for Sam, and he has big plans for him. Which, obviously, neither Sam nor Dean want any part of.

They’re hurling their bodies down the freeway
to the smell of gasoline,

The most frequent setting in Supernatural is a car- a 1967 Chevy Impala given to Dean by their father. The Impala becomes like home to them, as they spend their lives traveling around America finding monsters to “gank.” Side note: when Oscar and I went to the Boston Comic-Con a couple years ago, we got Dusa a little Impala replica!

Henry’s driving,
and Theodore’s bleeding shotgun into the upholstery,
It’s a road movie,
a double-feature, two boys striking out across America […]

Wounds, often gory and brutal, are an occupational hazard of hunting monsters. Because of the brothers’ lack of funding (killing vampires doesn’t pay all that well, as it turns out!) and occasional notoriety, they often skip the hospital and do it themselves or for each other. And depending on how difficult a hunt is, it’s not uncommon for one of them to lie wounded in the passenger or back seat while the other takes them back to the motel.

and they’re trying to drive you into the ground, to see if anything
walks away.

In season 5, Dean says to Sam, “[…] it’s supposed to be you and me against the world, right?” Sam and Dean get a lot of crap for what they do- the FBI on their tail for mistaken murder charges, angels angry with them for screwing with a divine plan, the demon trying to turn Sam into some sort of demon general. It often seems like various characters are trying to do just that, drive them into the ground, break their bond (sometimes by killing one of them), just to see how they’ll handle it.

There’s also a piece a little earlier that I didn’t quote, which talks about angels. Angels become a huge part of the show, beginning in season three when Castiel becomes a recurring character. Some would even say a main character, but that’s a rant for another day.

Honestly, this barely scratches the surface. It gets even more interesting when you compare the poems with some of the common fic ships of the show- whether is Destiel (Dean and Castiel), Sabriel (Sam and Gabriel), or Wincest (Sam and Dean- which is surprisingly one of the most written about pairings, both on Fanfiction.net and archiveofourown.org). The poems in Crush are inescapably about desire. Looking at the poems through the lens of a popular fandom pairing can make even more apparent why the book is so well-loved by fans of Supernatural, and why it’s so commonly used in fanart. All in all, I recommend both the book and the show, like, 10,000%.

Don’t even get me started on BBC’s Sherlock and Siken’s second book, War of the Foxes.

More Links

Another great interview with Siken; Siken’s Tumblr; website; and a Tumblr devoted to Siken/Supernatural graphics.