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Heros and Villains by the Generation

Heros and Villains by the Generation

One aspect of this era is the wild success of the franchise films based off of the works of two prominent American comics publishers – Marvel and DC.

There is something quintessentially American about the superhero genre. It tells stories where empowered, self-motivated individuals – what all Americans are in theory – strive to better society while struggling with profound ethical dilemmas.  The stories indulge a form of escapism where the intractable problems of the world are conceivably solvable – given fantastical powers and abilities. Why is it so hard to bring peace and stability to the far-flung regions of the planet? Well obviously we simply lack sufficiently advanced technology.

At their worst these movies are trite and tedious, with the same formula repeated ad nauseam. At their best they are rich allegories about power and responsibility, or intriguing character studies. The modern wave of blockbusters has enjoyed tremendous box office success, and love them or hate them, you can’t deny they are a hallmark of our time.

Because I always like to see the generational angle, I decided to catalog the generation and sex of the directors and principal actors in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe films to date. Actually, only up to how far I’ve seen the films because I didn’t want my research to reveal any spoilers. But that’s close to all films to date.

So here is a summary of what I discovered.

The franchises have been a bonanza for Gen-X men, who comprise the majority of directors, and of actors portraying either superheros or supervillains. Gen-X men dominate as directors, with a few Boomer men joining their ranks, along with one Gen-X woman (the director of Wonder Woman) and one Millennial man (the director of Black Panther).

Gen-X men play a majority of the superheros, though a significant number of Millennials share that role. The iconic Gen-X example is surely Robert Downey Jr. as reckless playboy Tony Stark (Iron Man), who is a foil for dutiful Millennial Chris Evans (technically a Gen-X cusper) as Captain America. A conflict between the two characters is even a major element of the MCU story arc. And DCEU has its own Gen-X/Millennial pair of frenemies – the brooding Ben Affleck as Batman versus the self-assured Henry Cavill as Superman.

GenX men are less dominant as supervillains, because Boomer men have found a niche there. Many of the villains are egotistical and power-hungry Boomer men – James Spader as Ultron, Kurt Russell as literally a character called Ego. Their machinations are always being thwarted by younger heroes – an allegory about our times, I suppose. But Boomer men have also found a niche in supporting roles, paternal and self-sacrificing – like Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent or Michael Booker as Yondu.

Boomer and Gen-X women have benefited much less from the superhero film phenomenon. There are very few roles for Gen-X women, despite such prominent stars as Gwynneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Boomer women are similarly underrepresented – the only notable example I could identify was Glenn Close in a supporting role.

With Millennials you see the most gender diversity – there are almost as many female Millennial superheros as male. But with the exception of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, no female superhero has her own movie – a fact not lost on critics. There is a female Millennial villain – Cara Delevingne as Enchantress, and there are two if you count Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

The Guardians of the Galaxy movies have the most gender diverse cast – including the only Gen-X female superhero – Zoe Saldana as Gamora. Thus it is ironic that writer/director James Gunn was hashtag metoo’d out of the franchise.

A final note: only one actor from the Silent generation appears in the MCU or DCEU – Anthony Hopkins as Odin.

In conclusion, the modern wave of superhero movies can be seen as the wish-fulfillment of Gen-X men, who are so prominent in their making. Presumably many of the men of that generation grew up consuming the comics and the earlier movies and television shows made around them. Boomer men, who overshadowed Gen-X growing up, get to be villains or supporting characters. Millennials, meanwhile, are along for the ride, with many Millennial women asserting themselves as equals, as the girl power generation has been preparing to do their whole lives.

Assuming the superhero craze lasts for very much longer, can we expect the Millennial generation to slowly take it over, putting an end to the male dominance that characterizes the franchises today? Or will Gen-Xers maintain their control, until the genre is out of touch with the times? I’m always hearing people say they are tired of these movies, yet there doesn’t seem to be an end to them in sight. And personally I’m excited as any fan about the upcoming releases.

Halloween scare (or not)

Halloween scare (or not)

It was awesome to see the new Halloween sequel on Halloween night, because the movie is set exactly then – 10/31/2018, forty years since the original movie’s horrors on the same date in 1978. The movie was good – exactly what you’d expect, and with the same awesomely creepy music.

We were two adults and one teenage boy, but the boy wan’t worried about being frightened. As he explained to us, he never gets scared by horror movies. We adults both recalled that we did get scared (I remember having nightmares over the Frankenstein monster), but perhaps the young generation is hardened now because of all the exposure to violent entertainment from multiple media sources.

Or perhaps, I speculated, we’ve all gotten so used to mass murder in real life that it is impossible to find it shocking or frightening at all. Which turns out to be exactly the point made by one of the teenage characters talking to his friends in the movie. The babysitter murders of 1978 just seem so mild and quaint to the teens of Haddonfield, Illinois in 2018, who might reasonably anticipate being shot up in school on any random day.

I won’t say any more about the film except that if you are a franchise fan, you will find this one to be a satisfying sequel. I can’t personally compare it to the other sequels, since I have not seen any of them, but the buzz on the Internet seems to be that it is the best of the lot. This is probably because, while it has many updates appropriate for the times, it stays true to the feel and form of the original.

Two animated films for your watch list

Two animated films for your watch list

The latest Pixar offering, Coco, is a wonderful film which has instantly become one of our family’s favorites. It is technically brilliant, demonstrating how far computer animation has come in the more than 20 years since Pixar’s beginnings. The visual detail, the lighting and the color are superb, and it is all easy to take in despite being so complex, unlike much of the CGI that accompanies live action movies these days. The story is excellent as well, and I can’t write much at all about it without spoiling it, except to note that it is fancifully set in Mexico, and while it has action-adventure elements it is really a family drama.

Coco actually has some things in common with another recent animated feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, which uses stop-motion instead of CGI, giving it an older and artsier look. Kubo is also more of an adventure movie, a mythological tale whose narrative is not quite as engaging as Coco’s, though it is not without its own twists. But again – no spoilers!

Each of these films appropriates a facet of world culture to tell a high-stakes story that reminds us to cherish our loved ones. If you’re looking for a satisfying family movie night, you can’t go wrong with either one.

Scrambled Easter Eggs: A Review of Ready Player One

Scrambled Easter Eggs: A Review of Ready Player One

Why would the youth of 2045 be obsessed with the pop culture of the late 1900s? This was my thought as I sat in the theater and watched the movie Ready Player OneAs the cultural references kept piling on, my partner commented, “this movie is made for us.” We are both Gen-Xers, born in the 1960s, and the movie’s plot was an endless series of shoutouts to the iconic movies, TV shows and video games of our youth.

My partner’s son, who was born in the early 2000s, was watching with us, and ironically, he knew more of the references than we did. He would call them “Easter eggs,” coming from the term for messages or images that are often hidden in video games. In fact, Easter eggs in this sense are a major plot point in the movie, which is mostly set in a massive multiplayer virtual reality game. As the characters hunt online for the Easter eggs that are the MacGuffins of the story, we the audience enjoy recognizing the pop culture references that parade by in the form of avatars and items and scenery.

The people of 2045 apparently live online to escape the hellish dystopia the world has become, following some droughts and riots. Civilization has weathered events like these many times before, but we’ll have to assume they were really bad this time. We don’t get to see much of what this bleak future looks like outside of the VR, except for one vertically sprawling slum in Columbus, Ohio, where the residents live in stacked shipping containers supported by bare metal scaffolding. The visual design of this set is striking, which just underscores that fact that we are consuming visual art, and that the “real world” setting depicted is just as contrived as the “virtual world.”

The people in “the stacks” are mostly obsessed with putting on their VR gear and hanging out online, trying to rack up experience and in-game resources. Despite presumably being poor, they can all afford the gear, much as people of all classes today own smartphones. It’s not clear what is happening in the outside world, in the boring realm of politics, economics, and international relations. All that matters to anyone living in the stacks is this game world, as if humanity has abandoned all thought of civic renewal to focus on entertainment. Which actually fits the zeitgeist of the early 21st century quite well.

Really, this movie is an homage to the era of entertainment culture that has been presided over by its director, the hugely influential Steven Spielberg. His generation has dominated the cultural space, and let the political space go to ruin. The people of 2045 worship his generation’s cultural legacy because, in the Spielbergian vision, that legacy is the culminating achievement of our time. The movie audiences of 2018 may well agree.

In the Spielbergian weltanschauung, civic virtue amounts to willingness to join the scrappy underdogs in a fight against the uniformed forces of oppression, represented in Ready Player One by a greedy corporate conglomerate. “Welcome to the rebellion” is actually a line in this movie. It’s like Star Wars all over again. Again.

I write this review without any knowledge of the book on which the film is based, so apologies to the book’s author for missing his original intent, which may have been much different. He may have written a profoundly original and thought-provoking story. You’ll never know from watching this film. Watching this film, you will get an amusing mélange of your favorite pop culture nostalgia, packaged in a plot that has become a routine of PG-rated action adventure movies. And, of course, you will have fun.

Today’s Workout Album – Bright: The Album

Today’s Workout Album – Bright: The Album

I find that the soundtrack to the Netflix original film Bright makes an excellent workout album, with its driving beats and heavy hip-hop influence. I also makes me feel firmly planted in the zeitgeist, since it is not even a year old, and is replete with Millennial themes of building community and repairing the broken.

The film itself didn’t impress critics, instead sort of representing everything that Netflix, or streaming in general, is doing to ruin the film industry. Maybe it is just too weird to mash up the fantasy and buddy cop genres – A Game of Thrones meets End of Watch. It is undoubtedly a formulaic action movie, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was certainly better than The Cloverfield Paradox.

Here is one song from the album (Millennial whoop at 1:36).

My Book and DVD Reviews

My Book and DVD Reviews

I have been creating hobby web pages since a long time ago, and keep at it even though the web itself has moved on. I’m still stuck in Web 1.0, and we have since moved on to Web 2.5 or something like that, and apps are going to kill the World Wide Web any day now anyway, but I still maintain my sites because I enjoy it. So one page I have kept maintaining has reviews of books and movies/TV shows; here it is for you to check out if you’d like:

Steve's Book and DVD Reviews

http://sbarrera.home.mindspring.com/bs/cult/reviews/BSBDRmain.html

 

Things to Come – A Prescient Look At The Future

Things to Come – A Prescient Look At The Future

I recently watched H.G. WellsThings to Come (available on Amazon prime video) and discovered that it tells the tale of a saeculum from Crisis through to the next Awakening, but with a stretched out timeline. It also has early examples of a lot of film tropes.

By saeculum, I mean the social cycle as defined in Strauss and Howe generational theory, which you can learn more about here.

[MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The movie was made in 1936, and its story starts in that year, as the Crisis Era looms. There are rumors of war, making it contemporaneously relevant. There is a bit of a friendly discussion between two characters of the likelihood of war and the nature of progress.

The U.S. uses “peace gas” to end the most recent Crisis Era war.

Then the war comes, and rages for three decades and more. Civilization is ruined, the war is unresolved yet in 1970, and the film has now introduced the post-apocalyptic genre, complete with a plague that turns people into zombie-like creatures. The plague is eradicated, and peace comes at last when a benevolent scientifically advanced alliance deploys a super-weapon – sleeping gas, which they call “the gas of peace.”

Next an expansionist High Era begins, and we get a montage of civilizational development, taking us to a sci-fi world that fits the conventional mid-twentieth century vision of the future. Everything is shiny and sterile, and people dress in styles reminiscent of classical Greece and Rome.

It’s now 2036, and the hubristic future civilization is preparing to send the first humans into lunar orbit, using the method commonly envisaged before the rocket age – a space gun. But the Awakening Era has begun, which is a time of spiritual upheaval and of questioning the current regime. A firebrand preacher arises, denounces the lunar project and stirs up the masses against it. The launch happens anyway and the movie ends with more philosophical ruminations on progress.

So the movie covers a half-saeculum, spread out over a century. It’s as though H.G. Wells understood the saeculum, if not its generation-length timing. It’s impressive that he got two predictions correct – the use of a super weapon to end the Big War, and the fact that the next Awakening begins at the same time as the first manned missions to the moon.

It’s a good film, well worth the hour and a half viewing time. The version on Amazon is colorized and restored, which I think helps to make it more watchable.

A rough life for migrant workers in any era

A rough life for migrant workers in any era

I watched The Grapes of Wrath (1940) last night, and thought it was interesting the way the federal government, in the form of the Department of Agriculture, is portrayed as benevolent heroes. In their government-run camp, they uphold the rights of the migrant workers from Oklahoma against the depredations of the local California law enforcement. This contrasts with what we have today, 80 years later, where the local governments of California protect migrant workers (sanctuary cities) from the depredations of the federal government (Trump-empowered ICE).

Or, alternately, today’s feds are protecting the rights of natives against the crime of migrants who have immigrated illegally. The federal government has the responsibility of protecting the rights of citizens of the United States when state governments fail to do so, and with cruel logic natives could claim to have a right to have no illegal immigrants among them. That is what Trumpistas claim, and so we have a swing from the left to the right across these 80 years, with an added racist tone. In The Grapes of Wrath, the opposing sides are both white, though you could consider them to be different ethnicities using the “11-nation” model: the Okies are Greater Appalachians and the Californians are Left Coasters.

So maybe we are seeing an evolution from fractured groups of whites (the immigrant upheavals of the early 1900s) to unified whites against the browns. The Trump white nationalist model.

Just some thoughts for this fine morning at the end of 2017.

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Science fiction often portrays a vision of a not-too-distant future, but a vision colored by the familiar elements and trends in thought of its own time. My favorite observation about the future as shown on the sci-fi screen is that hairstyles are going to be the same as whatever they were at the time the movie or TV show was made.  When watching an older movie about the near future it’s always fun to see where they got it wrong when that future finally rolls around.

Blade Runner, released in 1982, is set in Los Angeles in 2019. Not the real 2019, of course, but an alternate one where the technology looks like it did in the 1970s and the atmosphere is like a 1940s noir film. It’s a wonderful movie, dark and moody, well written and well acted, and featuring a gorgeous Vangelis soundtrack.

I understand that the point of it is the story and the imaginative vision and that it’s silly to compare it to our time period. Nonetheless, I will. Here are some out of date elements in the scenery, compared to the real 2019:

  • Big honking CRT monitors
  • Neon signs
  • Everyone is smoking in public

Of course, how could the people of 1982 predict that by 2019 smoking would be banished from public spaces (at least where I live; maybe it’s different in L.A.)? And that there would be LEDs, and flat screens, and the one thing that absolutely no pre-2007 sci-fi ever anticipates – smartphones?

To be fair, Blade Runner does get a couple of future technologies right:

  • Voice recognition software
  • Video calls

And then there are the predicted technologies that it might have been natural to assume would be coming in our future, but that our pathetic civilization has yet to achieve:

  • Flying cars
  • Off-world colonies
  • And – oh yeah – Replicants!

It always strikes me how optimistic mid-twentieth century conceptions of the future of space travel are. Back then, it hadn’t been that long since the first orbital launches, and the U.S. space program was still prestigious. But what, no moon colony by 1999? No manned mission to Jupiter in 2001? Well, at least it’s not too late to get that warp drive invented, even if we do have to wait for some time traveler assistance.

As for the artificially created humans, well, they are the crux of the story of Blade Runner, and a sci-fi obsession going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But their presence in the story is not a realistic extrapolation of technological progress.  The closest thing we have to replicants today is artificial hamburgers. Our real world robots are dumb machines, and our real world ‘AI’ is the power of  the Internet to collect and process vast amounts of data.

So I went to see Blade Runner 2049, and first I will report that it is just as good as the original. It has the same feeling of ominous wonder created through beautiful visual effects and an atmospheric soundtrack. It manages to take advantage of the 30+ years of advancement in film special effects (in the real world timeline, I mean) without detracting from suspenseful and meaningful storytelling. If you like science fiction movies in general and Blade Runner specifically then you will love this film.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that it is set in the same timeline as Blade Runner 2019, so there absolutely is no point in waiting until real 2049 to verify its predictions. In the movie’s version of 2049, there are still replicants, and off-world colonies, which is where you’d rather live, because Earth is still a mess, although the color palette of its dreary desolation has been updated a bit.

The 1970s look and feel of much of the technology is still there, which is neat, but here are some additions that reflect modern awareness:

  • Drones
  • Self-piloting flying cars
  • Touchscreens!
  • What if instead of growing a replicant, you programmed a virtual person into a computer, you could call it something else…

I will finish with some thoughts on the subject of artificial intelligence, which is huge in sci-fi film these days, in tandem with news feeds about the growth of the AI industry (which in the real world is building advanced information processing algorithms, not sentient beings).

In the original Frankenstein story, the monster confronts his maker, seeking acceptance, and the scientist creator laments that he has unleashed a destructive force. Both themes are prevalent in subsequent science fiction retellings, reflecting humanity’s yearning to understand its purpose in the universe, and fear that its technological progress has unmoored it from its origins. With Blade Runner (either one) you get all this, along with modern forebodings about overpopulation, ecological catastrophe, wealth inequality, and unbridled corporate power, artfully crafted to satisfy your need for continued myth-making.

Quick Movie Review: From X to Millennial

Quick Movie Review: From X to Millennial

I had an impromptu movie night some days ago and watched two movies which exemplify perfectly the transition from Generation X to Millennial in attitudes about risk and individuality.

The first one was 2008’s Wanted, starring Gen-Xer James McAvoy as a bored office drone who gets recruited into a super secret league of assassins.  As in earlier Gen-X movies that start the story the same way (Fight Club, The Matrix), the protagonist ultimately finds his destiny by breaking out of conventional society and embracing a singular role. It also has a lot of graphic, bloody violence.

Wanted is a cusper movie, and by the end of it the main character has crafted a career for himself which is not unlike being in a real world first person shooter. McAvoy is a late wave Xer, but I imagined he was living the dream of the video game addicted Millennial beta male – perhaps the target audience.

I followed that by watching 2016’s Nerve, in which Millennial Emma Roberts is a shy high school student who decides to court notoriety by joining an underground Internet game of truth or dare – really just the dare part with obligatory smartphone recorded proof. It’s an action movie like the previous one but not murderously violent, rated PG-13 instead of R.

In Nerve the lure of a high-risk, action-packed life isn’t a call to destiny but a trap, and the characters must ultimately test rivalry against loyalty in their quest to find a way out. I also thought it was the better of the two films, with more likable characters and a more sure-footed plot. It belongs in the ranks of films based on juvenile literature in which Millennials band together against a hostile externally imposed system (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner), but with the notable twist that the system isn’t some sci-fi dystopia but rather a plausible creature of our own social media-driven times.

In summary, they’re both flashy action flicks, but in attitude and message represent the difference between the brassy, individualistic Gen-Xer and the group-oriented, approval-seeking Millennial.