REVIEW: Justice League

When I was on vacation back East, my brother took me to see Justice League for its special Thursday night premiere on November 16. However I didn’t have access to my computer to post a review until I got home. So by now it’s hardly a secret that in this movie Superman comes back to life.

After Clark Kent’s funeral in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) form a working partnership, ending their retirement from superheroics and using Lex Luthor’s files to recruit additional metahumans to form a team against a threat that Batman is convinced is just around the corner.

The first two metahumans are surly drunk Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the nervous-but-eager Flash (Ezra Miller). The third is Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), whose genius father used cybernetic parts to rebuild his body after an auto accident that maimed Victor and killed his mother. However this turned Victor into an inhuman cyborg with vast control over technology that sometimes controls him in turn. Moreover, the reason Doctor Stone could perform this operation is because he was using an alien artifact he called a “Change Engine” that turns out to be tied to Batman’s impending threat: Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), an alien warlord who is so powerful that in an ancient age, he could only be driven off by a coalition of gods, Amazons, Atlanteans, at least one Green Lantern and a troop of humans who look suspiciously like the Men of Gondor. Steppenwolf’s power is tied to three Mother Boxes (including Cyborg’s Change Engine) that were dormant on Earth until Superman died, at which point they reactivated and beckoned Steppenwolf back. (While Steppenwolf has Mother Boxes, boom tubes and an army of Parademons, his connection to Darkseid is mentioned only once.)

Justice League brought back a couple of things that irritated me about Batman v Superman. The first was angry-yet-stupid Superman. After Steppenwolf beats up the team in their first encounter, Batman deduces that Cyborg can hook his Mother Box up to the Kryptonian biomatrix at Luthor’s lab in Metropolis, and put Superman’s corpse in to revive him. And in one of his best lines, Flash muses whether the revived Superman will be cool and back to normal or whether this will be like “Pet Sematary.” Well, the plan works, and sure enough, the result is more like Pet Sematary. Until Batman uses an unusual tactic to get Clark (Henry Cavill) back to his senses, Superman kicks ass on the entire team, not coincidentally destroying what’s left of his own ruined monument. It sort of makes sense that Superman is not in his right mind after revival, after all he’s been mostly dead all year. But still, it ties into the idea that people are supposed to be afraid of Superman. And that conflicts with a larger theme that is implicit in Justice League: Why do these guys NEED Superman, anyway?

I mean, Batman is the brains and the bankroll, Flash is at least as fast as Superman, Wonder Woman is about that strong, Aquaman is almost that strong, and Cyborg can do things with technology that haven’t even been quantified yet. There are a couple of good scenes that get to the heart of the matter. At one point Bruce tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that Clark was a better human than him. Clark had managed to fall in love, get a job, and live alongside regular people, something Bruce had never done. That and the influence of his foster parents made Clark more grounded than the antisocial Batman. Later there are a couple bits of dialogue where Diana confronts Bruce and brings up the notion that he is (in a passive-aggressive way) trying to get her to take over the team. And he responds that after Steve Trevor died, she withdrew from the world. She didn’t act as a public superhero, and basically hid her light under a bushel while Superman became a public figure. And she responds in so many words that when you’re placed in a position of leadership, and have to make decisions that could get people killed, at that point everyone is Steve Trevor.

Wonder Woman is the closest thing to a morally perfect character in the DCEU, but even she doesn’t see herself in Superman’s role. Superman is specifically referred to as a beacon of hope in Justice League at least once. The problem is that that description could fit Superman in almost any other DC movie before BvS (including Man of Steel) but it’s at odds with the themes of BvS, in particular the idea that Superman is an alien, godlike being who is a figure of fear, or at best awe. This is why the government in BvS had plans to stop him (and Doomsday) with a nuke, and why in Suicide Squad Amanda Waller and her allies were able to present their project on the rationale of being able to stop Superman (or a similar threat) in case he kidnapped the President. The best analog to Superman in Marvel Comics in this regard is Captain America, the Golden Age hero that every costumed hero since has tried to emulate. And that’s because Captain America always does the right thing, even if it means going against the authorities. In Captain America: Civil War, the movie makes it clear that world governments would have good reason to monitor and regulate metahumans, but it also makes it clear that if the US government is against Captain America, then it’s the government that’s in the wrong. Whereas in the Snyderverse, Superman isn’t the world’s greatest hero because of his spirit or inspirational presence. He’s the greatest hero because he is the most powerful being on Earth who hasn’t decided to become a supervillain, apparently because he lacks the initiative.

The assumption of many fans is that Superman is like this in the DC Extended Universe because Zach Snyder is a devotee of Ayn Rand (his production company is called Atlas Entertainment). I have addressed this subject at great length. In any case Snyder, along with scriptwriter Chris Terrio, wrote the original story for Justice League and was directing the movie until the tragic death of his daughter forced him to quit work on the film. Somewhere in this process Joss Whedon got put in (allegedly because test audiences found Snyder’s first run film unwatchable) to co-write the script, and ended up taking over direction as well (even though Snyder is still listed as sole director). As most other reviewers have pointed out, this has resulted in a disjointed and uneven film. It’s sometimes hard to tell where Snyder ends and Whedon begins, but for the most part Justice League is very much a Zach Snyder film- ponderous direction, muted colors, overcast skies and way too much CGI. There is however one scene that seems unquestionably Whedon’s: in the Big Boss fight, Superman has to help Cyborg contain an energy explosion, and when it throws them back, these two characters – who up to now have been MORE grim and serious than Batman – lie back and laugh. And they joke about it. I just couldn’t imagine something this relaxed and good-natured in Snyder’s work up to this point.

Moreover, the earliest previews for Justice League (mostly released before Whedon stepped in) showed Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller having so much fun playing their characters that it gave me the impression that DC was trying to change the direction of things.

At least once in Justice League, Batman says that his drive to form the team (and later, to revive Superman) is an attempt at redemption on his part: Batman almost killed Superman because he had the wrong idea about him. I get the impression that Justice League is a similar quest for redemption on the part of DC’s movie team. It doesn’t exactly work, because the script makes clear that Zach Snyder (and/or Chris Terrio) still doesn’t get Superman. Ultimately, though, Justice League is in the same class as Suicide Squad:  a grim and muddy Snyderverse project that, thanks to bright performances and some last-minute script doctoring, ends up as a patchwork monster that somehow manages to live.

Oh, and I mentioned that Justice League brought back two of the things that irritated me about BvS. The first was Mean Superman. The second was Jesse Eisenberg’s irritating dingbat version of Lex Luthor. Fortunately he appears only very briefly and at the very last scene after the credits. So teasing the next movie with an end-credits scene is one of two things that the DCEU learned from Marvel Studios. The other of course, is hire Joss Whedon to write and direct your movies.

The American, Conservative?

The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

-The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft

Every so often when I get bored web-surfing, I decide to quit looking at political websites from unimaginative centrists and politically correct, virtue-signaling leftists and see what it is that is animating conservatives these days.

And then I remember why I quit doing that.

A primary example of genuine conservative intellectualism is at Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative website, which aims to be something other than the easily digested grievance politics of Breitbart or Fox media, which doesn’t stop them from frequently arriving at the same place. The American Conservative (TAC) is often considered an exponent of the “paleoconservative” wing of thought, “paleo” being from the Greek for “old” (in contrast to ‘neo’) and analogous to the paleo diet (describing practices from approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago).

Examining conservative arguments, it becomes clear that there is a clear and irreconcilable difference between libertarianism and conservatism, especially of the Buchanan “paleo” variety. Both conservatism and libertarianism hold that facts exist and are not subject to political correctness or social engineering, but libertarianism still has its classical liberal roots. Libertarianism still holds to a belief in humanism and the value of progress. Conservatives take most progress as a necessary evil at best. (What counts as unworthy ‘progress’, like the Civil Rights Act or the right of women to vote, depends on the individual.) But the common sensibility boils down to: everything sucks. The present sucks. The past is a Golden Age; while the exact time period and what made it good are not fully defined, it can always be defined in the negative sense that the past is always better than the present, and by extension, even this present will be better than any future. Thus the main duty of the conservative is to preserve or restore the old virtues against cultural erosion and fallible human nature, knowing all the while that this noble cause is doomed to failure. It’s a worldview somewhere between J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft.

The moral sense of this magazine is best represented by Catholic Orthodox Christian apologist Rod Dreher. Dreher is probably the most frequent contributor to The American Conservative, also serving as an editor. Quite a few of his posts are the sort of culture-war scares that he has in common with the hard Right. For instance the one where he reposted the picture of a drag queen reading to children at a library named for Michelle Obama: Xochi Mochi, a Satanic Latinx with cotton candy hair, cake-frosting makeup and four giant white devil horns as a crown. Dreher is clearly horrified by this person, and I can understand why. When a grown man poufs up his hair (perhaps to conceal pattern baldness) and then paints his face to a skin color unknown in nature, it has an unnerving effect on many observers.

Yet Dreher is not always so superficial. Indeed, with much of his blog, Rod Dreher writes extended, often profound disputations on the meaning of Christian faith. But as I read them, the more eloquently Dreher makes his case for Christianity, the more it reinforces my atheism. Dreher has written much about his own religious journey and how he had been a staunch Catholic before he investigated the pedophilia scandal within the clergy. Realizing that the Church at its highest levels would rather cover up to save its prestige than turn the criminals over for punishment, Dreher lost his faith and only regained it after shifting to the Orthodox Church. Such turmoil is inevitable when the institution you are depending on to protect tradition and morality is enabling the worst sort of depravity.

At some level, Rod Dreher must know that conservatives are doing the same thing that spiritually tore him apart.

And to Dreher’s credit, he (unlike Pat Buchanan) DOES recognize this and does care. In the last election, he registered independent and voted for a write-in candidate. But TAC is the crew he rolls with. And the contrast between Dreher’s conscience and conservatism in practice is simply an example of why conservatism is counterproductive at promoting a moral order, let alone a political agenda.

But that’s from the standpoint of religious apologism. In the secular political realm, most TAC columnists (who as of Thursday November 9 are oddly silent on the matter of the 2017 elections and the rumors around Roy Moore) focus most of their energies on stopping the menace of neoconservatism within the Republican Party (and analogous policies within Democratic presidencies).

Both “neoliberal” and “neoconservative” are legitimate terms referring to distinct platforms, but they are also general enough, and overused enough, that they are sometimes even conflated. Most often, though, it is a partisan attack made “within the ranks.” Left-wingers may hate conservatives and especially “neocons”, but they really hate neoliberals. With the paleoconservatives, it’s pretty much the same deal. But in either case, the speaker is drawing a distinction between his group, the authentic people, from the moderate “normie” sellouts. It doesn’t matter if our party has the White House and is setting the agenda in Congress. We know better. It’s basically doing to politics what Maximum Rock And Roll did to punk, with similar results.

Specifically in the case of neoconservatism, that movement is defined by roots in the anti-communist wing of the Left, but in the post-Soviet period continues to base itself in an aggressive foreign policy, military adventurism  and a support for Israel which is uncritical to the point of being counterproductive. Thank goodness, Donald Trump has put a stop to all that.

On November 1, frequent TAC contributor Paul Gottfried commented on the issue of the Trump-Russia investigation. Conventional conservative opinion is attempting to push blame for the matter on the Democrats for sponsoring the original investigation into Trump through the Fusion GPS firm. In “Why the Hush on Neoconservative Links to Trump Dossier?” Gottfried demonstrates TAC’s punk credentials by turning suspicion onto his fellow conservatives.

Specifically, the Washington Free Beacon was a conservative website that was noted as retaining Fusion GPS before the Democrats did. Gottfried says other conservatives didn’t delve into the true neoconservative roots of the Free Beacon, in particular that their editor-in-chief, Matthew Continetti, is married to Bill Kristol’s daughter. “The Washington Free Beacon has been a rallying point for neoconservative Never-Trumpers in Washington, and the hiring of Fusion GPS to go after Trump has all the hallmarks of their skullduggery. We shouldn’t be surprised that a neocon publication hired an agency to manufacture news against someone it was trying to bring down; it turns out that Trump, though, was too big a target for Kristol and his friends to successfully dispatch.” Gottfried continues, “I certainly do not blame the liberal media for describing the Beacon as a ‘conservative’ publication, or for tracing the controversial dossier back to ‘Republican allies.’ I heard the same stuff on Fox News, after noticing that Kristol’s son-in-law frequently appears on the Fox All-Star Panel. My impression is that the GOP media are unlikely to abandon their neoconservative buddies and sponsors—and there are very good reasons for this. They all depend on the same donor base, write for the same publications, and share the spotlight with Fox News. It would be suicidal for the conservative establishment to go after its neoconservative participants. Some alliances are indissoluble as well as extremely hazardous. Fox News might allow Tucker Carlson to occasionally rough up such maniacal global interventionists as Ralph Peters and Max Boot, but lowering the boom on their friends for what they can blame entirely on the Democrats would be another matter altogether.”

This line of argument stinks, and like a pig farm or the garbage dumpsters outside Trump Tower, the stench announces itself from miles away. Basically, Gottfried, like his publisher Pat Buchanan, has a common enemy with Trump in the “neocon” Republican establishment. So they’re willing to let the little boy have his tantrums as long as they do more damage to that establishment than to the institutions they want to preserve. But Gottfried, like Buchanan, is also smart enough to realize that Trump is too crazy-stupid to last, and even if he does, the real danger is that the longer he hangs on, the more of a threat he poses to those governmental and social institutions, and when he blows up in their faces, the fallout might disgrace their movement for years and let the neoliberal/neoconservative establishment regain status by default. So Gottfried and other TAC contributors have to build a preemptive case that anything that goes wrong with Trumpism is never their fault, and if Trump has his downfall (due to losing re-election, getting impeached, or hastily swallowing a chicken bone), then he was never really one of them in the first place.

At least Dreher is more honest about his motivations. Last week he started one piece by saying, “Sometimes it seems to me that identity politics and the collapse of the political center are pushing us all towards a prison-gang mentality, in the sense that you may not want to join up with the gangsters of your own tribe (white, black, Latino), but you do to protect yourself from the attacks of the other tribes.” And he concludes another essay by saying “As a registered Independent whose economic and foreign policy views are to the left of the average Republican’s, I would love to have the chance to consider voting Democratic in a national election, especially with the GOP in such a mess. But out of self-protection, I can’t take that chance. ”

Believe me, I can sympathize with that argument. But if being NotTrump wasn’t enough for me to endorse Queen Hillary the Inevitable, then simply being NotHillary certainly can’t be enough for me to endorse Trump now.

Silly me, I thought that if you hated a president who was a pathological liar, crooked real-estate investor, sleazy womanizer and all-around honorless weasel, the last thing you would want to do is support a candidate who has none of Bill Clinton’s competencies but magnifies all his vices to an exponential degree.

I mean, “conservatives”, your boy is the radical antithesis of what you say you want. It’s sorta like if the Russian Bolsheviks had tried to undermine global capitalism by replacing the old monarchy with a corrupt American plutocrat.

…No wait, it’s EXACTLY like that.

REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

Much of the action in Thor:Ragnarok has already been given away in the previews: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must fight the evil goddess Hela (Cate Blanchett, looking like Marilyn Manson as designed by Jack Kirby) to defend Asgard, and is defeated, losing both his hammer and his hair.  While Heimdall (Idris Elba) leads a resistance to Hela’s occupation, Thor and his brother/rival Loki (Tom Hiddleston) wind up on an alien planet where Thor is enslaved to a gladiator master who’s played by Jeff Goldblum, because why not.  And in his first match, Thor must fight The Hulk, “a friend from work”, setting up what might be the greatest mismatched buddy-cop movie of all time.

It’s slightly more complex than this, but Thor: Ragnarok is a very straightforward, ass-kicking movie, and the fight sequences are spectacular, even if they’re obviously CGI.  The principals are given a fun supporting cast including Tessa Thompson as the last of the Valkyries and “Korg”, an animated pile of rocks (voiced by Taika Waititi, the movie’s director).  And while a lot of the cute touches in this film are on par with other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s also a bit of character growth.  Thor has always been a big lunk who is often the comic relief in his own stories, but he is a good deal more intelligent than he has been depicted in previous movies.  I liked where Thor was able to see through Loki’s deceptions, at least twice.  He is able to do this because as Thor tells him, Loki doesn’t want to be anything other than what he is.

Although if anyone knows about the original Norse myth, the title Ragnarok sort of gives away what could be a major change to the setting.  Even so, for the most part, everything works out for everybody.  Until the end-credits sequence.



Yes, THIS Shit Again

I had another idea for a column, but I wanted to deal with something that came up in the news. Thursday, longtime Democratic Party operative Donna Brazile wrote an article for Politico in which she gave behind the scenes details of the management of the Democratic National Committee, beginning with her own discovery that Hillary Clinton’s campaign had gained control of the DNC before the primary races were over, including not only fundraising but communications. And furthermore this was necessitated by the fact that Barack Obama had left the Democratic Party $24 million in debt in 2012 and had only paid half of it off by 2016.

First, a few points for consideration.

The Politico article is an excerpt from a larger book about the 2016 election which Brazile is now promoting. And in that regard, sometimes the best way to clear a room is to throw a grenade.

(The name of the book, by the way, is ‘Hacks.’ Which may be the greatest Freudian slip of the year.)

Secondly, the details of Brazile’s account of DNC finances are such that, in Clinton’s defense, she pretty much had to take things over. It does however bring up the question of how the party treasury got so bass-ackward in the first place.  Clinton herself has commented on this point after the election, saying that the party was “bankrupt, it was on the verge of insolvency, its data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong”. But even if one sides with Clinton and her “this was messed up when I got here” position, it raises a larger issue. The DNC under Obama didn’t need to raise much money for a 2012 primary campaign when Obama was running for the nomination unopposed, but they hadn’t invested anything in state races. Further, Brazile found out that expenses in 2016 were double what they were when she was interim DNC chair five years previously – despite not needing as much staffing in that period. And when Clinton took over distribution of funds, she had promised to rebuild the funding of state Democratic Party organizations, but according to a May 2016 Politico article,  only 1 percent of $61 million raised got to those state parties. Indeed, money that one of Clinton’s fundraising committees had raised for state parties ended up being transferred to the DNC. The issue wasn’t so much that someone needed to take over financing and state party support after years of neglect. The issue was that even after Clinton took over, the Democrats were still spending too much money and not distributing it to state parties.

And as I’ve said at least once, it was obvious by the end of the primaries that the system was rigged against Sanders, AND that that’s not why he lost. What it really comes down to in retrospect is that the Democrats were the incumbent party in the White House with a popular but term limited president, and Barack Obama seems to have made a deal that Hillary Clinton would be his successor even if he never quite came out and said so before the national convention. This meant that she had built in advantages that would have accrued regardless and would have applied even if (say) Joe Biden had run for the nomination. Since Sanders had never run as a Democrat before, he didn’t even have Biden’s level of party support and organization, and in the long run that meant Sanders’ ground game was not where it needed to be to beat Clinton. But then, if Clinton was winning fair and square, then the party elite didn’t need to put a thumb on the scale, and if they wanted to retain the pretense of being “Democratic”, they certainly didn’t need to be so obvious about it.

Of course the fact that this news (or freshly-dug old ground) is not flattering to Clinton and the Democratic establishment has caused their supporters to come out with all sorts of defenses.

First, Clinton fans keep insisting that what Clinton did wasn’t wrong because the Democratic National Committee is a private organization that sets its own rules and contracts, and therefore nothing that happened was illegal. But that is a point frequently made by Brazile herself in her text.

Second, it’s one thing to look at the Bernie Bros and political novices and tell them “I’m sorry, but you just don’t know how the system works.” (Not withstanding that for some of these younger people, this was their first campaign, and after observation many of them concluded that the system doesn’t work.) It’s something else when you have Donna Brazile, who is a veteran operator, who was hired specifically to get party organization and finances in order, partly because she had served in a similar role before, and with that knowledge of finances she’s wondering how expenses got so out of control, and then you tell her, “you just don’t know how all this works.”

You want to know why I’d rather be a Libertarian than a Democrat? Because the fat guy in the Speedo has a better sense of optics.

But what gets me is that all the Clintonistas smugly demanding “SHOW us where what she did was illegal” are the same people who howl and whine that Queen Hillary the Inevitable wasn’t crowned by majority vote. And of course the reason for that is the Electoral College. That institution may not be moral or fair (at least on those rare occasions that it produces a result that Democrats don’t like) – but it IS legal.

Checkmate, atheists!

And the other complaint of the Clinton camp is that airing the dirty laundry is only going to hurt the cause. Aw, liberals. Are you afraid that Trump is gonna be mean to you? I guess it hasn’t occurred to you that Trump and Sean Hannity and his other court toadies are spreading baseless propaganda about Clinton and other Democrats. Are you admitting that you will suffer more damage if the critique is based on fact? Now you’re starting to get it. You don’t do the right thing because you think people will be nice to you. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. Likewise you don’t avoid doing the right thing because you think your enemies will be mean to you. They’re going to do that anyway. That’s why they’re your enemies. That’s what I tell Republicans. But they already know they have no incentive to be reasonable or bipartisan because they know Democrats will not accept it. Even if Republicans were reasonable, (which they’re not) Democrats would still say they were a bunch of meanie vicious ogres who want to ban abortion and force women to give birth to babies so that Republican billionaires can raid the maternity wards and eat them. There’s no convincing them. But some people haven’t made up their minds yet. So when you know that the enemy is going to make stuff up, the last thing you want to do is make their job easier and your job harder by giving your enemy real ammunition. Like, if you are a Republican and you keep going on about the value of life and the need to stop abortion, and then you support a tax “reform” that kills the credit for adoption, it makes people on the outside wonder how seriously you take this “pro-life” jazz. The point is, if you’re a Republican, that’s on YOU.

Similarly, Democrats: you don’t shoot the messenger because the truth hurts you politically. If the truth hurts, that’s your problem. Viewing Brazile’s piece solely in terms of how it hurts Democrats and wishing it hadn’t been brought up makes you look disingenuous, scared of reality, and desperate to control the narrative. In other words, it makes you look like a Clinton.

In some sense it doesn’t matter if you do the right thing or not, because some people will vote for your party no matter what, and others won’t, no matter how unqualified their party’s candidate is. On the other hand, some people are not yet committed, or a mix of liberal and conservative attitudes, or don’t vote for either party because they think they’re both crooked. Some of those you might be able to sway. And given the margins of victory in Trump’s states, the need for those people means that sometimes the truth MIGHT matter as much as propaganda. Some liberals tell me that’s not true, that everything is so hyper-partisan that people will vote for their chosen party regardless. Not so. Otherwise if Democrats outnumber Republicans overall and are dominant in the high-elector-value states, Democrats will usually win. What happened was that a lot of people who voted Obama in 2012 did not vote, or voted for Trump, in 2016. Just as a lot of the white conservatives who voted for Trump last year did not vote for Romney in 2012, because they were just as demoralized by their plastic faker as liberals were by the plastic faker they had last year.

I was telling a Bernie supporter on Facebook that stuff like this will do more damage to the “Democratic” party institution than Uranium One, Seth Rich or whoever Hillary’s elite Ninja squad was supposed to have assassinated this week. Because unlike the Fox News rumor mill, this is independently verified and confirmed by a Clinton partisan, who was a partisan BECAUSE she was hired to do a job and serve the Party, and that meant she expected her party to know shit from Shinola and be up to the task of defeating the most unqualified and malevolent candidate in American history. Clearly, they were not.

Which brings me to my final point.

If I agree with Democratic partisans on anything, it’s this: January is coming up, and Democratic candidates are going to have to start their engines for the midterm races. That means the party needs to get its act together and work in the same direction. But that can’t happen if it keeps rehashing The Election, and liberals can’t stop rehashing the election because the institutional Democratic Party won’t accept that they can’t win by resetting reality to October 2016 and then saying that everything is fine. In the same regard, they’re not going to fix the country just because a Democrat is president. After all, that was our situation a year ago.