Reviews of Iron Man (2008) and related work

Iron Man (2008Moving picture, 126 minutes)

The SF technologies—power plant, AI design suite, extremely high-quality rapid prototyping—would have made sense if they were widely deployed in the world. They’re apparently kept off the market by a moral capitalist who stands to gain both morally and monetarily from their distribution. As a result, the fantasy is very thin.

moving picture fiction

Black Panther (2018Moving picture, 134 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

Bugatti spaceships.

I suppose it was well intentioned. After all, it is built around the benign idea of a nation untouched by colonialism and therefore hale and hearty. This is a lovely form of escapism. Appropriately, the writers introduce conflict into this fantasy from within. Nominally, it is an ideological conflict, which is great. In practice, it is only an excuse for the fight sequences.

The two positions of the conflict are isolationism and interventionism. T'Challa’s isolationism forbids trade and denies refuge. N'Jadaka’s interventionism takes the form of aiding two billion people of comparatively direct African descent—but not other victims of colonialism—by immediately arming them for the explicit purpose of killing their oppressors. These are two straw-man positions. Like the demands of the native American in “Electric Earthquake” (1942), both positions are clearly unreasonable but written for ambivalent purposes.

The Wakandan political system evidently discourages debate in favour of trial by combat and resolves ambiguous results of combat by civil war. This is self-evidently stupid. Meanwhile, there is no sign of self-sufficient agriculture or schooling, the four tribes of the nation double as colour-coded castes, the local religion appears to have no content, the “vibranium” does everything without drawbacks, the chief scientist is a sassy literal princess, and so on. It’s a superficial fantasy, too violent to be aspirational and too silly to make sense.

A more reasonable plot would have had public knowledge of Wakanda ending the first act, not the movie. It would have had a pro-democracy movement, real African nations (instead of South Korea), publicly useful applications of Wakanda’s mineral wealth and some intelligent analysis of colonialism. Compare, for instance, the way that local Shinka culture in fictional Beninia absorbs outsiders in Stand on Zanzibar (1968) (specifically continuity chapter 23, “He Stuck in His Thumb”), despite lacking the wealth and spectacle of ancient Egypt.

With combat taking the place of all those things, it becomes a problem that combat looks as boring as the Star Wars prequels. It’s PG-13, nearly all CGI with nonsense weapons and nonsense damage. At one point the princess invents soundless shoes, illustrated with the practical effect of not playing the sound they make. Artistically, the final battle royale has nothing to show for the millions that went into it.

My favourite part of the movie is the Golden City: Comfortably modern yet cozily organic Afrofuturism, much nicer than “Code of Honor” (1987). The sand-themed display systems are also cool: Not merely cinematic but tactile and evidently useful.

moving picture spin-off fiction

Avengers: Infinity War (2018Moving picture, 149 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

Purple guy collects all the MacGuffins to kill half the stuff.

This production cost close to $400 million. It looks smooth as a result, the pacing is pretty good, and I appreciate the decision to let the villain win for a change. Alas, that will not last, not even in this particular continuity of Marvel adaptations.

It’s unfortunate that Thanos’ motives are not shown. I suppose they might be clear in one of the 18 earlier movies in this continuity, but something so central should bear reiteration. If Thanos were genuinely interested in population issues, he’d be MacGuffing to make people see whatever he thinks he’s seen, or to alter their instincts for greater empathy, humility and foresight. Simply killing 50%—less than one order of magnitude—and leaving the survivors in rage and horror would be useless even in the limited perspective of a normal human lifetime (about three generations).

The filmmakers did not care about what drives Thanos, nor did they expect the audience to care. There is no attempt to show the consequences of his actions at scale: Ecological, economic, emotional or otherwise. It’s all about the sprawling cast of ontologically irreconcilable heroes and their melodramatically evil monster opponents: Fantasies of vicarious empowerment taking turns at snark and violence without end. It is perverse that a random, universal event should be presented only through its most local and immediate effects on non-representative characters. This myopia, central to the genre, limits the emotional impact.

moving picture sequel fiction