Kid’s Stuff: Kipo and the Age of Wonder Beasts and the question of bodies and power

Shocked from our senses when the Earth crashes in
Something's going on underneath your skin
Oh, purple jaguar eye
Open up and be alive
See the world in vivid color
There's no turning back

-     Purple Jaguar Eye, Sterling K. Brown

I think that children’s media can be a very fertile avenue for critique in part because I think the sorts of stories we choose to tell children say a lot about the culture we aspire to create. As such I’m going to be writing a semi-regular series of essays specific to children’s media, and I couldn’t think of a better place to start than with Kipo and the Age of Wonder Beasts.

This three-season series of cartoons was produced by DreamWorks in collaboration with Studio Mir and is based on a webcomic by Radford Sechrist. It tells the story of a 13 year old girl who is separated from her father when their underground settlement is destroyed. This forces her out into a world dominated by giant, sentient, mutant animals where she undergoes an incredible metamorphosis and decides to reconcile humanity to a world of, “Mutes.”

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a post-apocalyptic story, but it is perhaps the most singularly optimistic post-apocalypse I’ve ever seen, as it shows that the only impediment to the birth of the new world are those people too small to let go of the one that has past.

Kipo attracted attention upon release for its carefully crafted diversity, featuring a deliberately multiethnic cast both of animated characters and actors, and a storyline that trafficked heavily in the politics of representation. While principally a show about race, Kipo also provides a queer reading that is, honestly, one of the best executions of the type targeting kids.

But, while I do think that the show’s queer and race related narratives are valuable and important from a pedagogic perspective, I think there’s some interesting things happening here specific to the relationship between the body and systems of power that is somewhat unique within children’s television. Kipo’s transformation, its irreversibility, her fear for how it will impact her identity including the risk she might lose herself in it, and how the show demonstrates the relationships between body autonomy and political power go beyond simple themes of inclusion and into a deeper idea about the connection between embodiment, identity and power. And I think the end result is a remarkably anarchistic text that presents a valuable frame for imagining other ways we could live.

Transformation and adulthood

Of course the simplest reading of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is as a bildungsroman. We have a child at the cusp of adulthood who is pushed out into the world. She goes on an adventure which aids in her moral development. She meets other people who have lived substantially different lives, builds friendships of weight and significance outside the bounds of family. She begins growing hair places where hair didn’t grow before.

This isn’t all that different from the Hobbit except for the place where the puberty metaphors spill over into unambiguous text. But one place where this show differs from a lot of other coming of age stories is by willingly showing just how destructive to the child’s sense of self it can be to become and adult. When Kipo starts to change, she’s convinced her friends will reject her on the basis of her difference. And Wolf, who is bound up in her own trauma, very nearly does until she’s talked down. But beyond the fear of social rejection, beyond simple awkwardness, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts traffics in straight up terror. Kipo is becoming a Mega Mute. As a result of the genetic experimentation of her own parents, she isn’t simply human but instead contains the genetic material of a giant “Mega Jaguar,” a form of mutant animal that goes beyond the human-sized characteristics of most Mutes and into the realm of kaiju.

Only there’s a problem. See, Kipo’s transformation into a “Mega Mute” is not within her control. She grows hair and gains powers based on moments of stress but, at first, has no control over what her body is doing. She gains those purple jaguar eyes, and the ability to see in the dark, in response to the peril her friends are in but not because, in that moment, she makes a choice to transform. It just happens. And she doesn’t know why.

Song Oak, Mega Monkey

As time goes by her transformations become more extreme. And the more she transforms, the less control she has over her transformation. She learns she isn’t the first person to become a Mega Mute. Her mother, Song, previously was transformed into a skyscraper-tall six-armed spider monkey and was unable to revert back to a human form. She’s trapped forever in this vast and horrific, inhuman, body. And if Kipo doesn’t come to understand her body and the changes happening to her, she might face the same fate. Already she can feel the breath of the Jaguar on her neck, the primal urge to hunt and to devour.

She seeks the spiritual advice of three blind goats who practice cheese-based divination (the setting of this show is just about the wildest thing out there) and they tell her she needs to discover an emotional anchor to allow herself the power to control her transformations. She quests to find this, and eventually believes it to be a photo of her family taken when she was an infant, just a few days before her mother’s transformation and her father’s flight with her. Only she’s wrong. The anchor isn’t the memory of the past; the anchor is the relationships Kipo has forged with her peers, outside the safety of family, in the present. Her development into an adult gives her power over her body. And oh but she is powerful. Kipo as the mega-jaguar looms above the over-sized canopy of trees in the Timber Cat village. She is so large that she’s more akin to a geographical feature than a person. In one amusing sequence, Kipo is attempting to persuade a villain to reform and he keeps trying to escape. Each time, a paw many times larger than his body slaps down in front of him, a soft, but impenetrable shield.

Kipo, fully in control of her body, has power. The only thing she cannot do with her body is go back to being a child. There’s no going back. The transformation is irreversible. Her ability to control her power comes directly and textually from her recognition that it is her body, that she is this being who has these capabilities and that the purple jaguar isn’t some other being to be leashed but rather is just… her.

Power from the body

The idea of power as a function of embodiment runs through Kipo at all kinds of levels. Throughout all elements of the show, mutes are invested with strange biological abilities that are consistent across their species-gang. The mod-frogs, aside from their sharp fashion sense, all are able to race through environments like mad parkouristas, tongue-first. Deathstalkers are terrifying eyeless nightmares that hunt by sound and the motion of the air. Mega mutes, both natural ones like the pigeons, crabs, bunnies, beavers and dogs and artificially created ones like Kipo and her mother have vast strength and are nearly impervious to injury. Song Oak gets one of her six hands encased in molten gold at one point and it hurts her, but only momentarily. She goes right back to her urgent work moments later. Some mutes are stranger still.

Fun Gus is a sentient colony of orange mold. It is bound to the place it fruited, but it is a pervasive entity within that space, more akin to a haunting than to an occupancy. Its body is everywhere, it is an amorphous blob of organic matter that takes up its entire nesting space, but it brings its consciousness to a head when it needs to communicate. It’s a being that exists only within itself. It’s a genius loci, tied so thoroughly to its place that it is effectively a prisoner within the bonds of its own body and it is terribly lonely. Fun Gus is like Kipo in a way; it wants to open the door to the oOther. But it is so desperate for the recognition of the Other that it refuses to let anyone who falls into its clutches go.

There are, of course, the cheese-divining goat women, and a host of other bizarre creatures (have I mentioned the k-pop narwhals with perfect pitch?). And of course there is Dave, the serially immortal insect who cycles through a lifecycle of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, strength and decrepitude before reverting once more to infancy. Dave, the last of his species, the only survivor of a genocidal war with humans (over ownership of a battery powered fan) cannot ever die (except for one secret way and he’s not going to make the mistake of telling anyone that secret… again.)

Again and again, the power these creatures have goes hand in hand with the capabilities of their bodies; but there’s an element of nuance wherein these powers are delimited by the autonomy they have over their bodies. Dave is a bit of a joke character because he has so little command over his transformations. The powerful horned beetle molt of Dave’s is fleeting and often emerges not when it is needed. And when it fades, geriatric Dave is physically weak, paranoid and superstitious – a detriment in a crisis rather than a boon. Dave has an amazing power in his immortality but his lack of agency over its use neutralizes him, makes him a good comedic sidekick rather than a protagonist.

But the most powerful creatures in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, aside from Kipo, are those with the ability to take the autonomy away from others: the sentient colony of tardigrades that goes by Mulholland and the two principal series antagonists, the mandrill Scarlamagne and the human Dr. Emilia. I want to examine these entities in greater detail, because a lot of how Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts address the question of embodiment and power lies in a reading of these three.

Mulholland

I am not sure I’ve ever seen a stranger character in a piece of children’s entertainment than Mulholland – who is now officially also the strangest tardigrade character on TV (sorry Ripper). Mulholland is mostly water. Specifically it is any bit of water occupied by part of the Mulholland collective, a hive mind of microscopic tardigrades who are able to create bodies out of water, to go into any fluid environment… and also to pass directly into brains where he can… interact.

When Mulholland originally encounters Kipo and her friends, he traps them each in fantasies designed to be perfect worlds. He does this claiming to help them but really he just wants to keep everybody still long enough to eat them.

He fails because the perfect world he creates for Wolf is just a bit too perfect – there’s themes of embodiment here we’ll explore later when we talk about Wolf – and after Wolf escapes, the other dreamstates become untenable. Benson and Dave are already quite aware that their dreamscape is artificial, they’re having a good time and don’t recognize the danger, but they are easy to persuade to wake up. Kipo has to have a cathartic moment with her parents, who she still hasn’t found at this point in the show, so she’s the last to be freed. But then the show does something strange.

Mulholland is basically unkillable, but they’re at an impasse. With them awoken he can’t do much to Kipo and her friends; he is, after all, a pool of water full of microscopic bugs. So they talk to him and he agrees that maybe using his power to eat people isn’t a good way to live.

This is interesting because we reach a point of equilibrium in power. Kipo and her friends can’t harm Mulholland and he can’t harm them. They could keep trying to fight, but they wouldn’t accomplish anything. Each subject’s power cannot find purchase in the body of the other. And so, at the moment where each recognizes that they have no choice but to accept the autonomy of the other, they talk. This is a pattern that occurs throughout the series, which frequently becomes a process of the protagonists avoiding a dangerous situation on their way to have a conversation with somebody who needs to be talked around.

Mulholland decides to go and find himself and allows his body to disperse, seeing the world through thousands of microscopic eyes. He remains in the show as this diffuse presence that appears in times of need to help. After all, he’s nearly everywhere. Even inside.

But this new Mulholland has learned to respect the sanctity of peoples’ minds. And so, when inside another he doesn’t put them into narcotic dreams; he instead facilitates communication and prohibits compulsion.

This last point is important because the first principal antagonist of the show is all about compulsion.

Scarlamagne

Scarlamagne is the only artificial mute in the series who is not also a human, and he is one of Kipo’s closest kin. Most of humanity is trapped in underground “burrows” and humans on the surface fare poorly, as demonstrated by the war of attrition between the “Fanatics” and the army of Dave, which concludes with only one human (Benson) surviving in addition to the annihilation of the population of Daves.

The burrows are little safer; the show makes it painfully clear that humanity cannot survive in the burrows. The first burrow is destroyed when it’s cracked like an egg by Song, under Dr. Emilia’s control. The second burrow is raided by Scarlamagne and its population are carried away. The third and final burrow seen in the show is, in the show’s present, the home of Fun Gus. And, while searching for clues to her past in order to help her control her transforming body, Kipo discovers this ruined burrow was where she and Scarlamagne were both born.

Prior to her birth, Kipo’s parents were geneticists who were working to study the causes of the global mutation of plants and animals, and also to find a way to reverse it. They needed to replicate the mutagen that created the Mutes in order to find a method of reversing its effects. They have a very limited pool of non-mutated animals to use as test subjects and so the burrow’s scientific authorities assign Lio and Song a mandril infant as a test subject. After an extended period of time they succeed, and Hugo gains sentience. This is the moment they realize the weight of what a cure would entail – stripping a world of intelligent, inquisitive and entirely inhuman creatures of the self-awareness they seemed to have spontaneously developed. Repulsed by the realization of what they would be doing, Lio and Song decide to hide their success with Hugo from their superior, Dr. Emilia. They instead begin a new project, attempting to splice human and Mute genetic material and to bring the resulting progeny to term, as their child, in-vitro.

Please, do not think too hard about the ethical implications of this. It makes a sort of emotional sense that works to situate them as good people beside Emilia’s obvious villainy.

This remarkable human experiment is successful, but during the gestation period, their suspicious behaviour causes Dr. Emilia to investigate and she discovers Hugo. What’s more, she discovers Hugo produces pheremones in his sweat which allow him to command other primates.

It’s a truly hideous power. See, he doesn’t control minds. He controls bodies. Contact with Hugo’s sweat causes the victim to stand rigidly alert with an unnatural grinning rictus across their faces – it never reaches their eyes, which generally just reflect terror. Once a primate is affected by Hugo’s sweat, they remain his puppet for an extended period of time. They become incapable of refusing him anything. It seems as if they are perfectly aware in the moment that their bodies are not their own to command, but there is nothing they can do but obey.

When Dr. Emilia discovers this capability of Hugo’s, she traps him in a glass box and forces him to walk a treadmill, draining his sweat to make a stock of chemical weapons. Lio and Song conspire to escape as soon as the child is born and to bring Hugo with them. But they are discovered, and in the chaos, Song is transformed, and Lio and Kipo are separated from Hugo.

Alone on the surface, and recently tortured, Hugo rapidly discovers to use the power of his sweat to gain security and control over others. Lio meanwhile flees hopelessly clutching his baby, in desperate hope of finding safe harbour.

They meet, and Lio, in a panic, refuses to trust Hugo, who is acting strangely. He flees with Kipo.

Scarlamagne is born here.

Scarlamagne’s character is as strange as his physicality. He’s obsessed with the fashion and manner of the Baroque period and plays waltzes on an antique pianoforte with monstrous, manic intensity. He sneers and he rages and gestures wildly. He’s honestly one of the best pieces of animation in a show that generally depends more on strangeness and stylization than it does on fully realized character movement. He’s a conqueror. He travels about the surface with an aerial cavalry of collaborator apes, monkeys and tarsiers and of human slaves all adorned in ornate red uniforms and powdered wigs riding two-headed giant Flamingos. His own steed wears the shell of an old convertible as armor, and as a saddle.

He’s also a slaver. His kingdom is built on the coerced labour of captured humans. They fill the ranks of his army – implacable puppets silently advance upon any Mutes who disobey Scarlamagne, with rapiers at the ready. He breaks into a vault and takes all the gold because he realizes humans loved it, and so he wants to rule it. Scarlamagne was subjected to slavery, torture and rejection by humanity and he intends to repay every slight a hundred fold. And as he does it, he unites the warring gangs of Mutes into a nation, ruled by him. Nobody can match his military might, with the ranks of his fighting force filled out by humans he’s happy to let die on the battlefield. In his power he has decided to crown himself king of the Mutes. He will build a golden condominium with stolen Human gold shaped by stolen Human hands but a human child is causing a commotion.

Eventually, Scarlamagne discovers that Kipo is immune to his control. His sweat only affects primates, and with her DNA half that of a Mega Jaguar, Kipo isn’t entirely a primate. He cannot take her autonomy from her. It’s inviolable. And so they talk.

I swear, the most exceptional characteristic Kipo possesses is patience. She talks with Scarlamagne. She listens to his stories about their shared origin. She empathizes with him. She shows appreciation for his music. And she constantly tries to persuade him to free her people. He refuses. Again and again he refuses. But she keeps trying.

When, later, the tables have turned, and Scarlamagne is Kipo’s prisoner, she continues to talk, and to listen. She continues to give him chances to relent, to repent, to prove he can be a member of a community rather than a conqueror. She has assumed a position of dominance, even if hers is the gentle dominance of enclosure rather than the rigid command of the body to betray itself he prefers. But she makes it clear she is uncomfortable as a jailer. All she wants to use her power to do is to hold him still long enough to talk out their problems.

That Scarlamagne would have a heel-face turn shouldn’t surprise anyone. The moment is telegraphed in a thousand ways. He is ultimately a foil to the true villain in Dr. Emilia. But the road back for him is not the sudden one that adventure shows so often give. There’s a gradual integration of Scarlamagne back into the community. He’s slowly extended trust and, in breaking it, is gently rebuked. And when he shows himself worthy of trust, more is extended. But not fully. His power to dominate can’t be taken from him; it can be contained but to do that is to keep Scarlamagne separate, other.

And Kipo’s solution to the Other is an act of radical integration. Whether it’s a colossal rabbit, a six-legged pig, a traumatized human or a gang of giant bipedal housecats, Kipo’s first, and often only, instinct is to attempt to ally herself with them. She presents a world of unconditional solidarity built around friendship that starts off looking naïve. But as time goes by it becomes clear that this impression of childish naivety belies a deep reserve of moral conviction. Kipo wants to bring the Other inside because she believes it is the right and just way to organize the world.

And there is little more other to Kipo than a mind-controlling would-be tyrant. So it isn’t surprising she cuts her teeth in debate with him. He is her foil too, after all. Kipo has the power to compel Scarlamagne, to contain him or to kill him. She chooses not to. She chooses to rescue everybody. Despite being rightfully horrified by Scarlamagne’s ghastly execution before the coronation, she even rescues him, and then begins the laborious and difficult work of bringing him inside. I’m belaboring the direction of the power relationship here because I want to make it very clear that the show is not suggesting aquiescence to power, or compromise to deflect power. Before Kipo is able to work to bring Scarlamagne within the community she has to take every ounce of power he has from him. He must lose his crown, his army, his throne and his aspiration before she can begin the work with him. Kipo is able to bring Scarlamagne back from the edge only by dint of the power she holds over him.

But instead of using it to dominate him, she uses it to put him in the position of his own freedom; she lets him see how his liberation depends on an end to domination. And then he chooses to stop dominating people with his powers, to relinquish his claim to power over others or special right. And he comes into the community, and is made welcome. But carefully. With watchful eyes still on him.

The lesson of Scarlamagne is that sometimes people seek power over others to reclaim the autonomy they feel they have lost. And sometimes the way to show them how to accept the freedom of the Other depends on showing them how to accept their own freedom. Scarlamagne is a name Hugo gives himself because he thinks the world is compelling him to evil. But he is free to stop. And Kipo shows him how.

Dr. Emilia

As I mentioned, Scarlamagne’s principal purpose as a character within the story is to act as a foil to the show’s central dyad between Kipo and Dr. Emilia; and the central text of the show with regard to the relationship between power and body autonomy lies in the conflict between Kipo and the doctor.

As described in Scarlamagne’s back story, Dr. Emilia came from the same burrow as Kipo’s parents and is, like Kipo’s parents, a geneticist. She is the daughter of the burrow’s administrator, and is herself a senior administrator within the scientific and power hierarchy of the bunker.

Her father is depicted as emotionally abusive, demanding and hard. He wants nothing more than a cure for the Mute condition, and when Dr. Emilia’s own brother befriends the delightful rat mutes, Brad and Amy, she murders him and lies, declaring him a martyr of humanity rather than face the risk of her father’s disapproval.

Although Song and Lio Oak create Hugo, the uplifted mandrill, Dr. Emilia is the author of Scarlamagne, as she is not only the hostile force the Oaks hide Hugo from, she is his slaver and his principal rival in contention for power on the surface.

In a lot of ways, Dr. Emilia’s quest to revert mutated creatures back to their subjugated state is shown to be a parallel to Dave’s war for the fan. In both cases, the conflict is unnecessary, and in both cases, perceived sense of difference leads the conflict to escalate to genocidal proportions. Where Kipo’s instinct is to open the door to the Other and incorporate all difference into an expanded sense of self, Dr. Emilia wants to keep humanity pristine and dominant. She wants to create a palingenetic movement to a world 200 years dead; and she is the principal author of the conditions that prevent a new world from being born.

Dr. Emilia is a fascist.

And Dr. Emilia is, for most of the series, a perfectly normal human. An educated one. A ruthless one. A charismatic one. But not a mute. Her power, such as it is, comes from training and from positions of power within social hierarchies. She leads humans because she has a vision that seems bigger than her, and the frightened masses follow her.

The show threads a difficult line here, because it’s critical to the conflict of the show that, at the conclusion of the conflict with Scarlamagne, Dr. Emilia assume control over the now-freed human army. She takes all of Scarlamagne’s victims, and she lies to them. She blames Kipo, and decries the impurity that is hybridization. And she takes humanity with her to a cruise ship lair to keep them under her thumb until she can perfect her cure and return the Wonderbeasts to their subjugated, insentient, modes of being. Dr. Emilia traffics in other subjugations. She weaponizes Hugo’s sweat and uses it to create a control collar with which she’s enslaved Song Oak, using the towering spider monkey as her weapon. She uses the same tactics of emotional abuse her father engaged with in order to keep her lackeys, Zane and Greta, under her thumb. She lies, dissembles, and acts as if she’s some great chess master when the whole time all she is doing is taking agency from everyone, feeding command over others into her own bloated desire for power.

Doag being somewhat less physically expressive than normal

Dr. Emilia discovers that Kipo’s genetic material is the catalyst necessary to complete her cure and so she steals it. And, once she’s perfected the cure, her first target is Kipo. Kipo has become the ideological leader of a “friendship alliance” between humans and Mutes. She has used the image of Benson and Dave’s successful partnership, the kindness of the Timbercats, the model of Ratland, an integrationist amusement park that was razed by Scarlamagne, and a dozen other relationships she built over the course of the first two seasons to instantiate a new political order where humans emerge from their burrows and where Mutes break the species-line gangs they’ve fallen into and form a kind of multi-species nation together with Humanity. Kipo has even succeeded in peeling off followers from Emilia’s human enclave. Her message resonates particularly powerfully with the youth of the burrow, and family lines are broken when the (hilariously extra) daughter of Kipo’s burrow’s leader chooses to join Kipo’s alliance and brings several adolescents along with her.

So Emilia kidnaps Kipo’s friends and threatens to kill them if Kipo doesn’t present herself to be cured.

Her plot fails, but in the process, Kipo’s friend, the leader of the Timbercats, Yumyan Hammerpaw, is struck by a dart containing the cure and is forcefully transformed to a housecat. However Kipo steals the cure and is able to use it to restore her mother to her human form.

Dr. Emilia believes the most expedient way to neutralize Kipo is to take away her body autonomy, to force her to be just one thing. And this is the lens through which she views all the awesome wonders of this post-human age. She immediately attacks, intending to raid the Timbercat village and cure Kipo and her allies, cutting the head off any sort of organized Mute response to human revanchism. The raid is partly successful, and several named minor Mute characters including Bad Billions (a rapping astronomer wolf played wonderfully by Wu Tang Clan’s GZA), Brad the rat, and a few other characters with small speaking roles are, “cured.” They seem to retain a kernel of self, they recognize their former friends and lovers in their reduced forms, but their voices are silenced – their ability to choose how they want to live life, as a person or as a beast, is taken from them. Kipo despairs and decides that she is in a moment where talk has failed; unthinkingly she transforms into her Mega-Mute form and attacks the human force, which is composed mostly of people who she grew up looking up to. Remember the children have already sided with her. The force arrayed against her is nearly every person of authority in her life, excepting her parents, who accidentally authored all this with their reckless experimentation 13 years previous and who immediately and unquestioningly side with her.

And so of course, the humans spend their darts on Kipo, attempting to simultaneously neutralize the Mutes’ most dangerous battlefield asset and the ideological leader of human-mute collaboration in one movement.

And they discover that the cure, which is based upon Kipo’s DNA cannot affect her. Kipo is the one person from whom Emilia can not strip body autonomy. Dr. Emilia cannot force Kipo to be just one thing. Kipo will be what she is becoming and that cannot be undone. Not by anybody. Kipo cannot reverse the changes to her body. Scarlamagne cannot command her body to do the things he wills. And Emilia cannot command her body to be the thing she wills. Kipo, in her war form, is a giant mutant cat who shakes off arrows and darts and who can disperse an army with the stomp of her foot.

Kipo, upon discovering that Emilia cannot cure her, has become like Superman: a being defined entirely by the conscious decision to live life according to an ideology, one who cannot be compelled, only persuaded. Humanity abandons Dr. Emilia’s quest. A few of her hardliners make one final attempt to cure the Mutes, but other humans shield their new friends from harm and the effort is largely the last gasp of a spent force. With nothing else left Dr. Emilia decides to murder Kipo.

To do this, Dr. Emilia must become like Kipo and she uses stolen research notes to duplicate the process which led to Song Oak’s accidental gene therapy. She injects herself with this cocktail and becomes a hideous, two-headed monster, even vaster and more inhuman than Kipo’s war form. They have a climactic battle, but the whole thing is basically an endurance test. Emilia is losing herself in the form of the beast. She cannot do what Kipo did and reconcile the animal within her because it’s alien to her. The beast is terrified OF her, and it will not be reconciled because it only wants to flee from her terrible purpose. Dr. Emilia drowns in her own contradictions, and loses her agency. She flees, goes to ground, crouching and hiding her eyes, defeated by the refusal to be her own body.

Kipo shows mercy and cures Emilia. She thinks that surely, like Scarlamagne, Emilia will talk now. She is fully contained. Her reserves of cure are depleted. Her followers have abandoned her. Kipo offers Emilia her hand just the way she did with with Scarlamagne.

And rather than take her hand, Dr. Emilia tries to stab Kipo with a shard of glass; even in defeat, she refuses to allow that others might live in ways contrary to how she deigns. But Mandu, Kipo’s pet pig, a voiceless Mute and the first friend Kipo ever made, defends her friend, and Dr. Emilia falls backward into the burrow that birthed them all. Kipo tries to catch her, makes one last attempt to take her hand, but misses. And Fun Gus catches her. The prisoner of its own body who is so desperate for recognition of the Other that it will never let someone go once it has them, finds itself become the jailer of a solipsist who refuses to allow that any person might live but according to the way she dictates. Dr. Emilia cannot be persuaded. She is incapable of making that leap of empathy that Scarlamagne does, and so despite her monstrosity taking on a very similar form to his, he can be redeemed. She cannot. In the end, she can only be stripped of power and contained.

Wolf and what a body can do

Wolf as depicted in early episodes.

As I mentioned before, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is first, and foremost a story about race. The story explores a world torn by inter-ethnic strife. The villains are first an escaped slave who discovers power and engages in revenge, setting himself up as a would-be king of a multi-ethnic state with a racialized slave class in humans and then a fascist revanchist who sees most of the people in the world around her as nothing more than beasts, undeserving of a voice or a choice in their own lives. Scarlamagne wants to see himself as better than another race. Dr. Emilia sees all races but hers as inferior. But by using sentient animals as a stand-in for an otherwise nuanced discussion of race, there is a risk of biological essentialism. Hummingbombers, Mod Frogs and Timbercats each have a form of national culture that is framed in the context of what their bodies are. Frogs command insects as slaves. Wolves can’t help but gaze at the moon. Cats like yarn.

But Wolf problematizes these essentialist readings. She is a human child who was raised by a wolf pack. She is trained by them to have the capabilities of a wolf, to run and leap, to balance and to howl as a wolf. She is indoctrinated into the ideology of the wolf nation.

And then she is betrayed. They raised her not to be one of theirs but rather as a training exercise – to teach their cubs how to hunt even the most cunning prey. Wolf fights back and, though we never see how, kills her adoptive mother, using her pelt as a cloak. She retreats into Scorpion territory and learns how to calm her heartbeat so that she can escape their notice. She takes a giant scorpion stinger as her principal weapon and establishes a household in a ruined building somewhere everyone else is afraid to go.

When we meet Wolf, she sees Mutes only as threats or as food, and she sees other humans only as an encumbrance to her continued survival. Kipo slowly befriends her, and helps her to let down her barriers. Eventually she abandons her scorpion stinger and her ghastly cape. Wolf demonstrates the infinite transformative capacity of a human body in a more subtle fashion than Kipo. She moves with the grace and speed of a wolf because she was taught. She can calm her own heart because she learned how. Wolf is a small child but is also a fearsome fighter, easily able to go toe to toe against giant walls of muscle like Greta. In the course of the show she learns how to sing. And she loves it. Wolf is a celebration of the infinite transformative power of the body.

And this is where we dive a bit deeper into the queer text of the show. I’ve been using she/her pronouns for Wolf because that is what the text does and I am trying not to read beyond what is there, but there is definitely a queer subtext to Wolf and that is reflected in how she idealizes her own body and its potentials.

Kipo is pretty obviously bisexual. The bi flag colour scheme is one of the predominant palettes of the show, which repeadly drenches itself in pink, purple and blue. She tries to kiss Benson, who gently rebuffs her because he’s gay and they remain close friends. He eventually gets a boyfriend, and the romance scenes between Benson and Troy are frankly darling. And Kipo? She kind of starts dating Wolf.

The show is coy about this. They have a song that Kipo calls “our song.” During the climax of the series, when Kipo organizes a simultaneous dance party and diplomatic conference at Prahm, Wolf gives Kipo a corsage and comes as her date. Wolf is a very shy person and quite reserved with her emotions, but we get a sense of intense affection from her that is directed only at Kipo. Kipo, of course, shows intense affection for everything and everyone but she has a closeness for Wolf that is more like how she acts with her parents than with all the others she tries to give her love. But they don’t share the sort of explicit romantic coding that gives away Benson’s relationship to Troy.

But to get really into where Wolf’s queerness ties into her sense of her body we need to return to the first encounter with Mulholland. In Wolf’s ideal dreamworld, she and Kipo are together, just the two of them against the world. They’re hunters, capturing the most dangerous game (Mega Bunnies) and they’ve become so adept that the great problem they face is that they have hunted their prey out and need to find new challenges.

Wolf (who has a very diminutive stature) imagines Kipo and herself as giant, muscle bound and masculine. they speak in deep voices and do the Epic Handshake made famous in memes and the Predator film (itself something of a queer work of art). In Wolf’s ideal world it appears she is a man. And so is Kipo. And they are a couple.

But the world collapses when Wolf recognizes that this beautiful dream isn’t one that Kipo shares. They might be in love, but Kipo isn’t a hunter. And Kipo isn’t a man. Wolf breaks free of domination because she refuses to demand that another person’s body be the ideal she wishes it was. And in doing so, she expresses her love.

Love, embodiment and power

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is far more clever than the majority of children’s entertainment, and is a better program for it. It creates a central thesis that diagnoses power as the expression of desire to control what bodies can do. It demonstrates how this power comes both from within the body of the subject and also from their desire to subjugate, to demand that bodies conform to the standards they set.

Despite hints of the mystical with the cheese diviners, Kipo and the Wonderbeasts presents a remarkably materialist sense of the mind. Mulholland’s powers work because he enters, and physically interferes with the working of an organ. Likewise Scarlamagne’s sweat act on the body, it takes agency but not by replacing the self of the victim with a simulation of the dominator. Instead it turns the victim into a puppet, their body turned against them. Imprisonment is a common threat in this show because cages, too, are forms of domination imposed upon the body. Minds cannot be dominated; they can only be persuaded. And the root of persuasion in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is love. Romantic love, familial love, love of an idealized self, love of the Other. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts tells us very clearly that we need to open the doors of the world to everything that is outside and bring it in. We must open the sense of self up to the infinite potential of the body to learn, to grow and to change. Transformation cannot be rolled back. We are forever becoming what we will be. The Mutes who are “cured” remain so. There is no happy reversal where Yumyan and Bad Billions can return to their roles of leadership. Bad Billions is still welcome in his community though, he sits beside the chairs of the Newton Wolves and watches the raps and scientific seminars he can no longer perform every night, still loved. Still inside.

Five years after the defeat of Dr. Emilia, Kipo’s dream is realized. Humans and Mutes are integrated into a wild, urban, cosmopolitan and cashless society. Kipo isn’s a ruler. She’s happy to step back and spend time with Wolf and her other friends. She’s Superman, but in a world of love, there’s no need for her power, and so she doesn’t express it. Harmony arrives when domination ends; the most radical love is opening the door of self to everything that is Other and letting it in. Kipo affirms and celebrates difference. She adores the Timbercats. She loves Ratland. She immediately races to help the Fitness Raccoons when she meets them. She happily listens to Scarlamagne’s maddening waltzes. She wants to bring together an alliance in friendship but starting from the fundamental basis that the inherent differences between people are a source of joy and beauty, not terror.

Kipo’s text isn’t naïve. It recognizes that some people will not make this leap. And they will have to be contained – hard choices will be made, fascists can not have a place in a cosmopolitan world built on love. But Kipo’s text is optimistic. Recognition can be a process of mutual empathy. We don’t need to engage the master and the slave in every interaction. Instead we can engage the lovers, and build a culture of mutual affirmation of difference. We can create a space for everyone.

And I think that’s a pretty good message for children.

I’m back?

So it’s been a minute.

I’m kind of back. At least, I’m writing essays again, if nothing else, and, well, I have a blog, so… I might as well put them here.

Some of you might be wondering what happened to me that I went basically dark for three years. A lot of my readers are close friends, so they know a lot of this. But I have got to the point where I feel ready to talk about it. The wounds are basically closed. I want to make this really clear, I don’t want and am not seeking sympathy. I don’t want or need pity or concern. I’m fine. Really. But to get to how I got to fine I kind of need to walk through when I wasn’t and what that meant to me.

So let’s start in 2016. In 2016 I suffered from a pretty serious bout of depression. It wasn’t politically related – I’m susceptible to depression, I had a young child and was living in a slummy apartment in a city that I felt was chewing me up. On paper life was really good. My daughter. I had the best job I’d ever had to date. My novel had been published a year ago, and I was as successful as an artist as I’d ever been. But I felt kind of trapped and really miserable. I tried to change things up. I went back to school, I did another post-graduate professional certification, studied for and sat an incredibly difficult exam. And then nothing really changed except I experienced extreme burnout.

My depression led to me making some bad choices – I tossed in my job for one that paid more but was doing work I was neither morally comfortable with nor really properly trained for. I got it on the basis of my hard-won professional certification but then found that it wasn’t the work I had studied to do. And the burnout wasn’t getting better. I lost my job.

At the same time I lost my job, we were moving out of the slummy apartment and into a condominium my wife and I had put a lot of money into pre-construction. Only, we couldn’t secure a mortgage with me on EI and were looking at potentially being on the street once the apartment closed. Closing kept getting pushed back by the developer and I was just…

Broken.

Completely broken. This was spring 2018.

We made the hard decision to leave Toronto. I found work subcontracting for an IT company and working for the Federal Government. I moved out to Charlottetown and stayed with my best friend while we sorted out the housing situation. We got a beautiful house on the edge of town adjacent a horse farm. The pace of life slowed. I buried myself in family, and started healing from those psychic wounds that I’d accumulated over the last two years.

But I started getting headaches when I tried to read.

I hadn’t been reading much during my depression. It’d been a symptom of my depression, and as these things often are, this symptom fed back into those painful feelings and left me paralyzed. Having come out the other side I kind of wanted to start reading again. But I was walking (and later driving or being driven) to and from work instead of taking transit. My daughter was growing and made more demands on my time. I was working. And when I tried to read I would feel tired quickly and there were those headaches.

Eventually it came to pass that I discovered I needed glasses. It was 2019 and I was 40. These things happen.

However I was still struggling to read. Fiction wasn’t clicking with me. “Show, don’t tell,” had gone from a piece of craft advice to a stone in my boot. Having healed I was getting more concerned with politics again beyond a sense of unending despair, but I felt a sort of anxious urgency to speak and be spoken to clearly and without dissembly. The contradictions inherent in fictive text had bugged me for a while. I was writing about that in 2016, a few months before I burned out and fell into depression, and I’d talked about it depth at the 2015 Spec Fic Colloquium a year previously when I’d dug into the concept of, tabula rasa rebellion as a form of ideological neutering. But what was a nuisance in 2015 just grew and grew until it made it very difficult for me to enjoy anything but the most strident and didactic books. I turned to works in translation largely because people outside the anglosphere were more likely to say what they meant and mean what they said in their fiction.

These days I mostly read French books. So that “works in translation” thing kind of stuck I guess. But I’m learning French too so a few of those book aren’t in translation and that’s really cool. But I’ll get to this.

Ok, so we’re into the home stretch here. Things were definitely on the up-swing for me. I had glasses, I was working, had a beautiful red house that was mine in a nice neighbourhood with a whole bunch of little girls near my daughter’s age with whom she made fast friends. My wife had finally found a position worthy of her talents and she was working and happy too.

I’d left the Federal Government job – it’d always been contract – but I’d moved seamlessly into another position. I had a direct report who I’d the best relationship since the good job I’d left at the start of my depression.

I was traveling for work a lot; and reading on flights. I read a couple of science fiction novels but the confused ideology of books like The Expanse series – books that wanted to be about radical, transformative, paradigmatic shifts in technology and culture but that couldn’t imagine a universe more different than what we have now, only with basic income for some – just didn’t gel with me. I was enjoying Ian M. Banks. And I was enjoying non-fiction.

I read Julie Watson’s Ghost Stories and Legends of Prince Edward Island. This was effectively a work of anthropology – a mythography discussing the stories my new home told about itself. I adored it. I also read my old, dear, friend Vanessa Brown’s true crime book about the Forest City Killer. I don’t generally read true crime, and only did read it because of who wrote it (Vanessa is one of my two oldest friends). But in these books I found what I’d been missing; I found that the clarity of conversation I was struggling with in fiction was present in these books that said what they meant and meant what they said. My return to reading came in fits and starts, but it was a start. So I suppose I should thank Vanessa for helping me overcome a pretty severe obstacle in my life last year.

It was February 2020 and I was mostly worried about my cousin who lives in Tianjin and my in-laws who live in central China. My boss, the one I liked, left my employer, and things were getting tense as COVID-19 crept over the horizon. I was in Texas in early March, when the travel ban came in. I returned home the same day that mandatory 14 day self-isolation periods for international travel were established. Soon after schools closed and we went into lockdown. Unable to travel for work, and with my American clients in disarray, work was going poorly, and somebody needed to give greater attention to our daughter, who was going a bit feral, and who was not really learning French despite being in French immersion.

My wife and I knew one of us were going to have to step away from work, and my employer offered me an out. We came to an agreement that they would lay me off, but unlike the time before when I lost my job I actually felt great. It wasn’t like I was the only person out of work in April 2020, and it meant I could be there for my daughter. I became her French tutor, and started learning French a bit myself to keep up. Eventually the lockdown eased in PEI and my daughter started going to ballet again. The weather was nice, and I really didn’t want to spend time indoors. COVID precautions precluded watching her dance, so I got in the habit of getting a coffee from the shop across from her dance studio and taking it to a picnic table, I’d drink coffee and play with my phone, read news about COVID, read about politics. Sometimes I’d pinch wifi and watch Youtube videos. I’d become fond of a few channels that talked about philosophy but I’d noticed that most of them were very entry-level. (This isn’t actually all that true, but the stuff I found first via politics focused Breadtube types was.)

I’d always loved philosophy.

If you go into my back-catalog you know I was writing about Hegel in the article about rebels. I talked about Nietzsche in another article, but it’d been years since I’d read him (my Nietzsche reading having been between 1999 and 2004) and I don’t think I fairly represented him in those writings so I’m going to leave off the link. I’d been getting pretty involved with radial leftist discourse online and was frustrated by the ML/Anarchist conflicts – which I largely saw as arising out of miscommunication and century-old bad blood.

It was by then getting to be about mid-September and I was also painfully bored. So I decided to fill one of those gaps I saw in Youtube philosophy content and start putting out some videos specifically targeted at leftists presenting ethical problems within leftist discourse and using a largely materialist-existentialist frame to address good ways of approaching these problems while hopefully side-stepping the sectarian divisions that bothered me. So I decided I should brush up on my philosophical reading.

I’d loved that stuff in university.

Fifteen years ago.

But hadn’t read much since I’d returned from China in 2007. So I eased into it by picking up The Present Age by Kierkegaard – he’d been my fave in university. Honestly I think a lot of people going into philosophy at the undergraduate level found him a bit opaque, but I’d been interested in theology as a precocious child and by the time I met Kierkegaard in university I was already well-situated to understand him. I’d found writing essays about Kierkegaard was a good way to get good grades in philosophy classes so… I stuck with that.

And when I returned to philosophy I started there and with Simone De Beauvoir – who I adore for her successful efforts to secularize Kierkegaard’s ethics and whose ethical sense underpinned my planned project. I started researching for my first video. It was getting to be the American electoral season again, and leftists were arguing about whether leftists should vote and if so how. I decided to do a video about that and read Sartre, Adorno and Horkheimer to round out my reading list. (And, of course, Marx.)

I planned to do a second video about whether a state could be ethical, and picked up Foucault. I had encountered him in university but had been generally unimpressed. I wasn’t well situated to see much profundity in him then, and he’d never been a difficult author for me so I just saw him as being another overrated postmodernist. This was a position that I rapidly erased upon reading Society Must Be Defended, which is an exceptionally easy to read and engaging series of lectures regarding the relationship of the discipline of history to the structures of state power that surrounded them. In this book I found the lynchpin to the questions about the state I wanted to ask. And between these two books, I rediscovered my ability to read for pleasure.

The flood gates opened. I started grabbing up books as fast as I could learn about them. In November and December of 2020 I read Mark Fisher, Frantz Fanon, I started in on another Foucault book (Discipline and Punish), started re-reading my favourite graphic novel (The Invisibles) and also reading Valerian L’Integrale volume 2 in French, my literacy in that language having improved sufficiently to handle it since the start of 2020. I read Gilles Deleuze, whose essay, Postscript on the Societies of Control, is possibly the most singularly influential thing of the lot of my Q4 2020 reading. When you occasionally see me reference, “the search for new weapons,” I am quoting this essay. I also started listening to podcasts, particularly Acid Horizon, and through them learned about a host of other philosophers (Felix Guttari, of course, but also Simondon, Lyotard and Bataille). I revisited Derrida and Nietzsche and found my opinions on them had, in fact, shifted since university. Bataille’s The Solar Anus was nearly as influential for my recent WandaVision essay as Fisher or Adorno were, albeit more for the stylistic freedom that I felt in it. And I should note that this massive glut of books, essays, poems and commentaries was all stuff I was reading and listening to between October 2020 and now. At the end of November I found another job which is operating fully remote, and I set up a home office that has come together as a very comfortable space to work, create, read and have a good think in.

I am reading again. And eventually my reading overflowed into writing. I’m not sure I can write fiction where I am right now. If I do, it’ll have to be a pretty substantial break from what I wrote before. But Adorno and Deleuze, Bataille and Fisher have reignited my fondness for criticism and I have more reading on deck as I’m set to read Anti-Oedipus, The Weird and the Eerie, The Rebel (you can see hints of Camus peeking out of my recent review of Star Trek Discovery Season 3) and Critique of Dialectical Reason vol. 1 after I finish with Discipline and Punish.

My research specific to the question of the state is almost done and has left me more certain than ever that the main things separating modern state Socialists from Anarchists are semantics over the definition of what a state actually constitutes. I am excluding various online malcontents from this discussion. Frankly I think most Marxists would do well to tell Stalinists and Gonzalo Thought proponents to jump off the nearest pier just as I think most anarchists should remain on guard against eco-fascist entryism. There will be a Youtube video for the ethics of the state in pan-leftist discourse at some point.

And that’s where I am. It’s a long way from 2016 where I went through burnout, depression and loss of basically everything in my life but my family to here, healthy, happy, bespectacled and with a renewed vigor for my passions. Not everybody makes it through depression. Fisher didn’t. If you go through the biographies of my reading list, it’s not precisely the perfect-picture-of-psychological-health-and-wellbeing-club. But I did. I came out the other side stronger, if weirder.

That urgency to speak and to listen to clear language remains. I do worry about the state of the world; who couldn’t after the year we’ve been through. And I think part of the attraction of theory over fiction is in looking for solutions instead of deferments or temporary escapes.

2020 was a hard year for everyone.

2021 is going to be another. And we’re going to keep having hard years until we get up and do something. I don’t have the answer to these big questions that face the world. Climate change, plague, the political instability of late capital: these are vast problems and no one person will solve them. They will require everybody to work together. I’m not even sure how we could begin to accomplish the sort of transformations we need to undertake to start making the world a better place.

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters,”1 and it feels strange to be talking about how good I feel personally in this uncertain time compared to the relative stability of four years ago. But I think it’s because I’ve been through change and transformation. The only constants in my life are the relationships I carried with me through darkness. I am a process of change. The world is likewise. I got better – if stranger. The world can too.

1: Antonio Gramsci as paraphrased by Slavoj Žižek.

Fanfiction and the enclosure of the creative commons

The discourse of genre authors, almost perennially, falls to the validity of fanfiction as an artistic category. This debate is never, of course, resolved and it flares up again each time some detractor of the category has their voice amplified sufficiently for those who see themselves as friends of the category to feel threatened.

Considering the sensitivity of artists, this does not generally require much in the way of a threat.

Fanfiction, as a category, exists because artists need to find ways of circumventing the barriers put up by capitalism. The idea of copyright is a modern, and capitalist, one. The first copyright law was formed in England in the early 1700s.

This pernicious concept, that ideas could be made commodities to be bought and sold, rather than representing the intellectual commons upon which creation occurred, allows for parties, individuals and companies, to claim ownership of works of fiction, of characters and situations. Only fiction doesn’t work that way. And it’s good that it doesn’t.

The only reason we have a record of most of Shakespeare’s plays is because some theatre nerds with fast fingers would come to his plays, take notes on the script and then sell copies for a side hustle.

Art, including fiction, is iterative. It’s a form of communication and as such it can’t help but be iterative; an answer contains within it the premise of the question. Copying, mutating and iterating are essential creative tools, and they’re tools that are increasingly restricted as the bounds of copyright tighten, terms lengthen, and laws like DMCA move power toward those who want to enclose the creative commons. As a result these components of fiction become walled off.

I want to be clear here that this is far from the only way that capital distorts art, or encloses upon the tools of artistry. For another example please see my essay on how the franchise as a marketing structure makes the artistic use of ambiguity untenable and undermines finitude. Capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with creative ventures; the generation of the fanfiction / original work dichotomy is merely a good example of this forced limitation.

That said, the dichotomy exists in the minds of people trapped within the bounds of what Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism. And since it exists, it’s necessary for us to grapple with its contours.

It’s fine if you want to iterate based off work so old there’s no clear thread of ownership; but if you want to engage in communication with living artists, you must pay for the privilege, or else you must create fic. Fanfiction is an artificial category. Literally no writer is not also a creator of fanfiction. We can’t help but respond to what we read. It is in the nature of art. What separates “fanfiction” from “original” fiction is only whether one can claim ownership over the fiction in order to sell it. This is a useless distinction for artists to argue over.

Why do you care whether another artist wants to sell work or enjoy creative expression as an amateur? The categories of professional and amateur are, in themselves, problematic enough without assessing each work of art an artist creates along the axis of marketability.

This is, of course, the secondary reason that so many “fanfiction” writers who “file off the serial numbers” are reviled. The first is because they’re frequently women as a result of complex social movements. But there’s a sense of fanfiction crossover as having cheated its way into a market it should not own. This is “business ontology,” as Fisher would have put it, creeping into art appreciation.

One of the things that reinforces my communism is the brutal ways capital deforms art. And I get it, artists need to eat. I mean, I maintain a day job explicitly because my art is not profitable. If I could make a living as an author, a critic or a painter I’d do that instead of being a project manager.

My ideological side wants art to be the hard stone that is spit out by capital; for art to be deliberately and aggressively counter to the demands of business ontology. I would make a criminal of every artist. And as such, I am something of a friend to the amateur, including the fanfiction writer. After all, fewer things are more criminal within capitalism than to remove productive action from the bounds of the marketable.

But it’s kind of ridiculous to see professional artists, people who have nomadically sampled the intellectual commons and made their compromises with capital to be allowed the privilege of making art a career, dunking on an artist of no particular notoriety just because they don’t enjoy the fodder in the former part of the commons now within the fanfiction enclosure and loudly say so.

Don’t play the game of categories with them. Find lines of escape instead. The search for new weapons continues.

Wandavision – finitude and the franchise

If you intend to enjoy WandaVision you may want to consider not reading this.

The greatest obstacle to critiquing WandaVision is Disney’s transhumanism.

This goes far beyond the legendary frozen corpse of the founder, lying in wait under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride until the day the stars are right. Instead the transhumanism of Disney exists in a revulsion toward finitude. Nothing can ever end. “Dreams are forever,” as the founder said.

Copyright and trademark are eternal. The House of Mouse is an eldritch singularity, drawing in all of mass culture and hoarding it, digesting stories and shitting out merchandise.

Stories, too, cannot end. Nothing symbolizes this better than the blood-gorged leech of the so-called Infinity Saga. The five odd hour hours of Avengers Endgame and Infinity War smash brightly coloured brand indicators together and ape some vast Manichean conflict between a godlike conqueror and a gang of heroic rebels; but the telos of the two films is just a strident defense of the status quo. The reward for our heroes at the end of this supposedly infinite war is a reset. A return. And not even the return of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s hero would return home transformed by the journey. Peter Parker returns unchanged. He slots seamlessly back into old friendships and routines. He is eternally on his journey, forever rejecting and answering calls that never go anywhere. A journey without distance. A cycle as brief as two turns of the clock that signifies nothing but two more turns. But of course the war is infinite, of course its conclusion is a return to an unchanging present. Disney cryogenically freezes narratives. It is terrified of a story ending, because an ending is a letting go. And Disney can never let anything go; it is as incapable of that as the singularity at the heart of the Milky Way.

This vomitous pile of a story hangs over WandaVision; its stench is ever-present. It haunts the story. In such a circumstance, how could we possibly fairly review the story before us?

Only by cutting it away from its own diseased bones. If WandaVision is to be assessed as a singular work of art, it must be walled away from the Avengers. We must exorcise the putrid ghost of the Infinity ” Saga” and approach the text tabula rasa. We will dispel the unspoken belief that he is a ghost while she lives still and start from the beginning as if it were alone, not one chapter in a “saga” but a story: an enclosed and finished work. If WandaVision cannot survive this form of scrutiny, it can thus, at least, fail on its own merits. And the only thread to redeem this product as a work of art stands in approaching it alone.

And it turns out that tabula rasa is the perfect way to approach WandaVision because, after dispensing with some period-appropriate credits, we meet our protagonists as blank slates in Pleasantville. Or at least they are in part blank slates. They come pre-equipped with mannerisms appropriate to an archaic fish-out-water situation comedy and complete and comprehensive knowledge of each other’s powers.

The show really wants to make this clear; Wanda and Vision don’t know what the date marked on their calendar is. They don’t know where they’re from or what their favourite song is. But they know she can summon objects ex nihilo. They know he can walk through a wall. The strangely selective gaps in memory continue. Vision knows he has a job but not what working that job entails. Wanda knows she stays home but does not know what a homemaker does. Archaic sit com hijinks ensue.

WandaVision, within the bounds of its textual frame, is remarkably disconnected from the Real. This disconnect presents itself in two overlapping ways. The first is in a profound temporal disconnect. Time stutters and jumps. A decade passes. Nobody comments. The show is set within situation comedies, but the precise sort of comedy refuses to be nailed down. It’s the Honeymooners or Andy Griffith one moment. Bewitched and I Dream of Genie the next. It gestures in the direction of the Adams Family for a moment then pivots and is, for a mayfly lifespan, The Office. Fashion, decor and hairstyle flux and, while our protagonists maintain a kind of postmodern indifference to this strangeness, Agnes is always exactly the character within the scene required to situate Wanda within the chimerical setting. And this is good, because excepting Wanda and Agnes, the rest of the cast are automata who comfortably glide between genres and roles. This may seem unkind to Vision, but he is immediately designated an automaton. Whenever in the comfort of his home he drops the act of humanity. He is perfectly aware he’s inhuman. He once calls humans small and limited. But Vision is a machine so simple he can be brought low by a wad of bubble gum. Vision is unaware of the extent to which he fails to understand himself at all. That failure of self-knowledge is a theme here.

I think the best way to envision the split in the self-knowledge Wanda and Vision have is to say that they don’t know who they are; but they know all too well what they are. They know that they are abnormal; each episode of the two which were released this week is about a test to see if they can fit in.

In the first of these tests, Wanda meets Agnes, and this is probably the highlight of the show. Kathryn Hahn is delightful. She has exceptional range, and razor-sharp delivery that hits the precise right note of parody to provide the kind of post-ironic frisson this show demands. Frankly, she acts circles around the rest of the cast.

With Agnes’s help, Wanda interprets the heart marked on the calendar as an indication that the evening is her and Vision’s anniversary and prepares a romantic evening for two. Meanwhile, at Vision’s work, he learns that a hazing ritual for new employees is to treat the boss, Andy Hart, and his wife to dinner. They have exacting standards, and the consequences of failing to impress are dire.

The dinner proceeds as a pastiche of early ‘1960s sitcoms. Wanda acts overly affectionate with Mr. Hart, and they explain it away to her origins in a fictional European country nobody comments on her lack of an accent, though Mr. Hart makes some dark allusions to his distrust of communists. Wanda and Vision finally compare notes, and attempt to change course from an erotic romp to an opportunity to impress the boss, engaging in increasingly desperate acts to conceal the fact that Wanda is attempting to hasten dinner along with her magic. At one point she transforms one burnt chicken into a basket full of eggs. “Oh no, too early,” she says (or something to that effect). The terrifying implications that she turned one chicken into many eggs is left to hang in the air, unexplored.

Eventually dinner is served and WandaVision pivots to where it is at its best: pure psychological horror. Mrs. Hart has become woozy from hunger waiting while Wanda bungles dinner after dinner, telekinetically throwing lobsters out windows and doing eldritch… things… to chickens. They get dinner on the table and everyone is seated but the mood is spoiled. The guests ask some questions about Wanda and Vision’s origins but they’re evasive. Mr. Hart becomes increasingly animated, pounding his hands on the table while a clock ticks noisily in the background. 

“What is your story?”
“Why did you come here?”
He’s screaming.
He chokes. 
The clock ticks.
The shadows draw in. 
Wanda commands Vision to help Mr. Hart, who has fallen to the floor, gasping for breath.

Vision reaches his hand through the front of Mr. Hart’s throat and retrieves the errant speck of food.

The shadows recede. Mr. Hart recovers his composure. He and his wife are entirely happy with how dinner went. They leave. The moment of horror ends.

The show retains, from this moment on, an edge that stays with it until one scene prior to the credit roll. Wanda and Vision discuss their strangeness. They seem to have forgotten the terror of the scene that unfolded with the Harts, or at least the trauma of it. Again there’s a sort of partial amnesia as if they know what happened but not what made it significant. They remark on the strangeness that they haven’t wedding rings and Wanda summons rings from nothing again. The laugh track invades here. Sighs of happiness. But it’s ash. Those happy sighs fill me with revulsion because the laugh track has become a character in this horrible, surreal nightmare of a story. The cooing of an invisible audience is a pressure that pushes against the senses. It edges close to the haptic void.

The moment ends. The credits roll. But it’s a fake-out, not the real credits but the credits within the show. This is when WandaVision trips over itself and ruins its own frame in the last scene. Our perspective pans out of the TV playing the show they were on and reveals some shadowy space. There is a panel of screens, including that playing the WandaVision show. One screen has some vague tacticool bullshit on it, and a militaristic logo. The eye is drawn to this screen, as if the logo was somehow important. A hand enters the frame, rendered in the perfect clarity of modern digital cameras, rather than the bespoke lo-fi black and white of the episode before. It turns off the screen. Rather than being left to wonder at the hypnagogic setting, we are allowed to see briefly behind the curtain. To be shown that there is, in fact, a place more real than the world of the show and that it is in some way in control. The question of who controls this liminal space will likely be a central one. I find it hard to care at the moment because this antagonist is gestured at so vaguely that it might as well not be there at all.

More credits roll, these ones comprise a stylized symbolic affair where settings and props from the show are rendered as if they were made up of CRT pixels. They eventually pan out into a digital simulation of two interlocking rings. If there was any doubt remaining at this point that Wanda and Vision were in some sort of generated simulation, this image would dispel it completely. This is disappointing.

Our second episode begins indulgently. First it gives us a previously-on. Considering these two episodes are rather short (~30 minutes each) the division into two episodes might have already been a little questionable (there is some structural reason which I will address later, but I find it poorly executed). To insert a “previously on” at the start seemed honestly insulting. Perhaps it could be seen as a joke, teasing at genre tropes that condense season-long plot threads into two-minute recaps constantly, but if so, it fails to wink at the audience in the way that literally every other joke in this horror-comedy does. Immediately after this our ears are yet again assaulted by the Marvel fanfare. Loudly and at length. 

After a setup for the episode’s mystery, the show cuts to yet another credit sequence. This is the sixth credits sequence across two episodes for those keeping count. This one a cheerful cartoon that carefully, and in great detail, delineates the geography of the setting and the powers of Vision and Wanda. Vision and Wanda remain these faintly smiling cartoons throughout, still rather blank slates – they are these repositories of terrifying power that are unknowable because they do not know themselves.

The second fit-in test is a PTA talent show. (They have no children.) Wanda plans a magic act which will lay bare the artifice of magic, the ropes and mirrors. She hopes it will demistify them. Vision goes to a Neighbourhood Watch meeting but it turns out they mostly just gossip. The people are the same men from his office in the previous episode. He doesn’t notice. He denounces one of the members of the watch as a communist. They all laugh. This show has a casual hatred for the political other. Communism looms as a threat in the text more explicitly than the comedies it simulacratizes. They think he’s a joker. He swallows some gum and it clogs up his gears. Literally.

Wanda, meanwhile, has a series of surreal encounters that might almost feel Lynchian in a better overall work. She encounters out of context objects, a PTA cult, a new friend and then suffers through a repeat of the terrifying encounter of the dinner party. This time the leader of the PTA cult, Dottie, tells Wanda that she doesn’t like her, doesn’t trust her good intentions. She looks to be getting ready to say something more terrible still to Wanda but a radio in the background is screaming with static. A voice cuts through, “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?” And I just wish that WandaVision could sustain this level of quality, because this scene is legitimately frightening. But Dottie immediately forgets the encounter and seems perfectly satisfied.

The magic show goes well. Vision acts drunk (from the gum) but everyone seems to think it’s a bit. They try to sneak away but the town loves them. They drag them to the stage and give them a trophy. There is so much clapping. Far more clapping than hands in the scene to clap, until it becomes a cacophonous wall of noise. The haptic void again. The credit I will give the creative team behind WandaVision is this: when they were using their sound pallet rather than Marvel’s corporate noise, they used sound in interesting ways. Wanda and Vision pass the test. But I worry the magic show will, in some ways be an apt metaphor for this show: a process of demystification, an admission that the audience isn’t here to be startled or enchanted but just to see how the magic trick is done.

Then there is a coda at the end of the second episode that escapes the careful mirroring of before.

 They cut away, tell some jokes, cut the tension. They kill the mood. The transitions are artificial – WandaVision is built of artifice so this shouldn’t be surprising. But it has the effect of spreading oil over everything, undercutting the tension they’ve built. They try to kiss. Vision tells Wanda, “It’s really happening,” WandaVision has already undercut this with its framing so it lands weakly. We’ve already learned he’s wrong by this point. They told us clearly several times in the outro to the first episode. Things become terrifying again, as noises outside lead to a spooky beekeeper climbing out of the sewer.

Wanda commands, “No,” and the whole universe rewinds like a VHS tape. (Not like an 8mm film tape. Another temporal disconnect.) She and Vision kiss. They are not interrupted. The world explodes in colour. Their appearance glitches like they’re within the TV. A voice calls, “Who’s doing this to you Wanda?”

WandaVision’s second episode struggled with pace. It swung wildly between psychological horror and broad comedy. It wasn’t bad at either. It could conjure moments of existential terror in its two mirrored confrontation scenes, and it hit a comedy zenith with the talent show scene, which managed to fuse the careful staged humour of the 1960s with fly-on-the-wall cringe humour more part of the media landscape of the 2000s. Wanda’s absolute power is legitimately terrifying and she could be a good subject of horror. A terrifying and unknowable person in a clearly artificial landscape, a being of immense power and unknown intent. Although both Wanda and Vision seem infected by a compulsion to conform to the immediate normalcy of the ever-mutating narrative, she seems to do so by consent. By the end of the episode, using only the text within the show, I could sincerely argue that it seems more likely that what we do seem to know about the characters, that they have these powers; that they want to conform to local expectations no matter how absurd; that they are unaware of that absurdity; their virulent anti-communism, all of it, was only Wanda’s interpretation, her sense of the world superimposes itself upon the Real. Vision’s interior is depicted as a simplistic cartoon of cogs and wheels, like Bender from Futurama. Is this, perhaps just how she understands the robot? Or is this the show reminding us how absolutely empty he is? Wanda is not empty. She commands the temporal movement of the realm they are within. We’ve seen them stutter and jump in time in strange and unnatural ways throughout both episodes, and Wanda is shown to have power over time. If this were a show disconnected from the MCU, if I really could read it walled away, cut from the rotten bone, it could be a good show.

But I can’t. I try to keep it walled off but the show fights me too much. There’s the opening music. Twice across an hour of television, the Marvel fanfare. That bombastic leitmotif demands that you remember you are in a Marvel product. And it demands this twice. The doubling format has more narrative uses too, and mirroring is used heavily between the two episodes to give them an uncanny, iterative element. There’s this sense of simulation in it. The separation of the premiere into two stories allowed for an intertextual dialog that reinforced this iterative rhythm. There is a force within the show. Either it’s Wanda or it’s something far more terrifying than her. And it’s pushing toward an outcome. It’s not entirely a puppeteer. Wanda, at least, is not a puppet. But it’s a force on the story, and splitting the show in two allowed that force to be made plain. Though the first episode was more soundly paced, this was, in part, to service the second episode showing the aesthetic of change; or at least of movement. But this good work is fatally undercut by the “previously on” segment and the Marvel fanfare. This is a show about unreality. It’s a show where narrative, the sense the protagonists have of the Real is very subject to ad-hoc revision. Cutting away to remind us precisely what reality we are in (that of the MCU) is so deeply harmful to this eerie suspension.

Like Adorno and Horkheimer said, “enjoyment is giving way to being there and being in the know.” The show is peppered with obvious easter eggs designed to get viewers hunting lore and getting engaged with the fan community. There is a commercial embedded within each episode. The first commercial is for a Stark Industries toaster. The second is for a Strücker watch. The first, shallow, MCU trivia primes the audience to go seeking for the second. Unless, of course, they’ve seen Avengers Age of Ultron: the movie that exposits the back-stories of both Wanda and Vision, including her connection to Baron Von Strücker – a villain with tentacles throughout the entirety of the Avengers timeline. WandaVision unfortunately shrinks next to this vast back-catalog of work. Where before Wanda was this terrifying and unknowable entity, now, with the background coloured in, she’s a much more mundane person. Just a run of the mill superhero, trapped in some superheroic situation by a dastardly villain. The potential of WandaVision is crushed by its proximity to Marvel. Too much foreign text crowds the work, demands to fill its cracks and make clear its meanings. Ambiguity is bad for brand maintenance. You want to engage the fans. Make them feel good because they knew things. You have to make sure to sneak the S.W.O.R.D. logo in so that the real-in-the-know fans (and anyone with even a shred of curiosity and a working internet connection) can feel cool for Getting That Reference. The fan games Disney encourages engage the aesthetic of study, of knowing. But they don’t engage the act of it. Anyone can Get That Reference. Keeping you in the media ecosystem is what matters.

I mentioned before that Wanda’s subplot in the second episode was at moments almost Lynchian. But this is another place where the show runs into problems. Because Lynch’s work depends on ambiguity. Reality and recollection blur, identities become indistinct. It’s like they wanted to make a Lynchian story for which a vast encyclopedia exists that sorts all the ambiguity and liminality into easily and exhaustively categorized boxes. We keep being given the hard edges of the thing. Thanks to the demands of Marvel marketing, we aren’t watching a story about unknowable beings in some horrifically comic purgatory. 

WandaVision isn’t a show that wants to mystify its audience. It wants instead to show the audience where all the ropes and mirrors are. 

So, no, it isn’t two unknowable godlike beings in an absurd purgatory. We are watching a story about two superheroes in a situation. Their powers are explained to us quickly and cleanly and smoothly not because they’re part of an intricate fantasy Wanda has created but because the writers are quickly getting people up to speed about the only thing that truly matters for a superhero, the Ariadne’s thread that allows for their interpretation: the power set. Occasionally good artists manage to do something with these empty heroes, and perhaps the WandaVision team will be up to the challenge, but for the most part they’re just broad characters with narrowly defined powers getting into and out of various situations. It’s all very normal and mundane. And this is what the constant intrusion of other texts into WandaVision does. It opens the story’s lungs up and watches as the mundane normalcy of Disney infects it.

Marvel’s blasted overture blares over the start of every episode, roaring for people to get excited for the next big spectacle. What they get instead is a horror comedy about loss of identity in an absurd universe. The surreal setting and its oddly incomplete cast of automata create a pervasive liminality that picks away at sense of self, at the certainty of time; it tortures its protagonist with existential questions. “What’s your story,” indeed. The dissonance between the expectations of franchise and the story the writers seem to want to tell rips at the theme. We expect our heroes, any minute now, to smash their way out of the television and to punch the villain until they fall over and everything goes back to normal.

Vision dies in Avengers Infinity War. The magic rock that gives him life is ripped out of his head and he, alone, of all the heroes who were killed by Thanos, doesn’t get to come back. His was the sacrifice that proved consequences could exist in the MCU. So of course he’s back. Because Disney can’t let go of its property. And that’s all Vision is. Disney’s property.

Dreams are forever, but if a dream is forever you can never wake. Franchise stories keep the dream humming along only by deferring the moment of wakefulness where the story ends. WandaVision could be a strange and nightmarish dream. But because it must be cryogenically suspended in the tapestry of the Marvel Brand, because threads must stitch it into this overall, ever-winding fabric of narrative, you can never wake from it. The boundaries that separate WandaVision from Avengers movies are absent. This is just an artful set of scenes in an awful mess of a vast, never-to-be-completed advertisement for itself.

The failed promise of Star Trek Discovery

It’s unfortunate that in a year with a Star Trek show as good as Lower Decks, Discovery, which is arguably the flagship franchise of Trek on TV, was so painfully mediocre. Discovery season one was, at the time it came out, the best first season a Trek show ever had, and with a few small tweaks to costume and structure, season two was even stronger. 

Star Trek Discovery season two was perhaps the most character-driven a season of Trek ever got. It invested us in the lives and relationships of Burnham and Saru, Spock, Pike, Tilly, Stamets and Culber, Owosekun and Detmer, Georgiu and all the rest.

On top of that it told an interesting story of time travel and AI that touched on many themes and anxieties that had their bones in Star Trek as far back as the original series. It asked questions about the duty to protect sentience, the desire to control and to predict chaotic events, automation and reliance on machines.

Discovery’s use of time travel in season two was sharp, and kept the stakes high. The central mystery was tied to the character and thematic conflicts of the season, allowing the solution of the central mystery to be simultaneously an interesting bit of plotting and a cathartic resolution of  the relationships that dominated the season. The end of Discovery season two established a premise for season three that took Star Trek precisely where most people really wanted it: back to its own future. 

And then Star Trek Discovery wasted a season on the worst sort of brand maintenance, and in the process, reduced many of its central relationships to incoherent nonsense.

Saying something nice

But before we get into the postmortem of a season of television that failed, let’s take a moment to talk about the few things Discovery got right. Book is an excellent addition to the cast. This combination of Deana Troi and Beastmaster had a consistent character arc built around his status as a loner and his integration into a community that allowed us to understand his past (through the conflict with his brother,) a sense of who he was (don’t insult the man’s cat,) and gave him both relationships with others in the world and the opportunity to forge new relationships with the principal cast. If you are going to introduce a new, ongoing, cast member into an extant show, Book is a textbook example of doing so well.

I am somewhat more critical of the introduction of Adira. It’s good that Star Trek has decided to include a non-binary character in the central cast. And, as a character, Adira is more interesting than some of their precursors like Wesley Crusher. However centering so much of Adira’s story directly on either a plot-forced relationship with Stamets or with their struggles integrating becoming host to their own dead lover, who the show demands must be made visible, feel heavy-handed and unsubtle at best. In particular, the scene in which Adira announces their preferred pronouns to Stamets felt like nothing but a bit of social scripting introduced to train Generation-X audience members in the appropriate way to respond to Kids Today. However, the precocious ingenue is a time-honored (if occasionally detested) component of Star Trek, and Adira is certainly not the most vexatious example of this trope. That a show so in dialog with the past of Star Trek as Discovery has been should include one should not surprise. And ultimately, Adira remains one of the net-positives of the show. I do hope that they are allowed to continue developing as a character as the series goes on – their arc being less complete than that of Book – but I like the dynamic of introducing a new Science Friend as it’s clear that Tilly will continue shuffling toward a command-track position. Just, perhaps, the scriptwriters should ease up on the throttle on the found-family narrative and allow Stamets to be a colleague rather than a surrogate father.

The relationship between Owosekun and Detmer was also a highlight of the season. I don’t think any character from the established cast was given as much space to grow and develop as Detmer, and Owo’s support of her was well done. It’s a shame that Detmer’s arc was resolved by half-way through the season, leaving little for her to do other than stand in the background, and that, rather than using the relationship between Detmer and herself, and her established abilities to give Owo her heroic turn in the finale, the scriptwriters simply penciled in a special skill.

Finally there was the exit of Georgiu. I’m divided here, because there was so much wasted potential in Georgiou’s storyline; but she did have a solid character arc, she behaved consistently, and (being honest) Michelle Yeoh remained the most entertaining actor performing on Star Trek this year. Her scenery-chewing swings between horny, cruel, protective and gleeful remained the source of much of the show’s levity. 

There was a while when Georgiu seemed to be an interesting critical figure. Her position as a time traveler and as a mirror-universe figure, her multiple displacements, made her an effective stand-in for much of the deconstructive critique that marked the period of Star Trek between Deep Space Nine and Enterprise and this lent her interaction with the ever-so-Rodenberryesque principal cast a form of metatextual dialog which, during the first half of season three, pointed toward an actual theme.

Of course this was bungled in favour of naked fanservice and brand maintenance as she was somewhat unceremoniously shuffled over to her spin-off Section 31 series, in a two-part episode that fell painfully flat.

Brand maintenance was the name of the game for Discovery season three though. So I suppose this isn’t too surprising. 

A story in search of a theme

What was Discovery season three about? Think about it for a second, really try to think about it. What was it about? We could start by taking inventory on where we came from. Discovery season two established that the crew were a found-family. Our named-cast agree, together, to follow Michael into the future in order to protect the Sphere Data and prevent the arisal of the Control AI that would destroy all life in the galaxy.

Michael and Saru, once rivals, have fallen into a gentle and supportive friendship as she has helped him recover his connection to his people and overturn a form of systemic repression that subjugated Kelpiens throughout history. Michael has been promised the opportunity to reunite with her mother.

Stamets and Culber have been reunited, as the Mycelial Network repays Stamets for his efforts in the two seasons of the show to protect the integrity of the universe even at the expense of his own success and notoriety as a researcher. Stamets, in particular, has learned how to set aside his personal desires and act in the interests of the collective.

Tilly remains the loyal friend and Michael’s mentee. Georgiu remains the dark reflection of the other mother who Michael failed – the pull toward utility and practicality to balance the selflessness of her mother’s own arc. And Pike stays behind to spin off with Spock and Number One. This is fine. We always expected that Pike would be a one-season treat. The sphere data is an enigmatic other. The season ends uncertain whether it will be an ally or a threat – just the certainty that it appears aware in some way.

So what would make sense from here? 

We could build off the sense that Michael needs to pick up the mantle of leadership. We could see her building ties in the future, feeling at home, and having the feeling that she should lead. We could see Saru finding himself a bit too rigid, a bit of a fish out of too many waters. Put Saru on the bridge when Osyraa’s regulators board; have it go the same. Let Michael have her die-hard sequence and then have Saru demand Michael take command rather than Tilley. We end in the same place. Saru retired to Kelpinar, Michael as captain. Tilly has been Michael’s mentee since season one episode one so having her remain so, with an eye toward assuming a command role at season-end, (and perhaps a promotion) would have continued to give Mary Wiseman something to do aside from following Saru around being his folly. This would give us a thematic through-line that leadership requires not just genius and thoughtfulness, but some of the willingness to throw oneself into an uncertain future that Michael represents. In fact, such an arc would hark back to the white rabbit motifs of season one. Michael has always been one to go down the rabbit hole.

Or we could lean into the changed politics of the burn and examine what the Federation really is. This would require reconfiguring the order things happen in a bit of course. The introduction of the Emerald Chain in the first episode was the place to plant seeds about the chain’s instability in the lack of Dilithium. 

We could have then met the painfully mis-used Aurellio – who could have been the initial representative of the Chain to the heroes. He could have praised Osyraa’s vision and ability to unite people in the face of adversity. While the Federation retreated to its starbase of pure abstraction, Osyraa is down in the dirt, trying to hold the galaxy together. Then we learn about the exploitation of pre-warp species. But still there’s an excuse. If we don’t bring them in we might lose the galactic culture. They are important. And then the slave camps. Then the horror that girds Osyraa’s rhetoric. Because as the political story is told, we already know the Emerald Chain is a horror before Aurelio ever tries to make a defense of it. As a result, the scene is absurd. There is no way that Stamets could be persuaded, not when we, the audience already know what’s behind the curtain.

And then there’s the central mystery.

This is the great void at the heart of Discovery, season three, and the center of its failure.

The burn is nonsense.

It’s not a political consequence of the Federation. This possibility is explored during the Galactic Tour and then abruptly dismissed. Nor is it a weapon of an enemy. And there were so many enemies to choose. It could have been whichever faction enforces the outcome of the Temporal Wars. It could be the extra-galactic AI of Picard season one. Or the sphere data. Or these could be the same – the burn could be Control’s last shout of “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.” It could have been the Emerald Chain who set off the burn. 

Instead it’s a Kelpian child who was grieving  the death of his mother. This might have worked, if Star Trek wanted to propose that the universe was an absurd place where only our bonds to each other allow us to cling to rafts of reason beneath a deep abyss of chaos. But Star Trek is far too deterministic for this. It’s a clockwork world of blank hologram faces, binary states, a clearly defined right and wrong. It’s a world where you cannot return to the past because There Are Rules.

And there are rules. Except when there are not.

And so the theme becomes brand maintenance; it booms “I am the Guardian of Forever” and hopes that people remember not just that this is literally audio from The Original Series but also that there was almost a spin-off to The Original Series brought about through a time travel story (Assignment: Earth). There are rules. You cannot travel in time. Except when the demands of Michelle Yeoh’s contract, and of the spin-off roadmap demand that time travel must be done. It winks at the audience and hints about what might be next.

It does the same with the sphere data. All the show does with this remaining thread from the last season is wink and hint. Wink and hint. Nothing is settled. Nothing concrete is learned. It’s deferred. We can’t give away the game for Season 4 or we’d have to actually try something new.

The first season of Discovery had a thesis: that the humanist values of Star Trek as envisioned by Roddenberry were good, actually.

The second season of Discovery had a theme: that this good was sufficient to overcome the end of everything; and that deviating from Trekian Humanism was a path that would lead to ruin.

In the third season of Discovery there is no such thesis, no such theme. There is a half-baked story of petrostates when the oil runs out; an attempt to engage a dialectic of Star Trek and Mad Max and find the oneness between these futures. But instead of pinning the rise and fall of the action to a thesis or a theme, this season is just a collection of events, an absurd and meaningless process of moving characters like game pieces into the configuration necessary to carry forward the franchise.

About that dilithium

Star Trek Discovery situates the Federation as a humanism. Season one makes it clear that what makes the Federation good is what makes Starfleet good is what makes Star Trek good and that this is a deliberate centering of its subjects. The show seems to ask that same question De Beauvoir did, “How could {people}, originally separated, get together?” In season one, the Klingons ask, but should we want that. Shouldn’t we cling to our difference? And Star Trek answers no. By coming together, Michael finds absolution, Saru finds community, Stamets finds love and kindness, Tilly finds someone to look up to. These disparate, different, people build a community that is centered around their relations, they build each other up. This is what makes the Federation good

In season two, Section 31 shifts away from Federation humanism and toward a kind of cybernetic utilitarianism. Build a good enough machine and it will predict how to bring people together. It will maximize happiness and oops we made a paperclip maximizer that’s going to kill us all better do a humanism quick. Season two shows us not the Klingon rejection of humanist community but rather a tecnnocratic subversion of it. And then season two tells us why that, too, is wrong.

In season three, all the Federation is, is a collection of ships and bases, and having run out of gas it dissolves. Well except for the hard kernel that later reterritorializes the absence left by its own collapse, and the collapse of the Emerald Chain left behind. But this reterritorialization isn’t the same humanism. We’re told, by our half-baked materialist Osyraa that the Federation is choking on its idealism. It’s a realm of abstraction, of computer generated holograms built explicitly to occupy the uncanny valley, of programmable matter that can be anything (as long as that thing serves plot expedience) and of force fields. So many force fields. But aside from the crew of Discovery, the actual population of the Federation is reduced to three. Aditya Sahil, Vance and Kovich. Three old men. Each isolated within his function. The lighthouse keeper. The admiral. The enigma. There is no community here for Discovery to be a part of.

The show seems to understand this and so it throws its characters into whatever scrap of community they can muster. And so Michael has her plot-convenient crisis of faith because of her community with Book. Stamets adopts his coworker for reasons that are never made clear in the show. It’s not like even the most evil elements of the future are homophobes; so Adira’s queer identity seems like a weak basis for Stamets to decide he must be their surrogate dad. And Saru adopts an elderly Kelpien (one who must be chronologically far older than Saru) rather than continue his duties as captain – something that had been previously very important to him. These honestly bizarre character choices can only be justified as the scriptwriters realizing the lack in their story and attempting to fill it with something, anything. After all. A family is a community too.

So what is the Federation? Is it a community of worlds? If so all that is left of it is N’Var – where the community of worlds has been made manifest in reunification. Is it a family? If so it has become a very small one. Is it just the fuel to make the ships go? The text of Discovery suggests that. But this is just material culture.  Fanon talked about the structure of a nation a lot. He thought a nation was vast and impossible to perceive all at once, what Timothy Morton would have called a hyperobject. When a group of people get together, in the existentialist-humanist sense of the world, then they, the culture they create, the boundaries they set, the land they work, the wars they fight, the vast totality of all those lives is the nation. A culture cannot exist without a nation as culture exists in the agreeing of the members of a nation on what constitutes that culture. A material culture arises out of a nation, but it is the people who compose it. It is the people who invest the material culture with anything resembling meaning. And so, absent any people to be the Federation, it has no culture. Liberation demands a nation too, as liberation is, by necessity an action we do together. And we even get a hint of that in the void the Federation left in its passing – Osyraa is all too happy to fill that with naked power. But without that sense of culture, without the sense of something built, we are left with yet another thing undone at the end of the season. Because there still isn’t a nation at the end. Just a single found family in the absurd void of space. And frankly, Voyager already did that story.  The failure of Discovery to move beyond the themes of the first two seasons in any significant way but also to resolve any new questions or contradictions leaves me with a Sisyphean sense of the story.

I still like these characters. I like Michael and Book. I like Saru in all his contradictions, and Tilly’s uncertainty, I like Stamet’s incendiary emotional pallet and the smooth water that Culber brings. I want to see these characters have adventures that are invested in meaning. We aren’t there right now. As it stands, we leave Michael pushing the rock of Federation Humanism up the slope of history, having it now slipped from her grasp three times, each time to be recovered so she can start again.

I can only imagine her happy.

Batman v. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: a review of Death Note

This article largely came out of a conversation with Adam Shaftoe regarding the Death Note film. I would strongly recommend reading his review as well, as his knowledge of the source material Death Note is derived from is greater than mine, and it provides a good overview.

But there’s one thing in specific that has been bothering me about Death Note, that I wanted to explore in some greater depth and that’s the use of the mode of alienation and the ethics of nihilism in teen media.

Page excerpted from Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez

In order to fully explore that I’ll start with an alternative comic from the mid-1990s called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.

This comic did the circuit through a lot of the counter-culture scenes circa 1997 and it was something that seemed rather unique at the time. The comic focused on the surrealistic adventures of a solipsistic spree killer, who was driven to kill by supernatural incarnations of alienation and angst that took the form of a pair of gothed up Pillsbury Dough Boys.

Drawn in a sharply chiaroscuro style reminiscent of expressionist woodcuts, this comic presented itself as a commentary on the fundamental banality of modern consumer culture, as the protagonist, defined by his isolation, responds to the desire for undeserved attention, customer-always-right arrogant consumerism, and hollow passion directed to the trivial, projected to seem life shattering with a variety of increasingly nihilistic impulses including murder, torture and suicide.  The audience is openly invited to identify with Johnny; there is no other protagonist provided, and with the exception of the two innocents who are deeply traumatized by contact with him (a potential girlfriend who fast realizes the monstrosity of her date and then there was a whole book about her PTSD and a deeply anxious child who Johnny “befriends” for whom there was also a whole book about his PTSD) but ultimately unimportant to the story, the secondary characters who are introduced are universally banal, shrill and unpleasant.

The thesis of the comic largely becomes that the pervasiveness of consumer culture creates an alienation so deep that all people become entirely solipsistic, viewing all other people as Others only considered either as an audience or an enemy. In the face of this, the comic proposes a reasonable response is an urge toward total annihilation: of the self, the Other and the world.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is presented as being slightly counter to this culture. During a kill spree at a fast food restaurant, he’s listening to Wagner on his Walkman (Because of course he is. This book is so influenced by German romanticism and early modern thought that the only surprising thing is that there isn’t actually a character named Nietzsche in it.) However, for his difference, he’s still embedded in the culture. He’s at the fast food restaurant not because he intends to tear down the establishment, but because he wants to buy a taco. During another public massacre, he is at a 24 hour convenience store buying a slushie. Instead, the absurdity of the way others react to their own alienation causes a moment of revulsion in Johnny that points to the nihilistic urge. And then the page is spattered in black ink blood spatter drawn from sharply angular knives.

Johnny believes himself to be special. He believes that his spasms of nihilistic violence help to keep the world from ending. However he is ultimately revealed to be just another alienated young man, unable to affect change in the world, and faced with the choice between death of the body and a spiritual death which comes from final emotional disconnection from his place and culture.

Light Turner in Death Note is effectively just a dumbed down version of Johnny. The bones are there. The mode of alienation is presented clearly, and how Light’s alienation leads to nihilism is also well established. But absent a critical lens to society beyond, “crime hurts families,” he fails to project even the purile illusion of depth that made Johnny the Homicidal Maniac an interesting book for a certain young art student with altogether too much interest in early existentialism.

But for all that Light fails to be an anti-heroic protagonist of the nihil, the film itself does do a good job creating a sense of alienation as a mood. And a lot of this can be laid at the feet of the soundtrack and the portrayal of Ryuk.

These two elements seem like an odd juxtaposition, but they actually do some very important work together. The soundtrack is designed with razor focus to elicit nostalgia. A deft combination of modern ’80s inflected synth, new wave deep cuts and pure schmaltz grounds the blue-washed and perpetually overcast streets of Seattle in the Real. The music conjures for the audience the sense of high school dances, and the sense of listening to music just weird enough to signal one as an “outcast” in the smoking pit while the jocks do jock stuff somewhere nearby. They help to draw the audience into a frame of feeling like they did in school.

Then the unreal invades.

There is absolutely no attempt to make Ryuk realistic. Cloaked in shadow and silhouette, out of focus at times and other times a mass of sharp lines that become nothing but a chaotic mass of angle and form, the death god is a projection of the liminal. And his gift is equally unreal. The deaths granted by the eponymous note fit into the Rube Goldberg / Final Destination / Dead Like Me style, and depend not only on chains of increasingly unlikely coincidence, but also on the ability of the keeper of the note to exact complete control over his victim, their actions and circumstances for a period of time leading up to their demise.

The grey, brown, earthy visual palette of the city, and the deliberately nostalgic soundtrack thus create an intense tension against the unreality of Ryuk and his dark gifts which alienates the audience from the proceedings. This does much of the heavy lifting for providing a sense of identification with the otherwise un-likeable, un-meritorious antihero of the film.

“We are so alone in this world in which there is no justice, in which death is arbitrary,” the film says before positing that one solution is to put religious faith in a nietzschean ubermensch who can overcome the contradiction between good and evil to mete out justice, accountable to nobody.”

The film then presents us with a second protagonist who provides a second, equally dark, resolution to our alienation in L.

L, a Holmsean detective / ninja / chosen one is possibly the best live action screen representation of Batman in the modern period. Unlike like Light, who claims special status and intellect, but who does not show any such quality until the closing scenes of the film, L really does seem that much smarter than anybody else.

By the time he arrives in Seattle it’s evident that he’s already fingered Light as the likely killer, and his challenge becomes more about entrapping Light without exposing himself than about actually figuring out who did it.

A mind capable of processing and synthesizing vast amounts of data to reach broad understandings of his subjects, L is sharply indicative of the modern panopticon, even down to being a consulting detective of nebulous actual authority but the blessing of state actors to operate.

And so these are the choices Death Note presents us for resolving our alienation: surrender to the self-appointed heroes who attempt to transcend good and evil or to the ever-watching eye of an anonymous surveillance apparatus: all of society mobilized to respond to the Other either as enemy or audience.

This isn’t a comforting choice that the film invites the audience to make. What makes Death Note even more discomforting is that it deliberately leaves this choice ambiguous. A late scene involves an anonymous figure aiding Light against L because he sees “Lord Kira” as a suitable solution to the film’s poorly defined social woes. Of all the various coincidences that the film retcons into Light’s eleventh-hour plot of genius manipulation, this one alone is left out of the end descriptive narrative. In this case alone, the character may have acted with agency as opposed to being fate’s plaything.

And the idea of being a plaything to uncaring Others is another thread of alienation running through the film, driven home by Ryuk’s last line when he menacingly says, “humans are so interesting,” implying that all the carnage that unfolded was merely an idle entertainment for him.

Death Note is a bad film. It is a sexist mess in its treatment of Mia, and it strips any pretense of social commentary from its profound alienation before offering up either the chaos of destruction or the rigidity of the ever-watching eye as the solutions to this alienation.

What makes it comment-worthy is that it is particularly slick iteration of a spectrum of media, mostly targeting young men, that points in a specifically misanthropic direction – and is thus likely to reach a larger audience than Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. It is important to discuss films like this, because they do have an impact, and for all their objective defects, will speak to an audience. Especially an audience that, due to a hyper-saturation of targeted marketing, a continuum of study which is beginning to expose them to new ideas, and a volatile emotional milieu feel alienation ever so strongly.

Frankly Death Note left me with a bad taste in my mouth. And now I kind of want to go and watch something that responds by collapsing the Other into the Self and resolving the difference by the act of mutual recognition. You know. Like Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, which seems all the more meritorious in the retrospect provided by this piece of garbage.

I watched Iron Fist so you don’t have to. Watch these instead.

First housekeeping. There will be spoilers in this article. If you care about spoilers for a mediocre AF martial arts show on Netflix, you probably want to stop reading.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. There’s some racist stuff going on in Iron Fist both on-set and off it. But just to be clear, the central plot of the show involves an insidious order of mystics who are textually situated somewhere in China and / or Japan (and the less we dwell on the inability of the scriptwriters to distinguish between China and Japan the better) and who have infiltrated the American Family Business using opium and the promise of alchemical immortality. These guys are about one Fu Manchu reference away from actually using a 1912 Sax Rohmer style yellow peril narrative here.

But I think that’s been addressed well by others already, including here – where Genevra Littlejohn gets at the disrespect presented by the showrunners and by Jessica Henwick, one of the stars of the show. I also don’t want to belabor the excellent points made by Abigail Nussbaum in her article on the show. What I will say is that while I entirely agree with her assessment of the characterization of Danny Rand, there was a level of personal discomfort with his character for me which I have to accept may have exacerbated my reaction to the show.

Namely, as a white man who speaks Mandarin, does martial arts, has spent time around Buddhist temples and who consumes a lot of Chinese media, some of Danny’s bad behaviour hit a bit too close to home in the, “please tell me I was less insufferable as a kid,” sort of a way. That sense-of-identification with this blatantly awful human being with stunning boundary issues certainly didn’t increase my enjoyment of the show.

I didn’t enjoy the show. In fact, the slight frission of pleasure I got from shitposting about it on Facebook faded by about Episode 4. After that I was mostly only watching out of stubbornness. However, my lack of enjoyment of the show had less to do with the whitewashing controversy or even the yellow peril narrative (which I largely bit my tongue over when Daredevil did similar) than it did with how poorly constructed Iron Fist was as a piece of martial arts media and that’s where I’m going to concentrate.

The creative team

The central problem here appears to be the formation of the creative team. And I think a lot of those can be traced to the employment of Scott Buck as the showrunner. Buck’s previous production and writing credits almost entirely center around either comedies or adult dramas (notably Six Feet Under and Dexter). His only experience with adventure television is Rome. He certainly has no background in martial arts cinema, and with his lack of a background he failed to hire appropriate scriptwriters.

Of course Buck was credited with three episodes himself. Beyond him, Quinton Peeples has done a variety of light genre, but mostly it gravitates towards police and military narratives. He has no experience with martial arts that I can find. Scott Reynolds is also mostly a police drama writer. Christine Chambers pretty much only wrote previously for Boardwalk Empire, a gangster show.

The writer of one of the two best episodes of Iron Fist is also the only one who has previous experience working with anything even remotely close to a martial arts story. Dwain Worrell previously worked as the scriptwriter for a 2010 (zombie?) movie called Walking the Dead which was set in China. It featured an antagonist with an axe but followed slasher tropes rather than martial arts from what little of it I was able to track down.

Ian Stokes, credited on two episodes, is straight-up genre but again no martial arts background. Tamara Beecher-Wilkinson mostly did police drama writing although she was the script coordinator on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pat Charles is mostly known for writing episodes of Bones.

In other words the writer’s room was long on experience with police and crime drama but had no previous experience writing martial arts media. This lack of experience carries through to the direction team, with two notable exceptions.

Episode 6 was directed by RZA and episode 8 was directed by Kevin Tancharoen. These two directors have, between them, a reasonable resume of martial arts related work. Tancharoen has directed good episodes of all the CW superhero properties, while RZA wrote, directed and starred in the grossly under-appreciated martial arts horror / comedy and Shaw Brothers homage The Man With the Iron Fists.

It’s unsurprising then, that as pieces of martial arts media, Episodes 6 and 8 are the best Iron Fist has to offer. It’s the only time there was even a lick of experience in the creative team.

Trope Deployment

With a creative team better suited to making a police drama than a martial arts show, it’s somewhat unsurprising that their grasp of martial arts tropes is weak. A central example of this has to do with their failure to understand what “external” and “internal” mean in a martial arts context, their failure to properly identify whether named styles are external or internal, their failure to understand how internal cultivation features into the education of a martial arts hero and thus their accidental deployment of the “flawed internal cultivation” trope when they try to address Danny’s PTSD.

So let’s back up.

Internal vs. External

In the real world, internal vs. external is a formalism that divides certain theoretical bases concerning application of force. External martial arts believe in applying personal physical force to combat. Their training regimes focus on body conditioning and use techniques that frequently expect a certain level of strength and speed from the practitioner. Boxing is a perfect example of an external martial art. In martial arts media, external martial arts are the physical manifestation of a martial artist’s abilities, allowing them to become more effective at punching, kicking, wrestling, wielding weapons, etc.

Internal martial arts in the real world describe a group of martial arts that concentrate on leverage and borrowing force from your opponent (and also Xingyiquan which is mostly about stabbing people efficiently with a spear when in military ranks.) Internal martial art training regimes focus on balance, core strength and grace-in-movement. The cooperative and meditative arts such as Taijiquan and Aikido are perfect examples of an internal art. In martial arts media, internal martial arts are the spiritual manifestation of a martial artist’s abilities. With their internal skill, they can empower their external skills to greater effect, make use of qinggong (super-speed, wall running and high jumping) and dianxue (pressure point) techniques, become resistant to injury, heal the internal wounds of themselves and others and impart exceptional force to darts and other small missiles.

Now first off, Danny Rand claims to be versed in internal martial arts when he paternalistically starts instructing Colleen Wing during their awkward fight-flirt. Then he immediately identifies Tiger style as an internal form.

And this is where the CMAists in the room must burst into laughter, because within Shaolin Five Animal, it doesn’t get any more external than Tiger.

Well then, what about if we look at a different CMA with a Tiger style. Say… Hung Gar? Again, tiger is the epitome of external conditioning within that art. Again and again, within kung fu systems with animal naming conventions, tigers stand in for the tendons, for raw power, rending, tearing and breaking. You know, because tigers look like this:

I mean, look at the shoulders on that monster.

Anyway, this seems to suggest that Danny doesn’t have the first clue what external and internal really mean and this is a problem because…

Internal martial arts are a fundamental component in the education of a martial hero

We’re told (not shown) that Danny earned the right to claim the Iron Fist by mastering all the martial arts of K’un Lun. And K’un Lun seems to want to be established like a martial sect. I mean its name is lifted from one after all (even if the Kunlun Sect of the wuxia genre is a secular Taoist one and thus absent warrior monks). Danny is supposed to be the top student of K’un Lun. The star pupil of Lei Kung “The Thunderer”. So why the hell does he need to learn basic neigong for restoration of qi from a master of the Hand?

That’s right, having exhausted himself in a previous fight, Danny is unable to call upon the iron fist. We’re told his qi is depleted, though he doesn’t show the exhaustion and wasting sickness we might expect to see from a person who has scoured their internal force. As part of an effort to seduce him, secret “no we’re the other Hand” hand master, Bakuto teaches Danny some qigong. I guess the taiji we saw him butchering earlier in the series didn’t count or something? It’s never exactly clear. But yeah, somehow the star pupil of this great sect was entrusted with a weapon that depends on manipulation of qi without first getting any education into how to manipulate qi. And, yeah, that’s kind of a problem. Especially when it leads to the apparently accidental deployment of a trope that undercuts some of the character beats they were going with for Danny Rand.

You don’t want to pull an internal muscle

In martial arts stories people get injuries all the time either from overexertion during training or combat. These injuries take on three forms usually: wounds, poison and internal injuries.

Wounds and poisonings are simple enough; though the cure for poison is generally a combination of qigong and medicine rather than medicine alone. But internal injuries are another matter. An internal injury sustained in combat may paralyze or cripple a warrior, but generally they can recover with time, qigong and the intercession of internal masters. More dangerous is making a mistake in internal cultivation.

Here’s a key example: in Legend of the Condor Heroes, Guo Jing comes into possession of a terrible and powerful manual on internal cultivation. For complicated reasons, he’s apprehensive to practice it, but he’s found himself in a position where he both knows the contents of it and has begun making some small use of it. One of the results of this is that he’s caught the attention of several old masters.

One of them, the villainous Ouyang Feng, (note: my favourite villain in the history of literature) extracts leverage from Guo Jing and uses it to demand the young hero give him access to the manual. Unwilling to risk the deadly consequences of defying Ouyang Feng, but also unwilling to grant the vicious poisoner access to another powerful martial art, Guo Jing changes one word in the manual in such a manner that the meaning of one line is opposite what it would otherwise be.

Ouyang Feng begins using the manual and it works. Well. His power grows. But… The reversed character causes the villain to reverse the direction of energy in his body. This has several effects on him that appear in the long run: emotional instability, fits of violence (and not his usual malice but rather actual fits) and an uncontrollable urge to walk around in a handstand – at which he becomes very accomplished – because of the reversed direction of the energy circulating through his body.

Danny Rand is suffering from PTSD. His emotional problems serve as a key character touchstone. But when you combine them with his ineptitude at internal martial arts, it begins to look like the show deployed the, “screwed up Neigong training,” trope. Except that they didn’t. Danny’s inability to regularly access the Iron Fist is, textually, a consequence of his emotional instability alone. The writers’ weak understanding of internal and external means that they never explore the possibility that he was ignoring his internal lessons and somehow became top student anyway.

Of course, top-student is also a problem since…

Finn Jones is not a fighter

Ideally you should cast martial artists for your martial arts show. Iron Fist even did that for some secondary and tertiary characters such as Zhou Cheng (played with aplomb for far too little time by Lewis Tan). If you don’t get a martial artist for your star it’s fine. But picking somebody with a background in dance or gymnastics or… SOME sort of physical activity is probably a good idea. That way, when you do the reaction shots and have to show the character’s face, they can still sell the part.

Finn Jones moves with the coordination of an awkward teenager, has the muscle definition of the same and fails to sell his scenes. In fact, you can tell you’re likely to get a decent fight in Iron Fist when it either doesn’t involve Danny Rand at all, or when it starts with Danny inexplicably putting on a hoodie to hide his head.

Of course there’s an easy fix for this problem with comic book heroes. Put them in a disguise. Daredevil did this. It freaking worked. But for some reason, the directors and writers of Iron Fist insist on showing off Danny’s hipster curls every chance they can and didn’t bother introducing any of the Iron Fist’s costumes. That’s, honestly? I don’t even know what to say. I expected a reveal in the last episode. But nope. No costume at all. Because… reasons? I mean this is a show with a dragon in it (the eyes of one anyway) so the no costume thing CAN’T possibly be, “realism.”

Finn Jones practicing martial arts solo is an embarrassment. His body mechanics suck. It’s clear he’s just learned the forms, he has no inkling of martial intent behind his flailing and his attempts to look focused mostly come off as constipated. Finn Jones engaging in the actual fights is a disaster. And the result is a succession of poorly lit, poorly blocked, highly cut (like three cuts for one hip toss) fight.

During two car-jumping stunts, one is obviously CGI, and the other involves seeing Danny winding up to jump and then landing without showing the jump in the middle at all.

So we have in Iron Fist an actor who can’t move portraying a version of Danny Rand who doesn’t look like a master of martial arts, who is inexplicably ignorant of basic martial arts concepts and who isn’t able to control his own abilities. This is what you get when you hire a bunch of cop show writers and directors to do a martial arts adventure story.

And again, I’ll note that I’m leaving the directors of episodes 6 and 8 out of this critique. RZA didn’t light his fights well, but I think that was him recognizing he had a useless star and doing what he could to hide that. Tancharoen’s solution of putting Danny into a hoodie and filming him from behind led to better fights in general and that’s why I’d give 8 the crown for least-awful episode rather than 6.

So to summarize, we have a show which is ostensibly a martial arts show, which features an actor who doesn’t look like a fighter portraying a supposed martial arts master who doesn’t know basic martial arts knowledge because the writers who wrote his lines didn’t bother finding out. Most of the action beats seem to be derived from 1980s era martial arts ephemera such as the Karate Kid. It’s like nothing filmed after the Matrix was ever made. So yeah, the bad reviews from this show? They’re not just SJW grief over a missed opportunity in casting. They’re because the show is a turkey.

Watch These Instead:

So let’s find some silver lining in this cloud. Here are some shows to watch instead. I’ll start at the shallow end and work deeper.

So let’s say you want a superhero show. One about a hero who is the heir to a major corporation. This heir takes a trip to an Asian locale with his father and sees the vehicle he’s travelling in destroyed, followed in quick succession by witnessing the death of his father. Billionaire heir finds himself stranded somewhere remote and falls into the orbit of a succession of martial arts masters who reshape him first as a survivor and then into a weapon. After several years, during which he has been declared dead, this man returns home to reclaim his life and uncover the truth about the conspiracy behind his fathers’ death. He is haunted by the losses he suffered and has almost crippling emotional and psychological problems that he must overcome.

Does that sound familiar? It’s basically the setup to the plot of Iron Fist. But it’s also the setup to the plot of the first of my “watch this instead” shows:

Watch Arrow instead

I told you that this was the shallow end.

Arrow was the original CW superhero show. From it spawned The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, the second season of Supergirl and there’s talk of more spinoffs in the works. Arrow is not anything even resembling a perfect show. It’s effectively a tawdry soap opera, and its repeated killing of Lance sisters is so not-cool that I very nearly stopped watching on more than one occasion. So why did I come back?

Well, Stephen Amell is a charming and charismatic actor who manages to bring real and resonant emotion to the character of Oliver Queen. He is also built appropriately to be believable as a superhero when he’s doing solo training sequences. (Google Stephen Amell  salmon ladder if you want proof of that)

By putting him in a hood and costume from Ep. 1 the Arrow team were able to sub in stunt fighters easily and cleanly; this is a technique that they leaned on increasingly, making sure that the entire Arrow team wear hoods, masks and iconic costumes – which allow them to do group fight set pieces that don’t suck.

In a martial arts program, you can do a lot with a charming lead and good action. Arrow is proof of that as it takes effectively the exact same story as Iron Fist and makes it not suck.

But that’s a little easy. It is, after all, still a superhero program. What if you want, you know, a kung fu show? (Cue the audience being apprehensive that I’m going to rec Martial Law or something…)

Watch Into the Badlands instead

Into the Badlands is proof of how much difference it makes when your writers know their genre.

Specifically Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the creators of the series have past work experience with Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4), Jackie Chan (Shanghai Noon and sequels) and Sammo Hung (Here’s the Martial Law reference). Li, Chan and Hung are three of the biggest names in martial arts cinema since Bruce Lee died. Gough and Millar having worked with martial artists who had the clout to make story decisions since the ’90s means that they understand the tropes they’re using, how to use them, what the audience expects and what the audience knows.

On top of having a decent writing team, Into the Badlands has an excellent star in Daniel Wu.

Wu started training in wushu at age 11, inspired by Jet Li and from 1998 onward has been polishing his talents in a succession of film roles, most in fantasy and martial arts cinema. He’s also able to act, which is not something every martial artist star delivers.

On a personal note, Into the Badlands is precisely how I would write a wuxia story for a North American audience. In fact its setting is so close to that of The Black Trillium, that I remain thankful that it aired first after my publication date. So I’m a bit biased here. It is, in my opinion, the best thing on television.

Seriously, I am watching Season 2 now. It’s still amazing.

But you don’t have to just watch TV to get a sense of what you can do with martial arts on film in the 21st century. So let’s say you want something modern, but rooted in tradition…

Watch 七剑 (Seven Swords) instead

Seven Swords is the painfully under-appreciated 2005 masterwork of long-standing Chinese fantasy auteur Tsui Hark. Starring Donnie Yen, it is an adaptation of a novel by Liang Yusheng.

Liang was one of the four greats of the mid-20th century wuxia renaissance, along with Wang Dulu (whose work led to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Gu Long (whose work has not made inroads in North America but who remains a big deal in Taiwan) and Jin Yong (aka: the greatest living fantasy author in the world, aka: my personal idol).

Liang was also responsible for 大唐游侠传 (Datang Youxia Zhuan) and for 白发魔女传 (Baifa Monü Zhuan or, as it’s better known in North America, The Bride with White Hair).

It’s a very traditional martial arts narrative. The imperial government is occupied by a foreign invader (the Manchus this time, though those themes have been in use even as far back as Shui Hu Zhuan, which came out in the late 1500s.)  An opportunistic warlord takes advantage of this to assault the wulin, and is opposed by a ragtag band of martial artists each gifted with a special sword. Seven Swords is long and ponderous compared to 1990s era Jet Li films, but it makes excellent use of Yen’s ability to present melancholy and displays the fantastical and innovative special effects and action which are Tsui Hark’s trademark.

Seven Swords is martial arts cinema at its essence. But pressingly, it’s an example of what can be accomplished in the 21st century with the genre.

Tying this all up

I love martial arts.

I love doing it. I love talking about it. I love reading about it. I love watching it. I went into Iron Fist really hoping that it’d prove better than expected. It proved worse.

Iron Fist is not a show you need to watch. There’s so little movement in its Hand plot that the Hand at the end of Iron Fist is in exactly the same position that it was at the end of Daredevil season 2. The personal journey of Danny Rand is uninteresting at best, grating at worst and also does little to advance his character. He goes from being fucked up and in denial to just being fucked up. But it’s not like he grows or changes. At all. So if you’re thinking of watching it because you plan on watching The Defenders, don’t bother. There’s no need. This is a show which is all noise and fury signifying nothing.

Into the Badlands got renewed for a second season. It deserves to get a third. Go watch that.

Arrow has a catalog of 115 episodes which, at their worst, are equal to Iron Fist at its best.

The martial arts movies of Tsui Hark, Zhang Yimou, and Ang Lee elevated wuxia to an art form as great as any other in cinema. Go watch them instead. Or go read a translation of a Jin Yong novel or a Wang Dulu novel (and if you can find any extant Liang Yusheng or Gu Long professional translations let me know). Martial arts is a huge sub-genre of fantasy. One of the biggest, one of the deepest. It deserves respect. Iron Fist doesn’t do that. But we can, as an audience.

Rebels

star-wars-radicalization

I have a love-hate relationship with rebel narratives.

I mean, I get the appeal. When you live in mass societies that are grounded in structural inequality, there’s something clean, something uplifting about imagining slicing through the bullshit and cutting out the cancer.

There’s something uplifting in the idea that a person can, through direct, heroic action bring about lasting mass-scale change.

But, of course, there’s the problem of all the death and violence. Historical rebels generally caused a fair bit of mayhem before they got to the business of making something better than what came before. A happy few actually ever got to the “making something better” part. Most didn’t, either because they lost, their vision of better was monstrous or they never expected to win.

Generally, when we write rebel narratives in fiction, we cheat. We create an authority so monstrous that rebellion is the only reasonable course. When you’re fighting space Nazis, whether it’s Cardies or the Empire, it’s pretty easy to root for the scrappy underdog rebels.

Of course the down-side of using these sorts of narratives is that they provide an ideological tabula rasa, which is itself rather dangerous. But that’s something of an aside. The core dilemma is rather that even rebels who have the best of intentions and the fortitude to bring those intentions about, may need to do some terrible things in order to dislodge the same corrupt power structures that birthed them in the first place.

Some media have addressed this more directly than others; Deep Space Nine pulled few punches in the characterization of Major Kira, especially in early episodes, as she struggles with the transition from rebel to authority. This is one of several reasons it remains probably the greatest Trek TV series. It’s also one of only a handful of shows to deal with revolution directly while being situated specifically after the revolution ends. Most media prefer to roll credits on the heroes standing amid the ruin of the old, without having to roll up their sleeves and get to work on creating something new.

On the other hand, Star Wars was so desperate to avoid removing the rebel mantel from its heroes, that it created a rather convoluted political situation, which was not (at least within the bounds of the film) very clearly elucidated, just so that it could call Leia’s faction, “The Resistance.” And Les Miserables deliberately chooses a revolution that died in its crib in order to create pure heroes of truth and liberty to be sacrificed upon the altar of Javert’s moral absolutism.

This may be why I ultimately like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, despite it’s so very overt  1990s comic book flaws.

Hegel and the Invisibles

13227839Before I get into the meat of what The Invisibles did differently from most rebel narratives a little segue into Hegelian dialectics.

Hegel saw dialectical processes as underpinning reality. Our understanding of the real came from the sublimation of dualistic opposites as they came into contact, and in the process of resolving those conflicts led to the synthesis of something different.

Ultimately Hegel didn’t see this as a destructive process; opposites transformed at contact rather than annihilating.

Morrison really ran with this in The Invisibles. At the inception of the book, he presents us with a pretty standard rebel group: King Mob’s Invisibles cell is a small rag-tag group of talented weirdos who must stand up against a vast network of established, faceless authority.But then he yanks the rug out from underneath the readers as it becomes increasingly likely that either the Invisibles and the Outer Church are one and the same, take orders from the same thing or are, at the very least, related phenomena.

King Mob’s journey is of particular note since he transitions from a destructive rebel to ultimately a figure of the establishment, and a builder-of-things; and in the process of that transition from one opposite to another helps complete the ritual needed to birth something new out of Humanity.

King Mob’s dialectical character arc also helps to draw an underline under another thing about rebellion that The Invisibles obsessed over: the idea of rebel as identity.

The changeability of the concept of self is a running theme throughout the entirety of The Invisibles. King Mob goes from violent force of destruction, to media mogul. Jack Frost transforms from a petty delinquent to a homeless vagrant to a figure of nearly religious salvation. Ragged Robin’s mutating back-story, and the transition of Lord Fanny both also try to get at the idea of “self” being a floating point derived more from accumulated experience than a fixed concept. Even the unfortunately plotted character arc of Boy, one of the most rightfully criticized parts of The Invisibles tries to make the same argument: we are not ever who we think we are, because we are always in the process of becoming something else.

The Rebel Archetype

A rebel identity is very much a personal identity. It’s part of what makes rebel stories attractive; they’re always about the personality of the rebel, why this person, in this place must take up a dangerous task.

annex20-20dean20james20rebel20without20a20cause_02Specifically, rebel identities are reactionary identities. They are formed in opposition to some other thing. Take away the Authority and the Rebel collapses.

So what do we do with a problem of the Rebel? There’s a few good reasons for us to retain rebel narratives in some manner. First: they make for entertaining stories. If we are story-tellers, this is important. The Rebel is an archetypical construct, and one which speaks particularly strongly to people in mass societies. After all, who hasn’t felt dissatisfaction with the state of their culture in some way or other?

Second, the societies we live in aren’t perfect, and if we’re being socially responsible artists, fostering opposition to Authority for authority’s sake is important. There are plenty of people in the world who will tell you to obey because The Rules Are Sacrosanct. Artists should push back against that, and the Rebel is a useful tool to do so.

Perhaps the honesty of Deep Space Nine is a good direction to go. Perhaps we should spend more effort talking about what world rebellion creates, rather than just focusing on the simple heroics of a small band of individuals struggling against faceless space Nazis.

Situating rebellion within a dialectical framework was a powerful tool for deconstructing the archetype, and while Morrison got many things wrong with The Invisibles, he did that one thing very well. But deconstruction in literature without action to create a synthesis afterward is the road to Batman v. Superman and that’s no good for media or for those who over-think media for fun and profit.

So my plea to those of us who write rebel stories, and for those of us who consume them is ultimately to be more thoughtful, less certain. Partly this can be done by where we situate our narratives. Giving rebel heroes feet of clay is fine from a deconstructive standpoint, and is probably more honest-to-life than the heroics of Luke Skywalker and co. But if our only tool for assessing rebellion in literature is either to present them as heroic martyrs on one hand, or the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss on the other, we’re missing the final step of the dialectic.

Instead, perhaps, we should concentrate on the duality of the vision of the rebel, what they wish to build, and the consequence of rebellion. Perhaps it’s time for the Rebel to become a figure of nuance rather than absolutes. Perhaps we need to break down the archetype of the Rebel, an ultimately reactionary character and replace them with something Revolutionary, a person with a vision to transform the world, not just to oppose how it is.

Everything gets tainted: A review of THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

house-of-shattered-wings-2I’ve been struggling with this review. I dawdled over writing it for so long that I stalled out on reviewing at all. Because Aliette de Bodard has done an amazing job writing one of the most nuanced looks at colonialism I’ve ever read. And it’d be impossible to talk in any depth about what she wrote without addressing colonialism.

And I really wasn’t sure if the internet needed another essay about colonialism written by the descendant of a bunch of Scots who got just about everywhere as a direct beneficiary of colonial power.

But I was picking over my lack of recent reviews with a good friend of mine, another critic and they pointed out that, while they got my anxiety, the climate is such currently that, no, it’s probably for the best that there are some white men writing reviews saying, go read this book written by a non-white woman.

So I think I’ll start right there.

Go read this book. It’s a very good book. It’s a very intelligent book. It probably represents the best of de Bodard’s work, and she’s a very good author, so that’s saying something.

 

De Bodard does something with her work that would put her in a class with authors like Max Gladstone, Kameron Hurley and Saladin Ahmed. And I don’t mean that she’s an outspoken SJW on twitter; what I mean is that she’s an author who can combine the triple-threat of deep characterization, high-concept fantasy and a thoughtful assessment of modern anxieties and pressures.

In the House of Shattered Wings we are presented with an alternate world where the great war was fought with magic by fallen angels and their human servants. The protagonist of the story is a banished immortal brought to the war from the colonies of French Indochine. The war ended, and he survived, but with infrastructure crumbling and the survivors of the war turned inward to lick wounds and pursue old vendettas, nobody really cares enough to help him get home.

So we see him as a person far from home: hating the people who dragged him away but also resigned to the fact that they are likely the only people he’ll ever interact with.

The other half of this equation are the not-so secret masters of this post-apocalyptic Paris: the fallen angels.

Banished from heaven for reasons they aren’t allowed to know, these angels are also trapped somewhere they would rather not be, unable to return. But angels seem plentiful; there are probably as many angelic characters in the book as human. And their fall is into familiar territory. They are the colonizers, the ones who arrive in force at a new land and take it for themselves, unconcerned about how their claims and feuds impact those people who were there before.

There’s an alienation at the core of the story. Philippe, the twice-banished immortal, is alienated both from the Fallen because they are many while he is singular, and from the ordinary Parisians among whom he half-heartedly tries to hide. The Fallen are alienated from their subjects by dint of their own alienness, their power and arrogance. Everybody can speak to each other, and the story frequently plays out over banquets and parties, but nobody communicates without dissembling.

Then there’s the Seine. Twisted by the pollution of a magical war, the Seine is a no-go zone for angel and human alike. It’s no surprise that Philippe ends up at the bottom of it eventually. And there he finds a dragon court, something very familiar to him from home. But the court is rotting, both figuratively and literally. And I think this strikes as close to a thesis as we’re likely to come to this.

Colonialism, the process of power being imposed from outside, the process of creating classes of people based on a sense of an other, touches everybody in the story. It pervades every relationship and taints every transaction. Some of the Fallen angels seem like they’re probably basically good people; but they’re still Fallen. Philippe is a sympathetic person, a person trapped far from a home he longs to return to and believes he never will. But he’s also a man carrying around a lifetime’s worth of anger and resentment, which sometimes lashes out in self-destructive ways. In the ruined Paris of the House of Shattered Wings, the slow, cumulative spiritual decay of these imbalances has been laid bare in beautiful, and terrifying glory.

But don’t take my word for all of that. Read hers.

The Conservativization of Free Speech

I caught a little flack for my blog post yesterday. Among the various unhappy letters I got there was a running theme:

“You’re too sensitive.”

“This is too PC.”

“Nanny state censorship.”

“SJWs can’t take a joke.”

And at first my reaction was just to do the typical delete-delete-block-ignore dance. Any of us who have engaged in political discussion, especially political discussion that borders arts criticism knows that dance well. But something hit me, and I wanted to explore it.

I’m not the one being too sensitive. It’s actually the guys who, “stand with John Cleese,” who are being too sensitive by half.

Too sensitive

Ok so two people. One person hears a comment, directed at him, regarding his family and takes offense.

Another person hears a comment, directed at a general audience, regarding anonymized strangers who he probably doesn’t know. He also takes offense.

The first person is offended by something specific to him and his family and life. The second is offended by an abstract concept: to-whit that, “just a joke,” is not a valid defense for saying something awful.

I encounter abstract ideas all the time. Sometimes I engage them and challenge them, saying they’re not OK, or saying they’re interesting or whatever. But what I rarely do is invest the time and emotional energy into creating an anonymous email account and writing a blog comment on a stranger’s blog, talking about how offended I was by their presentation of that abstract. In part that’s because of the delete-delete-block-ignore dance I mentioned up at the top. But in part it’s because I’m fully aware that there will be people who hold different opinions from me. And that’s fine. Really. I might try to persuade them otherwise, or I might not. That depends on the extent to which I care about them, not about their ideas. On the other hand, if you do some problematic act, I’m going to point to that and say, “that’s not OK.” Because when abstract ideas spill out into the real world and have the potential to cause real harm, that’s when it’s important to speak out.

And this gets to what I think a lot of classical liberals misunderstand about the modern left. We, as a movement, are VERY interested in protecting freedom of speech. But, of course, you hear about PC censors all the time. So clearly there’s some skulduggery going on here.

What speech should be protected?

I read an article recently about harm prevention and meaning shift. The article argued that the proliferation of situations like parents who face legal trouble for letting their 10 year old walk home from school had to do with an a-priori assumption that it was good to protect children from harm rubbing up against a shifting definition for what constituted harm.

When these models of behaviour rub up against extant laws enacted to enforce harm prevention we face problems.

And this gets into one of my favourite topics: Overton windows. Since the mid 1990s we have seen a concerted effort by conservatives to move the Overton window to the right in general. They have been more successful in economics than in social policy, in general, but the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ+ laws and anti-abortion rules in the USA is an example of this.

Another region where the frame of discourse was successfully pushed far-rightward was that related to acceptable speech. And this has been to the detriment of free speech, but not for the reasons many people think.

Simply put, the reason that freedom of speech matters is dissent.

That’s why it was so important to protect during the enlightenment. Society was undergoing a MASSIVE, FUNDAMENTAL shift, and the people working to change their world faced persecution for trying to affect change, for speaking out against power. Protecting the right of people to speak protects them from the powerful. THAT is what free speech is for.

But classical liberalism took an absolutist position on free speech. That’s part of the reason we have had such a struggle over hate speech laws. Because even when speech is directly associated with prejudicial violence against rights-protected groups the knee-jerk reaction is to quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s interpretation of Voltaire.

Enter the early culture warriors. And the conservatives in this movement discovered a tic in liberalism they could exploit: they’re trying to censor you.

Never mind that free speech was a tool to let the powerless speak out against the powerful. Never mind that people who try and shout down critique are just as guilty of, “censorship,” (IE: not at all) as those who are doing the criticism. They told classical liberals that the new left wanted to become censors, and the classical liberals bought it hook, line and sinker. In the process, the greatest crime became framed as telling a comedian that his joke was unfunny and unwelcome. It became not inviting a lecturer to speak for pay because they hold disgusting beliefs.

What Hall cited Voltaire on was regarding a hangman (a government employee) literally burning books. Ain’t nobody even suggesting that on the left. And I mean it. I read a bit of Requires Hate’s blog back in the day and even she didn’t call for book burnings. Context matters. And criticizing something, especially an artwork, which (broadly construed) includes jokes, is NOT the same as censoring it.

Of course these sensitive classical liberals aren’t censoring anybody exactly either. But instead what they’re doing is something else: favoring one category of speech over another.

Being fair that’s what I’m doing. When I criticize freely expressed speech what I’m doing is showing disfavor for that speech. And that’s fine. That’s a built in part of the system. But it means the John Cleeses among us should carefully consider what speech they’re favoring. Because when you say, “you shouldn’t criticize that joke,” what you’re actually saying is, “I prefer that joke over your criticism of it,” and that’s a much more loaded proposition.

Ultimately I think that we should be most adamantly protecting speech that dissents against the powerful. This is because I do believe in the importance of free speech. But I think there’s a vast chasm between an individual favoring speech and censorship. Clearly I have not been censored. That’s not my concern with the criticism I’ve received. My concern is that the people who said I was being, “too sensitive,” think it’s more appropriate to be sexually inappropriate, misogynistic or rude than to criticize those behaviors. And that’s not OK.

Taking back free speech

I think the new left needs to abandon liberalism as a guiding doctrine. I say this because liberalism was the new hotness in 1730, but now, clinging to it is like clinging to a Van Leeuwenhoek microscope in a world where fluorescent light microscopy is a thing that exists. Liberalism is tainted by the conservative failure to differentiate between critique and censorship. It’s infested by an economic model fully invested in capitalism. At best, liberalism is a half-measure. The radicalism of Voltaire is not the radicalism of the 21st century.

And this isn’t trying to discount Voltaire. But just as Marx didn’t address climate change, Voltaire didn’t understand the idea of weaponized speech, because, and this is important, speech began being used as a weapon when people speaking freely began using their soapboxes to point out the actual weapons that were being used by the powerful against the disempowered.

Another problem with liberalism is that it has turned being accused of bigotry into a massive anxiety. Because the disempowered were very effective at showing why bigotry is not OK, and why that sort of speech leads directly to violence. But it means that if you say something that makes a liberal feel vulnerable that somebody might accuse them of being a bigot for something they said in the past, they get defensive fast.

That defensiveness is a problem. Because not one of us is perfect. I’ve told shitty jokes. I’ve subscribed to toxic narratives. But then I listened to people saying things like what I’m saying here, and thought about what they had to say, and I’ve decided to make changes. Because the disempowered spoke freely, I was able to better myself.

Art should be protected speech.

Critique of art should be likewise.

Criticism of critique is also free speech, and so-on, ad nauseam.

And we need to accept that. But that means that the left needs to move beyond the paradigm of speech-as-censorship-writ-small and begin actually engaging expression deeply. Dig into what is said in the cracks of language. What does the thrust of a critique mean?

The question is no longer, “should a thing be said?” The question is, “why was that thing said, and what does that entail?” What impact does that speech have? Is somebody harmed?

Ultimately, I have the right to be offended and you to take offense at my offense. But if you find yourself angered by what I’ve just said, what I would plead of you is to introspect and to ask yourself why you’re angry. Are you angry because you’ve told a shitty joke in the past and you don’t want to be criticized for it? Are you angry because you think it’s fine to hit on people you’ve never met?

Are you afraid?

Or are you just being too sensitive?